Thursday, September 25, 2008

Book review - Brasyl


This is my first book review, so hopefully it's not too clunky as I want to do justice to a really good read.

Last night I finished one of the most enjoyable and thought provoking books that I've read in ages; Brasyl, by Ian Macdonald. This novel is set in three different time periods, all of them in Brazil. The first storyline we are introduced to is that of Marcelina Hoffman, a TV producer in modern day Sao Paulo. Marcelina lives a high octane lifestyle, endeavouring to create ever more outrageous reality TV shows, whilst rushing from meeting to capoeira class, to visit her mother and party with her friends, with whom she generally has fairly superficial relationships. It's Marcelina's attempt to meet a disgraced futbol player and film him that propels her life out of control.

The middle storyline takes us into the future, to Sao Paulo in 2032 where we meet Edson Jesus Oliveira de Freitas, a young entrepreneur, attempting to make his way out of the favelas. This future city is ruled by surveillance, contains a vast trash mountain in addition to the huge skyscrapers and is making it's way into the brave new world of quantum computing. Edson gets involved with a "quantumeiro" and his carefully worked plans begin to come apart.

Finally, it is 1732 and a Jesuit preist, Father Luis Quinn has arrived in Brazil. Quinn is sent on a mission up the River Amazon to confront a missionary turned rogue. He is accompanied by Robert Falcon, a French geographer, a rationalist and intellectual sparring partner for Quinn. This proto-Brazil is a brutal place, in which the native "indios" are enslaved and the country is stripped of its natural resources.

All the principal characters are well sketched, believeable and engaging. However, the real strength of this book is Macdonald's evocation of Brazil. He throws you in at the deep end, with liberal usage of Portugese and coloquial Brazilian language. Helpfully there is a glossary included at the back (which I didn't notice till around halfway through). This lingustic approach has the effect of immersing you in his vivid descriptions of Brazilian culture and way of life. It's really one of the most evocative descriptions of place that I've ever read. We go from beach, to favela, to improvised community chruch. From the obsession with futbol, to the old lady who keeps a book of weeping to commemorate her lost sons. I can't praise it highly enough.

Around all this we have the main plot. Which I don't really want to give too much away about. However, the three main storylines are all linked by a narrative that touches on quantum theory and the nature of reality. If this sounds heavy it isn't; there is a real lightness of touch. Plus some really cool knife fights.

If you are in any way interested in SciFi, big ideas, Brazil or simply highly imaginative, beautifully writen books, then this one's for you.

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