Tent of Miracles, by Jorge Amado: Racism and Parochialism Against the Backdrop of a Mythic Bahia


Jorge Amado (1912-2001), one of the most popular and internationally known Brazilian authors, started his career writing realistic books that carried a biting criticism of the economic elites and their exploitation of the working classes and the poor. This Marxist phase characterized the first of his works. After the publication of Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon in 1958, however, his novels became more populist and satirical, with a stronger focus on the sensuality and picturesque aspects of the afro-Brazilian culture of the author’s native state of Bahia, located in the northeast of the country. The author was harshly criticized by many for having changed his tone.

With Tent of Miracles, first published in 1969, one could say that Amado managed to strike a fine balance, providing a serious examination of Brazilian socio-economic issues and highlighting the hedonism and colorfulness of the Bahian culture, with its stunningly beautiful mulatto women, the freewheeling sensuality of its people, their lively songs, and dances and the prevalence of African-originated religions and cults.

The Themes

Tent of Miracles is a strong satire on the parochialism of the Brazilian intelligentsia – which needs validation from developed countries, especially from the US, before appreciating local talents in all areas of art and knowledge. The novel is also an inspired ode against racism, praising the power and beauty of miscegenation. In that respect, we can say that the themes of the book are more relevant than ever in today’s global context of generalized xenophobia, racism, and prejudice against diversity.

The Plot

The story kicks off when a Nobel Prize-winning North-American scholar, D.J. Levinson, comes across some forgotten books in the library of Columbia University and decides that their author is one of the best anthropologists he’s ever read. The racial considerations and the detailed description of the customs and “folkways” of the racially-mixed people of Bahia found in those four dusty volumes deserve to be known and discussed by the global academic community. The author, a black Brazilian called Pedro Archanjo, lived in Bahia for 75 years (1868 -1943), doing menial work in the streets of the city of Salvador (called Bahia at the time), destitute and unrecognized by his upper-class contemporaries. Levinson then comes to Brazil to experience first hand the theories put forward in the books and to promote their author.

Of course, the announcement of the arrival of the US luminary makes headlines in the biggest newspapers of Brazil. This arouses the interest and greed of the local authorities, intellectuals, and politicians, who wish to advance their own personal agendas, tapping into the newly-elevated status of Pedro Archanjo to scientific prodigy. It’s decided that the centenary of Pedro Archanjo’s birth – about to take place at the end of the year – deserves a fitting and official celebration in the city after all.

At this point, the lesser writer and poet Fausto Pena is hired by Professor Levinson to do research into the life and times of Pedro Archanjo, spanning more than 70 decades. In reality, Levinson’s main objective is to get Pena out of they way so that he can enjoy the pleasant company of the poet’s girlfriend, the journalist Ana Mercedes, an unashamedly social climbing mulatto beauty.

As a result, it is through Fausto Pena’s eyes that we get to know the story of Pedro Archanjo, despite all the gaps, incongruences and half-truths he gathers in his notes. We learn about Archanjo’s popularity among women, the innumerable children he fathered out of wedlock, his work as a runner for the School of Medicine and, finally, his rising awareness of the social conditions of the underprivileged people of Bahia, subject to all kinds of oppression, violence, and prejudice. Archanjo then decides to self-educate, write about race relations, and become a political militant.

Despite its important and political undertones, the story, of course, unfurls against the backdrop of a poetic and colorful Bahia, with humorous anecdotes and detailed descriptions of the rituals of the local afro-influenced religions, the local foods and spices, the dance and music. Jorge Amado kept many original African words in these passages – wisely kept in the translation into English – presenting a complete glossary in the back of the book.

The Characters

The characters of Tent of Miracles are not entirely realistic, but ironic representations of specific types that populate the Brazilian collective imagination. We can split them into the powerful (corrupt politicians, controlling newspaper editors, arrogant college professors) and the disenfranchised (the malandros, bon vivants, ruffians, drunks, gorgeous mulatto women, old wise men, and gold-hearted prostitutes). 

Most of them, however, come across as a bit underwritten; they are not fully rounded characters. Pedro Archanjo, of course, personifies all the contradictions of a typical popular hero, as all his facets are praised in the Carnival celebration held in his honor at the end of the book: minor candomblé priest, vagabond, striker, runner of the School of Medicine (where he started his more formal education), heavy drinker, womanizer, teacher, sorcerer and writer! 

