City of the Beasts
by Isabel Allende
HarperCollins, 2002, ISBN 0-06-050918-X
A book review by Elisabeth Carey
Alexander Cold, a fifteen-year-old California boy, is sent to stay with his grandmother in New York while his mother is being treated for cancer. After arriving at the airport to find no one waiting for him, he wanders through an alternate-dimension New York where no one will give directions to a polite out-of-towner, has all his belongings except his passport stolen by a girl around whom, had the plot not demanded it, he'd never have dropped his guard for a second, and eventually winds up at the door of his grandmother's apartment. Grandma Kate is a reporter for International Geographic, so of course she promptly takes Alex off on an expedition to Brazil, to track a yeti-like creature reported to inhabit remote portions of the Amazonian jungle. (This expedition is, of course, the reason his passport couldn't be stolen.) The Amazonian version is known simply as the Beast, and the North American version, i.e., sasquatch, or "Bigfoot," has apparently never been heard of, or at least is never mentioned. The Beast is also rumored to have a city, hence the title of the book.
Besides Kate and Alex, the expedition consists of two International Geographic photographers, a pilot, Cesar Santos, who's an experienced guidefor jungle expeditions, the pilot's twelve-year-old daughter Nadia, the anthropologist Ludovic Leblanc, Doctor Omayra Torres, and assorted other hangers-on and spear-carriers. After enough initial obstacles have been overcome, the expedition sets out up the Amazon, encountering wild beasts and wild Indians along the way, until the two children become separat ed and have an amazing adventure, learning what the adults are not worthy to know.
As you may be gathering by this point, I found this book irritating rather than enjoyable. Some of the problems, the ones involving speaking styles and word choice, may well be problems of translation. For instance, in the sentence "Wheeling in the air were birds he had never seen before, some as translucid and filmy as jellyfish, others as solid as black condors" on pages 260-261, the use of translucid rather than translucent is probably not Ms. Allende's doing. (The idea of birds being either translucid or translucent is another matter, but leave that aside for the moment.) Likewise, when Ms. Allende wrote the Spanish original of "My parents do not tolerate guns. If they saw me with this they would faint" (page 130) or '"And to think that I have deprived myself of this delicious treat for more than fifteen years!" he exclaimed at the second mouthful' (page 240, where Alex finally breaks down and tries eating fish) she may well have had Alex sounding like a normal fifteen-year-old boy.
Other things are harder to blame on the translator. Ludovic Leblanc is a cartoon western racist, believing and actively promoting all sorts of claptrap about the bestial nature of the Indians a nd the essential brutality of human nature, even when he has to create the evidence himself. He's completely incompetent, impractical, and quite impervious to facts, reason, or experience until the end of the story, when a single experience changes all his opinions and transforms him, temporarily, into a clear-thinking plotter with nerves of steel. Much is made of the fact that Alex is an extraordinarily picky eater; in fact he allegedly doesn't eat for several weeks of the expedition, because nothing's on offer that's on his short list of acceptable foods. We are repeatedly reminded that Alex is not eating. Why doesn't he collapse from hunger?
Then there's the Magic Indian. Now, some of the Indians are magical because it's an integral part of the story. Matuwe, on the other hand, is just magical once, when the plot needs him to be: "His sense of orientation was so extraordinary that, although he had never flown, he was able to locate their position in that vast green expanse of jungle and to indicate with precision the place where the International Geographic party was waiting." (page 333, when Matuwe returns by helicopter with a rescue party.)
More generally, except for Kate, Alex, and Nadia, all the significant white expedition members are either villains or dupes--and even Kate is a bit of a dupe. All the Indians are good guys. Indian culture is pure, connected to nature, and good, while white culture is unnatural, fake, bad. It gets tiresome very fast.
Besides the failures of logic and characterization, Ms. Allende is also guilty of a simple failure to check easily checked facts. On page 139, we learn this important fact about anacondas: "They didn't dare probe around too much, because those reptiles were known to travel in pairs, and no one was inclined to chance another confrontation." This seemed odd to me, and I did a little checking. Amongst the several sources I found that told me the anaconda is ordinarily solitary are http://nashvillezoo.org/anaconda.htm and http://www.extremescience.com/biggestsnake.htm And concerning the Beasts, on page 389: "...they're very ancient animals, maybe from the Stone Age, or earlier." Now, maybe Ms. Allende doesn't have web access, but I bet she has access to at least one good library. I bet a reference librarian could help her find out something about the habits of anacondas, or whether the Stone Age counts as "ancient" on the scale of biological evolution.
All in all, a disappointing and irritating book. Don't waste your own time, and don't give this to the younger readers it's intended for, who ought to be discovering what's fun about reading.