Category Archives: Brazil

Her cosmetically butchered face harboured nothing but fear and received ideas.

Heliopolis, by James Scudamore

In selecting quotes for this review I noticed an interesting thing. I noticed that I’d only picked descriptive passages. It’s not that James Scudamore can’t write good dialogue, he does, but he writes great descriptions.

Isn’t that just the most tremendous cover? It also perfectly fits the book. Vintage often have good covers, but they outdid themselves here. Anyway, back to the book.

Heliopolis tells the story of Ludo, plucked from the slums of Sao Paolo as a baby and adopted into one of the city’s richest families. His adoptive father is Zé Carnicelli, known to all as Zé Generoso. Zé’s English wife (“Whenever she was in the room it was as if an angel had descended, to look willowy and concerned, and empathise, professionally.”) discovered Ludo and his mother in the Heliopolis favela (slum) while engaged in one of her many, many, charitable activities. Ludo’s mother shared some beans and rice, all the food that was available. A connection was formed, which led to Ludo’s mother being taken on as cook in Zé’s weekend country retreat, to Ludo escaping the world he was born into and years later to Ludo becoming part of the family his mother cooked for.

That’s a big debt of gratitude, and that’s Ludo’s problem in a nutshell. He grew up a servant’s child but closer to the family than any other servant, because of the miracle of their intervention and his rescue from absolute poverty. Now aged 27 he works for an advertising company owned by one of Zé’s friends, he has an apartment in Sao Paolo and a life that couldn’t be much further from Heliopolis if he lived it on Mars. His whole life is defined by an act of charity. He belongs nowhere: too rich to fit in with the poor he’s left behind, but without the unquestioned certainties of those born to the helicopter-driven classes.

Fitting in isn’t Ludo’s only problem. There’s also the fact that he’s sleeping with his married adoptive sister, does nothing at work except turn up late and hung over, and has recently started receiving mysterious phone messages from a stalker who wants to destroy his life. Ludo’s contradictory worlds are all about to crash into each other.

Heliopolis then is a novel with a story, and (allowing for one fairly massive coincidence around the middle of the book) it’s a solidly constructed story which zips along and has enough twists and turns that the book became a positive pageturner. The chapters alternate, between what’s happening to Ludo now and hs memories of his childhood on the Carnicelli’s weekend retreat, and for me at least both narrative strands were equally interesting which also helped pull me through the book – curious to see where it was going next.

Where Heliopolis shines best though is not its story, entertaining as that is. It’s in the descriptions, from shantytowns to exclusive gated communities with private guards. Here’s an example:

Town planning never happened: there wasn’t time. The city ambushed its inhabitants, exploding in consecutive booms of coffee, sugar and rubber, so quickly that nobody could draw breath to say what should go where. It has been expanding ever since, sustained by all that ferocious energy. And here, just as in the universe, anything could happen.

And here’s another, from later on the same page:

… turn a corner and you might find lush foliage, pristine pavements, smoked-glass security gatehouses, and deep, glinting swimming pools. For every wrecked no-go area there is an optimistic new condominium, for every rotting ruin a daring new spire. The city is being reclaimed all the time, either by the forces of development or those of deterioration: the only constant is its power to change. Mobility is celebrated to the point that whole highways are named in honour of Workers and Immigrants. That is why for every desparate hopeful arriving today from the northeast, and every Japanese, Italian, or Lebanese who pitched up in previous years, the city is a stronghold to be stormed; a glaring citadel of opportunity, with swarms coming from all sides to hurl themselves at its ramparts, prepared to end up dead on the wals if they fail. But they must not fail.

Brazil, Sao Paolo, pulses with life in this novel. Scudamore has a journalist’s eye and a neat turn of phrase and the two combine to make his vision of the city both evocative and persuasive. Whether it’s also accurate I have no idea (I’ve been to Rio, but not Sao Paolo), but it feels accurate and given it’s a novel and not reportage that’s good enough for me.

Scudamore is also excellent at swift portraits of the Paulistanas themselves. Here he is on the guests at Zé’s weekend retreat:

Guests would arrive in armoured 4x4s or mud-spattered jeeps: tanned men with bellies and moustaches, who chatted by the pool all weekend gripping beers and caipirinhas; stunning wives on sunloungers with tinted hair and manicured nails and cosmetically enhanced bodies, rotating in the heat like rotisserie chickens.