The Style

Although the book has strong elements of magical realism, especially in the scenes that take place in the candomblé terreiros, the space where the afro-religions and cults have their rituals (devotees embarking in trances; divinities taking possession of their bodies; supernatural events occurring; myth and reality getting intertwined), most of the plot develops in a fairly realistic and straightforward way.

The Relevance of Tent of Miracles Today

Jorge Amado

Written during the first years of the Brazilian military dictatorship, the passages depicting the brutal repression by the police of the Afro-Catholic cults, the bloody raids against the terreiros, and the beating or killing of their members – which happened especially during the 1920s and 30s – can be interpreted as a fitful metaphor of the times.

The novel, however, does not feel dated at all, as its themes are still universal and very concrete. The irony made explicit in the story is that miscegenation deeply permeates the whole of Brazilian society, and, thus, the bigotry and racism of people whose mixed-race blood is either carefully hidden in the family past or even naively ignored are laughable and hypocritical. It’s time for Brazil – and other countries in the world – to bury the myth of white supremacy and come to terms with the fact that we’ll carry on living in an irreversibly multicultural, mixed and diverse society.

Jorge Sette

Vincent van Gogh’s Short-Lived Dream: The Yellow House Project


The Yellow House, in Arles in the South of France

In February 1888, Vincent van Gogh moved to Arles, in the south of France, to make use in his paintings of the bright colours under the Provence sun. He had a dream and a plan to make it happen. He wanted to create a community of artists, all living together, exchanging ideas and techniques, inspiring one another, sharing their innovations and taking art to a whole new level. A new Renaissance would be the inevitable outcome of this experiment. This was the utopia Van Gogh conjured up in his unstable and tortured soul. This is why he moved from cold, gray Paris and rented the famous Yellow House at 2, Place Lamartine, in Arles, in the south of France. It would be the sunny headquarters of a commune of innovators and founders of the Studio of the South, where a new tropical art was to be born.

The Yellow House, Vicent van Gogh, 1888

Van Gogh’s Plan

Whether Van Gogh’s true ambition was to finally fit in, to become part of a group of avant-garde artists and to make up for a life of social ineptitude, loneliness and failure is anybody’s guess. He was no longer young, and he knew he had to find a way for his art to be recognized if he was to accomplish, if not fame, at least financial independence. He probably thought it was high time to free his brother Theo from the burden of supporting him. Perhaps he hoped to pay Theo back all the money he had spent on Vincent over the years without ever receiving any returns. Wouldn’t it be marvelous if Theo’s expenses finally turned into a highly lucrative investment?

Trying to entice Paul Gauguin

Self-portrait, Paul Gauguin, 1885

Paul Gauguin, the wild artist Vincent and Theo had met in Paris, was Vincent’s first choice for a guest in this community. Gauguin had spent time in Martinique, painting powerful, idealized versions of a tropical paradise. He could teach Vincent something – or so Vincent believed. Gauguin was older and wiser, with a lot more experience and more refined painting techniques. Vincent needed a mentor, a friend, a guiding hand. Surely Theo could help him out with this last financial contribution, supporting the Yellow House project, until their new art became profitable. Vincent was convinced it wouldn’t take long for this to happen. Recognition, fame and fortune were just around the corner.

With this in mind, Van Gogh started a relentless campaign to bring Gauguin – who had also left Paris but chosen the wild primitiveness of Brittany, in the northwest of France – to the Yellow House to share the Studio of the South. Gauguin seemed open to the plan, but he kept putting the trip off. Van Gogh sent him dozens of invitations, trying to lure Gauguin to Arles by singing the praises of the “Midi” (as the south of France is known colloquially), the healthy air of the region, its incomparable light and colors. Gauguin kept accepting the proposal but never actually came. Months went by until, in the autumn of 1888, Gauguin finally decided to travel south and put Van Gogh’s ideas to the test.

The Yellow House

The Yellow House had four rooms. Van Gogh’s plan was to have one of the downstairs rooms turned into a studio, which the artists could share. The other room would be the kitchen. The upstairs rooms were to be the bedrooms. To get to his room, Gauguin would have to walk through Van Gogh’s, but this would certainly not be a problem. Vincent asked Theo for more money to decorate and furnish Gauguin’s room in a suitable manner. His own bedroom would be more monastic. He thought of himself as a monk after all, one whose religion would be his new art. He had decided to live for it. Most of the artists’ time should be dedicated to painting. Their energy should be channeled toward the production of this new art. Despite the famed beauty of the Arlesian women, they would have less sex, avoid distractions and focus entirely on their work.

