HELIOPOLIS by James Scudamore

Book Quote:

“Guests would arrive in armoured 4x4s or mud spattered jeeps, tanned men with bellies and moustaches, who chatted by the pool all weekend gripping beers and caipirinhas; stunning wives on sunloungers with tinted hair and manicured nails and cosmetically enhanced bodies, rotating in the heat like rotisserie chickens.”

Book Review:

Review by Guy Savage  (NOV 12, 2010)

The main character in James Scudamore’s novel Heliópolis is twenty-seven-year-old Ludo. Born in terrible poverty in a Sao Paulo Favela (shantytown), Ludo and his mother had the good fortune to come to the attention of Rebecca, the British, charity-minded wife of one of the city’s richest businessmen, Zeno (Zé) Generoso. Zé and Rebecca, who have one daughter, Melissa, formally adopted Ludo, and he has a privileged upbringing which comes with a price; he’s constantly reminded of his humble beginnings, his good fortune and how much he owes to his benefactors. Separated from his mother who remains as the cook at Zé’s country estate, Ludo has no self-identity. His life is shaped by the desires of the Generoso family, and while he may be the adopted son, he’s little more than a trained house-serf.

The novel explores the vast disparities between the rich and the poor, and just how the characters adapt to their respective roles in this overwhelmingly non-static society. To Zé, it’s simple: “there is no such thing as a middle class, and no such thing as a non-criminal underclass.” It’s “us” (Zé and his fellow plutocrats) vs. the rest of Brazil. Zé and his family live into a fortified compound within the exclusive Angel Park community. Life in Angel Park has a surreal quality, but at the same time the wealthy who sprawl inside these impregnable walls live with incredible paranoia when it comes to the issue of security. Here’s Zé’s mansion:

“The house he flies home to every weeknight is a fortified compound, buffered by terraced ponds and beds of hostile spike shrubs. His self-watering lawns are patrolled by two pure-bred fighting mastiffs, which roll over on demand for Zé and his family, but would take the leg off an uninvited guest. His palm trees contain motion-sensitive cameras connected to the hub of technology in the guardhouse; if you disturbed so much as a blade of his grass, Zé would know about it. And that’s just the beginning. Before you even get to the house you have to enter the compound itself, which is defended by bundles of oiled razor wire and a tooled up crew that resembles a private army rather than a team of security guards. It would take a thief with Special Forces training to get past the outer walls, let alone breach Zé’s last line of defence, and even if you did, you wouldn’t find him—he’d be sealed in his tungsten panic room long before you got in.”

Heliópolis is actually the name of the largest favela in Sao Paulo, but for this novel the term could refer to the lives of the extremely wealthy set–people who never travel at street level, but who instead move from building to building via helicopter:

“Melissa’s father, Zé Fischer Carnicelli, hasn’t been down to street level in the city for over fifteen years. He lives in a gated community of 30,000 inhabitants, way out of town, and is flown there to his downtown office every morning in a helicopter that has the word Predator painted graffiti-style over its nose, along with gnashing teeth and a pair of evil yellow eyes. He’s approaching retirement, but he still keeps regular office hours. A chauffeur drives him between his house and the helicopter, then back again 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 just a question of safety; if he went by car he could get snared in a traffic jam lasting hours. Nobody who’s anybody gets driven to work in the city these days.”

When the novel begins, Ludo works in a nebulous “communications” company in Sao Paolo. His repulsive boss, Oscar, a lifelong friend of Zé’s, vacillates when it comes to his attitude to Ludo. On one hand, Ludo seems to enjoy “special treatment” as an employee who is hired through strings pulled, and yet there are moments when Oscar zones in on Ludo and humiliates him in front of a room full of business associates. Ludo typically arrives late to work, and spends large amounts of time snoozing curled around the base of the toilet.

The novel begins with Ludo sleeping with his adoptive sister and sometime mistress, Melissa. She’s now married to Ernesto, the plump well-meaning son of another wealthy Brazilian family. Apart from the money connection, it’s an odd match. Ernesto, who works interminably on an ever-elusive PhD, is obsessed with the plight of Brazil’s underclass, and while he interviews people for his Sisyphean project, his wife Melissa lives like a princess in a tower and spends lavishly at the most exclusive shops.

The novel is divided between the past and the present. A large portion of the book details scenes of Ludo’s childhood as he and his mother jump into action for the Generoso family every weekend. Ludo and his mother live at Zé’s country estate which is a sort of exclusive Disneyland for Zé, his friends and the business associates he invites for the weekend. No expense is spared for these mind-boggling weekends of endless gluttony and pleasure. Ludo’s present focuses on a new advertising campaign geared towards the inhabitants of the favelas. Advertising executives vie to provide the slogan for the new supermarket chain geared for the poorest of Brazil’s inhabitants. These scenes underscore just how out of touch Brazil’s upper echelons are with the rest of the country.

Heliópolis offers fascinating insights into Brazilian life and the vast chasms between the rich and the poor, and Ludo is a bridge figure who straddles both worlds. He’s useful to his masters and yet he doesn’t fit in either world–not the skyscrapers and the country estates or the fetid squalor of the favelas. Ludo fails to connect with anyone on any meaningful level. He even unintentionally manages to patronize the office cleaner, and it’s through this relationship that it becomes clear that Ludo has no place in society.

Heliópolis was longlisted for the 2009 Booker prize. Not that I care–the books I like never win. I liked Heliópolis but it wasn’t perfect. Ultimately there’s something unsatisfying with the tale. Richly evocative when it comes to locations and atmosphere, many of the characters fail to connect as living, breathing human beings, and its denouement feels somewhat contrived.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-5from 4 readers
PUBLISHER: Europa Editions (October 20, 2010)
REVIEWER: Guy Savage
AUTHOR WEBSITE: James Scudamore
EXTRAS: Reading Guide
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Also set in Brazil:

Buried Strangers by Leighton Gage


November 12, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , ,  · Posted in: Brazil, Class - Race - Gender, Latin American/Caribbean, Reading Guide, World Lit

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