Ashes of the Amazon, By Milton Hatoum, trans John Gledson

Family and rebellion in the forests of Brazil
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The Independent Culture

Somewhere upriver in the deep Amazon rainforest is the Vila Amazônia, a grand old estate-house with a busy jute plantation, property of the tycoon Trajano Mattoso. "Jano" is in poor health and desperate at his son's failure to prove himself a responsible heir. Instead, Mundo is turning out to be a rebel, a would-be artist, who prefers the company of the poor, and despises his father and his father's world.

But Mundo has other father-figures: Arana, a self-styled great artist and opportunist who acts as his mentor; and Ranulfo, a proud wastrel whom Mundo befriended in his early childhood. It's Ranulfo who agrees to help Mundo execute his great piece of protest art, The Field of Crosses, a provocation that will bring the family conflict to a head.

Set in the late 1960s and 1970s, when Brazil was buckling under a military regime, Ashes of the Amazon is the story of Mundo's rebellion against the destiny his father has prepared for him; against massive authority, unshakable class structures, the all-pervasive influences of the military. It is not a fight Mundo can win. Indeed, the violent antipathy only has losers – father and son, friends, servants, and the boy's devoted mother Alícia, an ambitious woman trapped in a tormented marriage.

Like Hatoum's The Brothers, Ashes of the Amazon is at once a particular story and a generic one. The questions it raises relate to specific social ills in a certain country, but its power comes from great tensions that transcend these: of generational conflict, of bitter disappointments, of the role of the artist, of reactionary versus revolutionary .

Ranulfo has a nephew, Lavo, who narrates this story of Mundo's decline, a story that also frames excerpts from his uncle's account and Mundo's letters. While the novel's climactic scenes land relatively early, it is at its richest towards the end where characters only lightly sketched are seen at last in colour. The elusive Mundo and Alícia are filled out beautifully before the bitter end.

Only Lavo himself remains thinly characterised; but with this absence comes an admirable clarity in the portrayal of the setting – the military, the poverty of the plantation workers, civil unrest – and a sophisticated and fascinating shifting of our sympathies.

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