Le Pont de Langlois a Arles, van Gogh, 1888

Unfortunately, it turned out Gauguin had other plans. He and Van Gogh were very different types of men, with idiosyncratic ideas about art and lifestyles. The weeks right after Gauguin’s arrival were peaceful, as Van Gogh made sure to show his guest all his favorite spots in the region, extolling its beauty and the benefits of painting outdoors (en plein air) and explaining his ideas about having nature and people right before the painter’s eyes as models. He also stressed the importance of contrasting complementary colors in paintings and talked about applying the strength and simplicity of Japanese art techniques.

The peace didn’t last long, however; soon, the fabric of Van Gogh’s dreams began to come apart. Gauguin preached about how important symbolism was to art. The motifs, the forms, the colors of a painting should not be linked to direct observation of the subject, he maintained, but come from memory, with all the distortions this might entail. Art must stem from the idea, from the mind, not from the eyes. Art should be enigmatic and mysterious. Gauguin wasn’t interested in painting outdoors. He would see something outside, maybe sketch it and then paint it as he remembered it in the peace and quiet of a studio.

Around this time, reports arrived from Theo in Paris, celebrating the success of Gauguin’s paintings, which had started to attract a lot of attention – and buyers. Theo was very excited about his investment.

Gauguin versus van Gogh

Detail of self-portrait, van Gogh, 1888

Gauguin painted slowly and methodically; Van Gogh, furiously and passionately. Serious tension began to build in the Yellow House, which assumed a claustrophobic atmosphere when both men were there together. The fear of being abandoned by his mentor reinforced Van Gogh’s latent paranoia, and he soon started to behave in erratic ways, which both bothered and frightened Gauguin. Van Gogh’s mind began to spiral down toward his inevitable breakdown. Gauguin’s success became another source of conflict, as the younger artist resented it and became even more frustrated with his own lack of recognition.

Despite clashes between the artists, Van Gogh was terrified of losing Gauguin and having his dream of the Studio of the South fail like all his previous enterprises. Gauguin, on the other hand, felt sure he needed to leave Arles as soon as possible, before Van Gogh became violent; his behavior was becoming increasingly explosive and unpredictable.

A final altercation between the men on Christmas Eve made it clear to Van Gogh that Gauguin would abandon him and his dream would be crushed. The tortured artist resorted to an act of self-mutilation out of sheer despair: with a razor, he cut off part of one of his ears, wrapped the torn piece in a newspaper and sent it to a prostitute he thought Gauguin was with at the time. Soon afterwards, Van Gogh was committed to a mental institution in Saint-Rémy.

That was the end of the utopia of the Yellow House. Van Gogh’s dream had lasted only nine weeks. However, the works both artists produced during this troubled time are worth millions of dollars today.

If you wish to know more about Vicent van Gogh, please click here: https://wp.me/p4gEKJ-1B6

If you are interested in our series of ebooks TEACH ENGLISH WITH ART, please click here:  http://wp.me/p4gEKJ-1lS

Watch our promo video on TEACHING ENGLISH WITH ART: VAN GOGH, below:

Jorge Sette

Cult TV From The 60s And 70s – The Terrible Shows We Used To Love


Even if the reader did not watch these shows when they first aired, there were reruns throughout the seventies, eighties, and nineties, and some of them can still be watched on cable TV and streaming services. Besides, most of them are available as DVD box sets.

Younger people may find it hard to believe we loved those shows. How could we stand the primitive and amateurish visual effects? How could we tolerate the bias against women, gays, blacks and other minorities? How could we sit still through the slow pace, and the lack of jokes and punch lines present every other second in today’s sitcoms?

Well, those were more innocent times, we were naïve viewers, we couldn’t anticipate the complicated nuanced plots, complex social analysis and great acting of shows like THE SOPRANOS, MAD MEN, BREAKING BAD or HOUSE OF CARDS. Those early shows were all we had back then, and the whole family gathered together in front of the bulky black and white TV set to watch them. Few families had color TV in the early seventies in Brazil. Besides, now and then, one of us would have to stand up and reach for the TV aerial to adjust it or pound on the top of the TV set to get the image to straighten up. Did I forget to say there were no remote controls either? Bad news for the couch potatoes.

