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BIRDS, BEASTS AND MAGIC REALISTS

City of the beasts By Isabel Allende, Flamingo, £ 8.99

Isabel Allende’s City of the Beasts is an adventure novel — something of a Harry Potter meets Phantom, with traces of Enid Blyton, Heart of Darkness, sundry Utopia novels and even Goopi Gayen Bagha Bayen. It is targeted at the young adult readership, a section that knows its geography and botany well enough to appreciate the dangers of a romp in the Amazonian rainforest, watches enough National Geographic to be aware of how real the danger is to the ecological balance of the region, and yet, is credulous enough to suspend disbelief at the mention of invisible people, malodorous beasts and other fantastic goings-on, deep in the forests.

The novel traces the story of 15-year-old Alexander Cold, packed off to stay with his rather eccentric grandmother Kate, a writer/explorer who lives in New York, because Cold’s mother has cancer and needs to go to hospital. A harridan with a heart of gold, Kate decides to take Alexander along with her on a crazy mission to track some giant “beasts” whose presence has been reported somewhere on the Venezuelan border.

But as Kate, Alex and their team journey up the Rio Negro — the river of darkness — the real danger comes not from wild animals, or the suspicious Indians who kill with their poisonous darts before they ask questions, or even the exotic, treacherous landscape, but the greed of some of the members of the expedition. The journey into the Amazon thus becomes for Alex an expedition back in time into the very origins of civilization and even, quite literally, the depths of the earth.

If the City of the Beasts is a kind of bildüngsroman, then Alex’s friend, philosopher and guide on his voyage of self-discovery is Nadia, daughter of the expedition’s local guide, Cesar Santos. Wise beyond her years (which is a few years younger than Alex himself), Nadia “interprets” the forests for Alex. She not only speaks the language of the tribes and of the beasts of the jungles, but she is also the only one who can summon the shaman, Walimai. Along the way, the two are kidnapped by the now-you-see-them-now-you-don’t People of the Mist, one of the few Amazonian tribes never to have come in contact with civilization. They live for a while among the “beasts”, the huge smelly creatures with historic memories commensurate with their size, and discover the fabled Shangri-La, the city not so much of gold but of a lesser mineral, the gold-like pyrite, located in the heart of a gigantic extinct volcano.

In the end, good triumphs over evil, giving the novel more of a fable-like structure. Alex and Nadia eventually manage to save the People of the Mist from being exterminated and even overcome their own temptation to expose the reclusive tribe to the curiosity of the outer world and peddle the area as a kind of New Age paradise, an ecological park à la Lost World. Finally, the only treasure Alex brings back from his adventures in the deep is the “water of life” for his dying mother.

It all makes for a wonderfully fantastical spiel, but only if one is not looking for complexity and for a “realistic” handling of the twin issues of the destruction of the rainforests and the exploitation of the Amazon tribes. At times, Allende over-simplifies and is irritatingly condescending towards the tribes. The People of the Mist fall rather simply into the “noble savage” paradigm — they do not kill, except when threatened, are beyond greed, have no use for clothes and keep pets like a boa-constrictor, various types of monkeys and even a decrepit old jaguar, lame in one foot. And why must Walimai have the ghost of his young wife floating naked over his head'

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