Off the Map


by John Updike
Knopf, 260 pp., $23.00

John Updike
John Updike; drawing by David Levine

In the literary climate of postmodernism it seems not too difficult for a novelist skilled in his own trade, and knowledgeable in the history of the genre, to select an exotic country or unknown milieu, and write about it with conviction, and even with his own brand of authority. Fiction today does not recognize any predominance of truths; and it accepts an alien setting in the same spirit in which a social realist used to make himself an expert on his own backyard.

In this spirit the English novelist Julian Barnes had a go at modern Bulgaria; and now John Updike has forsaken—one assumes temporarily—middle America, to explore the untapped fictive potential of Brazil, its jungles, beaches, and favelas. The results are as vivid as one might expect, and make quite an impact, although the reader may find that this diminishes abruptly with the book’s ending, vanishing like the magic of the lost cities of the old jungle films. The Updike novel has taken a holiday in Brazil, and learned an impressive amount about the idiom and the atmosphere of the vast country; but a holiday it was, and the reader certainly does not feel that the novelist has left his heart and his affections there, as E.M. Forster did when he came back with A Passage to India.

What makes the whole project feasible in the first place is probably our acceptance today of magic realist guidelines. There is nothing vague or romantic about them: the brutal facts are all there, but at any moment they may be shaken up kaleidoscopically and produce a wholly new impression or pattern. These techniques are not quite so new as we sometimes like to think. One of the first books I remember, on first learning to read, was R.M. Ballantyne’s Martin Rattler, the adventures in Brazil of the young hero and his faithful Irish friend and counselor Barney O’Flanagan. At first all went swimmingly, and I was speedily enthralled and excited by the rare fruits they ate, the blowpipe darts they miraculously avoided, the peccaries, diamonds, and piranha fish. But after a while, even at that age, I was aware that the author’s interest in his own invention, or recollection, had sharply diminished. He and his young reader had begun to experience the boredom of sheer size and un-meaning: a Boys’ Own Paper equivalent of jungle cafard, and what we have now come to call the Tristes Tropiques. Invention flagged: Martin became a bore, and Mr. O’Flanagan quite intolerable. I found a little later on that this did not occur with the same author’s other romantic adventure, The Coral Island, a fantasy appropriately limited by its area and subject.

Brazil must have always presented the same problems to the non-indigenous novelist: Perhaps to the native-born as well, for who can measure sheer size, vacancy, indifference? Updike has taken strenuous measures against this fictive…

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