These were the most popular shows among my friends in those days: 

Lost in Space

Lost in Space. This was by far the kids’ favorite show. When I was older, my mother explained the reason we were so into that show was that it featured a well-adjusted, loving family confronting the tough obstacles an ominous Universe put in their way. Could be. The aforementioned family – the Robinsons (any reference to The Swiss Family Robinson, the novel by Johann David Wiss published in 1812, is not coincidental) – sets off to investigate conditions to colonize a planet near Alpha Centauri, due to the overpopulation on Earth in the inconceivably distant future of ….1997!

Their trip would last 4 years, during which time they would remain frozen in suspended animation. However, many other nations were working on similar projects, competing with the US. Therefore, the wicked and ambitious Doctor Zachary Smith (Jonathan Harris), who worked for the US project as a psychologist, was hired as an agent by one of these competing nations. He carries the responsibility of sabotaging the mission. The problem is Doctor Smith gets trapped in the spaceship, the two-story disc-shaped Jupiter 2, seconds before it takes off, being forced to leave Earth with The Robinsons. The extra weight veers the spaceship off its original course and they get inevitably lost. He will be a burden to the family and their pilot, Major West, as they face innumerable perils in space or on the alien planets they sometimes land on. Rumor has it the producers’ plan was to feature the family patriarch Professor Robinson (Guy Williams, of Zorro fame) and his co-pilot Major Don West (Mark Goddard) as the stars of the show. But as the episodes developed, the focus shifted almost 100% to the adventures of Doctor Smith (played hilariously by Jonathan Harris), the male kid, Will Robinson (Billy Mumy), and their loyal Robot, who stoically took all the abuse heaped upon him by Smith. The trio simply stole the show. Smith was supposedly gay (and rather camp), but no one talked about it at the time, and there was never any fear that he could corrupt his young partner, Will. The visual effects were pathetic and look ridiculous by today’s standards. The settings and monster costumes are incredibly amateurish and silly too. But we loved the show.

I Dream of Jeannie

I dream of Jeannie. Everyman’s sexual fantasy come true, there was never, however, a more innocent relationship between a master and his sexy slave than the one sustained by Astronaut Major Nelson (Larry Hagman) and the genie he finds imprisoned in a bottle on a desert island on the Pacific, setting her free.

Actor Barbara Eden, who played Jeannie, was at the height of her beauty and sensuality in those days, and, although the network decency guidelines wouldn’t allow us even a glimpse of her navel, she must have stirred the hormones of many a teenager and young man. Major Nelson, though, seemed immune to her attractions. We, on the other hand, were too young for those kinds of feelings and sensations. Girls loved the little doll house Jeannie lived in inside the bottle, while boys had the time of their lives watching the problems she caused Major Nelson by timing the execution of her magic tricks, accomplished by blinking her eyes and crossing her arms, to whenever Doctor Bellows (Hayden Rorke), the space program psychiatrist, was around.

The Time Tunnel

The Time Tunnel. This show did what every school should be doing: teaching history in a fun and engaging way. This, of course, was far from the objective of the producers, who only came up with a clever premise to raise their ratings, without any noble educational purpose in mind. The show featured two scientists trapped in a time machine built by the US government in the shape of a tunnel, hence the title. 

The machine gets out of control and the scientists cannot return to the present. Every episode would feature a story in which they’d land either in the future or the past. The episodes depicting important past events (the Second World War, the eruption of the Krakatoa and the sinking of the Titanic, among others) outnumbered the ones set in imaginary futuristic scenarios, which turned the series into great history lessons. We learned a lot from watching it, and had fun at the same time. 

Batman

Batman. The most psychedelic show of the era, the 60s version of the Dark Knight was an explosion of color (for those who could afford color TV), unforgettable idiosyncratic nemeses (such as Catwoman, the Joker, The Riddler and The Penguin) and exciting fight scenes during which innovative onomatopoeic speech bubbles popped up on the screen (Pow! Plop! Bang! Craack!). The costumes worn by most characters were duly ludicrous and it never crossed our naïve minds that the whole thing was supposed to be a parody of the comic books. We took the adventures very seriously: the anthological death scene of Catwoman, falling from a tall building after dangling for a couple of tense minutes by the grip of Batman’s heroic hands before plunging into the void, depressed the most sensitive kids of the time. We all loved Catwoman, she was sexy and fun, who cared if she was evil?

