No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

#41: Brasyl -- Ian McDonald

The young woman on his sofa is a refugee from another part of the polyverse. Swallow that intellectual wad and everything else follows. Of course they are caught between the ritual assassins of a transdimensional conspiracy, and mysterious saviours. Of course refuge must be offered, though it marks him irrevocably as a player.

Brasyl hits the ground running, peppered with idiomatic street slang and casual references to an unfamiliar world. It's Rio de Janiero, present day, and television producer Marcellina Hoffman is after a tasty new reality show. All does not, however, go according to plan.

Then it's 2032, Sao Paolo, and Edson Jesus Oliviera de Freitas is trying to broker a deal, playing on the typically Brazilian themes of futebol and sex. This time, though, he falls in with the wrong crowd.

And it's 1732, and Father Luis Quinn, S.J., arrives in a Brazil that's ever so slightly skewed from our own. His mission: to track down and Admonish Father Gonçalves, who is suspected of unorthodox methods. Father Quinn does not find anything that he could have expected.

Switching between the very different chase/quest plots of those three timelines -- Marcellina discovers that she has a double who's trying to destroy her life; Edson falls in love with a quantumeira; Luis Quinn becomes oracle to a hostile tribe -- the threads pull slowly together, to reveal the interconnections between the stories. The pace is seldom less than hectic, whether it's that of a canoe expedition up the Amazon, the race to discover an ageing footballer -- the Cursed Barbosa -- before the tabloids do, or the theft of four quantum computers.

And McDonald is not a lazy writer. Some of the themes may have been covered before but his angle, his eye for detail, his knack for the details that reveal a personality and for phrases that hang in the mind (swashing down into sleep like a coin through water) is as overwhelmingly engaging as in River of Gods.

As each thread spins to its climax, the novel begins to resolve, and at points I found myself exhilirated by the ride but wondering what I'd missed: who's on which side? Can any of the timelines affect one another?
there's no heart reality from which everything else diverges. Every part of the multiverse exists, has existed, will exist independently of every other.
Yet echoes of Father Quinn's actions pepper Marcellina's adventures, and time and again some familiar-seeming figure pops up out of context ...

I'm not wholly keen on the ending (though that may be because I was caught up in the rush of the stories, and failed to note key divergences) but I'm utterly beguiled by the whole. A special part of my regard applies to the 1732 timeline, with the French natural philosopher Robert Falcon duelling and plotting and strategising, and resigning himself to 'a world without vistas', with no hope of a return to Paris. If I've a quarrel with any of that part of the story, it's that the author didn't include in his 'Playlist for Brasyl' any of the gorgeously strange Latin American Baroque music that I know he's been listening to ...

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