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alone in the crowd

17 july 2014

Alone in the Crowd, by Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza, is a tightly-constructed little Krimi on existential themes. It's an homme-traqué plot with a Doppelgänger theme, and a variation on ideas by Poe. It also recalls Borges, and perhaps most of all Dürrenmatt's Richter und sein Henker, like Alone in the Crowd the tale of an aging police inspector shadowed by a fixated enemy.

I had read Garcia-Roza's first Inspector Espinosa book, The Silence of the Rain, awhile ago, but it didn't grab me and I didn't review it here. That first novel is florid, expansive, and therefore somewhat diffuse. But its protagonist Espinosa was sympathetic: a loner who prefers reading to most other activities, and isn't afraid to wax philosophical on the job. In Alone in the Crowd he needs all his intellectual creativity to cope with an intractable mystery.

A woman comes to the precinct and asks for the chief – not Espinosa by name, just the top officer. He's busy; she's turned away. A little while later, she's dead. Hit by a bus: did she fall or was she pushed?

With no witnesses to foul play, the case would soon be chalked up to accident if the woman hadn't just stopped at the police station. Was she about to reveal something that somebody else wanted silenced? All Espinosa and his men really know is that the last person to have a long conversation with the dead woman was a bank teller named Hugo Breno.

From Hugo Breno's perspective, we see his daily routine: physical training, bank clerking, wandering the streets of Rio de Janeiro looking for the thickest throngs, like some character out of a Poe story, and, hidden in those crowds, stalking the living daylights out of Chief Espinosa himself.

The motif of the hunter hunted is as old as the detective story itself, and you have to have some panache to pull off a new change on this old theme. Alone in the Crowd, sparely and crisply translated by Benjamin Moser, works without twists to undermine its detective. As he thinks more and more about Hugo Breno, Espinosa (who knew the teller in childhood, but not as an adult) is less and less sure of his memory and his motives.

Meanwhile, a subplot has Espinosa's open relationship with his lover Irene shaken by a woman named Vânia, who may or may not be trying to sleep with both of them (separately). The doubts that haunt Espinosa's private life mirror his public pursuit of his pursuer Breno.

Members of my book group complained of The Silence of the Rain that it didn't give enough local color of Rio de Janeiro; it could have taken place anywhere. Perhaps the same is true of Alone in the Crowd, though there's meticulous description of the routes and locales the characters haunt. And really the setting is The City, and Rio seems as good as any city to serve Garcia-Roza's purpose: a milieu where one can live (almost always peacefully) among total strangers.

Garcia-Roza, Luiz Alfredo. Alone in the Crowd. [Na multidão, 2007.] Translated by Benjamin Moser. 2009. New York: Picador [Holt], 2010.