Book Review of Orphans of Eldorado by Milton Hatoum
I’m spending a few days in a Brazilian reading-world, with both this book, Orphans of Eldorado, and also Greg Grandin’s Fordlandia, which is about Henry Ford’s attempt to build a jungle city to provide rubber for his growing factories.
It has been interesting to follow Canongate’s Myths, a series which has attracted a variety of renowned authors to re-tell classic myths in modern form. Orphans of Eldorado by Brazilian writer Milton Hatoum deals with the myth of El Dorado, the elusive City of Gold.
Arminto Cordovil is the son of a shipping magnate, but a young man who has to make his own way in the world, having angered his father, apparently through a dalliance with his housekeeper Florita. His father sends him away from the family home, “the white palace in Vila Bela” and sends him to live in a single room with a shared bathroom in a pension in Manaus.
Almost straightaway, Milton Hatoum introduces mythical elements to the story, with an Indian woman by the river proclaiming how she had been seduced by an enchanted being and was now going to live with her lover, “deep in the river bed”. We realise early in the story, that to be brought up in the Amazonian basin is to be inducted into a world where exotic folk-tales mix with reality and imbue everyday events with a mystical significance.
Armindo spends his time studying and working at menial jobs until a few years later, his father suddenly dies. He returns to his home town of Vila Bela to attend the funeral, which is attended by a group of orphan girls from a local convent, among which he notices a particular girl, already a woman, the first sighting of someone who will capture his heart, with no effort on her part.
He comes into an inheritance and goes to live in the huge white house at Vila Bela, but is unable to resist seeking out more information about the orphan girl, a young woman of mysterious origin called Dinaura. His father’s housekeeper, Florita, continues to manage the house, and rebukes Armindo, saying, “her look was just a spell: she looked like one of those mad-women who dream of living at the bottom of the river”. But Armindo is transfixed by Dianura and begins to seek out opportunities to see her.
Eventually he obtains permission from the Mother Superior to see Dianura once a week, but she turns out to be a mysterious and unpredictable girl, given to simple passion one day, and being swept up in mystical experiences on others. Armindo makes plans to marry the girl, bringing mockery and laughter down on his head from friends and townspeople.
Meanwhile, the shipping company which he inherits gets into financial difficulty (with the significantly-named freighter El Dorado sinking in the lower reaches of the Amazon). There is a fire-sale of what it left of the company and Armindo receives enough money from the proceeds to carry on with a reasonably comfortable lifestyle. . . if only he had not been destabilised by the mysterious – and now disappeared – Dianura.
The rest of the book concerns a lifetime quest, a search for resolution of an unfathomable mystery. The City of Gold was never as unobtainable, although it still eludes discovery and has taken on the name Dianura.
We know the destiny of those who’s longing can never be fulfilled on this earth, and Armindo’s end is perhaps inevitable. What is unique is his journey in search of his Grail, through river valley and jungle, accompanied by myths and visions which remind us that South America can never be European despite the dominance of Spanish and Portuguese culture.
It is this potent mix of Indian and European which gives this book its power, for nothing is quite as it seems and Milton Hatoum skilfully blends the worlds of trees and forests with that of shamans, river-gods and enchanted cities. Where the physical world presents us with insuperable problems, then some see other worlds opening up which explain and interpret the practical difficulties.
By the end of the book, it was difficult to feel that Armindo’s life had not been pre-ordained. He was bound to fall for the elusive Dianura, or so it seems, but then at the end we read that his whole story has been told from an old man’s perspective, so perhaps his tale is a redaction, a reinterpretation in the light of later-known consequences.
Orphans of Eldorado slots perfectly into the Myths series, and for me at least, has the advantage, unlike some of the others, that the original myth on which it is based is fairly loosely defined, giving the author tremendous scope to develop the story as he wishes. Some of the other book in the series are rather more predictable because they hew a better-known path. I enjoyed it greatly and am inspired to seek out other books by Milton Hatoum.
James Gray has a life-long interest in politics, travel, the environment, and global affairs. He works in IT but his heart truly beats for the written word.