Love and death in Brazil

Monday Book Review

May 02, 1994|By Dave Edelman

BRAZIL. By John Updike. Alfred A. Knopf. 260 pages. $23.

WRITE A score of enthusiastically received novels, break sexual and racial taboos, successfully subvert literary conventions. Soon you might think you can do anything.

Only a writer with as many accolades under his belt as John Updike could write a book like "Brazil," the 16th novel by the New England writer and certainly one of his most daring. All at once, "Brazil" seeks to be an interracial love story, a time-shattering fable and a sociological treatise. Remarkably, Mr. Updike nearly succeeds in all three.

The novel chronicles the 20-year relationship between white, upper-class beauty Isabel and black, fatherless thief Tristao, beginning with their initial meeting on the beaches of Rio de Janeiro to their flight through South America and eventual return. It's a novel with a strange narrative structure, one that occasionally leapfrogs years in a single sentence without warning.

From the instant Tristao and Isabel catch sight of each other they fall irreversibly in love, the type of instantaneous love that can only happen in novels. Although racial tension doesn't run quite as deeply in Brazil as in the United States, Isabel's bourgeois father, a government ambassador, refuses to bestow his blessings on Tristao, a penniless thief. As if the racial difference weren't enough, Mr. Updike also inflates the social gap to mythical proportions.

The two lovers decide to flee the wrath of Isabel's father and his men and construct their own future together. But their journey involves multiple losses of innocence for them both. Tristao and Isabel meander from the squalor of gold mining camps to the bleakness of South America's deserts to slavery at the hands of a troop of colonial fanatics. She experiments with prostitution, motherhood and les bianism, while he vacillates between protector and delinquent.

Mr. Updike's most preposterous twist occurs when Tristao and Isabel switch races with the help of an old shaman's magic. This transformation allows for a series of reflections on the nature of the races which skitters dangerously close to (and sometimes crosses) the line of offensiveness. He writes at one point of the Africanized Isabel, for instance, as "not a social and spiritual equal but a thing of the flesh, imported from afar."

Such statements, however, don't really convey the racist message they might appear to. What Mr. Updike is really after are the thought processes that lead to the tyrannical racial prejudices which enslave us all. It is Tristao and Isabel's triumph that they can transmute the wedge that divides them into the source of pleasure which keeps their love strong and vibrant.

Dave Edelman writes from Baltimore

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