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 emptiness, as did Evelyn Waugh in a rather different way in the ending he gave to A Handful of Dust. His explorer Tony Last was left reading Dickens (a wicked choice) endlessly and in the deep nowhere to the appalling Mr. Todd. The aporia of Updike’s young hero is cut off sharply by a more drastic coup de grâce. But in both cases, alas, the hero—and in Updike’s case the heroine as well—has already lost substance and fictive being, the character that goes with having a place in a comprehensible society. They have faded into a pattern of legend and literary precedent.

For in an afterword Updike explains, with his usual air of almost adolescent probity, how the deed and the trick were done.

Two great books have gone into the making of this small one: Rebellion in the Backlands [Os Sertões] by Euclides da Cunha (translated by Samuel Putnam) and Tristes Tropiques by Claude Lévi-Strauss (translated by John Russell). Through the Brazilian Wilderness, by Theodore Roosevelt, is perhaps not a great book but I found it entertaining and informative.

Several other books came to hand, including Brazil, by Elizabeth Bishop and the Editors of Life; and the stalwarts of the support group were Joaquim Machado de Assis, Graciliano Ramos and other purveyors of “truly Brazilian fiction.” But most significant of all, probably, was Joseph Bédier’s The Romance of Tristan and Iseult, which “gave me my tone and basic situation.”

Well, it is a truth universally acknowledged in critical circles today that books can only be produced by other books and that all fiction is a joint venture not only between the writer and the reader, but with the host of visible and invisible influences that swarm around. Yet the fact remains that a novelist such as Updike has always struck us as very much himself; so it is a trifle disconcerting to find him joining the postmodern cooperative, or good neighborhood fiction workshop. As surprising as if Jane Austen added a little foreword, or a coda, to her novels, telling us that they had all come out of Fanny Burney and Dr. Johnson and the Spectator and The Gentleman’s Magazine. It would in one sense be true, but we might prefer not to know about it.


Updike’s Tristan and Iseult are Tristão and Isabel, two young Brazilians from very different backgrounds. Tristâo is black, or nearly so; and his mother lives on a hillock in Rio continually washed away by sewage and tropical rainstorms. Isabel Leme comes from one of the oldest and proudest of Brazilian families, and is slender, white, and beautiful. They meet on the beach—where else?—and fall in love.

At this point they seem to possess the kind of simplicity which Updike has been a master in suggesting in all his fictions, in the Rabbit books particularly; and it is a simplicity which, unlike innocence, is both convincing and endearing. We feel for the young couple, and with them, and we wish their romance well. The atmosphere here-abouts is not wholly unlike that in Vikram Seth’s novel, A Suitable Boy, where the young Indians of the middle class combine a sort of sophistication with a pristine belief in life, society, and their futures, the sort of belief that must be becoming rare in the Western urban world. Neither India nor Brazil may be exactly the land of tomorrow, but young people may feel that tomorrow is theirs nonetheless, and that at least for them it is sure to come.

Having fallen in love, and experienced the conventional refusal of both sets of parents to countenance a wedding, the couple get married nonetheless, and set off on the train upcountry. They are penniless, except for the possessions that Tristão has stolen, with his loved one’s connivance, from her grand parental home; and the money they get for these does not last long. The object of their journey is of course to introduce the reader to a variety of Brazilian people and places, and this works well, except that the more places we see, and the more interesting things we have to eat and drink, with names like feijoada and caipirinhas, the less close and companionable our sense of the young couple inevitably becomes. A guidebook makes a jealous third party. The lovers fade away, even when Isabel has a couple of babies and Tristão goes to work in the Volkswagen assembly plant in São Paulo, an episode described with all the panache that Updike has long known how to bring to the relations between urban man and his artifacts. All painted tan and brown, the little “beetles” are known in Brazil as fuscas.

His first assigned task had been the sweeping up of loose screws, Styrofoam food containers, slivers of metal, and oil spills—the sticky secretions of a giant industrial beast. Then he was promoted to the position of right-handed bolter—at first, of the bearing-retaining bolts for the rear brake plates (sixteen millimeters, tightening to a foot-pound torque of forty-three), and then, at the beginning of his second year, of engine-mounting bolts, which were seventeen millimeters in diameter but were tightened to a torque of only twenty-two…He marvelled at the look of his hands, each little muscle over-developed to bulging, and a slab of callus across the palm where the torque wrench was gripped.

His bolting partner, the second year, was a good-natured left-handed cafuzo from Maranhão named Oscar. As they functioned all day in symmetry, turning and tightening the six bolts (four major and two minor) that held the plucky little engine to the fusca’s compartment brace, Oscar’s broad flat face, in which genes fetched by slaving ship from Africa met Asian genes transported on foot from Siberia to the sweltering Amazon, became more familiar to Tristão than his own…

Sometimes, to relieve their boredom, they would bolt in an engine upside down, and if the workers further along the line, who made the cable and hose connections, coöperated in the jest, the hardy little automobile, at the far southern end of the factory, would actually propel itself and its driver the few hundred yards to the parking lot where shipping was staged. The Volkswagen was a great-hearted machine, Oscar explained, designed by a famous sorcerer called Hitler to take the German masses to a place called Valhalla.

