Ashes of the Amazon
by Milton Hatoum
Paperback; 274 pages,
translated from the Portuguese by John Gledson
Set in Manaus, capital of Brazil’s Amazona region, Ashes of the Amazon evokes place and milieu far removed from the contextual touchstones of European literary fiction, while being at once predominantly concerned with one of the European novel’s great themes: the value of art, the worth of being an artist, and the thorny problem of whether an artistic life is one insulated from other kinds of social responsibility.
The novel’s main strength is its very serious engagement with the relation of art to poverty, the myth of the impoverished artist and to commerce. This is familiar ground, but it is well covered, and although the novel as a piece of art will usually end up taking art’s side, here it is far from unequivocal. This is largely due to Hatoum’s impressive ability to construct what appear to be stereotypes and then complicate them. This tension between type and textured complexity is most evident in the characters of Jano and Mundo, father and son, current owner and intended inheritor, respectively, of the family’s Jute exportation business and its visual symbol, Jano’s beloved Vila Amazonia. The Vila, up the Rio Negro river in the Amazon rainforest, is the novel’s dynastic core and source of attraction and revulsion for Mundo. Jano would, in a lesser book, be allowed to stand simply and solely for an outmoded and grasping generation’s insistence on the values of work and profit, and Mundo for an artistic rebellion provoked by and conditioned against his father’s values. But Hatoum is clever in ensuring that Ashes of the Amazon qualifies its hope for a purely personal kind of art, described by Mundo in his culminative letter to Lavo as ‘a way of remembering with colours and forms,’ with the knowledge that Mundo’s rebellion, as evidently attractive as it seems to a reader with similar sympathies, is only sanctioned by his privileged upbringing. It is Jano who makes this point, reminding Alicia that ‘without the jute and the Brazil nuts, your apartment in Copacabana wouldn’t exist.’ Rio represents escape from Jano for both mother and son, and Mundo’s compulsive movement away from his father’s ‘jute and Brazil nuts’ takes him still further, to Berlin and London.
But such flight is never allowed to be sufficient, and Mundo’s impoverished existence in Kreutzberg and Brixton bears only a hideously parodic resemblance to the kind of artistic pilgrimage he seems to be trying to replicate. Equally, Mundo’s interest in native Amazonian culture is checked by the illustration, in Arana, of the charlatanism to which the appropriation of indigenous arts can lead. Arana is the example of the sell-out artist for Mundo to avoid, in which he is successful after a brief early apprenticeship in Arana’s studio. Arana eventually follows his increasing commercialism to its logical end, selling mahogany sculptures and implicating himself in the structure of deforestation economics. In one of the novel’s frequent moves towards grotesquerie, Arana seems to have replaced the deceased Jano, Ranulfo remarking on an image in the local paper, ‘Our illustrious friend is now the mahogany man.’ Similarly disquieting is the novel’s representation of Ramira, the curiously passive and absent narrator Lavo’s spinster aunt, disciple of Jano and his ethic of work. She is an artisan, as distinct from artist, and spends much of the book ‘crouched over her work, like a hunchback, pretending to be busying herself,’ and complaining about Ranulfo’s extravagance. She finally undergoes a transformation similar to Arana’s, as she identifies so completely with her sewing that ‘she looked as if she was made of cloth,’ becoming the work that is, for her, equivalent to life. As with Jano, though, there is sufficient pathos in Ramira’s presentation that her narrow-mindedness is not entirely unsympathetic.
Finally there is Pai Jobel, the true outsider artist. He is skilfully referenced in passing only twice, and thus marginalised equally from Manaus society and from the novel itself. The second reference occurs in one of the fragments of a letter addressed to Mundo by his uncle Ranulfo which conclude each chapter. He is glimpsed from the edge of the narrative’s peripheral vision, having ‘escaped from the asylum, for there were strap marks on his arms, and he had a frightening, staring look on his face.’ While Ranulfo’s narrative voice notices this intrusion, his anguished focus is on the wedding ceremony of Alicia and Jano, and Jobel never reappears.
Problems are few, and fairly typical of contemporary realist fiction. There is a slightly artificial tendency towards the overly complete; what Zadie Smith described recently in a Guardian essay (‘Revenge of the Real,’ 27.11.09) as the problem of the ‘well-made novel.’ It is especially evident in the book’s final pages, which use the familiar device of a letter which reveals a key piece of knowledge and ties together several loose narrative threads. It is presented in the register of the revelatory, but feels more like a device. Likewise, the occasional but limiting over-explanation of motive deprives the reader of the pleasure to be found in guessing and, crucially, not knowing for certain, why a character acts or speaks as they do. For example, ‘Ranulfo couldn’t satisfy the wishes of both mother and son, and the divided loyalties were sending him round the bend.’ Perhaps the English colloquialism in translation is part of the awkwardness here, but one would still like to interpret the significance of ‘Ranulfo looked at his watch and then at me’ without this narrative gloss.
But although Ashes of the Amazon strays dangerously close, at times, to the well-made novel’s artificially complete nature, it ultimately manages to avoid it by subjecting certain mythologies of art to rigorous testing. It tries out exploitation, in the form of Arana; compromise, in the form of Ranulfo; and in Mundo its most pure expression is allowed only limited scope before being proven untenable, within the particular confines of the model of Amazona society Ashes of the Amazon presents.