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VAST EMOTIONS AND IMPERFECT THOUGHTS.\o7 By Rubem Fonseca\f7 .\o7 Translated from the Portuguese by Clifford E. Landers (Ecco Press: 320 pp., $24)\f7

June 07, 1998|MELVIN JULES BUKIET | Melvin Jules Bukiet's most recent novels are "After" and the forthcoming "Signs and Wonders." He teaches at Sarah Lawrence College

The good thing about Brazilian writer Rubem Fonseca's "Vast Emotions and Imperfect Thoughts" is that it would make an excellent movie. The bad thing is that it would make an excellent movie. Not surprisingly, Fonseca has written screenplays as well as novels, and this occupation shows in this new book, which rips along in the same swift and depthless fashion as anything currently playing at your local octo-plex.

Fonseca's novel begins with the nameless narrator, a Brazilian film director, in despair. The woman in this man's life, Ruth, has recently killed herself. In fact, all that's left of her is a wheelchair and a pack of tampons. Only later, and quite incidentally, do we discover that Ruth, a dancer, had been paralyzed when the director drove their car into a pole. We presume that she was rather unhappy about this, but there's no time for motivations in the midst of the novel's propulsive action.

Before the director can eat breakfast, a woman he's never met comes to his door and leaves behind a mysterious package that turns out to contain dozens of precious gems. A few days later, the director hears of her death and discovers that she is renowned for making fabulous Carnival costumes. Investigating, he enters the world of gem dealers as well as a distinctly Brazilian society of people who live for Carnival. Of course, he is followed, threatened, scared.

So far we've got an exotically set but formulaic, mock-noir thriller. At the same time, however, a parallel plot commences. While hiding the gems, the narrator is asked to direct a German movie based on "Red Cavalry," a collection of short stories by the early 20th century Russian writer, Isaac Babel. Now the pieces of the puzzle are on the table.

Partly because of a fascination with Babel and partly to escape his troubles, the director flies to pre-unification Germany where he encounters a tycoon who has more than a movie on his mind. Dr. Plessner enlists him to acquire a legendary lost manuscript of Babel's from a disaffected Communist functionary on the other side of the wall.

Yes, each of these episodes and characters is distinct, and one can feel the multiple scenic possibilities of colorful Rio and drab Berlin; that's why they might very well serve in a film, in which the continuous pace hardly lets a viewer pause to perceive the lack of connection. And just as we might stop to ask why the tycoon needs the director to meet with the agent or what the agent has to do with Carnival performers, or what they have to do with diamond smugglers, another luscious woman pops up and beckons the director into her bed.

What's even more cinematic about "Vast Emotions and Imperfect Thoughts" is the structure of its individual scenes. Look at the Carnival costumer's arrival. The doorbell rings. It was a child's voice. "Help me." The director buzzes her in, and again hears the "childlike voice . . . from the bottom of the stairs." A paragraph later, "she [my italics] appeared on the third floor landing." And again, "When she reached me, she smiled." Finally, she enters his apartment, sits and introduces herself, yet it takes another full page before we read about "scattered hairs on her chin . . . Angelica was a fat woman, vast." If this was a movie, we might indeed hear the voice before we saw the character, but we surely would have noticed her at the same moment as the narrator. A screenplay's shorthand would not have to describe her because the camera would do that job. In print, however, the effect of the childlike voice beyond the moment when the full-grown woman has made her appearance is misleading and unfair to the scene's own truth.

Likewise, the vivid characters who ought to be presented fully are merely a heap of attributes. Most are simply the function of a singular obsession, be it the Carnival, the Babel manuscript or that of a man who believes he needs to ingest pulverized diamonds to live.

Still, if the sentences in this novel do not help a reader's understanding and the plot hardly coheres, "Vast Emotions and Imperfect Thoughts" is not meretricious, and one soul at the center of the book far transcends that of the narrator/director--Babel's.

When Babel was murdered under Joseph Stalin's regime, probably in 1941, the world lost one of its great writers, and it is to Fonseca's credit that he chooses this semi-secret voice of our century as the emblematic obsession of his obsession-filled novel. In Babel's two short collections, this four-eyed Jewish intellectual brought Odessan gangsters and a revolutionary regiment to life with a pen sharper than a Cossack's sword. The idea that a newly discovered novel might lead to a life beyond death for one of the saddest careers in letters creates its own serious literary suspense as we, along with the director, hope that the manuscript will be obtained and turn out to be authentic.

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