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.


More articles by:

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

December 10, 2018
Jacques R. Pauwels
Foreign Interventions in Revolutionary Russia
Richard Klin
The Disasters of War
Katie Fite
Rebranding Bundy
Gary Olson
A Few Thoughts on Politics and Personal Identity
Patrick Cockburn
Brexit Britain’s Crisis of Self-Confidence Will Only End in Tears and Rising Nationalism
Andrew Moss
Undocumented Citizen
Dean Baker
Trump and China: Going With Patent Holders Against Workers
Lawrence Wittner
Reviving the Nuclear Disarmament Movement: a Practical Proposal
Dan Siegel
Thoughts on the 2018 Elections and Beyond
Thomas Knapp
Election 2020: I Can Smell the Dumpster Fires Already
Weekend Edition
December 07, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Steve Hendricks
What If We Just Buy Off Big Fossil Fuel? A Novel Plan to Mitigate the Climate Calamity
Jeffrey St. Clair
Cancer as Weapon: Poppy Bush’s Radioactive War on Iraq
Paul Street
The McCain and Bush Death Tours: Establishment Rituals in How to be a Proper Ruler
Jason Hirthler
Laws of the Jungle: The Free Market and the Continuity of Change
Ajamu Baraka
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights at 70: Time to De-Colonize Human Rights!
Andrew Levine
Thoughts on Strategy for a Left Opposition
Jennifer Matsui
Dead of Night Redux: A Zombie Rises, A Spook Falls
Rob Urie
Degrowth: Toward a Green Revolution
Binoy Kampmark
The Bomb that Did Not Detonate: Julian Assange, Manafort and The Guardian
Robert Hunziker
The Deathly Insect Dilemma
Robert Fisk
Spare Me the American Tears for the Murder of Jamal Khashoggi
Joseph Natoli
Tribal Justice
Ron Jacobs
Getting Pushed Off the Capitalist Cliff
Macdonald Stainsby
Unist’ot’en Camp is Under Threat in Northern Canada
Senator Tom Harkin
Questions for Vice-President Bush on Posada Carriles
W. T. Whitney
Two Years and Colombia’s Peace Agreement is in Shreds
Ron Jacobs
Getting Pushed Off the Capitalist Cliff
Ramzy Baroud
The Conspiracy Against Refugees
David Rosen
The Swamp Stinks: Trump & Washington’s Rot
Raouf Halaby
Wall-to-Wall Whitewashing
Daniel Falcone
Noam Chomsky Turns 90
Dean Baker
An Inverted Bond Yield Curve: Is a Recession Coming?
Nick Pemberton
The Case For Chuck Mertz (Not Noam Chomsky) as America’s Leading Intellectual
Ralph Nader
New Book about Ethics and Whistleblowing for Engineers Affects Us All!
Dan Kovalik
The Return of the Nicaraguan Contras, and the Rise of the Pro-Contra Left
Jeremy Kuzmarov
Exposing the Crimes of the CIAs Fair-Haired Boy, Paul Kagame, and the Rwandan Patriotic Front
Jasmine Aguilera
Lessons From South of the Border
Manuel García, Jr.
A Formula for U.S. Election Outcomes
Sam Pizzigati
Drug Company Execs Make Millions Misleading Cancer Patients. Here’s One Way to Stop Them
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
Agriculture as Wrong Turn
James McEnteer
And That’s The Way It Is: Essential Journalism Books of 2018
Chris Gilbert
Biplav’s Communist Party of Nepal on the Move: Dispatch by a Far-Flung Bolivarian
Judith Deutsch
Siloed Thinking, Climate, and Disposable People: COP 24 and Our Discontent
Jill Richardson
Republicans Don’t Want Your Vote to Count
John Feffer
‘Get Me Outta Here’: Trump Turns the G20 into the G19