Many other shows of the time were also popular, such as Land of GiantsBewitched and The Monkees. Television evolved a lot in more recent years, and I daresay some of the new shows have way more quality than many of the movies we watch in theaters. I was lucky those silly shows coincided with my childhood and early teenage years: I was able to enjoy them fully without any sense of shame or guilt.

What was your favorite TV show of the sixties and seventies?

Jorge Sette.

5 Brazilian Novels We Strongly Recommend


Our readers trust our book recommendations. We have been asked to recommend important novels that, for some reason, might not be on our followers’ radar. Therefore, I’m sharing with you five gems of Brazilian Literature, from different times and regions of our vast country,  all beautifully translated into English. I hope you enjoy them as much as I did.

The Alienist by Machado de Assis (Originally published in 1882)

What is madness? How can you differentiate mad people from sane minds? These are the questions this timelessly hilarious novella puts forward. Readers will meet the psychiatrist Dr. Simão Bacamarte, an academic luminary of the fictitious city of Itaguaí, near Rio de Janeiro. Having studied in two of the best universities of Europe, Coimbra, and Padua, Bacamarte turns down the Portuguese king’s invitation to remain in Europe as a court physician, deciding to go back to Brazil to conduct experiments and scientific studies in the field of mental health. The plot, however, is only a pretext for Machado to, sarcastically, criticize the theories of positivism, scientific racism and social Darwinism, prevalent at the end of the XIX century. The story takes place a century earlier, though, when Brazil was still a Portuguese colony. After committing 80% of the town’s inhabitants to the special asylum, the Casa Verde (The Green House), erected with public funds, Bacamarte realizes that, statistically, there must be something wrong: maybe it was the remaining 20% of the people, kept outside, who were crazy after all! But the development of new insights will take him a step further… 

The Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector (Originally published in 1977)

The last book by acclaimed writer Clarice Lispector, published shortly before her death, is the moving account of the life of a poor migrant woman, Macabea, who leaves her hometown in the state of Alagoas, in the northeast of the country (the region in which Clarice Lispector herself grew up, after arriving in Brazil from Ukraine in the 1920s) in search of the elusive dream of a better life in the metropolis of Rio de Janeiro. In addition, the novel is also an insightful reflection on the act of writing, as the fictitious narrator, Rodrigo, in quite a few asides, analyzes his own skills as a writer. According to Clarice Lispector, who summarized the book during a famous TV interview, this is “the story of a girl who was so poor that all she ate was hot dogs. The story is about a crushed innocence, about an anonymous misery”. The book was made into an award-winning movie directed by Suzana Amaral in 1985.

The War of the Saints by Jorge Amado (The Portuguese edition came out in 1988)

The holy icon of Saint Barbara (or Yansan, the goddess of thunder and lighting, as she is known in the Afro-Brazilian religion of Candomblé) is taken by boat from her original site, at the Church of Santo Amaro, to be part of a religious art exhibition in Salvador. When the boat docks, the saint miraculously comes to life, smiles, winks at her fellow passengers and simply walks off through the quay market, raising Cain in the city of Salvador. Her mission is to liberate the young and beautiful Manela from the repressive grip of her aunt and guardian Adalgisa. The plot, however, is only a pretext for the author to take the reader on an unforgettable and hilarious 48-hour tour of the city of Bahia during the oppressive years of the military dictatorship, introducing us to a series of colorful characters, savory foods and sensual religious rites. Mixing fact and fiction, where references to real musicians, singers, artists and political figures of the time abound, the narrator makes hilarious digressions, discussing, among other things, the nature of his narrative and making self-deprecating comments about his writing in a delicious conversation with the reader. This is undoubtedly one of the most accomplished and subversive books ever written by the author.

The Brothers by Milton Hatoum (Originally published in 2000)

Not many books in Brazilian literature tell stories that take place in the north region of the country. So The Brothers (Dois Irmãos, in Portuguese) will probably sound rather fresh to many readers. Besides having the exotic city of Manaus, in the heart of the Amazonian region, as its backdrop, the novel explores the life of a range of characters who are also singular in our literature: members of the community of Lebanese immigrants who live in that region. This is the family saga of the tradesman Halim, a muslim, his beautiful wife Zana, a Maronite christian, their identical twin sons, Yaqub and Omar, and their enterprising daughter Rania. The plot focuses on the rivalry and hatred between the twin brothers: the dissipated Omar, who lives at home, wasting his nights on drinking and prostitutes, and the ambitious, goal-oriented, Yakub, who, after being sent to Lebanon at the age of 13, where he lived for 5 years, comes back home only to leave again for Sao Paulo to become an engineer. This conflict between brothers is, of course, an archetypal motif, reminiscent of the biblical tale of Esau and Jacob, or Cain and Abel. Despite its universality, the plot is effectively localized in Hatoum’s fascinating Brazilian tale. Told by a peculiar narrator, Nael, the illegitimate son of the family’s native in-house maid, fathered by one of the twin brothers, the ill-fated story of passions, hatred, and revenge has unpredictable turns and a surprising end. The story also works as a metaphor for the contrasts within Brazil, especially between the underdeveloped North and the more progressive and industrial South. 

