Black street/ beach boy Tristão meets rich white girl Isabel on the beach in Rio; they fall in love. The book records their subsequent adventures, as her family and fate try to separate them.
It is quite a rambling narrative. I thought at first, given the character of Tristão, this was a picaresque, but, despite his upbringing and profession as a petty thief, he isn't a rogue (his surname is Raposo which is Portuguese for fox-like or cunning but he is rather naive and innocent; his girlfriend's surname of Leme - 'rudder' - is rather more apt; she is usually the one who controls what is going on). I then sought Biblical parallels: Tristão could be Adam and Isabel Eve, her father being God; after they are expelled from paradise (the beach in Rio) Tristão is forced repeatedly to labour. He kills and is forced to wander, like Cain, although the only mark on him appears to be his blackness. But the Biblical parallels soon ran dry; since Tristão is infertile he cannot be, like Adam, father of us all. My next thought was that it was an updating of Voltaire's Candide, in which two innocent lovers are expelled from their garden and journey across the continent (Europe and Brazil), meeting many adventures in which they are repeatedly separated and yet repeatedly reunite. Both books have 30 chapters. But I read Candide a long time ago and my memory of the details of its plot is vague, although I do recall people frequently dying and being resurrected, much loss of buttocks and the eternally optimistic Dr Pangloss, none of which seem to appear in Brazil. There is an element of magical realism in Brazil (the magic grows stronger the further they are from the cities) which is very much present in Candide. Are Isabel's six babies,none of whom are fathered by Tristão, three of whom are taken from her, in any way representative of something?
More than halfway through the book the chiastic nature of the plot appears. At the three-quarters mark there is a key reversal; the lovers then replay their lives, experiencing (many of) the locations of the first three quarters in reverse sequence, but (due to the nature of the reversal) differently.
Wikipedia's article on the book suggests that it is a retelling of the story of Tristan and Iseult, and the names of the characters certainly support this hypothesis. There are many versions of the original tale but the key is that Tristan, a lowly knight, falls in love with Iseult, who is intended to be married to a King.
There are threads that are left loose such as the gray-eyed baby born to Isabel's dad and a black woman; I suppose that this is Tristão's half brother, who betrays them. But the gold nugget, found by Tristão and later found in the possession of Isabel's father and bequeathed to his gray-eyed son, suggests that it might be Tristão himself.
At one stage, Isabel's father hears about Tristão's 'employments': "Mining, automobile manufacture ... the sequence meant something to him, it rang a bell". Is this just that he recognises the employments of the boy he has hunted over the years (although the sequence is reversed in another chiastic ploy)? Or are we supposed to recognise something in that sequence?
Perhaps if one has to search so hard for a model one should accept that this is an original novel and if the writer himself used other works as templates he has disguised them so well that they are no more than prompts for the creative process.
There is a surprising amount of sex in this book. The author seems fascinated by how sex changes through our lives, according to our age, our experiences, our labours (the harder Tristão works the less able he is to have sex) and our roles. At the start Tristão is the experienced street boy; he deflowers virginal Isabel. By the end he is the relatively innocent one.
Updike uses the narrative to repeatedly reflect upon life. Perhaps he is the Dr Pangloss who accompanies Tristão-as-Candide. These reflections include:
- "A man cannot make himself out of thin air, he must have materials." (C 3)
- "These poor, like animals, had developed a tactful politics of space." (C 4)
- "On the beach, we each seem free, naked and idle and absolute, but in fact no one is free of the costume of circumstance; we are all twigs of one bush or another" (C 5)
- "It was strange ... how the two gray guns had, like pencils, redrawn the space of the room, reducing the infinitude of possibilities to a few shallow tunnels of warped choice." (C 8)
- "Love is a dream ... as all but the dreamers can see. It is the anaesthetic that Nature employs to extract babies from us." (C 9)
- "We enslave ourselves for crumbs - for the mere image and rumour of crumbs." (C 11)
- "Even the longest life feels too short on the deathbed." (C 12)
- "There is a melancholy, a stupidity to rural landscape ... a yawning repetitiveness, as of a man who knows only a few words but will not stop talking." (C 15)
- "The stories ... on the scraps of creased and wadded paper, were timeless - the same five or six basic facts of human existence endlessly revolved ... Love, pregnancy, infidelity, vengeance, parting. Death." (C 16)
- "There is no one there ... to care what your duty is! There is no God, our lives are a terrible accident! We are born in a mess of pain, and pain and hunger and lust and fear drive us on for no purpose whatsoever!" (C 20)
- "Life robs us of ourselves, piece by small piece." (C 23)
- "The spirit is strong, but blind matter is stronger." (C 30)
Other great moments include some fabulous descriptions:
- "The single church wore its lonely stark cross atop a scrolling false front upon whose chipped shoulders stone saints gesticulated." (C 15)
- "The patchy storefront beside the bus stop bore no new posters, only a pastel quilt of faded old ones." (C 15)
- "A distant ambulance, like an evil clown with its self-important, popping bleat, pierced the hum of humankind to come for ... the piece of litter he had become." (C 30)
- "Her companion looked alarmed, putting a hand across her breasts in their bathing-suit as if they were treasures that might be stolen." (C 1) This image is spot on, typical of how humans react, although I was intrigued by the idea that the bathing suit belonged to the breasts.
- "A handsome street boy. He is pretty, like a bird from the jungle, but he will not make a meal. He is all beak and claws and showy feathers." (C 3)
- "When its inhabitants groped out past the curtain of rotting rags that hung in the place of a door, a cruelly splendiferous view of the sun-hammered sea ... opened before their wincing eyes." (C 4)
- "He knew so many other languages that his mind was always translating; his tongue had no home." (C 9)
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