BOOK REVIEW / A wild holiday romance: 'Brazil' - John Updike: Hamish Hamilton, 15.99

Great writers are entitled to their holidays like everybody else - it's just that you can't always depend on what they're going to smuggle back through duty-free. John Updike has been flying down to Rio, and Brazil is the strange fruit of his sojourn, a novel that mixes old-fashioned love story with New World parable. If this is a brave attempt to give his readers something they might not expect, then it's also perilously close to something they might not like either.

It opens on the sunstruck bustle of Copacabana beach, where Tristao Raposo, a young black street hood, meets Isabel Leme, a younger upper-class white girl. He gives her a signet ring, stolen from a gringa tourist, and she invites him back to her uncle's baronial apartment. It's safe to say they're hot for each other, and before you can say 'that's amore' a sizzling Updikean bedroom scene is underway. Tristao 'felt his cashew become a banana, and then a rippled yam', on which exotic tuber Isabel eagerly loses her virginity. Love is professed on both sides, but their wrong-side-of-the- tracks romance comes a cropper on the reef of social propriety. Isabel's uncle alerts her absent diplomat father once the lovers go on the lam, and hired goons track them down to their bolt-hole in Sao Paulo. Isabel is led back to the cossetted prison of home, but after two years at university in Brasilia she is reunited one day with Tristao, and again they escape, this time to the jungly embrace of Brazil's wild west.

It will not take the reader very long to discern in this accelerated sequence of union, separation and flight the lineaments of a fairytale. And a myth: Updike's model is the legend of Tristan and Iseult, prototype victims of doomed love. After a bright beginning the author tilts an ominous shade on his story, forcing the star-crossed lovers to struggle for their lives against the savage privations of the country, 'with its atrocious history, its sordid stupid masses, its eternal underdevelopment, its samba on the edge of chaos'. Following three years' hard labour in a gold mine for Tristao, and the same in a brothel for Isabel, they retreat into the treacherous Mato Grosso, losing various children and taking their chances with poisonous roots, teeming insects and vampire bats. As if that isn't enough, they also appear to have fetched up in an ancient time-zone, where brutish tribes and dwarfish Indians lurk at every turn; the pair eventually fall into the untender hands of throwback Portuguese bandeirantes, who throw shackles on Tristao and marry off Isabel to one of their chiefs.

That the story forages in the landscape of magic realism is appropriate to a novel set in Brazil: the genre is closely associated with the volatility and romanticism of Latin America. That it is John Updike doing the foraging is something of a mystery: a master realist aiming for the hazy fugues of magic realism seems highly perverse, like a concert pianist playing an accordion. Martin Amis once hailed Updike as 'a writer who can do more or less as he likes', a facility which can, of course, be blithely abused, as many who have read S or The Coup or even last year's Memories of the Ford Administration will testify. It is perfectly inevitable that a writer of such range will cast his net wide, yet it is arguable that the further Updike strays from his personal domain - adultery and disillusion in the somnolent suburbs of New England - the less successful he is. Whether in the Buddhist ashram in S or the African state in The Coup, one felt the slightly bored playfulness of a writer trying to entertain himself, the head brimful of research but the heart not fully engaged.

So it is with Brazil. Even Updike's stock in trade is showing marks of fatigue. What has always been a source of alarmed delight in his work is the unabashed gaze he fixes on sex and its comedy of sly second-guessing and desperate connivance. Here the eye constantly snags on bizarre descriptions of sexual organs; he is particularly fond of that 'yam' of Tristao's, and Isabel fares little better with 'her semi-seen, furry, rousing cranny' (more furry tail than fairytale); put them together and you get 'two exotic flowers so contrarily evolved'. Nor do you have to be a keen combatant in gender politics, or whatever you want to call it, to feel affronted by a phrase like 'the criminal bliss of rape'. Updike is too canny not to realise how close to the wind he's sailing, but his penchant for the idea of woman-as-sperm-receptacle is not one even his admirers are much inclined to defend.

As for the famously lush prose style, it's barely allowed an outing. At one point Isabel's remote father is described as speaking Portuguese with a 'flavourless neutrality' after his peregrinations as an ambassador: 'He knew so many other languages that his mind was always translating; his tongue had no home.' A nice observation, and pertinent to this book, which itself has the slightly stilted manner of a translation. Updike keeps trotting out gnomic locutions like 'Too much courage becomes the love of death' and 'It takes a sad childhood to make us eager to be adult', which have a flavourless, not to mention pointless, neutrality all of their own. There's also a moment of authorial intrusion, with Updike acting as a sort of benign chorus: 'Though this chapter covers the greatest stretch of time, let it be no longer than it is]' A hearty amen to that.

And what of Brazil itself? We must assume that Updike harbours some affection for this huge, harsh country, if only in the loving, meticulous detail with which he conjures the acreage of forest and swamp and scrub. Animal and vegetable life is faithfully logged too, yielding further proof of Updike's casual genius for assimilating vast tracts of knowledge. Where previously he might have unfurled a litany of different beers and made it sound like a religious incantation, here he describes jungle delicacies with a touch of Elizabeth David: 'the purplish, cherry-sized fruit of the araca, which smells of turpentine and makes the saliva in one's mouth fizz, and the pods of the inga which are stuffed with sweet-tasting down, and wild pineapples whose flesh abounds in big black seeds and tastes of raspberry, and the pears called bacuri and that even greater delicacy named the acai, which overnight curdles into a fruity cheese'.

What doesn't get much of a look-in is the human side; Updike sets his amorous pair against a squalid backdrop of bandits and crooks, whores, pimps and rapacious peasants. His take on the place reminded me of P J O'Rourke's quip about Florida: a careful reading of the novel will do more to damage the Brazilian tourist trade than anything except an actual visit to Brazil. It's a case of don't go out after dark, don't drink the water and don't talk to anyone carrying a cut-throat razor.

In the end its hope of racial harmony, even of miscegenation, seems a vain fancy. Despite much energetic coupling - and several children - Isabel never conceives by Tristao's seed. All of the old prejudices and stereotypes are left in place at the story's bitter, and beautifully orchestrated, conclusion. Brazil overall is a disappointment, but it should be put in perspective. Within the Updike oeuvre, it's just a postcard in a gallery of modern masters. Won't somebody tell him to stay at home?

Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Oliver
filmTV chef Jamie Oliver turned down role in The Hobbit
The official police photograph of Dustin Diamond taken after he was arrested in Wisconsin
TVDownfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Arts and Entertainment
Clueless? Locked-door mysteries are the ultimate manifestation of the cerebral detective story
booksAs a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Arts and Entertainment
Tracy Emin's 1998 piece 'My Bed' on display at Christie's
artOne expert claims she did not
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

Arts and Entertainment
Laugh a minute: Steph Parker with Nigel Farage

Arts and Entertainment
Comic Ivor Dembina has staged his ‘Traditional Jewish Xmas Eve Show’ for the past 20 years; the JNF UK charity is linked to the Jewish National Fund, set up to fund Jewish people buying land in Palestinian territories

Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
    Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

    Scarred by the bell

    The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
    Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

    Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

    Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
    The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

    The Locked Room Mysteries

    As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
    Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

    How I made myself Keane

    Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
    Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

    Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

    Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
    A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

    Wear in review

    A look back at fashion in 2014
    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

    Might just one of them happen?
    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?