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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2105

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...

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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 no longer so readily available in the modern North American landscape.

In an afterword to the novel, Updike states that in addition to other literary sources he names, he derived his “tone and basic situation” from Joseph Bédier’s Roman de Tristan et Iseult (1900), translated by Hilaire Belloc and Paul Rosenfeld as The Romance of Tristan and Iseult (1945). The “basic situation” is that of tragically doomed love. Parallels are numerous. Like his legendary namesake, Updike’s Tristão is described as a “knight errant,” whose chivalrous gestures toward his beloved include the bestowing of a precious gift (a stolen ring inscribed with the letters DAR, which he interprets as the Portuguese verb “to give”) and a solemn vow (not to harm Isabel but to love her). There are omens (a chalice-shaped bloodstain appears after Isabel loses her virginity to Tristão), battles against quasi-monstrous foes (Tristão kills the professional gunman hired by Isabel’s possessive father), and dramatic rescues (Tristão “saves” Isabel from imprisonment in her uncle’s apartment, from her entrapment in the mining village, and from her brutish bondage to Antonio Peixote and their idiot son). Racial and social class differences are the paramount worldly obstacles to the joining of the lovers, promoting familial opposition just as the legendary lovers were opposed by King Mark of Cornwall and Iseult’s jealous attendant Brangwain. Isabel bears six children by other men (and has none with Tristão), just as the legendary Iseult was actually married to King Mark and Tristan to another Iseult (of the White Hands), yet despite these dalliances both couples remained essentially loyal to their “fated” lovers. There is no magic love potion per se in the novel, but Updike’s numerous detailed depictions of erotic activity may perhaps provide a sort of modern parallel to the compulsive passion produced by the potion. The Brazilian shaman’s magic is an even more direct parallel, though the transformation it brings about is far more complicated and disturbing. Finally, on two occasions Isabel reflects on the “timeless” stories of legendary lovers. She does not identify them by name but thinks of them, suggestively, as stories always involving the same basic events: “Love, pregnancy, infidelity, vengeance, parting. Death—always death in these stories.” When Isabel finds Tristão’s dead body on the beach at the end of the novel, she again recalls the story “of a woman, long ago, who, her lover dead, lay down beside him and willed herself to die, and did”; Isabel herself attempts to do the same, unsuccessfully as it turns out.

Updike has made use of the Tristan legend previously in his work, most notably in Couples (1968). Indeed, in 1963 he wrote a lengthy review of perhaps the best-known modern interpretation of the legend, Denis de Rougement’s L’Amour et l’occident (1956; Love in the Western World, 1983). According to de Rougement, the legend embodies an archetypal pattern of fatal love in which the romance quest disguises a secret death-wish. The object of love is always in some sense unattainable. In fact, that is the true source of the lovers’ passion—its deferral and ultimate loss, which only intensify the longing—not any real hope of satisfaction through love’s realization. Romantic love is essentially an illusion, a form of narcissism. Tristan and Iseult do not truly love each other so much as the dream of love each represents to the other, or projects onto the other. The lovers secretly seek not a fulfilling relationship represented by marriage and the bearing of offspring but the “sweet suffering” brought about by separation and, ultimately, by death. Thus the love of death (Thanatos) is sublimated into Eros, the passionate longing for an ideal love, the protracted pursuit of which results in death, either literal or spiritual.

This modern, psychological reading of the legend clearly influenced Updike’s treatment of his material in Brazil. Both Tristão and Isabel believe that their love is “fated.” “You were my destiny, and I yours,” he tells her; “you and I were brought together not to feed children into the world’s maw, but to prove love—to make for the world an example of love.” On another occasion he adds, “We hardly exist outside our love, we are just animals without it, with a birth and a death and constant fear between. Our love has lifted us up, out of the dreadfulness of merely living.” When they are separated, as they frequently are, they are described as moving about in a kind of trance; and when they become erotically involved with others, as both do, they nevertheless remain “chaste in [their] soul, that spiritual organ where [their] life cried out for its eternal shape.” Indeed, such separation only intensifies their dream of “eternal” union. Moreover, revealingly, the proximity of death—as during their dangerous trek through the Mato Grosso—only exacerbates their sexual desire for each other.

Yet it is Isabel’s recourse to the shaman’s magic that brings about a kind of fulfillment she had not envisioned. Although the transformation helps to free both from bondage to the loathsome Peixote brothers, it also delivers them eventually to a condition that seems closer to “the dreadfulness of merely living” than to an eternal consummation. The story’s concluding phase, in which Tristão and Isabel live for years as respectable bourgeois husband and wife and parents in the mechanistic wasteland of São Paulo is, as the author concedes, unredeemably banal. (Updike’s readers will smile in recognition of the fact that he has made a major reputation by exploring and celebrating precisely that mode of living in such works as the Rabbit tetralogy.)

Even as he approaches his ironic death, Tristão cannot deny the unwelcome realization that “there was more of [Isabel] than he ever could possess. And the realization . . . that his attempt to possess her had twisted his life into a shape there was no changing, ever—a guilty shape, somehow, stained with murder and desertion.” It is longing for his old “innocence” that impels Tristão to his fatal encounter with the beach rats who represent his former self. Isabel’s inability to follow him to death (“There would be no miracle today. . . . Tristão [had become] a piece of litter. . . . The spirit is strong, but blind matter is stronger”) only testifies to her permanent entrapment in the fatal romantic illusion. She too is dead, in spirit if not in “blind matter.”

Whether this grim denouement will succeed with most readers is doubtful. To date the novel has received largely hostile reviews, most of which do not seem to recognize the function of the Tristan myth in expressing the subtle dangers of romantic passion. Several reviewers are put off by Updike’s almost gleeful uttering of politically incorrect notions of race and gender. His transposition of a northern European myth onto a postcolonial, polyglot culture raises additional questions for some. What cannot be doubted, however, is the audacity of Updike’s foray into new and unknown territory.

Sources for Further Study

America. CLXXI, August 13, 1994, p. 20.

Commonweal. CXXI, April 8, 1994, p. 18.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. February 6, 1994, p. 3.

The New York Review of Books. XLI, May 12, 1994, p. 23.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIX, February 6, 1994, p. 1.

Publishers Weekly. CCXL, November 22, 1993, p. 48.

Time. CXLIII, February 14, 1994, p. 73.

The Times Literary Supplement. April 1, 1994, p. 21.

The Washington Post Book World. XXIV, February 13, 1994, p. 1.

The Yale Review. LXXXII, July, 1994, p. 165.

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