Only in Latin America

Think of the great Latin American novelists of the past forty years (Garcia Marqez, Carlos Fuentes, Vargas Losa) and the characteristics of their most memorable works: lengthy epic narratives, dysfunctional family dynasties, unforgettable settings that impact on everyday lives, plus a touch of the fantastic?situations and characters bigger than life. Only in Latin America. Only by writers testing the boundaries of their Spanish language and patrimony. Or so we are accustomed to think. To this august group of writers welcome James Scudamore. Possibly English by birth (though that is not certain), he grew up in Brazil, Japan, and the United Kingdom but how long he spent in each place is anyone’s guess. His biography is opaque. Heliopolis, his second novel, is every bit as much a Latin American narrative as the classics by his Latin peers, though it was written in English and long listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2009.

Heliopolis?a name given to many places?is not only the setting for much of Scudamore’s dazzling novel but also the name of the largest favela, the largest shanty town in S?o Paulo, Brazil. It is also the place where Scudamore’s main character, Ludo dos Santos, was born and the setting he will return to late in the sprawling narrative as his life goes full circle, suggesting that one can never escape one’s origins, no matter how elevated one’s life becomes. And that elevation is no more engaging that the opening sentences of the novel:

“It’s early, not yet seven A.M., and once again I’m waking up beside my adoptive sister. This has got to stop. She’s a married woman. The air-conditioning is on high, and my head feels like it’s immersed in freezing water, even though Melissa’s body is cleaving to mine wherever it can, making me hot and clammy beneath the covers.”

Incest? Not really, certainly not in the literal sense. Ludo and Melissa have different parents, though both were raised in opulence by their adoptive father, Z? Fischer Carnicelli, who has so much money from his numerous businesses that he flits around S?n Paulo in a helicopter which has kept him off the pavement of the city’s streets for fifteen years. “A chauffeur drives him between his house [in a gated community] and the heliport, then back in the evening. 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 a question of safety [well, in fact it is]: if he went by car he could get snarled in a traffic jam lasting hours. Nobody who’s anybody gets driven to work in the city these days.” Think of Z? as a twenty-first century Artemio Cruz?not in Mexico City but in S?o Paulo.

Ludo works for his adoptive father as does Ernesto, Melissa’s husband, who both are cheating on, though Ludo, especially, is courting danger. He’s aware that he’s left body hairs in Melissa and Ernesto’s bed. “I’m taking bigger risks,” he tells us as the narrator of the novel, “I sit in his dressing gown reading his diary on the computer when Melissa’s in the shower, and altering it here and there if I feel I’ve been unfairly represented. I drink his wine. I eat his leftovers. I use his toothbrush. I’ve even written him messages on the bathroom mirror with my finger in hope that they might shimmer into view next time he has a shave. But so far, he hasn’t a clue.”

Worse, Ludo regards Ernesto as his best friend. The three of them grew up together, though it was Ernesto, the so-called boy next door, who got Melissa pregnant and shortly thereafter married her. The three of them were inseparable as children, though Ludo was the only one who was not born into opulence, but much later–just before his teens–adopted by Z? and his English wife, Rebecca, who had Melissa by her first husband. Thus, class and biological origins shape the differences of the three, an implicit pecking order though usually not articulated. Ludo, for example, who knows the value of hard work, used to do Melissa and Ernesto’s homework when the three of them were still in school.

One of the most revealing incidents in the relationship of the three young upstarts occurs the day that Ludo moves into Z?’s house in the city. Ernesto?who is only fourteen?drives Ludo to an expensive mansion still under construction in order to teach him how to shoot a gun. The ostensible reason is that Ludo needs to learn how to protect himself. Mesissa has already been kidnapped, a couple of years earlier. What better than to shoot at the “cut-out heads and bodies of politicians and celebrities. We shoot footballers, TV presenters, soap stars, Hollywood actors. Nobody was excused. We even found a picture of Z?, with half of Rebecca’s face just peeping out behind the embrace taking place in the foreground between her husband and Pel?. After some discussion about whether or not it would be disrespectful, we pinned him up and gunned him down with the rest.”

How’s that for respect for the hand that feeds you? For the establishment? Much of Heliopolis, in fact, is about shooting down shibboleths, changing the order and getting changed in the process. At least that’s what happens as these lives unfold with a bravado narrative voice and an always engaging story. So welcome James Scudamore into the pantheon of Latin American literary giants. But don’t expect his next novel to have any connection to the continent or its dazzling literary giants. It’s just as likely to be set in Japan.

By James Scudamore
Europa Editions, 277 pp., $15.

CHARLES R. LARSON is Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.


Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = Twitter @LarsonChuck.