The Eternal Son by Critovão Tezza (originally published in 2007)

What does it feel like to find out that your firstborn has Down syndrome? This Jabuti prize-winning autobiographical novel by Cristovão Tezza tries to answer the question, as we follow the difficulties of a young father to come to terms with his son’s disability during the 1980s – when this condition was still called mongolism! Finding out that Felipe – the only character given a name in the book – has Down syndrome comes a terrible blow to this twenty-eight-year-old writer, who feels he himself has yet to become a full adult. He still doesn’t have any published books, his wife is the family breadwinner and his uncertain future becomes now even more complicated with the devastating arrival of this special kid. The description of the conflicting emotions the father goes through on his long journey towards the acceptance of Felipe, who lives in an eternal present, can at times make us uncomfortable, as the narrative – written in the third person – is brutally honest, letting the reader into the father’s most intimate thoughts and feelings, while avoiding any trace of sentimentality or self-righteousness. As a bonus, readers who might not know much about Down syndrome, are offered a great deal of information on this debilitating genetic condition. 

Jorge Sette

Review: Never Let me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro


Dystopias are a subgenre of science fiction that depict a nightmarish society, usually autocratic and controlling, in which the inhabitants or a section of the community are submitted to horrors imposed by the abuse of power or by the fact that technology has gone awry. The plot is usually embedded in a strong political context; the authors predict developments that might occur when trends in social conditions of their own times, combined with ill-use of technology, are taken to extremes. Having said that, some dystopias are written with the future in mind (1984 by George Orwell; Brave New World by Aldous Huxley; or The Circle by Dave Eggers); others take place in the author’s present (Animal Farm by George Orwell, for example). Others are even set in the past, as is the case with Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro, the extraordinary novel we’ll be reviewing in this post.

Kazuo Ishiguro and His Novel

Kazuo Ishiguro

Authors who have made their names writing what is considered high literature – such as Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day – can produce exceptionally refined sci-fi/dystopian novels. This is because they do not overemphasize the importance of the plot or try to deliberately shock the reader with the strangeness of their imaginary dysfunctional world. They build well-rounded characters who are incredibly believable, stressing their nuanced emotions, their heroic and/or flawed deeds, their generosity and their meanness: The overall complexity of human relationships. The drama and thrills emerge naturally and slowly from the characters and their behavior. Besides, these stories give us new insights into the human condition and, under the guise of this imaginary world, the authors tend to be discussing relevant current issues metaphorically.

The plot and the characters

Never Let Me Go is the poignant story of three friends – Kathy (the protagonist), Tommy and Ruth – whose only purpose in life is to grow up to serve as organ donors for other members of society. They are part of a group of people who have been specifically cloned from models (other human beings) and are raised in special training centers, boarding schools in the UK, which lend the whole process a pretense of normality and humaneness. Soon after they finish their education, as adults, they are trained as carers – to look after donors after their surgeries – before they themselves start receiving notifications to begin donating all their viable organs in sequential surgeries, until they die, having, thus, accomplished their function.

The novel is narrated in flashback by the protagonist Kathy, when she is already a carer in her early 30s. She nostalgically reminisces about their time at the idyllic Hailsham, their boarding school, which we find out later was famous for offering the best conditions for the raising of clones in the whole of the UK – unlike the first centers set up as an experiment during the 1950s and 1960s, where thousands of people were submitted to horrific upbringings before they became donors.

Kathy’s childhood and teenage years are spent in the late 1970s and early 1980s. That’s when we get to know Ruth, Kathy’s best friend, who has a strong manipulative streak; Tommy, the short-tempered sporting boy, who is unfortunately terrible at arts, a rather valued skill at the school; and the young and sensitive Kathy herself, who has mixed feelings towards Tommy, but can never engage in a full relationship with him, as Ruth steps in first to become his official girlfriend. Tommy’s personality – his aggression and lack of artistic ability – makes him the target of bullies at the school, until he is aided by a sympathetic teacher who helps him manage his feelings and learn to come to terms with who he really is.

