cover image Brazil


John Updike. Alfred A Knopf Inc, $35 (272pp) ISBN 978-0-679-43071-1

Nothing Updike has written before prepares the reader for this book, a tale of doomed lovers with wry reference to the Tristan and Isolde legend. Black street kid Tristao Raposo, 19, first sees blonde, convent-educated Isabel Leme, 18, on a beach in Rio; both recognize that they are fated to be lovers. He is sophisticated in the ruthless rapacity of the poor; she is ``accustomed to the logic and wealth of power,'' but both are starry-eyed idealists and romantics who decide to defy Isabel's diplomat father and run away together. Forcibly parted for two years by her father's henchmen, the pair eventually reunite and begin a series of ill-fated adventures that lead them into the Brazilian jungle and into the heart of darkness. Recounting the lovers' tragic trajectory from heedless passion to degrading toil to false security to ironic, brutal death, Updike draws a panoramic picture of Brazil over the past three decades, depicting a country in social and economic chaos with a huge, despairing underclass and a largely heedless wealthy population. In settings as varied as the country's topography--Rio, Sao Paulo, Brasilia, the gold mining area of the Dourados, and the jungles of the Mato Grosso--Updike delineates the tyranny of the white men over people of color, the despoilation of the land, the demise of the spiritual dimension in the modern world. He has assimiliated an astonishing amount of knowledge about flora and fauna, native tribal customs and lore, including sorcery. Indeed, it comes as no surprise when the narrative segues into magical realism. Despite its emphasis on the enobling qualities of true love, this is a dark book that speaks of ``a steady decay from birth to death.'' Even Updike's language is different here: the intellectual legerdemain, the shimmering metaphors and caustic humor are largely abandoned for a straightforward narrative prose. Whether or not this will be the ``breakthrough'' book to a larger audience that his publisher foresees, this is an intriguing story that takes Updike into new territory in many senses of the word. 75,000 first printing; BOMC selection. (Feb.)