‘The rich detail and the abundance of action and sheer personality in the pages’ – Heliopolis by James Scudamore

I’ve got to give James Scudamore credit for the best opening lines I’ve read in years: 

“It’s early, not yet seven am, and once again I’m waking up beside my adoptive sister.  This has got to stop.  She’s a married woman.”

Who wouldn’t want to read more?  Heliopolis is narrated by Ludo dos Santos, who was rescued as a baby from life in the favela by supermarket tycoon Zé ‘Generoso’ Carnicelli.  Zé hires Ludo’s mother as a cook on his weekend countryside retreat, and when Ludo is a teenager he is officially adopted by the Carnicelli family and moved to the bustle of São Paulo.  Brought up with the spectre of poverty on one side, and the glittering lifestyle of the wealthy elite on the other, Ludo is divided; the novel traces his growing maturity as he struggles to reconcile the life he might have lead with the life that has been thrust upon him.  Meanwhile, he works for an advertising agency and has a drawn-out and unsatisfying affair with Zé’s daughter, Melissa.   

I was hooked from the start; Scudamore was nominated for the 2009 Man Booker with this deliciously-written and exuberant number, and I’m not surprised.  Ludo’s descriptions of the farm he grew up on; the favela he visits in search of his colleague, Flavia; the skyscrapers and motorways and helipads of São Paulo – they’re all rendered with intricate, loving and attentive detail.  The title knits the different strands together:  Heliopolis at at once the name of the slum where Ludo was born, and a metaphoric name the for São Paulo occupied by Zé and his associates, a land where everybody travels by helicopter lest they come face to face with the crime and violence that saturates the city beneath.

Ludo’s a believable narrator; his lifestyle and city-persona echoes shades of Brett Easton Ellis’s characters, or the JG Ballard of Super Cannes, yet the way he describes with love and tenderness his mother’s cooking and the wildlife on the farm around him reminded me of  Laurie Lee, or Salman Rushdie’s evocation of chutney in Midnight’s Children.  Heliopolis could, of course, be seen as a ‘post-colonial’ text – Scudamore was partly raised in Brazil – and the way he presents the country is a cunning mix of pastoral nostalgia and brutal realism.  The divisions between rich and poor are a key theme in the book, and Ludo’s unique position – mocked for being a slum-child without ever having lived in the favela, and never fully accepted as a true member of the ruling class – means he’s a member of neither community, with each pigeonholing him as a representative of the other.  He’s the classic outsider, and his relationships with the women of the novel exemplify this:  he’ll never be a suitable match for Melissa or her ilk, and in the favela, Flavia’s step-daughter sends him packing without a second thought.  The story of the novel is the story of how Ludo manages to recognise his own divided situation and deal with it; by the end, he has begun to extricate himself from a web of deception and misery and is ready to shape his own future, not have it dictated to him by others. 

Structurally, Scudamore weaves back and forth with alternating chapters detailing Ludo’s past and his present; this is a well-used pattern that can irritate me sometimes, but here, the rich detail and the abundance of action and sheer personality in the pages makes it gallop along.  Scudamore is never obvious or predictable in how he drip-feeds us information – the plot-line about Ludo’s paternity is neatly woven-in, for instance – and devices like the mysterious bad-guy prank-caller avoid prat-falling into cliché.  The characterisation is strong throughout; Ernesto, as Melissa’s well-meaning and cukcolded husband, is lovable, and even Zé’s machinations don’t seem inexplicably contrived.  I thought his wife, the charity-worker Rebecca, was particularly memorable, though she barely speaks throughout.  Even the almost stereotypical Oscar, Ludo’s boss at the advertising agency, is revealed at the end to have depth and emotions beyond that of the usual supporting cast-member.

Heliopolis is a poignant and absorbing novel; the social issues of contemporary Brazil are brought to light but they never take the place of Ludo’s own story, and though he’s inextricably rooted in this mileiu, the heart of his story – how to find a way to be oneself – is a universal one.  Although this is a book that deals explicitly with the rich/poor divide, it isn’t didactic or moralistic –  Ernesto proves that the rich can have a social conscience, even if it’s difficult to effect change, and Ludo’s mother shows us that love and worry can lead to deception and misery as well as affection and success.  Ludo, as the bridge between the two, teeters on the edge of madness and depression until he can reconcile himself with his dual identity.

Any Cop?:  I thoroughly enjoyed it.  It’s snappy and memorable and the writing is gorgeous.  It’s exoticism via gritty urban realism, with a healthy dash of humour on the side.  Give it a go.    

Valerie O’Riordan

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