To Be Translated: BelHell by Edyr Augusto Proença (Brazil)

Sure. Walking down Presidente Vargas Avenue, the city’s main shopping street, taking a left into Ô de Almeida and then a right onto the First of May, as the author does in the first chapter of BelHell does not seem a very attractive opening, now does it? Damn, you don’t know anything about this city, but we will walk with the author through one of the oldest quarters of town. It used to be a red light district, and there are remnants of this activity showing. Today, you will find more junkies then prostitutes in the area. Skid Row.  Okay, as the author writes, it is around lunchtime, probably a safe hour here. At night, not even a police officer would be happy to follow the footsteps described. 

In the first few chapters, the story starts off like that. The maybe not-so-imaginary writer describes the research he is doing for this novel. Obviously, he knows this part of the city like the back of his hand. Well, so do I. I know where he is walking, with whom he talks. I know the scents, I know the fear, but any other reader should just refer to any area that fits the description. After all BelHell is fiction, the city, the ambiance is imagined, as is everything that doubtlessly is about to happen in the sections that follow. As a privileged reader, I have the strong feeling that these things really happened. Perhaps not in the form that they were written, maybe not in the same chronological order. Nonetheless I get the strong feeling that, crossing the Avenue, taking a right at Caspar Viana, I would be able to research most of the details in the local press’ archives. This I will not do.

As the writer is introduced to more and more persons, the social structure and the crime scene of the city begin to take shape. Not out to write just one more detective novel, the crime scenes are vividly depicted, as if the crimes were taking place at the very moment they are being read. In ordinary language that is heard out there, on the streets. The characters in the novel relate to what happens. And where an all-knowing person is needed, the writer leaps into action, using street language as well. 

A Drink

You wake like that, half dazzled, a pain in your neck because you slept in an awkward position. You look around and do not know where you are. Yes, but now, how did I end up on the stairs of the Public Archives at this time of night? I go through my pockets and everything  is there. Cell phone turned off, wallet intact, keys. Two o’clock and something, no, almost three in the morning. Means that it was just a stupid test, and I will wake up any minute. I call Pedro, and he comes to pick me up on his bike. He was on shift. A gang circulating through the Commerce and Campina quarters, protecting the guys. First, I go to Esther’s, have something to eat. I didn’t even have lunch. Today I spoke with Ariosvaldo, aka Bronco, as I told Pedro. That is to say, they took me to speak to him. At lunch time, I went to Vargas Avenue, entered into First of March and ended up at the Palmeira Square. The street is narrow. So are the sidewalks. Someone touched my arm. Brother, the boss wanted to talk to you. A car by my side. Dark windows. The door opened. They pushed me before I could even dream up a defense. Sorry for this, mate, just a little chat. Chuta blindfolded him. Chuta? Shit, don’t tighten it so much. The writer does not get cross with Chuta though.

BelHell is not a crime story in the ordinary definition, although, yes, there are a lot of crimes described here. But there is no detective, no police officer to solve them. In fact, solving a crime is not relevant to this novel. Set in the world of illegal casinos, at any time in the recent past in the city of Belém, capital of the Pará Sate in Northern Brazil, the main character in this novel is in fact the author himself. He is doing research for this present book, and bit by bit the author, and with him his readers, gains insight into relationships within this world, getting acquainted with a variety of people. 

There is no doubt: this world really exists. Or does it? In various interviews the author explains the way he works. Clippings of local and national newspapers provide a basis from which imaginary characters are created. Then, the characters come to life in the author’s head, sifting into the blanks of other newspaper articles. Yes, everything does exist, everything has happened, only not necessarily in the way they are depicted and represented within the story. Being aware of the fact that Edyr Augusto Proença is a retired journalist, his jumping back and forth between reality and fantasy comes perhaps as no surprise. His style of writing does. It is fast, incorporating local slang and sub-culture language that may be hard to understand for readers in other parts of Brazil, let alone in other parts of the world. Yet, all of this author’s books have been successfully translated into French and sell well. As a novelty, Belhell is being published in France on almost the same day it is being released here in Brazil. Other novels by the same author have been translated into English as well, so there is a chance that one day we will see an English version of this modern, intriguing novel too.

Jan Oldenburg
(literary translator)

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