Review: Whatever Happened to Dulce Veiga, a B-Novel by Caio Fernando Abreu
Caio Fernando Abreu was one of the most influential Brazilian writers of the 1970s and 1980s. In his novels and short stories, Abreu focuses on the underprivileged human fauna that populates Brazilian cities, especially the megalopolis of São Paulo, where the author lived for many years.
The author’s themes:
His books exude the zeitgeist of the times they were written in: the creative energy of the 1980s in Brazil; the booming musical rock scene; the sexual liberation and the inception of the AIDS epidemic; the pessimism fostered by a decade of economic recession; the dramas, lifestyles, and aspirations of small-time Brazilians; the detachment of the rich and powerful towards the poor.
However, more than anything else, his works translate Abreu’s personals demons and dualities. His favorite themes are lost love; the impossibility of communication between people; the loneliness of big city dwellers; his own pansexuality; his inability to fit in with the established norms and common middle class moral sense. Abreu’s characters yearn for personal meaning and, despite their skepticism and disillusionment, seek to develop a spiritual nature in an attempt to avoid the distractions and emptiness of a pure materialistic life.
These themes are usually treated in simple, direct language – almost colloquial at times – conveying a precise balance between pathos and humor.
Whatever Happened to Dulce Veiga, a B-Novel published in 1991, is a good example of a work that encompasses Caio Fernando Abreus’ s main issues and concerns. Here’s a brief summary of the plot.
A conveniently nameless male protagonist – it could be anyone – has just got a new job as a reporter for a minor newspaper in Sao Paulo. He welcomes the change in his life; his apathy is shaken off by the need to get up at a set time everyday, shower and head for work. The fact that he works out of a depressing rundown and ashtray-littered newsroom doesn’t seem to present an insurmountable obstacle. After all, having a stable job beats any minor downsides in the economically devastated Brazil of the late 1980s and early 1990s.
His first assignment as a reporter is to interview the leader of an all-female punk rock band that has become an overnight success and whose songs can be heard on the radio almost nonstop. The name of the band would resonate menacingly with any man, especially someone, like our guy, whose sexuality is fluid and far from well resolved: they are called Márcia Fellatio and the Toothed Vaginas.
After haggling for long minutes with the Márcia’s agent/secretary to fix the date and time for the first appointment to interview her, the reporter finally manages to push through this powerful gatekeeper and reaches the object of the interview. The lead singer, predictably, turns out to be a tropical version of Courtney Love.
She is a young and good looking drug addict, given to sudden temper tantrums. During the interview, the protagonist realizes that Márcia in none other than the daughter of Dulce Veiga, a once famous Brazilian singer who mysteriously disappeared two decades ago, minutes before the opening of a show that would supposedly consolidate her fame and gain her national recognition. Her fate was never revealed. Slowly, the press and the public lost interest in the story and the case died out.
Hearing about the interview and the discovery made by our protagonist, the reporter’s boss assigns him the task of writing a profile on the vanished singer. He should consult the ancient files and records kept in the newspaper research department for material.
The piece written by our man is published the following day, to huge acclaim. The reverberation of the story revives public interest in the mysterious case of the disappearance of Dulce Veiga. The owner of the newspaper is personally interested in having the newly hired reporter investigate what really happened with singer. Is she dead? Had she been involved with the guerrillas who fought against the military dictatorship in Brazil in the early seventies? Has she changed her identity? Has she moved to another part of the globe?
Like any hero of traditional stories and folk tales, the reporter resists embarking on his mission at first. Slowly, he becomes obsessed with the singer, seeming to catch fleeting glimpses of her in the most unexpected places as he wanders the city of São Paulo (these scenes, by they way, account for some of the funniest in the book). He realizes that this assignment is probably bound to change his life. He senses he’s about to discover something meaningful about himself as he tries to solve the mystery. Thus, he decides to take on the challenge and embarks on the quest.
The plot ironically follows all the clichés of a noir detective story, with many twists and surprises carefully laid out for the reader. Of course, none of these should be taken seriously, as they are only a narrative device for the author to walk you around the reality of a rundown third-world megalopolis like São Paulo, its pathetic fauna of beggars, small-time peddlers, hustlers, teenage transvestites (the character of Jody Foster in Taxi Driver wouldn’t feel out of place here), drug addicts, fortune tellers, and general down-and-outs.
We also read about a lot of the customs and culture of Brazil: the creativity of its artists, the general provincialism of the middle classes and the elites, the syncretism of afro-religions and Catholicism, and all other kinds of superstitions and myths shared by its people.
Some of the extensive references to local pop culture (movies, music and celebrities) may sound a bit obscure to non-Brazilians, or even for Brazilians who did not live through the 1980s. However, there are plenty of international references too, which will land the reader on more familiar and firmer ground.
Caio Fernando Abreu projects onto the main character a whole set of features that reflect his own internal inconsistencies and dualities: his difficulty in fully adapting to the discipline of becoming a mere cog in the mechanism of capitalism, his constantly tested sexual orientation, and his split spiritual/artistic and materialistic nature.
Although the story takes place in clearly recognizable and named Brazilian locations – neighborhoods in São Paulo, streets in Rio de Janeiro and small villages in the north of Brazil – the universality of the themes is out of question. Readers from all over the world will be able to identify and sympathize with the characters, one way of another.
Caio Fernando Abreu won a Jabuti Prize, the most important book prize awarded in Brazil, for Triângulo das Águas in 1983, and another for the his collection of short stories Os Dragões Não Conhecem o Paraíso in 1988. He died of AIDS-related infections on February 25, 1996 at the age of 47.