VULTURES IN THE LIVING ROOM by Lula Falcão: A review

I tend not to read anything ‘serious’ since an English Literature degree ruined literature for me forever. After I completed my studies I gorged myself on pulp fiction and sci fi in a violent anti-intellectual reaction. I subsequently only read non-fiction for many years. I simply could not read for enjoyment without tearing the text before me into so much confetti, that the act of reading simply seemed too much like work.

As the long term effects of such literary abuse faded, I became drawn back into the fold by Kerouac, by Ginsburg, by Burroughs, and Ferlinghetti. I dabbled in magical realism, and hung out in One Hundred Years of Solitude with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I will never fully recover, but thankfully recovered enough to be drawn to the surrealist, satirical cool of Falcão.

Vultures in the Living Room is a series of short stories – and I use the word story in the loosest sense, it is more a collection of vignettes taking aim at the human condition, at the brutality of the Brazilian fascist leader Bolsonaro and what he has done to Falcão’s beloved Brazil and the people within it’s geographical confines.

Falcão does not hit a false note in this collection, I particularly enjoyed the opening Sea of Mud, and The Man In A Box, a delightfully surrealist piece which had me hooting with laughter. This particular vignette took sniper aim at it’s target and destroyed him with precision humor-bombs. It is here that the immensely sympathetic and organic translation shines. I don’t read Portuguese, but at no point did this feel like a work in translation, the poetry and intent remained intact.

I know little of Brazilian politics beyond Bolsonaro is bad, and that he is a fascist. Of course fascists are always bad. Whilst I have a deep sense of concern and solidarity in our post Trump era, I have not got a political bone in my body, and am not reading Falcão as a primarily politicized author – my lacking, not his. The true sign of greatness is universality, and you don’t need a primer in Brazilian politics to enjoy Vultures in the Living Room, though a cursory familiarization proved helpful in unpicking the mocking satire that Falcão does so well.

The opening piece, Sea of Mud reminded me of Elliot’s ‘music from a farther room’, in so far as the reader is receiving a transmission from the scene of an unfolding disaster. The music is faint and we strain to hear, but something is happening. No-one seem to know exactly what this creeping disaster is. This vignette lays a microcosm of humanity before us using the device of a ship in trouble populated in part by gamblers and elderly. Are not we all gamblers on the ship of life? Falcão carefully sets up a feeling of the uncanny, a sense that there is something wrong. This unease is heightened word by word, phrase after phrase, like a string wound tight. ‘It’s probably nothing’ the narrator tell us. Falcão is clearly a man who is used to conveying meaning carefully as if a word could hurt him, as if such openness is dangerous – a man who must speak in metaphors. Knowing what little I do of Bolsonaro I believe this danger is real.

I was interested in the precision of the numbers given for the weight of the ship (230,000 tonnes) and the number of passengers (5999), and headed off to google for some possible clarification: in 2007 for instance, an anti slavery task force freed 5,999 enslaved workers in a massive operation. The number of 230,000 deaths from covid was a huge desperately sad milestone, the blame for which can be put at the door of the Brazilian Trump, Bolsonaro. I wish I could ask Falcão what the significance is behind these precise numbers for the weight of the ship, and the number of passengers. The fact that I care, is a testament to the power of his writing. When the author declares that the Commander thinks “that they could be dealing with just one wave instead of two,” I am prone to believing this is a metaphor for the mishandling of the corona virus by the Brazilian President.

In forging the sense of being falsely reassured that everything is alright, that the wave that is off in the distance, that might kill us all in a way that is unprecedented, that the Commander who both reassures and has no idea of the scale of the issue, Falcão effectively paints the fear and the calm before the reality of the storm hit the world, not just Brazil. He writes these moments of calm and lack of knowledge of the disaster afoot with such uncanny clarity that it touched some deeply traumatized part of my psyche, that linked the author to the human condition, and the horror of the last year and a half.

