As usual, it begins with a dead body.
The police chief, detective on the case, is Paulo Tobias.
The victim is Ricardo Lísias, well-known contemporary Brazilian author. But the suspect is also named Ricardo Lísias.
The police found that the second Ricardo Lísias sent a threatening email to the first Lísias, accusing him of stealing his writing style. As Detective Tobias goes about solving the murder, an author begins to write stories about the investigation. This author is the third Ricardo Lísias. Detective Tobias, after the third Ricardo Lísias reminds him that he’s just a fictional character, must take psychiatric leave to cope with his overwhelming bewilderment.
If you’re also confused, that’s the right reaction.
This is the plot of a viral murder mystery ebook series entitled Delegado Tobias, written by contemporary Brazilian author Ricardo Lísias (yes, a fourth Lísias, and this time he’s really real). Not only did he write himself into this book as both victim and killer, but Lísias also made Facebook accounts for his different characters. As the virtual Tobias posted statuses about the story, as though the whole mess were real, readers commented and those Facebook interactions, as well as fake news articles and Brazilian legal documents, eventually made their way into the next ebook of the series. What are the effects of this unconventional fiction? Does it have a new role in the modern-day book market – or even in the modern-day psyche?
Lísias’ literature actually resulted in an absurd and extreme chain of events. At first, the consequences of such fictional provocation were entirely planned. Readers would call in complaints about missing pages, asking for a new file of the book or even their money back, when Lísias had intentionally deleted his text. Ricardo Lísias (the real one) played with the reader on purpose.
But then, Lísias received a letter that said he had to present himself to the Brazilian police because he has committed a crime. The letter didn’t specify what that crime was, and Lísias racked his brain to figure it out, wondering if he could have forgotten to pay a bill. When his lawyer contacted the police to discover what this crime could be about, though, it had nothing to do with something so quotidian as a forgotten payment.
The police had received anonymous tips claiming that Lísias was falsifying official Brazilian documents, and that those documents involved a certain police detective; they had begun investigating the crime, trying to locate Paulo Tobias. Lísias had to undergo official court proceedings about his novel. He had to establish that the documents were in fact part of a work of fiction; he argued a judicial case on the grounds of literary history and theory.
An investigation into the authors and characters of a murder mystery is the epitome of the absurd ironic meta-fiction that Lísias writes. And so, once the court was resolved and Lísias found innocent, he decided that the only course of action would be to mock what had just happened.
He wrote both a play of the proceedings (he acts in the play – representing himself) and a print novel called Inquérito Policial (Police Investigation). But the novel isn’t shaped like a book; it’s a case file filled with falsified documents that tell both the story of his trial and falsifies more documents about Tobias’ family. Other than the slightly higher quality paper and ink, it looks exactly like a real Brazilian police file.
“I needed to react to this with something more effective than a traditional book,” This is how Ricardo Lísias explained his choice for writing a novel in the form of a case file when he visited Princeton earlier this October. The real police investigation was so ridiculous, he joked, that it seemed as though the Brazilian authorities tried to plagiarize the absurd plot of Inquérito Policial before he had written it.
The fictional case file sat on a table between Lísias and me during our conversation on the third floor of East Pyne. The stark, capitalized letters “POLICE INVESTIGATION” jumped off the bright blue of the legal folder. Its mere physical presence set a conspiratorial tone, that of a law office or courtroom, even though we were just a student and writer meeting to talk about a novel.
Also with us was Pedro Meira Monteiro, chair of the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at Princeton. Monteiro, a friend of Lísias’, organized the visit to Princeton and is also a fictional character in the third volume of Delegado Tobias (the fictional Monteiro invites Detective Tobias to give a talk at Princeton, inciting the ire of Lísias-the-fictional-author, the third Ricardo Lísias in the ebook). As Monteiro made us cups of steaming espresso, Fernando Acosta, the Firestone archivist responsible for bringing new Latin American literature into the library, joined our conversation.
“The traditional book,” Lísias said, “has certainly entered into a crisis of aesthetic possibility.” But that doesn’t mean that it’s easy to write, publish, and distribute cutting-edge forms of fiction. Most bookstores in Brazil refuse to carry Inquérito Policial. They don’t like how it can’t stand upright and they worry that it would confuse the customer. (The obvious irony, of course, is that confusion is the entire point). Only certain newspaper kiosks and art galleries in São Paulo actually sell the work.
The confusion extends to the archive as well. “Cataloguing this book will just be one more step in the series of confusions,” Fernando Acosta says, talking about how to deal with Inquérito Policial at Firestone. Lísias calls it a novel, but the form complicates that definition. Acosta will have to speak to the Firestone cataloguer about the work: “He’ll catalogue it correctly and understand what he has in front of him. But if I don’t explain it to him, it would be another confusion.”
Ebooks, as well as unconventional physical books, are changing the archive. In fact, the ebook is a controversial topic; Monteiro avidly defends the digital form while Acosta considers it to be problematic for the archive.
Fernando: In terms of the digital book, I’m far more cautious than my friend Pedro.
Pedro: He says cautious. I view it as conservative.
Fernando: And that’s fine. I see it from an archival perspective, from the point of view of guarding and conserving the book in the long term. Electronic and commercial distribution doesn’t work in the archive. That’s designed for individual consumption, for private consumption in a private machine and not for sharing in a library or for permanently archiving.
Acosta’s priority is conservation; that’s the root of his conservatism. He’s even convinced Monteiro about certain digital concerns, like how websites that contain literature can just shut down, which threatens to make countless works of literature disappear without a physical trace. But Monteiro thinks the electronic novel can (and should) erode the veneration the western world holds for books. The idea that you can read on your phone when you’re in the elevator or the subway changes the way the reader views literature. “I think it changes the way we make sacred the book-object,” he said. “It’s that idea of the sacred that lets me keep joking with Fernando, calling him conservative, as though he were the little old librarian conserving dusty books.”
Despite the room’s conflicting views on archiving electronic material, everyone agreed that the form of a book changes the way we read it. Lísias points out that the lawsuit debacle occurred because his books were online:
“I think the real confusion would have been difficult had it been a paper book. If Delegado Tobias had been printed, they [the police] would have figured out it was fiction. And maybe the people who denounced me would have had to work harder to make their accusations. All of the accusations were done digitally. All of them. It’s so easy to send evidence. They just copied and pasted the image,” Lísias laughed. “It was exactly that: copy the image, paste it into an email, and press send.”
Lísias’ crime noir ebooks and case file novels are a bit like documentaries, as Monteiro sees it. “The documentary genre has the ability to escape the screen,” he posited. “That’s part of the game. You know that it has some sort of contact with that which continues to exist after the movie ends. Your fiction, in that sense, is very similar to the fiction of a documentary.”
That fiction, in my mind, is a dialogue between reader and author, book and reality, which allows literature to really infiltrate the real world. It’s a dialogue that confounds the reader who is convinced in the a priori truthfulness of media and that laughs in the face of harmful institutions.
It started with a dead body, as usual. But because of experiments with form, this crime novel rippled into the real world. Ricardo Lísias’ case might be closed, but his controversial case for unconventional literature is ongoing.