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?
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