The students have a vague notion that they are being prepared for an unusual kind of future. However they will not know all the details about their tragic fate until much later when they enter society. The novel’s atmosphere is dark, ominous and deeply poignant – almost gothic in certain passages – as we see these kids growing up only half realizing what the future holds for them.

The language

Of course, as in all kinds of impactful dystopian works, the author comes up with specific language to define processes and entities of that special reality. In this case, donors do not die, they complete (passing away after a number of operations); the teachers of the special school they go to are known as guardians. The breed of humans cloned to serve as donors have a first name and only a capital letter for surname: Kathy H, Tommy D, and Susanna C, for example. Possibles are random people they run into occasionally and suspect they are probably the models from whom they might have been cloned.

Final considerations

In the last part of the book, as Ruth’s donations have already started, Kathy becomes her carer; later she is finally persuaded by Ruth to go and look after Tommy, who has already undergone two donations, so they can develop the autumnal – and doomed – romantic relationship that Ruth believes she has made impossible for them to enjoy so far, by standing between the two of them all their lives. She wants to make up for it now that she is about to die.

Some critics say this is the best book Japanese-born British author Kazuo Ishiguro has written since The Remains of the Day. It’s certainly a great achievement, having been shortlisted for the 2005 Booker Prize.

The book was also turned into a movie in 2010 and has become more popular ever since. Nevertheless, the language of some of the scenes created by Ishiguro is in itself so visual, beautiful and emotional, that I refuse to let the painful yet rewarding experience of reading those wonderful pages be influenced by any movie director’s interpretation or view of that special world.

No movie for me, thanks! The book has all the magic I need.

Jorge Sette

Capitalism versus Communism – according to Philip Roth


“Look, everything the Communists say about capitalism is true, and everything the capitalists say about Communism is true. The difference is, our system works because it’s based on the truth about people’s selfishness, and theirs doesn’t because it’s based on a fairy tale about people’s brotherhood. It’s such a crazy fairy tale they’ve got to take people and put them in Siberia in order to get them to believe it.” 

― Philip Roth, I Married a Communist

Philip Roth Revealed: Deconstructing Common Myths about One of the Greatest American Writers


Philip Roth died on May 22, 2018, at 85. This is the last article I wrote about him:

Before you read this post, you must understand and accept that nothing about it is objective or detached. I’m a huge fan of Philip Roth, who is considered by many one of the greatest American writers. I love his books. From the first Philip Roth I ever read – I was 17 or 18 at the time, young and impressionable – I was hooked for life. The fact that it happened to be the outrageously funny and scandalous Portnoy’s Complaint undoubtedly had something to do with my obsession. So my disclaimer is this: partiality will color this article; I’m a pro-Roth kind of person. My plan in this article is to tear down ingrained myths about the life and work of this brilliant provocateur, in my own inartistic words.

1. Philip Roth was an anti-Semitic, self-hating Jew. 

Have you ever read any of his books? The fact that he was Jewish pervades his work. His self-deprecating comments can only deceive the naive. He was very proud of his ethnicity and his family and friends, although he was far from orthodox or even religious. Roth was an atheist. The misunderstandings arise from his greater pride in being an American and his love for the fundamental (although perhaps more ideal than real) values the US stands for. He never took for granted the freedom and lifestyle that are the simple result of being born and having grown up in the geographic space that comprises the United States of America. Unlike the Anne Frank of his book The Ghost Writer, he had a childhood. And if he refused to be “a good boy” to be accepted, it’s because he believed that being a good boy made it even harder to fit in. You need to be outstanding, outrageous, infamous to break down walls and belong in the world of the goy.

