Skin colors Updike's story of love

February 13, 1994|By Stephen Margulies

Title: "Brazil"

Author: John Updike

Publisher: Knopf

Length, price: 264 pages, $23

We are so naked! No animal is as naked as we. In our nearly hairless, thin, shining skins, we are terrifyingly visible. Our hearts are close to the surface. Everything can hurt us.

It is true that love can touch us with deep and indelible exquisiteness, but so can pain. Are we, stripped of the surer glory of feathers or fur, ridiculous or beautiful? All human hide is changeable and vague, compared with the ancient, confident coat of animals. Our skins are flags whose design is dreamily, dangerously unclear.

And are we really sure what color we are? Or what country is represented by the flag of our skins? No wonder we rage at each other's infinitely woundable flesh. We are naked emperors denying each other's right to power.

As amiably obnoxious as ever, John Updike, in his new novel "Brazil," confronts the fable of our flesh and the lethal mirage of our racialism. This most boyishly bourgeois of white writers celebrates and satirizes all our skins and all our races, the elusive surfaces of our one soul.

Reading "Brazil" almost compulsively, I've been by turns entertained and offended. In this short book, Mr. Updike has fused his eerily dependable and lusciously exact realism with his more rarely seen ability to make fables. Is this novel racist or anti-racist? Is it sexist or anti-sexist? Is it delightfully profound or a gruesomely awkward package of cruel cliches?

Whatever else it is, "Brazil" is a story about two lovers -- a black Brazilian youth from the streets and an upper-class Brazilian white girl. Not only has Mr. Updike ruthlessly detached himself from his usual suburban American ordinariness, he has rooted himself in medieval legend -- for "Brazil," although an obsessive meditation on a multiracial society, is also a magic-saturated reworking of the most romantic love story of them all, the tale of Tristan and Isolde.

"Brazil" is therefore the story of the story of love, no doubt about it. Like ancient Greek romance, it is an adventure story about the ordeal of true love. But it is also the story of two skins, one black and one white, in total love with one another. It is the story of color -- the color of skin, the color of love, the color of the visible world.

As in all of Mr. Updike's works, sex and soul are virtually identical. To caress and be caressed is to have a soul. But in this book, skin is magically akin to soul and, like soul, magically apt to change. If soul governs the color of skin and skin can change -- where is racism? Why is there all this skin anyhow? Is race the real issue, the real tissue?

In fact, Mr. Updike is as obsessed with his own skin as he is with his own sins. Notoriously "sane" and almost boastfully content, he has in recent years confessed his secret disease and shame. Afflicted with psoriasis, he describes himself, in his autobiography "Self-Consciousness," as a "victim of my skin." His goal in marriage was to find "a comely female who forgives my skin."

In a short story titled "From the Journal of a Leper," the first-person narrator, who suffers from psoriasis, states: "My torture is skin deep." On a more positive note, Mr. Updike has written in his autobiography a chapter titled "A Letter to My Grandsons," in which he praises the marriage of his fair-skinned daughter to a very dark-skinned African: "Your two parents are about as black and white as people can be, and that helps make them a beautiful couple." Moreover, he worships the sun of hot climates, since sunbathing blesses and heals his diseased skin. The leper wishes to change his spots!

So Mr. Updike's "war with my skin" might be the inspiration for his dazzling medicine, the healing vision of the opening sentences of "Brazil: "Black is a shade of brown. So is white, if you look. On Copacabana, the most democratic of Rio de Janeiro's beaches, all colors merge into one joyous, sun-stunned flesh-color, coating the sand with a second, living skin."

This glorious vision, worthy of Walt Whitman, should not be forgotten when, in the course of the novel, Mr. Updike seems both to accept and to deny racial stereotypes. Black Tristao and pale Isabel find each other on that beach and "make for the world an example of love."

But "the heart thrives on contrarieties." And love is renewed only through "new identities and contortions." Adventurers in sexual, racial and cultural identity, "Tristao and Isabel oscillated luxuriously in contrarieties," and they achieve at last "a drowsy oneness with the universe."

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