Archive for February, 2010

Not quite John Carpenter’s THE THING

Monday, February 22nd, 2010

Following on from our Light family week in Inshriach last year, we decided to repeat the trick in 2010.  A major highlight of last year was creating our own 5-minute ‘swede’ of the The Lord of the Rings.  With that in mind, I’m delighted to now unveil our 2010 Inshriach swede – THE [NEAR] THING:

If you only read one book this year…

Monday, February 15th, 2010


‘That’s bold, cutting out “fun” altogether,’ says Cascavel. ‘Think they’ll allow it?’

‘We’re going to give it a try.’

The world of marketing was always going to come in for a tough time in one of James’ novels sooner or later.  You don’t evade the tractor beam of a career in the so-called ‘creative industries’ without delivering at least one good parting shot.  Especially when your exit strategy involves executing what pretty much every sufficiently self-loathing ad exec threatens to do sooner or later – that being to become a polished, published, award-winning novelist.

Learning at an early stage that the protagonist of his new book, Ludo, was to be in the gainful employ of a high-flying São Paulo advertising agency, I came into it eagerly anticipating some suitably withering observations lofted in the general direction of his former employers – one of the world’s better-known and more serially self-satisfied outfits.  Precisely the kind of place where, ‘although a veneer of funky self-assurance coats every employee in the building, you don’t have to scratch hard before it chips off  in your hand.  Under the surface, everyone lives in fear.  Fear of being found out, of not being found out.  Fear of the possibility that the white goods, mobile telephones and confectionary they are paid to promote might be all there is to life.’

One soon realises that, beyond the incisively amusing cut and thrust of Ludo’s terminal disillusionment with his job, the world of marketing has a more nuanced agency within Heliopolis.

Their building, nicknamed the ‘Beehive’, still tells the story of its days as a derelict squat serving the nearby favela, scarred with graffiti tastelessly preserved to provide the decor of the regenerated building.  It feels like a sick joke, playing to a wider pretence permeating the storyline, typified by the their belief that all São Paulo’s poor and unfortunates require in order to be saved and civilised is their own downmarket Kwik-E-Mart.

One of the principle proponents of this assumption is the head of the place, Oscar Cascavel, ‘an amoral little monster who dry-humps you in the corridor when his serotonin is up, and trashes your day for fun when it isn’t.’ His stature within Heliopolis is somehow diminished by his pre-eminent position at the head of this profoundly vacuous enterprise, condemning him to life as a member of the supporting cast.  He is a character who must exist, but only as much as is entirely necessary.

Given that I still swim with sharks (or, given the Portuguese translation of his surname, curl up with rattlesnakes) in the mould of Oscar Cascavel, I can presumably be forgiven for focusing on this aspect of Heliopolis.  Suffice to say, it’s one simple strand of the story, the meat of which is slow-boiled in the melting pot of family, with all the secret ingredients it contains.  We meet the infant Ludo in the process of being rescued from a treacherous childhood in a São Paulo slum, propelled by remote circumstance into a life of precipitous privilege growing up as the adopted son of a wealthy Brazilian couple.  As we jump back and forth between the  defining moments of Ludo’s childhood and a week-in-the-life-of portrait of the young adult they engender, we experience a rite of passage tenderly rendered against a backdrop of the skyscraping highs and favelado lows of modern inner-city Brazil.

Said unlikely pre-text of Ludo’s adoption is the sheer delicacy of a serving of feijão prepared by his slum-bound mother for the visiting, philanthropic wife of the family’s imperious head, Ze Generoso. Taken into the family’s service on the strength of a single bowl of beans and rice, Ludo and his mother live out a blessed life staffing the kitchen of Ze’s far-flung rural getaway, whereby Ludo comes to see his mother through the prism of her unfaltering culinary over-achievement:

‘Food had saved her, and food became her mode of expression.  Her hatred and determination, her relief and joy, were beaten into soufflés, stirred into risottos and baked into pies.  I could gauge her mood through what she was making: something simple but soothing, like pão de queijo, cheese bread fresh from the oven, meant contentment, equanimity; richer treats, such as brigadeiros, tiny chocolate bombs with payloads of condensed milk, signified something closer to happiness.  If she was frustrated or angry, the conflict would emerge in bold clashes of spice and sugar: clove and orange, chilli and ginger, coconut and saffron. When these exotic pasties and sweatmeats came my way, I kept quiet, loving the sparks they generated on my tastebuds even as I knew they meant I should keep a low profile.’

Of everything Heliopolis has to offer, it is passages like this one that have lodged themselves most firmly in my memory, a week or two on from finally picking up a copy and reading it, cover to cover, without interruption.  The passages that blend poetry and story-telling, finding meaning between the carefully-chosen words, executed unpretentiously and with an empathetic appreciation of the simple things.  The very best of these moments cannot be amputated as cleanly as this one, tending to find their mark in broad context.  This is especially true as Heliopolis powers to a close, and all the momentum the story has been building is held, suspended in the moment of self-realisation – actual, and symbolic – to which it has always driven.

I am no more accomplished a reviewer of books than I am food critic – this is the first novel I’ve read since James’ debut, The Amnesia Clinic, and its taken me a year since publication to get around to it – but my assessment, for whatever it is worth, is this.  If words are his ingredients, if story is his meat or fish, and imagery his flavour, Heliopolis sees James well on his way to that first Michelin star.  With his appetite for story-telling, an irresistable wit, and an intelligent, poetic heart so evident in the man as well as the writer, sooner or later he must deliver the kind of literary feast that lives and grows in the memory long after the taste has faded.  I’m no gourmet, but I plan to be around to see that happen.

I may even read it.


You can get the newly published vintage edition of Heliopolis on Amazon for less than six of your earth pounds.