Rubem Fonseca, giant of Brazilian literature, at 94

NEW YORK — Rubem Fonseca, whose flinty, obscenity-laden crime stories were seen as dark metaphors for the rot in Brazilian society, died Wednesday in Rio de Janeiro. He was 94.

His death was confirmed by Samaritano Hospital, where he died after a heart attack.

Over more than half a century, Mr. Fonseca wrote short stories, novels, and screenplays that titillated and shocked Brazilians with their terse style and seamy content. They also made him a bestselling author and sealed his reputation as one of the country’s literary giants.

His first collection of short stories “Os Prisoneiros” (“The Prisoners”) was published in 1963 and described as “brutalist.” But its major achievement was to shift the focus from the rural settings that Brazilian fiction tended to favor, to an urban area as the country was transforming from an agricultural economy to an industrial one.


Mr. Fonseca was a former police official who used his real-life experience as the fodder for his stories. His narrators tended to be police inspectors, criminal lawyers, or private detectives, and their unflinching depiction of crimes of passion and pettiness could be as lyrical as they were cruel.

“I wrote 30 books, all of them filled with obscenities,” he said in one of his rare speeches. “We writers can’t discriminate against words. It doesn’t make sense for a writer to say ‘I can’t say that,’ unless you’re writing children’s books. Every word has to be used.”

Many readers enjoyed his stories as crime fiction and for their frank eroticism, but they also captured a deeper unease and resonated across a nation that was finding its footing during a turbulent period.

His most popular novel, “A Grande Art,” was the basis for director Walter Salles’ first feature film, “The Knife,” in 1991. Mr. Fonseca’s most critically acclaimed novel, “Agosto,” which depicts a series of crimes and culminates with the suicide of President Getúlio Vargas, was made into a miniseries for Globo TV.