Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Updike's South American Fantasy

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Updike's South American Fantasy

Article excerpt

NOT a mirror, but a wildly divergent reflection in a shimmering lake; a shadowy twin; a parallel yet opposite world; an emblem of paths not taken: South America's role in the North American imagination is often shaped by stereotypes that reflect and distort South American realities. "Brazil," John Updike's 16th novel, is a North American fantasy projected southward.

Reading this brightly hued, lushly lurid romance set me thinking of two notable (North) American traditions: One is the high poetic line of writers like Walt Whitman (whose "Welcome, Brazilian brother" Updike quotes as an epigraph); Elizabeth Bishop (who not only wrote of Brazil, but went to live there); and Wallace Stevens (who in fact ventured no farther south than Florida, but in imagination became "Mrs. Alfred Uruguay"). The other, less distinguished tradition of Hollywood and Madison Avenue produced the likes of Carmen Miranda, the Brazilian bombshell, and Chiquita Banana, inviting us to slice her on our cereal, "every day."

Sex and violence of a rather less innocent sort pepper the pages of Updike's fantastic narrative about a pair of star-crossed lovers on the lam. Tristao, a poor black boy from the slums of Rio, and Isabel, a rich white girl born into the nation's ruling class, meet on egalitarian Copacabana beach in the swinging 1960s. Attraction is instantaneous. He presents her with a stolen ring; she invites him up to her uncle's plush apartment and into bed. At 19, Tristao is experienced, the son of a prostitute. At 18, Isabel is still a virgin, but eager to be initiated into the "womanhood" the nuns at school warned her against.

Isabel's uncle is surprisingly tolerant on finding out about the affair. He and Isabel's widowed father are sophisticated men of the world. What they do not understand, however, is Isabel's determination to marry this unsuitable young man. "This is ... vulgar romanticism of the sleaziest kind," her uncle warns her. Undeterred, the lovers elope. …

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