James Scudamore – Heliopolis

Posted on | June 18, 2010 | 7 Comments

James_scudamore_heliopolisLudo, born in the favela of Heliopolis (a shantytown), is “lucky.” He’s escaped a life of squalor, on being formally adopted by the extremely rich Carnicelli family, who have also hired his mother as a cook in their farmhouse.

When she had nothing but a handful of beans to her name, the tough nugget of pride at her core sustained her. Then along came Ze and Rebecca, and took away that pride, replacing it with impotent gratitude. Like the mythological pelican slashing open her breast to sustain her young, my mother fed me her blood, and she took a mortal blow for me in the process.

Now in his mid-to-late twenties, Ludo reflects on life, the city he lives in, and his rags-to-riches story, which puts him in the awkward role of supposedly knowing both worlds : the squalor and the wealth, and trying to figure out where he belongs.

He’s in love with his adopted sister (who he sleeps with occasionally, despite her being married), thinks his job (in advertising) is completely pointless and is mostly passive about most things – almost to the point of the passiveness being criminal! However, he’s an insightful narrator, who sometimes has you nod in agreement and sometimes, just chuckle.

Practise your confidence tricks on the street and you risk getting shot by trigger-happy security guards; do it in the office and you get put on the board.

The other primary character, in my opinion, is Sao Paulo itself. The epigraph of this novel is a quote by Marlene Dietrich: Rio is a beauty. But Sao Paulo – Sao Paulo is a city. From a social perspective, the class divide that’s shown, the general acceptance of it by the public, and the dignity with which the shantytown dwellers are portrayed makes the novel so much more colourful. Ze (Ludo’s adoptive father) has not stepped on the grounds of the city for fifteen years, as his helicopter is his only mode of transportation, as nobody who’s anybody gets driven to work in the city these days.

And then of course, you have the ambience of the Brazilian city, which is captured, almost to perfection:

Since the city took off in the nineteenth century, wave after wave of developers have ripped through it, obliterating what lies in their path. But occasionally, the past remains in isolated fragments that seem as if they have escaped the halo of a nuclear explosion.

The novel is fast-paced, and incredibly easy to read. It’s not a translation, and Scudamore, in my opinion, has done an amazing job of making the book sound “Brazilian” enough, without anglicising the content overtly – a massive bonus! The other thing that I quite liked about this book was that each of the chapter headings reference food, be it Mango or Orange Juice; Crab Linguine or Feiojada. The food referenced in the chapter heading invariably appears in the chapter, and also plays a role in defining both: the social and cultural aspects of the city.

This is the first book I’ve read, that’s based in Brazil, and I’d love to read more books set in Latin America. Do you have any recommendations? Possibly not a rags-to-riches story (although, I did read an interesting fact : the President of Brazil was buffing shoes and selling peanuts on the streets when he was ten years old! It’s a city where the rags-to-riches story aren’t always only a fairy-tale!), as I’ve read a fair few them in the recent past?


7 Responses to “James Scudamore – Heliopolis”

  1. Jackie (Farm Lane Books)
    June 18th, 2010 @ 8:59 am

    I loved this book! It was one of my favourites from the Booker list last year. I’m really pleased that you enjoyed it too.

    I haven’t read many books set in Latin America, but I can recommend Red April by Santiago Roncagliolo (although this is a bit dark and violent)

    The Invisible Mountain by Carolina De Roberts is also very good. It is a bit like a generational saga, but good for learning a bit more about Uruguay. I’m on the look out for more South American books, so I’ll be back to see if other come up with any good suggestions.

  2. Claire (Paperback Reader)
    June 18th, 2010 @ 1:38 pm

    Have you read Like Water for Chocolate? I was reminded of that by the food chapter headings and heavy onus on food within (one of my favourite parts of the book). Like Jackie, I found this the highlight of last year’s Booker reading and enjoyed the personification of Sao Paolo.

  3. Mish
    June 19th, 2010 @ 12:46 am

    There’s a really good book I read for a Brazilian studies course, but I can’t remember the name. UGH! Maybe I’m thinking about it too hard.

  4. Mish
    June 19th, 2010 @ 4:09 am

    Child of the Dark: The Diary of Carolina Maria de Jesus. She was in school long enough to become literate. It was the first book to shed light on favela life in the fifties and the only first-hand account.

    It reads like a novel. Really good, powerful, highly recommended, and now I want to read it again.

    There’s also Brazil by Errol Lincoln Uys, a historical fiction spanning 500 years. I have it, but haven’t read it yet. I’ve heard some good things about it, but it’s a chunkster.

  5. Bina
    June 19th, 2010 @ 1:22 pm

    That sounds promising, I´ve been passing this book in the library lots of times. I need to finally pick it up :)

  6. Elena
    June 25th, 2010 @ 1:01 am

    I saw this book on your tbr list a while ago and was looking forward to your review. There’s a Cuban author whose book i read ages ago, his name is Cabrera Infante and he wrote Three Trapped Tigers. From what I remember it was quite light and a bit absurd (not rags to riches)

    What I loved about Heliopolis was the class distinction that he defined without losing the humour of the story. For me, it managed to be silly and a little deep at the same time somehow…

  7. anothercookiecrumbles
    July 4th, 2010 @ 4:51 pm

    @ Jackie : Thanks for the suggestions. Pity that neither Heliopolis nor How To Paint A Dead Man made it to the shortlist. Still got three books to read from last year’s shortlist, but I’ve enjoyed these two books a lot more than The Little Stranger. Suspect I’ll enjoy The Quickening Maze a lot less as well…

    @ Claire : Nah, haven’t read Like Water For Chocolate. I remember wanting to read it about eight years ago, and then I completely forgot about it… Glad you enjoyed this book as well.

    @ Mish : Thanks for the recommendations – Child of the Dark sounds like an interesting read (not heard of it before). I have a bit of a hit-or-miss relationship with historical fiction, so might pass on the latter…

    @ Bina : It’s fantastic! Really hope you pick it up soon, and enjoy it :)

    @ Elena : I know what you mean about the book being “silly and a little deep at the same time” – the fact that it was reasonably quick-paced probably added to that as well.

    Not read Three Trapped Tigers, but will go look it up.

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