Excerpt from Heliopolis by James Scudamore, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Heliopolis

by James Scudamore

Heliopolis
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  • Paperback:
    Oct 2010, 304 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Elena Spagnolie

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The point is that it’s my real name, not an adopted one. Zé, Melissa’s father, took me aside not long after the process was finalised and explained why he wasn’t giving me his:

‘It would give you more problems than advantages. And we can’t afford to take chances after what happened to Melissa.’

As he is chief executive of the MaxiMarket supermarket chain, and also enjoyed a brief stint as Minister for Agriculture before a change of government sent him back to commerce, he and his family have always been prime targets for kidnappers. Melissa was ten when she was taken, and she only escaped because she had the presence of mind to fake an epileptic seizure. Her kidnappers were so spooked by it that they threw her out of a moving car and were never heard from again.

‘She’s a little shaken,’ I heard Zé saying into the phone that weekend. ‘It’s most unfortunate. But we still have her.’ Unfortunate. I doubt he’d pay any attention at all if someone grabbed me.

Melissa’s kidnapping occurred because she wandered off into the streets after school when the chauffeur was late picking her up, but it wasn’t her fault – in this city, you’re only marginally safer in a vehicle. They changed the traffic laws not long ago to prevent carjacking: red no longer means ‘stop’. Now, it means ‘proceed with caution’.

Unlike Melissa, I do not live in the clouds. Nor do I inhabit a fortress, like her father. I have a studio apartment in a reasonable area – one of three candy-bar blocks in beige, pink and white, clustered around a communal pool. My apartment is on the first floor of the white one, nestled in its base: it’s like living in a cave at the foot of a cliff. My sole concession to deterrence is the balcony wall, into which I have embedded shards of bottle glass in blue, green and red, but these are obscured by the dense foliage of the plants I grow to remind me of the farm where I grew up.

Zé lectures me on the subject. ‘You’re naïve, Ludo. The minute we adopted you, you became different. One day it will happen – someone will target you – and there will be no use regretting it after the fact.’

He may have a point, but I have less to steal than he does, and given the differences between our lifestyles I suspect an element of paranoia. In his worldview there is no such thing as a middle class, and no such thing as a non-criminal underclass. The house that he flies home to every weeknight is a fortified compound, buffered by terraced ponds and beds of hostile, spiky shrubs. His self-watering lawns are patrolled by two pure-bred fighting mastiffs, which roll over on demand for Zé and his family, but would take the leg off an uninvited guest. His palm trees contain motion–sensitive cameras connected to the hub of technology in the guardhouse: if you disturbed so much as a blade of his grass, Zé would know about it. And that’s just the beginning. Before you even get to the house you have to enter the compound itself, which is defended by bundles of oiled razor wire and a tooledup crew that resembles a private army rather than a team of security guards. It would take a thief with Special Forces training to get past the outer walls, let alone breach Zé’s last line of defence, and even if you did, you wouldn’t find him – he’d be sealed in his tungsten panic room long before you got in, along with every other member of his family, and every object of value. Zé Fischer Carnicelli trusts nobody but himself, however many people he employs to protect him.

For the very rich, like him, a pall of fear almost as heavy as the pollution hangs over this unmappable metropolis – but if, like me, you have less to protect, you can get high on the energy of the place, and allow it to fascinate and excite you. Town planning never happened: there wasn’t time. The city ambushed its inhabitants, exploding in consecutive booms of coffee, sugar and rubber, so quickly that nobody could draw breath to say what should go where. It has been expanding ever since, sustained by all that ferocious energy. And here, just as in the universe, anything could happen.

Excerpted from Heliopolis by James Scudamore. Copyright © 2010 by James Scudamore. Excerpted by permission of Europa Editions. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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