The Boys From Brazil By Ira Levin

This is the third Levin novel that I’ve read but the first one where I wasn’t aware of the plot so I could really read it with no prior expectations of the story, except the expectations of the author’s writing abilities garnered from my reading previous Levin novels.

I have raved about Levin’s ability to write suspense thrillers (read them here and here) so I don’t want to repeat myself again. ‘The Boys From Brazil’ plot structure is no different from that of ‘The Stepford Wives’ and ‘Rosemary’s Baby’; it is still an exemplary example on the structure of a suspense thriller with every plot point, every character and every sentence are all geared towards the grand finale and Levin is never distracted with showing off his ego.

It also looks to me like Levin has several trademark themes he returns to, time and time again:

  • The duelling influences of nature and nurture on the development of the human psyche,
  • The threat of the apocalypse hanging over our protagonist,
  • The antagonist, although plays a large role, is really the tip of the iceberg for something unnatural and inhuman.

Levin was able to adapt these themes in a new context and make the story seem fresh. So overall it appears that ‘The Boys From Brazil’ was an overall extraordinary read, but it just doesn’t have the same oomph as ‘The Stepford Wives’ or ‘Rosemary’s Baby’.

And I think the issue is predominantly due to the fact that this novel has its roots in history. The antagonist is the real life Nazi Doctor, Josef Mengele, who performed numerous twisted scientific and medical experiments, in particular the nature of twins. And writing historical fiction to include this man is a double edged sword.

  • The pros are that you don’t even have to develop your antagonist, everything’s already there; you couldn’t get any crazier than a man who thought it would be a great idea to sew two twins together to see what would happen. All the fear and threat is apparent at the mere mention of Mengel.
  • The big fat cons though, are that you are limited by what Mengele is capable of and because it is based on history, we already know what happens due to the benefit of hindsight. Levin could not give him any additional behavourial tics without straying too far from real-life and therefore, the believable.

Reading a Levin novel makes me feel like the noose is tightening around my neck as I get to the end; I don’t want to feel the drop at the end but I know it’s coming. Tying it with a real historical character though means the apocalyptic danger that Levin is so fond of incorporating into his stories isn’t as threatening as it could be, and that feeling of a heart-wrenching drop is mitigated by knowing that it will never happen.

 

On Another Note

For those of you who have read ‘The Boys from Brazil’ and had very little knowledge on Nazi history, could you follow along? I find that when I’m reading historical fiction and I don’t really know the context, I miss a lot of the inside jokes and I don’t find it as enjoyable had I known the background and I’m curious to see if this applies to anyone else.

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