John Updike’s sixteenth novel is in many ways a new departure for him. Known principally for his lyrical and generally realistic portraits of Pennsylvania and New England suburban lives meticulously situated in their defining period and social locale, Updike literally embarks upon a new fictional territory in Brazil. Not only is it his first novel located in Latin America, but it is also his first without a single North American character. The closest there is to a predecessor in his canon is The Coup (1978), set chiefly in the mythical African nation of Kush, whose protagonist and narrator was educated in the United States before returning to rule his native land. That novel, a political and ideological satire, concerned American culture as much as it did that of the postcolonial African nation. In contrast, Brazil is fully immersed in the sights, sounds, and textures of the beaches of Rio de Janeiro, the shanties of its favelas, the industrial wasteland of São Paulo, the geometrical abstraction of the inland capital of Brasília, and—most of all—the vast jungle known as Mato Grosso.
The novel concerns the enduring if much-beleaguered romance between a beach rat and petty thief named Tristão and Isabel, the bored daughter of a diplomat. Their striking differences in race (Tristão being black, Isabel white) and class are only somewhat less of an obstacle in Rio, where “all colors merge into one joyous, sun-tanned flesh-color,” than they would be nearly anywhere else. Opposition to the match is immediate and persistent. Both families present obstacles of various kinds; Isabel’s father even resorts finally to hiring gunmen to separate the lovers by force. Though separated for years, they are nevertheless reunited and run away to try their luck in the gold mines of Serra do Buraco. After years of toil, during which Isabel bears two children (sired by other men) and Tristão discovers and then loses the nugget that would make their fortune, they are forced to flee once more to escape her father’s minions. Again they move west, through the immense jungle of the Mato Grosso, where they come close to starvation and are attacked by Indians, until they are finally rescued by a roving band of religious zealots led by a pair of brothers, Antonio and José Peixote. They remain unhappily separated while in this company for several more years, Isabel as third wife to the elder brother (with whom she bears a retarded son) and Tristão as a virtual slave.
At this point, about two-thirds of the way through the novel, the story suddenly veers into the realm of magical realism, a hybrid form often associated with Latin American fiction but not, heretofore, with Updike’s. To ensure their escape from captivity, Isabel visits a native shaman, whom she induces to enact a magical transformation. As a result, she and Tristão, with their racial identities now transposed, escape and make the difficult journey back to the east, there facing renewed encounters with their abandoned relatives, first in Brasília and then in São Paulo. Their last dozen years together are spent in a superficial kind of peace, as Isabel’s family bestows on the (literally) transformed Tristão a lucrative job as manager in a textile mill near São Paulo, while Isabel rears three more children (like her other three, all secretly sired by men other than Tristão) in ostensibly respectable bourgeois fashion. Ultimately the elongated circle is completed by the couple’s return to the same beach in Rio where they had first met twenty-two years earlier. This return proves tragic when Tristão, ironically, is stabbed to death by beach rats and petty thieves closely resembling his former self.
As usual in Updike’s novels, the locale is vividly described. While the new inland capital, Brasília, is rendered as a sort of glass and concrete rectilinear diagram, like a municipal “statue still waiting for life to be breathed into it,” and Rio de Janeiro is “pinched between the sea and the mountains,” the huge industrial city of São Paulo “had no limits . . . It was part of the vast planalto, a port on its edge. Cattle and coffee from the hinterland had funnelled through this place and made it rich, heartless, and enormous.” It is the focal point of Brazil’s economic transformation into a modern nation and as such the site of “cement-gray people-sprawl, eating up the planet” and polluting it. In contrast, the vast jungle of the Mato Grosso seems limitless, varied, and fecund; despite the dangers of travel there, Tristão and Isabel feel hopeful, as if they were “moving backward in time, away from the furies that excessive population has brought their century, into a chaste space.” Here Updike taps a dichotomy familiar in American literature, the contrast between the urban eastern seaboard and the uncharted western territory where new life putatively awaits a worthy claimant. The spiritual and amorous rejuvenation experienced by Tristão and Isabel during their westward sojourn thus has a traditional basis, even as the exotic Brazilian particulars—depicted in convincing particularlity—lend a sense of novelty...
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