Brazil is a great industrial country with Amazonian mysteries and unbounded magic still in place. Updike obviously enjoys the paradox, and the fun of meticulously describing the one in terms of the other, as much as Kipling would have done.


At this point Tristão is separated from his Isabel, whose powerful family has successfully parted the lovers, with the aid of a gangster or two; and while Tristão works under guard at the fusca plant she languishes in luxury on a family estate. But they will not be parted for long. Fleeing, they fall into the hands of Indians, who kidnap the two children, and are only rescued by bandeirantes—brigands—who, however, enslave Tristão, while Isabel is put into the harem of the old chief bandeirante, and willy-nilly bears him another child or two. Escaping, and united again at last, they make their way back to Rio, where riches and tranquility seem at last to beckon, until by a final twist of fate—but I had better not reveal the ending.

It will be seen that Updike has added the excitements of the romantic cliffhanger to his more normal attractions of curiosity, high spirits, and unfailingly good writing. There is also the normal complement of exuberant sex, with some special components in the way of local color and vocabulary. (There was of course no sex in Martin Rattler, if we except the charmingly unspoken relations between Martin and his older boyfriend O’Flanagan.) And it is noticeable that a diet of romance and suspense does not really go with such fleshly modern conventions: the reader brushes past them almost absent-mindedly as he makes his way through the tropical luxuriance. Although the author tells us that he has relied on the story of Tristan and Iseult for what he calls “tone and basic situation,” there is also an unadmitted and perhaps unconscious influence at work: that of one of the greatest romances of the eighteenth century—Bernardin de Saint-Pierre’s Paul et Virginie.

This story of a naturally innocent and naturally upper-class couple in their forest and island setting, with its powerful overtones of the Noble Savage and Rousseau’s goodness of man, can, it appears, still be infectious, even after our prolonged exposure to structural anthropology and Lévi-Strauss. The heart of its matter is of course an unfailing correctness of feeling and idiom on the part of the young persons, no matter what their situation. Could this have returned to strike an echo in the political correctness of our own time? The language of Rousseau’s friend the author, and of his period, is pervasively present in the convention by which Updike envisages and monitors his young hero and heroine; and it contrasts rather effectively with the vivid and precise writing with which the author—as usual—confronts scenes of action and describes physical detail, as when Tristão defends himself and Isabel with his pistol against attacking Indians.

The attacker dropped his spear and, uttering a guttural cry of astonishment, clawed at his side, as if at a bee-sting. He tried to run, but this injury to his mechanism made his legs asymmetrical, so he ran in a circle, and then fell inward, toward the fire, still pedalling, his feet digging the sand. The other Indians, with the unembarrassed cowardice of savages, had vanished at the sound of the shot.

It shows into what precarious places style can stray when handled by an expert like Updike in such an unfamiliar and exotic setting. The effect depends here partly on a very politically incorrect reading of Indians as mechanisms that can be shot off cliffs and trees (“yet another bit the dust”) and partly on a sophisticated “making it strange” use of language, of which Conrad in Heart of Darkness was acknowledged master.

But though the Indians are not familiar with eighteenth-century concepts like honor, cowardice, devotion, and fidelity, these come naturally to Tristão and Isabel. She has leapt to her feet, to stand beside him “in their final second.” He has kept two bullets “for you and me, if they return.” At moments in this tricky setting Updike plunges heavily into the idiom of old faithfuls like The Sheikh, and his more torrid modern equivalents. “The thought of being killed by him had a beautiful rightness that made Isabel’s loins clench.” But language swiftly recovers an older sort of propriety, as when the rational Tristão, who believes like his eighteenth-century forebears (his blackness is of course an added irony here) that the world is elaborately made for our reverent admiration by the great watch-maker, reproves Isabel for her despair in the face of “terrible accident” and the meaningless jungle. He tries to comfort her for the loss of her children.

“We have…no power to recover them. Even if we did, how would we protect them against the hazards of the wilderness? They are perhaps better, dearest Isabel, with those who know how to survive. Had the savages meant to slay them, they would have done it on the spot.”

Ultimately, it must be said, the hazards of the wilderness do not suit the genius of suburban America, with its cozy adulteries and Toyota franchises. Updike in this world is about as naturally at home as Mark Twain would have been in the Berkeley Square high life of Disraeli and Trollope. But it was a gallant try; and Tristão and Isabel are a gallant couple, even a believable one, if we make allowances for the carefully mixed cocktail of linguistic calculation that seems to have produced them. No doubt next time Updike will be able to relax back in the town and country Northeast where his great skills are more at home.

This Issue

May 12, 1994