The novel is set in Sao Paulo in the present. Its central character, Ludwig “Ludo” Dos Santos, is an “orphan” — he has a mother and was raised by her but the patriarchal nature of the society says that with an unknown father he is relegated to orphan status. Born in the favela of Heliopolis (favelas are communities of squatters that, over time, evolve into recognized neighborhoods), both he and his mother were “adopted” by the wealthy Carnicelli family. In Ludo’s case, the adoption has been formalized — a central theme of the book is his attempt to deal with the dilemma of having a foot in both worlds.
The book opens with Ludo, age 27 and employed in an advertising agency, in the bed of his adopted (and married) sister, Melissa, in her penthouse apartment which has a view down the avenue that bisects the Garden District to the “smog-cloaked towers of downtown”. He has more than half an ear turned to the arrival of a helicoptor on the helipad on the roof of the tower, since Melissa’s father regularly drops in on his way to work. The separation of the classes in Sao Paulo is not just economic and figurative, it is literal:
Melissa’s father, Ze 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 from there to his downtown office every morning in a helicoptor 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 still keeps regular office hours. A chauffeur drives him between his house and the heliport, 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.
While other supporting characters will be introduced, that pretty much takes care of the crucial elements of the plot, all in the first four pages. Ludo’s mother is the cook at Ze’s home on the “farm”, actually a compound that is a luxurious weekend retreat where Ze, a politician as well as businessman, conducts his most important business. She spends most of the five-day work week concocting the food that will be central to the weekend entertainment and work.
Food, in fact, is an important element of Heliopolis. Each of the chapter headings references a food (Jacaranda Honey, Feijoada and Crab Linguine are just a few examples — Warm Rolls and Peanuts are a couple of more prosaic ones, underlining the class split). The device is more than a clever trick as each chapter does feature the food of the title. More important, it is Ludo’s discovery that the city cook of the family is making the same dishes from the same recipes as his mother that starts his personal questioning of his mother’s place and history, which is another plot thread of the book.
The conflicts that result from all these elements are quite predictable and it would be a spoiler to simply detail them. Like last year’s Booker winner, The White Tiger, this book is an examination of the gap and tension that exists between the classes in the emerging economic powers of the BRIC block. Unlike that book which is characterized by both anger and politics, however, this one is more just a story. That is perhaps a reflection that Aravind Adiga grew up in that world — James Scudamore grew up in Japan, Brazil and the UK and now lives in London. He knows the world of which he writes, but not from the same perspective the Adiga does.
Which means that while Heliopolis is an entertaining novel, it is not much more. As noted previously, its greatest strength is that the action is developed competently and moves quickly — but when you have finished the book you don’t know much more about class conflict in Brazil than you do already. And while Ludo does get developed as a character, most of the rest are one-dimensional supporting actors to the plot.
Heliopolis probably deserves its place on the longlist, although other books certainly would have been equally as worthy (personally, I would have preferred Geoff Dyer’s Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, but that is a matter of taste). It would be a surprise — and a disappointment with the jury — if it moves on to the shortlist.
In conclusion, special thanks to Colette Jone’s for sending me her copy of Heliopolis. It has not been published in North America (and a quick scan does not show a publication date) and was awaiting reprinting in the UK, so without her help my project to read the entire Booker longlist would have been frustrated. Yet another example, that friends of blogs are valuable to us all. Thanks, Colette.