by Errol Lincoln Uys
Published by Silver Spring Books
776 pages, 2000
Buy it online
A Well Kept Secret
Reviewed by Linda L. Richards
The world of book publishing is a funny, sometimes unfathomable place with its own set of rules, traditions and mores. In any given year, there are some 50,000 books published in the United States alone. And the thousands of e-books that are beginning to appear on the market aren't reflected in that number at all.
Though there are Cinderella stories, of that 50,000 it's a pretty fair bet that the largest percentage of books published each and every year are going to tank. It only makes sense. Though there will be the occasional exception, like Frances Mayes' first book on Tuscany. The first edition of Under the Tuscan Sun was published by a small to medium-sized house and early and glowing reviews pushed the book into the publishing stratosphere. Or L.J. Rose's Lip Service: a book Rose self-published and then through sheer force of personality and diligent work, saw the book republished by a major house and then worked some more until the book was published again in paperback. These are the exceptions. Far more are published to high hopes on the parts of their authors but owing to numerous factors -- publicists busy with other people's books, bad timing or Oprah looking the other way -- a good number of these mid-list books sink beneath the waves with barely a second look. It's a simple law of averages, really: in a market this saturated, how many top books can there be? And yet, it's sad. There are many, many wonderful books that never get the reading they deserve because they're overlooked by critics, not properly promoted by their houses or just somehow miss the promotion boat. And once that boat has sailed, there's just no getting it back. Well, mostly.
One of these boat missers was Brazil. Published by a large American publishing house in 1986, the book was orphaned when its editor left the company a month before Brazil came out. Author Errol Lincoln Uys says now that, "Six weeks after publication, I was told, 'Brazil didn't take off and was dropped.' I had exactly one press interview and one radio interview before the book vanished from the shelves."
That was in the United States. Overseas it was a different story. According to Uys, it was "the hit of summer 1987," when it was published in France and it enjoyed a great deal of popularity in the United Kingdom, Germany, Holland, Israel and Brazil. In total and thus far, non-U.S. editions of Brazil have sold over 400,000 copies in six languages. Brazil remained out of print at home, though this was not to due to lack of desire on the part of its author, who trundled the epic manuscript around to virtually all of the major houses. Not surprisingly, no one was very interested in a book that had been a non-starter a decade and a half earlier. A posting on a publishing-oriented e-mail discussion list ended the stalemate. Uys told the publishing community at large and online what he had. Within 24 hours, he had a reply from Silver Spring Books, a small independent press in Connecticut. "Within a week," Uys says, "we hammered out a reprint agreement. Within four months, we took the book from manuscript to press."
If the resulting book seems to smack slightly of latter-day James Michener, there's a reason: Uys spent two years working with that esteemed author of historical tomes during the creation of The Covenant, Michener's book on South Africa. Like Michener, Uys begins at the beginning -- though we're spared the formation of the Earth -- and takes us through 500 years of history viewed through the lens of a couple of fictional families. This 2000 version has been edited and revised. It's been given an overall tightening and sharpening. As well, the Silver Spring edition includes a newly written afterword that brings the story up to the present.
Not surprisingly, this is epic history as prescribed by James Michener. Brazil is no one's idea of a languorous read. The painstaking research it must have taken to even begin work on the novel is obvious from the first page, making it no problem at all to imagine why the book's author would have gone to a great deal of trouble to see it back in print in the United States. While the historical details Uys has included give it the crackle of authenticity, Uys' characterizations lack some of the humanness that built Michener's reputation. Brazil can more easily be compared to the books that came fairly late in Michener's publishing history. More like Michener's Texas and Alaska for the pure history tinged with dryness than, say, Centennial, Space or even Poland that seemed to sizzle with the living history he was gifting us with.
Being compared to the later works of a master, however, is no insult to Uys. Brazil is instructive, informative and -- ultimately -- deeply moving. A more intimate and far-reaching portrait of this colorful country than has yet been given us. | September 2000
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine. Her fourth novel, Death was the Other Woman, is published by St. Martin's Minotaur/Thomas Dunne Books.