That last image there, of the wives rotating like roasting chickens, brings me to the book’s other great love beyond the city itself. Food. Each chapter of Heliopolis is named after a dish which features in that chapter (Feijoada, Jacaranda Honey, Sea Urchin) reflecting the centrality of food to Ludo’s own salvation. His mother’s cooking brought him from the gutter. As a child she showed her love in the treats she gave him while she cooked for the Carnicelli’s. As an adult he is a talented home cook himself with a love of fine restaurants. I said already that Scudamore has a talent for description. This is not a book to read when hungry.

Then there were the accompaniments: heaps of finely shredded green kale fried in garlic and oil, roasted cassava flour, pork rinds, plantains, rice, glistening slices of orange. And endless ice-cold jugs of passionfruit, cajú, or lime batida to help it all on its way.

So, any reservations? On one level not particularly. The plot rattles along and comes to a neat and satisfying conclusion. Everything hangs together. I found it a fun read and will likely buy more of Scudamore’s books in future. That’s not a bad result. On another level though this is a novel which was longlisted for the 2009 Booker and which comes festooned with critical praise from the Guardian, the Independent on Sunday, the Daily Telegraph, the New Statesman, Literary Review, the Financial Times, the Glasgow Herald (and the Daily Mail, but that’s not Scudamore’s fault). There are quotes on the rear and inside front covers from all these highly regarded newspapers and magazines using phrases like “brilliantly inventive”, “beautifully clear prose”, talking of “writing [which] is exemplary” and throwing around words like “superb”, “extraordinary” and “triumph” (full marks to the FT though for the phrase “A kinetic novel” which is absolutely spot on).

That’s a lot of praise, and it leaves me in the odd position of knocking down a novel which I really enjoyed. It is good, it is fun, it’s a very easy read, but the story doesn’t do anything hugely surprising, it doesn’t contain any great insights (unless you were unaware of Brazil’s huge wealth disparities) and it doesn’t do anything with form or structure. It’s well written, but it’s not a prose driven novel. It’s not seeking to push literature forward. It’s seeking to be a well written and tightly plotted book which says something about contemporary Brazil, and it succeeds at precisely that. It just doesn’t succeed at more than that.

I now feel rather like I’ve punched a baby, because this isn’t remotely a bad book and it doesn’t deserve to be criticised for not being what it doesn’t ever set out to be (what book does?). The problem with hyperbole though is it leaves nowhere for an author to go. Scudamore has talent, but his characters aren’t as interesting as his locations and there’s a sense near the end of the plot taking over when for me it was the least exciting part of the book (it’s the engine that keeps the book moving, sure, but engine’s aren’t always at their best when they’re showing). Put simply, I think Scudamore has the potential in him for better books than this one.

Kevin of kevinfromcanada first put Heliopolis on my radar with his review here (and draws an excellent parallel with Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger which I wish I’d thought of). Guy Savage also reviewed it here. It hardly needs saying that both of course are well worth reading and they picked different quotes to me (though the one they have in common was on my list for consideration). Their quotes were descriptive passages too.

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Filed under Booker, Brazil, Scudamore, James

Brazil is not a serious country

Brasyl, by Ian McDonald

Sometimes I like to pair books to music. For Ian McDonald’s sprawling celebration of Brazil past, present and future there could only be one choice. Funk-carioca (also sometimes called baile-funk), the music of the Favela.

Funk-carioca is a messy music, bursting with energy and taut rhythms. It makes heavy use of samples, scratching and a hundred borrowed beats and like the hip-hop that’s clearly one of its biggest inspirations it’s filled with sex and violence. Funk-Carioca is trashy, but fun, and it’s deeply danceable. It’s an expression of youth and sheer exuberance that on occasion tips over into being just plain crude and irritating. I’m listening to some as I write this.

Brasyl is a funk-carioca novel.

In 2001 a Goldman Sachs’ economist famously coined the acronym BRIC: Brazil, Russia, India, China. These are the coming superpowers, the developing countries that are overtaking the developed ones. We live in a period of transition, of the passing of wealth and therefore power from the G7 countries (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK and the USA) to new powerblocs with different traditions and naturally with different national and regional interests.