Falcao communicates so effectively that disaster might look averted, or at least partially, but any death, any hugely life changing experience, leaves the topography of life changed forever. That things after such disaster are not just foreign, but totally alien, and we have to learn to navigate the new lands, defenseless, without knowledge. We know how things used to be, how they used to work, but the world after such life changing events will never work the same way.

It is this starkness of life carrying on around a disaster still unfolding, where “the swimming pool reopens” but the ‘network is still down’ in which you can observe the brilliance of Falcão’s ability to forge emotion and color with the written word.

I almost pity the author this bad knowledge, I almost weep for this terrifying wisdom – that life goes on after disaster. It can only come from a man who has looked into the storm and survived it: changed, removed, cut off by new lands he did not ask to travel to, across an alien divide, yet retaining the strength to shout through the ether, though the network is down, about the good news that there are yet survivors, and that he himself survives to tell the tale.

It is genius. It reminded me (lazily on my part, I suspect) of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and his magical realism, but Marquez is more airy, somehow vaster and less dense. There is not a word superfluous in Vultures in the Living Room, not an image goes to waste. There is not an appeal to the reader too harsh, and Falcão is not asking for your pity: he is asking for your rage. He is asking for your indignance. He is offering his hand in solidarity and offering his wit and his pen and his ability to laser-like get to the heart of the matter, these are his weapons and he wields them masterfully. The author exists in a black hole pinpoint of jewel-like intensity.

I get a vague sense of the Burroughian playfullness in Falcão’s experimentation with the absurd. It is almost a similar flavor of iconoclastic brilliance, gold flashing in the pan; not so much an influence as an imprint. Where Burroughs existed to shock the reader, partly for the sake of the shock itself, Falcão uses it to poke fun at the men who run this world who fail to be able to see the ridiculousness of their actions and indeed, of their very existence.

In short, if you are not yet convinced, I would say that this is something anyone who wants to immerse themselves in the world of the iconoclast, the jester, the humanist, and therefore have their humanity reasserted and affirmed, should take the time to read. This is the meat on the bones of modern literature, and might yet drag me out of my apolitical comfort zone.

(Vultures in the Living Room, by Lula Falcão, published by Casa Forte Publishing, is available on kindle unlimited for no extra cost, or via Casa Forte Publishing)

6 Comments

  1. Helena Cavendish de Moura

    Thank you for your brilliant review of Lula Falcão’s Vultures in the Living Room. I am so touched by your sensibility to the writing and intent of the author. The book is now available in print and we’d love to send you a copy.Lula Falcão will start following your blog and let’s hope this is the beginning of many interesting exchanges. I will share your blog on all our social media. Many thanks again and best regards, Helena Cavendish de Moura

    1. The Paltry Sum

      Hello, Helena. I am very touched that you considered my review to have done justice to Lula Falcão’s work. I admire him greatly. Please feel free to write to me at the contact page of my blog, I would be overjoyed to own a paper and print copy!
      I can’t begin to express what a delight it would be to have an exchange of ideas with Lula and I am honored that you would consider sharing my review.
      He is such an important voice – I haven’t been so touched, entertained and challenged by a contemporary piece of literature as I was by Vultures in the Living room.
      Thank you so very much, Helena. I hate to gush, and I like to think I am cool, but I am overwhelmed with happiness!
      Kind regards
      TPS

  2. Helena

    You are more than cool. You are an excellent writer, hints of Alice Munro/Didion but very much your own self. Really lovely getting to know you.

    1. The Paltry Sum

      Thank you. I am afraid I am not used to compliments, let alone compliments from someone I admire greatly! I have been sitting here rereading Vultures and smiling at the compact perfectness of each story. Absolute genius – including the very sympathetic and organic translation. I sometimes read Japanese novels in translation and they have that awkward air of words being shoehorned into place, and that is never any good, is it! I am really looking forward to getting to know you better, and maybe asking Lula a few small questions, if that would be at all possible!

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