If your tastes in historical fiction are of the once-over-lightly, spare-me-the-details, one-rainy-day-at-the-beach variety, best to get out of the way before you get steamrollered by Errol Lincoln Uys' "Brazil." Uys has interwoven five centuries of Brazilian history with generations of two fictional families -- the Cavalcantis, Pernambuco sugar barons, and the da Silvas, adventurers who amass a Sao Paulo coffee fortune -- into a massive, richly detailed novel, Michenerian in sweep and scope, informative and intriguing, though at times overwhelming.
Uys is plowing fertile ground here -- many adjectives could be used to describe Brazil's history, but predictable and uneventful are not among them -- and he skillfully synthesizes many epochal events into nicely detailed snapshots of Brazil's colorful evolution from the forbidding but alluring Terra de Santa Cruz to Portuguese colony, kingdom and, finally, republic. It's hardly a tranquil evolution. The Portuguese came to conquer the vastness of Brazil, only to find that all too frequently it worked the other way around. Or as one settler counsels a disillusioned Jesuit missionary despondent over his relative's peccadilloes: "Your uncle is no different from the others. He's not a bad man. Since the days at Porto Seguro, his life has been tied to this land. And this land, Padre, is the conqueror of men and their souls."
The core of Uys' novel is a clash of cultures and of wills: Portuguese settler against Brazilian Indian; Jesuit missionary against the Portuguese crown; slave against master; republican against monarchist; explorer against the beguiling and seemingly endless Brazilian interior that covers half a continent.
Whether recounting grisly rituals in which captives of the Tupiniquin Indians are prepared for slaughter (and subsequent consumption), the ill-fated albeit heroic effort of Padre Inacio Cavalcanti to covert the Tupiniquin to Christianity, or the fanciful expeditions of Amador da Silva as he searches for emeralds, Uys has a sense of peace and an eye for detail that rarely fail him. Many of the scenes are laced with irony (as when slaves are simultaneously branded and baptized, liberating the soul while consigning the shackled body to hell on earth) and a sense of de'ja vu as slave owners seek to preserve their tottering chattel empire against a burgeoning Brazilian equivalent of the Underground Railroad while offering mealy-mouthed pleas for gradual emancipation ("We can't abolish the system overnight. Let it die gradually . . . ").
While the reader may marvel at the prodigiousness of Uys' undertaking, there are times when the novel wallows in a miasma of detail that stops the narrative dead in its tracks.
In this same vein, characters tend to blur into the centuries. Uys attempts to place each of the numerous Cavalcantis and da Silvas into some genealogical context, but with mixed success: "For Fa'bio Alves Cavalcanti, a grandson of Carlos Maria, the child who had been left fatherless when Paulo Cavalcanti was murdered by Black Peter and his band of runaway slaves, the flashes of memory . . . were immensely soothing." Flashes of memory for the reader mired in this thicket may be less forthcoming (and send one clambering up the Cavalcanti and da Silva family trees, which are included in the novel).
These shortcomings should not mask the fact that Uys has distilled a rich history into a readable and credible novel. "Brazil is so big -- there are so many Portugals here," one character observes. Indeed. And Uys, in going after and capturing many of them in this ambitious novel, is clearly swinging for the fences. While he doesn't succeed in knocking the ball clear out of the park, he's hit it mighty deep.