Although the rise of the BRICs can be overstated (this isn’t an overnight process and in the lifetime of anyone reading this every one of those G7 countries is likely to remain a major player), it is the fundamental story of our age and it’s extraordinary how little our fiction grapples with it. If investment banking can show the world as it is, we should expect no less of art.

If any art form should address this, it should be science fiction. What’s the point of a literature of change if it can’t grapple with the fact that the shape of things to come isn’t what those of us in the West thought it was? In the main though science fiction has ignored this challenge, populating its dreams with versions of ourselves which ultimately comfort by showing us a future in which we still run the world. We don’t even run it today.

Ian McDonald is one of the few writers to recognise this. In his astonishing novel River of Gods McDonald explored a future India and combined currently popular SF concerns (transhumanism, nature of consciousness, deep-time cosmology) with issues much more of this world (water shortages, resource wars, the stresses faced by traditional societies and faiths in the face of modernisation).  River of Gods isn’t a predictive novel (actually very little SF seeks to predict the future, that’s a misunderstanding of its role), rather it’s a mirror which reflects our own world today through an SFnal perspective so that we see it made strange and glorious, which of course our world really is.

Brasyl takes a similar approach to River. Like that earlier novel it pursues multiple narrative threads, which naturally combine near the end into one connected story. In 1732 a Jesuit travels upriver into the heart of darkness in search of a rogue priest who has set up his own empire among the Indians and who must be brought back for judgement, or if necessary killed. In Rio in 2006 an up and coming TV producer pursues an idea for a new reality show, riding just beyond the edge of contemporary popular culture. In Sao Paolo in 2032 a young Favelado dreams of money and a life beyond the slums and may just have the intelligence and business acumen to get both.

Each narrative soon becomes stranger than it first looks. The Brazil of 1732 is afflicted with a plague that is killing off the horses, mules and oxen. That didn’t happen though, so is this actually our 1732?

In 2006 Marcelina Hoffman, the TV producer, thinks her biggest enemies are her rival producers. Soon however she finds herself being stalked by what appears to be herself, a doppelganger that knows her life intimately and is intent on destroying it.

In 2032 Edson, the streetwise fixer and hustler, finds himself in love with a quantum physicist who uses near-voodoo science for petty crime. Through her he learns that the universe and everything in it is just one iteration of a vast number, perhaps an infinite number, of universes. It’s a truth some are prepared to kill to keep secret.

The challenge of course with multiple-narrative fiction is that when the strands are brought together the answer for how they all connect must be satisfying (which is where David Mitchell’s similar Ghostwritten fell down for me), and they must also all be equally interesting. McDonald’s vision of 2032 is glittering, a city filled with commerce and movement and life all looked over by the “Angels of Perpetual Surveillance”:

… balloons the size of city blocks maneuver in the tropopause, holding position over their ground data-transfer stations. Exabits of information chatter between them, the seamless weave of communication that clothes not just Brazil but the planet. Higher still, beyond all sense and thought, and global positioning satelites tumble along their prescribed orbits, tracking movements down to a single footstep, logging every transaction, every real and centavo. Highest of all, God on his stool, looking on Brazil and its three hundred million souls, nostalgic ofr the days when his was the only omniscience.

In this 2032 (as, in fact, today) whole communities live on garbage mountains trading the materials and technology extracted from the refuse of a culture of continuous consumption. It’s exciting and fast moving and most importantly convincing. Ian McDonald is a science fiction writer, and so perhaps it’s not surprising that his imagined future is more interesting than his imagined past and his imagined present.

Circuit boards book on coal griddles, release their lead solder like fat from pig-meat. Mercury baths grab gold from plated plugs and sockets. Homemade stills vaporize the liquid metal, depositing their heavy treasure. Two boys stir a stream of sand-sized processors into a plastic vat of reagent, dissolving the carbon nanotubes from their matrix. Two eight-year-olds sitting cross-legged on a sy bean sack test plastic from the heap besidethem by heating it over a cigarette lighter and sniffing the fumes. Younger children rush handcarts of e-junk down from the central dump. This is the circle of the slaves, sold into debt indenture by parents crushed by 5,000 percent interest.

