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Wednesday, 12 July 2006

Review: Brazil, John Updike (1994)

This hard-nosed romance spans “twenty-two years, from the mid-sixties to the late eighties,” according to the Random House Web site.

The clues of its temporal chronology are there for the knowledgeable, but for the rest of us they are hidden among the sharp but confusing profiles of the country’s social apparatus. Yet the plot has its own logic and dynamic, and even without knowing all the angles you can still find much to admire.

Tristão, a very mature, black teenage tough, espies Isabel, a very mature, white convent beauty (and a virgin), on the beach in Rio de Janeiro, and approaches her. He gives her a stolen ring. She accepts his advances and then decides to give him something in return. Soon they are in her bed, within the comfortable walls of her uncle‘s spacious apartment. After their first, exploratory, fuck they become lovers.

His mother is a foul-mouthed whore, his father forgotten. Her father is a tight-lipped diplomat and an unbearable snob.

Their first flight into a shared destiny takes them from Tristão’s cramped shanty in the favela on the hillside above Rio de Janeiro to São Paolo. In the shabby hotel and on the busy streets they are as one: inseparable. Her playfulness and his stoicism prevent us from considering the likely outcomes of their liaison: we are too busy watching them share their bodies and their lives to worry about what is to come. The book contains magic.

We are also made to wonder about the political and economic realities of the country where the two lovers mingle their bodily fluids. According to the Wikipedia:

Because no civilian politician was acceptable to all the factions that supported the ouster of João Goulart in 1964, the army chief of staff, Marshal Humberto de Alencar Castelo Branco (president, 1964-67), became president with the intention of overseeing a reform of the political-economic system.

We are in the time of the generals, which renders their story even more romantic. The law is a flexible tool for the rich, and Isabel’s father is determined to prevent them from attaining their avowed destiny of love.

For two years Isabel attended the Universidade de Brasilia, studying art history. Slides of cave drawings and cathedrals, historical tableaux and Impressionist landscapes appeared in the darkness of the lecture hall and disappeared. All were French. Art was French, and the lecturers twanged out the French nasals and the rasped r as if returning home. Oh, there were some Cambodian temples, and German woodcuts, and after 1945 one had to take some note of the New York School, but in the end it was all dim spinoff or especially ingenious savagery, compared to Chartres and Cézanne. True culture, Isabel learned, was a surprisingly local, a purely European, and mostly a French, affair. Only biology was global—billions of copulations, adding up.
  If she did “date” some of her fellow students, conservative and pusillanimous but handsome and admiring sons of the oligarchy and its servants, what of it? She was young, full of nervous energy, and on the Pill. One can be faithful in spirit, especially if at the moment of orgasm one closes one’s eyes and thinks, Tristão. Removed from her life, changeless in his absence, he had become inviolate, and untouchable piece of herself, as secret as a child’s first sexual inklings.

Events in this novel are surprisingly memorable. The action jerks surreally from Brasilia to a mining settlement in the hinterland, from there to the deep forests of the inland which are peopled by savage tribes. One wonders if the tone of the novel is meant to be as comic as it is, like a Tintin cartoon with a sprinkling of adult themes. The miner they purchase their claim from, the leader of the rough clan of bandidos who are stuck in the imagined territory of an earlier century, the lesbian concubine who wishes to introduce Isabel to the blessings of a shaman.

Does Updike really think these things will not appear slightly outrageous? The kidnapping of their children, Isabel’s resort to prostitution, the murder of the old woman, Kupehaki… Slightly ridiculous, all of it. But memorable.

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