Decades ago, when the Brazilian movie actor Fernanda Torres was
eighteen, she starred in what she recently described as “the worst ‘King
Lear’ ever,” a production that took place in a shopping-mall theatre in
Rio de Janeiro. As Cordelia, she had one long scene, “and then I would
have to wait two hours to die.” For the first few nights, she kicked
around backstage and played pinball. Later, she gave up and went home to
have dinner with her handsome new husband. “And, when I came back, all my
colleagues were still on that stage, playing ‘King Lear’! And then I
just started laughing.” For the monthlong duration of the play’s run,
the teen-age Torres was “laughing dead, I was laughing alive. I couldn’t
control it.” Her fellow-actors tried being stern, they tried pleading,
but it was hopeless. Reverence had been replaced with absurdity. “Acting
is something very delicate,” she said. “It’s a child playing, you have
to be playing, if you step one inch to the side it’s ridiculous and
you’ll be lost.”

English stage actors have a term for breaking character like this,
specifically for the childlike attacks of giggles that strike when one
is meant to be playing it straight: “corpsing.” The word’s blend of the
morbid and the hysterical capture the events and mood of “The End,” a
riotous, sex-stuffed novel by Torres, which takes Technicolor pleasure
in detailing the deaths of five incorrigible old beach bums of the Bossa
Nova generation. In her home country, where Torres is a huge star best
known for her role on the sitcom “Tapas Beijos” (“Slaps Kisses”), on
which she plays a single woman working in a bridal store, “The End” has
sold over two hundred thousand copies. It has also made Torres a début
novelist at the age of fifty. On a recent visit to New York, shortly
after the publication of the English-language edition, she seemed
delighted by this situation. She explained that writing a book about
death did not much change how she thought about her own mortality. “What
this book gave me was a feeling of being able to write at the age of
forty-eight. So it’s the opposite: it gave me a new life.”

She was spurred by an interest in the last five minutes of someone’s
life, rather than their death itself. “What will you remember? Who
knows. What is a good life? Depends on how you die—that’s how you really
know what kind of life you had.” Her five men, whom she kills off in
reverse chronology, are “united by male allegiance, women, and the
beach, in that order.” We begin with Alvaro, the last to die, a morose,
once cuckolded accountant who can’t stand his grandkids, regrets every
pet he had, and leaves this world while crossing the street: he’s mown
down by his neighbor, “the heartless witch from 704.” Silvio, the
penultimate death, is an exhausting hedonist whose death notice, written
by his son, confidently denounces an “ill-famed father, unfaithful
husband, abominable grandfather and disloyal friend.” His son adds, “I
apologize to everyone who, like me, suffered affronts and insults, and
invite you to his much-awaited internment.” The band is joined by
Ribeiro, an eternal adolescent whose hobbies include seducing virgins at
the beach, and the unhappily married Neto, the best and most boring of
the lot. Finally, there is Ciro, the group’s idolized Adonis, a man so
smooth that he dives to pluck lobsters from the ocean for his lady
loves. He also proves to be the most reprehensible of the five.

Interwoven with these monologues are the stories of the wives, children,
mistresses, and sex workers who suffer these men in all their excesses,
jealousies, and misdemeanors. Torres described the book to me as “the
epitaph of the macho—it’s funny as hell and at the same time it’s
terrible!” At Alvaro’s funeral service, for example, a disillusioned
priest, who, after presiding over too many funerals, feels himself to be
“God’s undertaker,” experiences his own version of “corpsing”—not
laughter but something worse. Weary and bitter, he kicks open the door,
strides into the room and, to the aghast congregation of mourners
awaiting spiritual consolation, he bellows, “Who’s next?”

That question now has a timely, uneasy resonance, as we try and resist
the morbid guessing game of which famous and powerful man will follow
Weinstein, Spacey, and others in falling from grace. With America
undergoing a mass reckoning with male sexuality, a novel like this feels
both taboo and gleeful, a guilty kind of reprieve. “My people are hedonists from Rio, but they are sweet flowers compared to Trump,” Torres said. The central and most
colorful event within the lifelong friendship of these five men is an
orgy, and, as in a Pirandello play, it’s relayed to us through multiple
perspectives. The behavior of everyone involved is bad, heedless, and
rendered with gusto. “I always find it interesting how men like to be
with each other,” Torres said with good humor. “Men like to grab each
other, they are fond of each other! This is the subject of the book,
male friendship, and an orgy is a way of being with your pals, with your
guys, and that’s why the orgy scene is the center of the whole thing.”

Many female American actors have found the courage, in recent weeks, to
hold accountable the men who’ve wronged them. Torres, who grew up in a
matriarchal household, as the daughter of the Oscar-nominated actress
Fernanda Montenegro and the actor Fernando Torres, understands herself
to be an exception in terms of her experience of male oppression within
her profession. “I’ve never experienced any situation where I felt
afraid, or obliged to accept a producer, actor, or director’s approach.
I was in charge of my life and had freedom to choose,” she said, adding,
“Of course I’ve dealt with machismo in my life, but I always felt that I
was the one who should liberate myself. But this is dangerous to say,
because it’s like saying women are blamed for their oppression. So we
are living in a very delicate time.” She continued, “I don’t feel like a
woman being oppressed by men. I don’t fear writing under the skin of
men. I adored writing in the skin of men. To write under the skin of a
man just released me from myself.” Fiction by women that includes a
female narrator is often assumed to be autobiography, she explained. “So
doing it through a man, or five men, it was wonderful! I wrote very
freely about those bad-behaviored men.” Then she added, with a wide
smile, “But I took a great pleasure in killing them.”

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