Hatoum’s novel falls between two stools. On the one hand it would appear to aspire towards the epic. The narrative is set primarily in Manaus, and the book charts the gradual transformation of the town through the latter part of the twentieth century from sleepy backwater towards tawdry metropolis. The more colourful waterfront barrios are torn down and replaced with anodyne housing estates. At the same time, the book’s anti-hero, Mundo, leaves Manaus, venturing first to Rio and then onto Berlin and finally, Brixton, in London.
However, alongside this overarching perspective, the writer seeks to create an intimate, off-key portrait of an artist. Mundo’s story is narrated by his friend, Lavo, to whom he might or might not be related. Born into wealth, Mundo is an innate rebel, who turns against his conservative father as he seeks to become an artist. (Intriguing the way in which the dissonant artist features so regularly as a figure in contemporary Latin American writing, Mundo taking his place alongside Alan Pauls’ maverick, amongst others.) Hatoum’s portrayal locates the roots of Mundo’s artistic urge in the desire to confront and reclaim something of the Amazon. His mother, Alicia, apparently emerged from the jungle alongside her mad sister, fully formed. His father has made his money from exploiting jute. Mundo aspires towards a connection with that which is being wiped out by modernity. His final demise occurs after he executes a piece of performance art in Rio, dressed as an Indian, carrying a canoe oar he’s kept hold of after being given it by an Indian boatman in the jungle, years before.
Mundo’s portrayal is intriguing, all the more so for being presented through the eyes of his poor friend who himself is gradually working his way up the social system by becoming a lawyer, a journey that will be the inverse of Mundo’s. However, the book’s intent to fulfil this duel role means that it sometimes feels that it’s neither fish nor foul. Mundo’s wanderings in Europe, for instance, are dealt with in a somewhat cursory fashion. In a way his story might be the obverse of Flyte’s in Brideshead. The wealthy heir who ends up slumming it in the first world, rather than the third. Perhaps because I might have known people like this, falling through the cracks in Europe, I hoped for more, but in spite of the book’s geographical detail (Atlantic Road/ Brixton Road etc), these passages feel skittish. Likewise the final post-dictatorship stages in the re-development of Manaus feel as though they are alluded to rather than fully conveyed. The book is much stronger at describing the world which has been lost, when Manaus still represented the hinge between the jungle and the immigrant.
Although this is perhaps ultimately a frustrating book, shining a light on a city which remains one of the great frontiers of modern man, as urbanity confronts the immemorial swathe of the Amazon, it still offers a fascinating insight into what Manaus used to be and what it has since become.