Sunday, 16 August 2009

Heliopolis


Another contender for this year's Man Booker Prize, Heliopolis by James Scudamore was a welcome discovery, which is what's so great about the prize and challenging myself to read the longlist: it opens me up to literature and writers that otherwise I may not have encountered.

I loved this novel. I'm not entirely sure what I was expecting but it surpassed whatever expectations were there. I was reminded slightly of Haruki Murakami in its surrealism but also thought there were definite aspects of magic realism, perhaps because of its South American setting, which lends itself to the genre beautifully.

Ludo, the main protagonist, is twenty-seven years old and works in São Paulo; he was born in the the largest favela (shantytown), Heliopolis, before being taken in with his cook mother by a rich family who later adopted him. Now, Ludo is sleeping with his adopted sister, Melissa, who is also the wife of his best friend, Ernesto, and is about to undergo a transformation in a week that sees him in dramatic situations whilst he, with hindsight, recounts his past and attempts to control his present.

Each chapter title refers to particular food or drink with that dish or beverage central to the narrative in that chapter; as scents and tastes often form our memories, so too do they for Ludo. I was amazed at food's centrality to the plot when there was no mention of it in the synopsis, excluding reference to Ludo's insatiable appetite; it is one of the things that makes the novel exceptional in my eyes. Food imagery pervades the text and Scudamore uses food to describe experiences and emotions.

I wanted to press my fingertip on the metal of the pan to mark the moment, make it permanent. I thought of watching it sizzle as the hot oil erased my fingerprint and coloured the skin. What would it smell like? The burnt hair smell of a car wreck? Charred and succulent, like steak? Sweet and sickly, like plum sauce?

The setting came across to me as futuristic and even dystopian, with the rich seldom on street level but always landing their helicopters on heli-pads on buildings ensuring that they never mix with people from the favelas in the poorer element of the city or engage with the tedium of everyday life.

During the day, he might hop to another high-rise to meet someone for lunch, or to attend an afternoon meeting, but he never touches the pavement. It's not just a question of safety: if he went by car he could get snared in a traffic jam lasting hours. Nobody who's anybody gets driven to work in the city these days.

I then thought that the descriptions of São Paulo could be embellished realism as it is the largest city in Brazil and the nineteenth richest city in the world. However, reading Simon's review of Heliopolis and the subsequent comments, the insight provided by The Converted One suggests that the depiction of São Paulo whilst illuminating is actually toned down. Moreover, if anyone wrote a non-diluted version of his home city, The Converted One thinks that no one would ever go. This fascinates me as I have always wanted to visit Brazil and although Scudamore's description of favela life and poverty are often grim, it doesn't deter me in any way; Scudamore lived in Brazil so I imagine his representation of the city is realistic. In comparison, I am reminded of reading The Other Hand last week and thinking that Chris Cleve did Nigeria no favours as a tourist destination; it is interesting the power that literary description has over a place and how good a job Scudamore did in transporting me there whilst presenting the city fairly.

As yet I have only read five of the thirteen longlisted titles for the Booker but so far I am championing Heliopolis; yes, it even surpasses The Wilderness, one of my favourites this year, in my esteem for its brilliance and originality.

Some favourite passages:

My mother wouldn't have dreamt of showing me how she really felt, but her sadness was as evident in the chicken stew she ladled on to my plate as if the meat had been simmered in her tears.

As the music struck up, I swept away the debris of the meal, collecting the intact steaks and pocketing them, munching on them like apples, getting the meat down even when it hurt my throat to swallow, devouring it so it wouldn't go to waste, trying to get round the tables and clear as many of them as possible so that my mother wouldn't see them coming back.

By the time it was over, so was the storm, leaving behind fresh air, dripping leaves, and roads that gushed in the evening sunlight with milky orange water. As usual, the rain brought hordes of frogs out on to the driveway, croaking and belching and slipping about in the mud. The guests' roaring cavalcade of off-road vehicles smashed them all in a euphoric blare of car horns and klaxons as it sped back to the farm. Their burst bodies lay there crisping for days afterwards.



15 comments:

savidgereads said...

The Converted One now believes they are famous which is so not the way forward after both our blogs hahahaha. It is interesting how we have taken totally different things from this book. But then thats what makes reading so much fun.

Paperback Reader said...

Simon, I imagine that The Converted One's smugness at having read the book first has now intensified! Hee.
You're right: it is what makes reading fun, how we each react to books in different ways dependent on subjective experiences, moods, and the small things we like about writing.

farmlanebooks said...

I've just started to read this, so am ignoring this post until I've finished it!

Paperback Reader said...

Perfectly understandable, Jackie! It will be here waiting for when you have finished it and we compare thoughts.

Teresa said...

Awww! The Book Depository just cancelled my order for this one, so it doesn't look like I'll be getting to it anytime soon. I was hoping that it would be a stinker and I could breathe a sigh of relief, but I guess not. I'm sure it will be available over here eventually. I'll be keeping my eyes out for it, because it does sound interesting.

Paperback Reader said...

Teresa, I hope that the Book Depository can source it in the near future or that you are able to find it somewhere else because it definitely is interesting. Good luck with searching for it!

anothercookiecrumbles said...

This sounds really good - I must get a copy soon, to compare notes. The fact that it's set in Brazil adds more incentive, and, the minute you said it's reminiscent of Murakami, I was sold.

Tony said...

"The setting came across to me as futuristic and even dystopian, with the rich seldom on street level but always landing their helicopters on heli-pads on buildings ensuring that they never mix with people from the favelas in the poorer element of the city or engage with the tedium of everyday life."

Sadly, I think this is actually more realistic than you would think (even if it does seem like something out of 'Minority Report'!). I'm sure I read somewhere that this sometimes happens in the US where street level downtown can be avoided by walkways...

Paperback Reader said...

anothercookie, I think it was just the bizarre surrealism that reminded me of Murakami but he definitely came to mind. I look forward to reading your thoughts when you do read it.

Tony, that's ... frightening! Very Sci-fi but the world we now live in, I suppose, with everyday retinal scans more and more likely.

Nymeth said...

Hooray for discovering great books! This is definitely going on my post-Mt.TBR-climb wishlist. The Brazilian setting only makes it extra appealing, as does all the good imagery.

Paperback Reader said...

Ana, I have been so lucky recently with great books! I hope you reach it post-Mt TBR climb and enjoy the view.

Saurabh said...

Very nice post.
The description of taste and smell reminded me of another book I had read sometime back: Italo Calvino's Under the Jaguar Sun.
You may like it.

Paperback Reader said...

Hi Saurabh, thanks for commenting.
That does sound like something I would like; thank you for the recommendation. I haven't read any Calvino yet so that would make a good start.

farmlanebooks said...

surpasses The Wilderness?

Not quite! I loved this book and it is probably my second favourite of the list (joint with How to Paint a Dead Man) I think the story telling was amazing and I'll be seeking out The Amnesia Clinic soon.

Paperback Reader said...

Jackie, I know how much you love The Wilderness so no attempt to offend! I loved them both so much and they offer such completely different things. I also want to read his debut novel.