The 1732 strand was bogged down for me by it’s liberal borrowing (sampling you might say) from Conrad, and by the over-the-top nature of its characters (the Jesuit is also a master linguist and expert swordsman, and is accompanied on his expedition by a Parisian rationalist and scientist who also happens to be an expert swordsman and who is working on an 18th century version of the computer*). It’s a sort of boys-own adventure tale, but steeped in suffocating heat, fever and madness. Despite it’s flaws though this strand moves along pacily enough, and the mid-book payoff when the expedition finds the rogue priest’s attempt at a holy city modelled after his own philosophies is chilling and impressive.

By contrast the 2006 section starts well, but lags towards the middle of the book. Again the central character isn’t wholly persuasive. She’s a fast-living TV executive which is fine, but also an expert at Capoeira (Brazil’s native martial art). The book shows her competing successfully in Capoeira matches, but I couldn’t begin to imagine where she found time to train given her demanding career and drink and drug-fuelled lifestyle. I just didn’t believe it (I run three times a week, and I struggle to fit even that in let alone getting to competition level in a martial art).

The other problem with the 2006 strand is that it doesn’t really add up. Marcelina is trying to make a new reality show in which the goalkeeper for the 1966 Brazil national team will be put on trial for his part in a famous footballing defeat. To get to him she has to win the trust of his friends, by lying to them and misrepresenting the kind of program she plans to make.

That’s great stuff, and McDonald makes her glossily amoral world of trash television and high-disposable income colliding with older values both alluring and repulsive (so mimicing reality TV within the fiction). The doppelganger starts to destroy all this, working for a shadowy conspiracy to which she may be a threat, but she’s only a threat because she’s made into one. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that if they’d left her alone in the first place they’d never have needed to worry about her.

As Marcelina’s life unravels she turns into a kind of action hero kicking ass to save the day. It’s ludicrous, but that’s clearly intentional as in the 2006 strand McDonald is crafting a story that Marcelina herself would approve of. It’s a telenovela in which avarice and ambition meet nemesis and a character turns rapidly from villain to hero as the plot demands. I see what he’s doing, and I can see why it’s an interesting thing to try, but that doesn’t change the fact that it doesn’t really persuade. More serious though is that McDonald finds as so many writers writing outside their field have found that it’s not as easy as it looks. Writing plots that zip past so fast you barely notice how unlikely they are is a definite skill, and while McDonald writes some great action scenes it’s not really one that he has. Unforgiveably, Marcelina’s story gets a little dull.

That’s a lot of criticism, and given worlds enough and time I’d have more. The last third, as so often with multi-strand novels, isn’t as interesting in tying things together as the first two were in setting things up. Some entire sections could probably be lost without too much harm to the whole – there’s an episode near the end for example where the Jesuit duels the man he’s pursued across the book, who turns out to be yet another master swordsman for apparently no better reason than it allows a dramatic fight scene (admittedly a good fight scene, but one that doesn’t actually add anything of consequence to the book).

Marcelina’s plot is necessary because the book needs a contemporary strand, but doesn’t feel justified on its own terms and could arguably have been excised entirely without impacting the other narratives too much. I’m not suggesting that it should actually have been excised, but it could have been better integrated.

In a sense I’m being harsh because McDonald is good enough to deserve that. For most SF writers, hell for most writers, this would be a potentially career defining work. Yes, bits of it don’t work, at times it’s even overwritten which is particularly painful for anyone who also reads literary fiction, but McDonald ties together mind-blowing ideas at the outer limits of modern science, brings the sheer motion and vitality of Brazil to life in a way which is extraordinary for someone who’s not a native writer and keeps it all rattling along with an exuberant flair that just about comes off. 

Brasyl is nearly a great novel. Art however isn’t linear (which is one of the reasons why I don’t give star ratings to books). Just short of great doesn’t necessarily mean good. Often it just means patchy. Brasyl won an SF award. The back of the book carries a blurb from a review from the Financial Times. McDonald deserves high praise and he deserves that kind of attention from outside SF fandom, but this simply isn’t his best book.

For an alternate view, this review by author Adam Roberts at Strange Horizons is definitely worth reading.

*As appears to be obligatory for every historical scientist in an SF novel. SF authors should just put down their copies of The Difference Engine and leave them alone. It’s been done.

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Filed under Brazil, McDonald, Ian, SF