Brazil is a novel set in 1970s Brazil about a romance between Tristão, a poor, black boy from the favela, and Isabel, a (white) wealthy daughter of a government official. Their commitment to each other forces them to sacrifice everything and drives them across the convoluted landscape of a fast-changing society. Updike imagines Brazil as having one foot in the haunted colonial and indigenous past (in the Mato Grosso wilderness) and another in the mechanized, soulless bourgeois future (urban São Paulo). I read it because I am traveling soon to Brazil, and I heard Updike was a good writer but had not previously read any of his works. The book was powerful in that it drew me into its world and I even had strange dreams induced by his magic realism style. However, I became frustrated because it seemed like the writer, who is a white male American, was making a lot of questionable (and offensive) generalizations about people and places distant from his own experience.
The central theme of the book is the implausibility of true love. The bond between the lovers is like the giant golden nugget Tristão uncovers from a mine in Goiás: its rarity makes it a beautiful, mesmerizing contrast to the dull, dirt-like regularity of the normal social matrix. Tristão and Isabel seem to have nothing in common, and almost all of the secondary characters question their devotion to one another, which after all is initially based merely on physical attraction. Isabel’s father, who is a jaded government official, tells her that “love is a dream, as all but the dreamers can see. It is the anesthetic nature employs to extract babies from us.” I appreciated the author’s ability to balance between skepticism and and admiration for romantic love, in its powers of both destruction and healing. While Updike’s apparent obsession with sexuality periodically overwhelms the narrative, he does suggest that it is but one of many ways the lovers express their affection. In fact, neither of the lovers are faithful in a physical sense, but that never seems to cast a doubt on the strength of their spiritual bond. This ambiguity makes the characters morally complex and therefore fascinating.
Updike’s ability to evoke an extremely wide range of emotions from the reader, from pity to joy, or from disgust to admiration, is a testament to his literary potency. For me, Brazil was like a mirror onto my soul that made me think about my own personal prejudices and actions in life. I realized I have some qualities of Tristão and Isabel, but also of many of the other characters who were cruel, greedy, or took advantage of others. This makes me think that who a person is really depends a lot on their social environment. When the reader finds himself immersed in such an unpredictable world that is almost, but not quite real, he cannot be too quick to assume he would not engage in the same beautiful or terrible actions, or accumulate the same fantastical superstitions as the characters of Brazil.
In conclusion, Brazil is simultaneously disturbing and empowering, tragic and triumphant. It is a fascinating, colorful story that reveals little about the actual country of Brazil, or Brazilian people. It instead illuminates the reader’s own inner contradictions of passion and corruptibility, which are universal to every human being regardless of race or nationality.