Friday, July 29, 2011

Heliopolis, by James Scudamore

With multiple layers of meaning, “Heliopolis” is a perfect title for James Scudamore’s second novel.

There were several ancient cities by that name, including one in Egypt and another in Phoenicia. Today there are several modern Cities of the Sun, in France, Algeria, and Brazil. One of the last is the largest favela, or slum, or unofficial municipality, in the megalopolis of Sao Paulo.

Oddly enough, though Sao Paulo is the setting for Scudamore’s story, and though Heliopolis is a recurrent theme, he never actually takes us to that favela. His thoughtful, evocative narrative suggests that the name refers more to the Sao Paulo of the fabulously wealthy, who may never even descend to the city’s streets, avoiding the risky reality of the city by getting around and out of the city by helicopter. (Coincidentally, a story appearing a few days ago in The New York Times describes the increasing helicopter congestion in Los Angeles.)

As Scudamore depicts Sao Paulo, it is a city of the sun and an expanding universe for favelados and many Brazilians from the country’s rural areas. “The city is a stronghold to be stormed; a gleaming citadel of opportunity, with swarms coming from all sides to hurl themselves at its ramparts, prepared to end up dead on the walls if they fail. But they must not fail.”

“Heliopolis” is the story of Ludo, whose full name is Ludwig Aparecido Dos Santos, Ludwig who appeared from the saints. Ludo tells his own story, beginning with how his mother was plucked from the favela of Heliopolis along with him when he was a baby and set down in the kitchen of the country estate of a wealthy Paulista, Ze Fischer Carnicelli, the CEO of a Brazilian supermarket chain, to become the family’s cook. She takes the secret of Ludo’s father’s identity to her grave.

Having been legally adopted by Ze Carnicelli and his wife, at the novel’s outset Ludo is working cynically and unenthusiastically as a marketer for one of Ze’s business associates—a job that his adoptive father has secured for him—while leading a dissipated life outside of his office. Though he’s conscious of and grateful for his good fortune at having grown up in luxurious circumstances instead of the favela, Ludo manifests a deep conflict over his circumstances by sabotaging his comfortable lifestyle with behavior that’s destructive not only of himself but also of those he cares most about.

Throughout his narrative, Ludo dispassionately examines and analyzes his own actions as well as those of others for hypocrisy and weakness. “It may sound cold, but I don’t want the responsibility of working out how to deal with the kid I might have been,” he says. “Big ideas scare me. The thought of doing something that actually matters is enough to bring me out in a rash. Instead, I pay my taxes and I give to charity, in the hope that someone worthy…will tackle the big issues on my behalf.”

By the novel’s end, Ludo has realized who he is, in more ways than one, and is on track to shake up his life positively instead of negatively. “I’ve been lashing out at alternative versions of myself wherever I found them—but this is the only person I was ever going to be. I’ve been home all along.”

Scudamore’s novel is not only a vivid portrait of contemporary Sao Paulo, a great story, a beautifully written narrative, and a Bildungsroman, but also a tale of family and business. Read it together with Penelope Trunk’s weblog, Advice at the Intersection of Work and Life, and consider her observations about family, work, and individual growth. Ludo’s story reminded me of the post in which she writes “the job of families is to keep you in line with the rest of the family, in a predestined path that is good for the family. And your job is to create your own path.”