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BOOK REVIEW / Skin care in the tropics: 'Brazil' - John Updike: Hamish Hamilton, 14.99

DESPITE his secure status as Greatest Living Non-Jewish American Novelist, John Updike has regularly been criticised for his allegedly stereotypical portrayal of women, ethnic minorities, etc. This is not an aesthetic but a moral argument, which in its extreme form holds that you have no business writing about, say, Chicano street gangs, however sensitively or sympathetically, unless you have been a member of one. In this sense, the most shocking pronouncement Updike made about this novel was in revealing that he had only been to Brazil once, on a brief promotional tour. How then, he was asked, had he researched a book entirely set in that country? 'I made it up,' he replied.

'Why don't you try acting?', Lawrence Olivier famously enquired of the method-trained co-star who complained he couldn't 'feel' his role. Updike has tried it before, notably in his 1978 novel The Coup, set in an imaginary African country. But Brazil is a far more daring enterprise; and not the least of its pleasures is the sight of its sixty- something author throwing caution to the winds with all the gleeful abandon of Olivier blacking-up for Othello. The resulting performance is likely to divide his admirers in much the same way.

'Black is a shade of brown. So is white, if you look.' The first lines sound a deceptively egalitarian note, as if harking back to the Civil Rights ethos of the mid-1960s, when the book opens: we are all equal under the skin. But those in search of moral uplift are likely to be disappointed, if not outaged. Updike is more concerned to celebrate differences - of gender and of race - than similarities. As befits a man with his own well-attested dermatological problems, he is less interested in what lies under the skin than in what happens on, to and because of it - primarily sex.

'. . . if you look': on the beach at Copacabana, Tristao and Isabel exchange a glance as fateful as in the myth to which their names allude. But there is as much of Lady and the Tramp as Tristan and Isolde here. While Isabel is a privileged white teenager from a rich family close to the military government, her lover is a black street-urchin from the favela. The resulting persecution by her family drives the couple into Brazil's vast, unexplored interior, journeying back through layers of Brazilian history to encounter gold miners, murderous Indians, a lost band of Portuguese bandeirantes and a shaman who reverses their fortunes by the magically simple expedient of making Tristao white and Isabel black.

The remainder of the book is a mirror image of its beginning, replete with ironies. A white Tristao is acceptable to his wife's family and to society; Isabel's newly-acquired negritude is perceived as chic. But despite the sufferings of the lovers' outcast existence, the conventional comforts of their new life together are rather, well, pallid. 'The banality, the brightly masked tedium, of bourgeois life,' comments the chronicler of Rabbitland and Bechville in a delicious aside, 'taletellers remain balked by it.' Finally, in a stunning inversion, Tristao finds death where he found love, on the beach at Copacabana.

Given its theme, this is a very dispassionate - one might almost say cold - book. Externals are assembled and patterned with Updike's usual mastery, but the result is a Faberge brooch of a butterfly rather than the living creature. There is a lot of sex, yet it is never sexy, and the habitual euphemism for Tristao's penis made at least one reader feel he was suffering from a surfeit of yams. The dialogue is stilted, and at worst sounds like parody Hemingway:

'Never will I not love being with you,' she said, and as they strolled side by side she brushed her other hand across the fly of his shorts, where his yam had awakened.

'We must fuck, and talk,' he told her.

'Yes. Keep walking, my husband. Soon there will be a place.'

This feeling of authorial detachment is increased by a deliberate sententiousness. It is as if, within the context of a very sophisticatedly 'primitive' novel, Updike had set out to emulate - or perhaps to pastiche - the 'wise woman' persona of writers such as Margaret Atwood. Paragraph after paragraph trails an aphorism, making its meaning explicit. These are sometimes provocative: 'Their uncontrollable moods are the price men pay for women's unearthly beauty and their habitual pain'; sometimes banal: 'We shed skins in life, to keep living.' In either case, the narrative looks like a mere exemplum of the thesis.

On balance, the weaknesses of Brazil are those of the project itself, while its strengths - especially the power of imaginative resolution - are Updike's own. This is above all a brilliant performance, rather in the manner of one of the 'flying winemakers' who go into some unglamorous area and show what can be done, given proper techniques, with the local raw materials. The results are typically flavourful and attractive, while lacking the authentic (and potentially problematic) gout du terroir. As Malcolm Gluck might say, this is a fruity, mouth-filling read which rates 14 points.