Antônio Xerxenesky: F
Our heroine is Ana. While it is not unheard of for a male writer to have a female narrator, it is not terribly common. I suspect that I am not really competent to judge whether Xerxenesky has fully understood the female psyche. He starts off the book with Ana telling us that, by the age of twenty-five, she had seen a decapitation, two hangings, a castration, three fatal falls, a head destroyed by a rifle shot, a machine gun shooting rich and important people in the middle of a crowd, a paedophile falling down a lift cage and more. Only later do we learn that she was personally responsible for many of these.
Her parents were very conservative and, though she was born in 1960, Ana has been brought up in a conservative background. The view was that order must be preserved, whatever the cost. We will soon learn that her father was no saint, as he sexually abused Lúcia, Ana’s younger sister, and was involved with the Brazilian military and their repression.
When her father died, she was greeted at the funeral by a man she did not know existed, her uncle José, her father’s brother. He now lives in Los Angeles. They become friendly and exchange letters (unknown to Ana’s mother) and he invites her to visit him. She pretends that she is going to stay with an exchange student and goes off to LA. There she learns that José and her father had been very different and José had been a guerrilla, fighting against the Brazilian government. He still shoots and when Ana asks to shoot as well, he reluctantly agrees. He is amazed to find that she is a crack shot and she is soon sent off to Cuba, to train where she learns how to kill and, indeed, carries out her first kill while still at school.
She makes a career as a contract killer – some details are given – but, early in the book, we learn that she has been asked to kill Orson Welles. We do not know why and nor does she, though she has some ideas. She had seen Citizen Kane and thought it terrible. However, she is now sent off to Paris where there is an Orson Welles retrospective. She is accompanied by two young men, first Michel, and when Antoine, Not only do we see the Welles’ films through her eyes, we learn a lot about Welles. She also radically changes her view on Citizen Kane. There is also a long and serious discussion about what is art and what films can be considered art and what merely entertainment. Michel and Antoine are very scathing about the US and its view on art films and, indeed, on Welles. (They think Ana is from the US.)
Her study of film includes a study of films about contract killers. Inevitably, they are all male and all are cold and ruthless and are outsiders. If women are involved, they are only assistants, often playing the role of a femme female. (This book was written before the TV series Killing Eve, which features a psychopathic Russian woman contract killer and was based on the Villanelle books.)
So her task is to kill Orson Welles. Her employers manage to get her a job as Welles’ assistant on a film he is making. (His history of failed film making is discussed in some detail.) As a result she gets to know Welles quite well, all the while closely observing him, trying to determine what the best way is to kill him, particularly in a manner that makes it look like an accident. Indeed, she comes up with a plan. She is given ample time by her employers to study him (were they not afraid that she would become too close to him and be reluctant to kill him?) For some reason, she has been told that she has has to carry out the job on October 10 1985 (some six weeks into the future). Why so long? We do not know and nor does she but we know, if we have read the Orson Welles Wikipedia page, that he will actually die on 10 October 1985, nominally of a heart attack.
There is one other key historical person in this book, who while not as important as Welles for the book nor as well-known, nevertheless plays something of a role, if only as an influence on Ana. He is Ian Curtis, lead singer of the English band Joy Division. Initially, Joy Division is one of the bands she listens to (as well as New Order, the successor band to Joy Division). However, later in the book, he will become more of an influence on her. Curtis killed himself and it is this that made him something of a cult hero to the band’s followers but also to Ana.
As mentioned above, male contract killers in film and literature tend to conform to a stereotype. Villanelle, mentioned above, does not. However, despite the author/narrator’s implication that Ana is different from the norm of the cold-blooded male contract killer, she actually is not terribly different. She seems to have little qualms about killing people. Indeed, more than once she seems to quite enjoy the thrill of the chase, by which I mean coming up with an imaginative way of killing her victim. She is, in effect, a professional. She is solitary and something of an outsider. She seems to have few friends, apart from Antoine, whom she met in Paris and meets again when he comes to Los Angeles. She has minimal contact with her family (mother, sister, uncle).
This is a very imaginative book, given that female contract killers have not really been much mentioned in literature or film but also having our killer being selected to kill a famous historical character. Her relationship with her victims, Welles in particular, is very well done, as are the side plots, such as the discussion of what is art and her affinity with Ian Curtis, which reveals that she does suffer from depression. Sadly, it is not available in English.
First published in 2014 by Rocco
No English translation
First French translation in 2016 by Asphalte
Translated by Mélanie Fusaro