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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Twelve Fingers

Jô Soares

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To purchase Twelve Fingers

Title: Twelve Fingers
Author: Jô Soares
Genre: Novel
Written: 1999 (Eng. 2001)
Length: 294 pages
Original in: Portuguese
Availability: Twelve Fingers - US
Twelve Fingers - UK
Twelve Fingers - Canada
L’homme qui tua Getúlio Vargas - France
  • Biography of an Anarchist
  • Portuguese title: O homen que matou Getúlio Vargas
  • Translated by Clifford E. Landers

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Our Assessment:

B : some fun ideas, but more a litany of small episodes rather than well-rounded novel

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
San Francisco Chronicle A 26/8/2001 Jacob Molyneux
World Lit. Today . Fall/1999 Malcolm Silverman

  From the Reviews:
  • "Soares has total command of the form he's chosen to exploit. (...) Twelve Fingers may not allow us the comforting illusion of verisimilitude most writers of historical fiction strive for, but its vision of history is frank, disarming and occasionally profound." - Jacob Molyneux, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "Tongue-in-cheek, Jô Soares has produced not another whodunit -- outcomes are never in doubt here -- but rather an entertaining novel, enamored of irony as well as the double entendre, and teasingly reminiscent of a "Where's Waldo ?" puzzle." - Malcolm Silverman, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Twelve Fingers tells the story of Dimitri Borja Korozec, born in Bosnia in 1897. As the (English) title suggests, he is a man sporting some supernumerary digits -- i.e. he was born with twelve fingers, rather than the usual ten. (A not uncommon medical phenomenon, though nowadays they'll lop off any baby's extra fingers almost immediately.)
       The English subtitle calls this a Biography of an Anarchist, and that is what young Dimitri quickly becomes. "The double trigger finger can only be the sign of the assassin", he is told, and he and the anarchist group he hooks up with are firmly convinced of it. He goes off to study at an Assassins' School. He proves an excellent marksman, but unfortunately he is also incredibly clumsy -- a trait he never overcomes. And so Dimitri bumbles his way through history.
       Twelve Fingers is a Flashman-like (see our review) romp, where a fictional character encounters and affects real-life history. Dimitri has murderous ambitions: it's what he is meant to do, he feels. And so he tries his hand at assassination. First up is Franz Ferdinand, the Austrian archduke who visited Sarajevo in 1914. Here Dimitri's extra fingers literally get in the way, and instead of great glory Dimitri has to slink off while Gavrilo Princip triumphs in his stead.
       From there he is off to Paris. Along the way he encounters Mata Hari, and makes a lifetime enemy in her deadly dwarf-companion, Motilah Bakash. In France it is Jean Jaurès' turn to be targeted by Dimitri -- though he is not the only one after the French journalist and political leader. Again Dimitri makes a mess of things.
       There is a baffling encounter with Marie Curie -- tossed in apparently solely because Soares wanted to toss in more historical figures. Dimitri flees to America, and in Hollywood he helps make the 1920s Ben Hur even more overbudget than the extravaganza already was. He winds up in Chicago, working for Al Capone, and manages to wreak his usual havoc there too. And he manages to thwart the 1933 assassination attempt on Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
       Eventually Dimitri winds up in Brazil. Dimitri has some Brazilian blood in him -- and a target for his assassinative ambitions: Getúlio Vargas. The original Portuguese title already hinted that this was a big part of the novel, as it describes Dimitri as "o homen que matou Getúlio Vargas" -- the man who killed Vargas. English-speaking readers (or at least those younger than 50) probably have no idea who the hell Getúlio Vargas might have been, but Brazilians know him well enough. Longtime "President" of the country, he was a famous suicide in 1954. And so there we have the final irony, as Dimitri for once eventually succeeds (sort of) in assassinating someone -- and it goes down in history as a suicide .....

       Beside the assassination attempts there are other events, encounters, and adventures in the novel. There is Mata Hari's unlucky reappearing dwarf, the famous World War I taxi-convoy to the Marne (in which Dimitri participates), the Spanish flu, prison escapes, the merry band of mono-testicled anarchists, odd jobs, and more. Some of these are fun, but in many Soares' humour is far too broad -- so, for example, Dimitri's bribing of the jurors in the Al Capone trial.
       The book is cleverly and attractively presented. There are excerpts from Dimitri's own reminiscences, Memories and Lapses, and other accounts in this pieced together biography. Most entertaining are the illustrations: dozens of photographs in which Dimitri appears but isn't seen -- (accidentally) cropped out or hidden from view --, as well other documentary material (including Dimitri's portrait as done by Picasso on a napkin at the Brasserie Lipp).
       The book's greatest weakness is that it is more a heap of episodes -- very many of them -- than a novel. Continuity is sorely lacking, as Dimitri bounces around like a ball in a pinball machine, occasionally disappearing from view entirely for longer periods of time. In addition, Soares hardly ever lingers over any episode, just heaping them on one another, throwing them at readers at breakneck speed where more detail would certainly have been welcome. A not quite typical example is this paragraph, all there is about this particular stage in Dimitri's life:

       Later he worked as a truck driver. He took part in meetings of the Teamsters Union until he was beaten for unwittingly helping to break a strike he himself had organized.
       The fast-paced and abbreviated presentation might be tolerable if Soares had at least developed his character better, but except for being clumsy, driven, and deluded about his own abilities, there isn't much to twelve-fingers-Dimitri. Occasionally he gets obsessed with assassinating someone, but then he is quite willing to go off and do other things as well. He is particularly unconvincing as an anarchist: he has little sense of any sort of ideology, and it certainly is not much of a guiding principle in his life -- except when occasionally needed as an excuse to try to kill someone.
       Soares isn't very good with all the famous people he crams into the book either, and several of the cameos seem very forced (Marie Curie, for one).
       Soares stuffs as much as he can into his novel, and so there is a lot of action and adventure on a per page basis. There is also a lot of humour: the botched assassinations are usually quite funny, as are many of Dimitri's other misadventures It makes for a fast, light read, with a veneer of history and some good laughs. But it can't hold a candle to Flashman .....

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Twelve Fingers: Reviews: Jô Soares: Other books by Jô Soares under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Brazilian author Jô Soares also worked in film, theatre, and television.

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© 2002-2009 the complete review

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