2. Philip Roth wrote about his own life.

 Of course, reality informed his stories, and reality is apprehended through personal experiences as much as from vicarious ones – from books we read, movies we watch, things that happen to our family and friends. So there’s certainly a lot of Roth’s own life in his stories, but these experiences are transformed by imagination; they’re not necessarily exact representations of things that happened to him or that he did himself. Everything is filtered through the powerful lens of language and fiction. Life becomes larger and its dark corners are illuminated by the spotlight of Art. Hyperbole, amplification, metaphors, and masks are all part of the process. You can’t put your finger on a single paragraph in any of his books and guarantee it describes something that really happened to him. Even the famous Nathan Zuckerman, who first appears in The Ghost Writer and continues to feature as either the protagonist or the narrator in many subsequent novels, isn’t a warranted alter ego. I’ll admit Zuckerman is the mask that most closely resembled the author behind it, but he’s not Roth. There are a couple of books, however, in which Roth dares to unmask himself and write about reality – as far as this is possible since experiences are based on memory and language, which somehow always transform them. One of these non-fictional books is The Facts: A Novelist’s Autobiography, written after a serious bout of depression caused by taking the drug Halcion for pain in his back. He wrote this short autobiography covering only the first 30 years of his life as a healing exercise, stripping himself as much as possible of his imagination and the usual masks. The second is the moving but never sentimental Patrimony: A True Story, a “snapshot of his father in movement,” as he states in the BBC documentary Roth Unleashed (which I strongly recommend), and a portrait written so he could remember his father in as much detail as possible. “I mustn’t forget anything,” was his mantra at the time. His father was dying of a brain tumor, and Roth realized he had the makings of a book – a tribute to the old man – in the notes he took at the end of each day, after coming home from the hospital where he looked after his father.

3. Philip Roth was a misogynist. 

All I can say is Claudia Roth Pierpont (no relation to Philip), the writer of a very interesting book titled Roth Unbound: A Writer and His Books, is a woman, and she strongly disagrees with the view that Roth hated women. She gives the reader great insight into his body of work, including the themes, language, characters, and masks explored in his novels, and she maintains his books probe deeply into the human soul and bring up everything, the good and the bad, and therefore include a wide spectrum of women characters. It’s not accurate to say that he always depicted women as shrews. Besides, who’s to say that the women depicted as shrews in certain novels are representative of all women? If he hated women, he must have hated men as well, or haven’t you met one of the most despicable and depraved heroes ever created in Western literature: Mickey Sabbath, the protagonist of Roth’s gripping novel Sabbath’s Theater?

4. Philip Roth was a misanthrope. 

Writers, as a rule, aren’t the most sociable people in the world. They need hours of solitude if they’re to produce something worthwhile. Roth was a well-integrated and sociable person in his years as a child, teenager and young adult, and made many friends in college. Some of these friendships lasted until the day he died. He survived a tumultuous marriage to an older woman he met when he was only 23 and entered into a long-term relationship with actress Claire Bloom, during which time he lived mostly in London. He had other lovers and mistresses throughout his life. As he grew older, however, he became more and more of a recluse, spending long hours on his books, which grew in scope and importance to become indisputable masterpieces. According to writer Salman Rushdie, the growth and maturity reflected in these books were a direct consequence of Roth’s turning his creative beam from the obsessive self-analysis of his early works to the depiction and discussion of what lay around him, focusing on the bigger issues and themes of his beloved America. In his early 80s, he was perfectly happy living alone in his beautiful country house in Connecticut. When asked if he ever felt lonely, he replied, “Yes, sometimes, like everyone else,” but that the absence of friction – the inevitable result of contact and negotiations with other human beings – was something he never missed. It’s bliss not to have to cope with this any longer, he claimed.

The best way to get to know the real Roth – or rather, the Roth that matters – is by reading any of his 31 books. Immerse yourself in his world of masks without worrying too much about what’s real or imaginary. Engage in his game of mirrors. Appreciate his language and power of imagination. The life of any human being is composed of memories, so its account is never 100 percent reliable. We create and recreate reality all the time, so why expect anything different from a man who earns his living writing fiction? You will never get to his core because it’s impossible to grasp, being unpredictable and transient.

Jorge Sette

Interviewing Homer Simpson – One of The Most Popular Dads in Pop Culture


For months, I tried to get an exclusive interview with Homer Simpson for Father’s Day. His PR representative kept turning me down but I didn’t give up. Then I had a lucky break. As Lisa, his daughter, was browsing through my blog Linguagem, she came across the article Stephen King’s The Shining: Like Father, Like Son (https://wp.me/p4gEKJ-1IL) and got interested. The PR rep had neglected to inform Mr. Simpson as to where the interview would be published. Lisa convinced her Dad how important it could be for his career to talk to Linguagem. Consequently, Homer immediately granted me an interview. He couldn’t have been more apologetic about his employee’s gaffe. Needless to say, she got fired.

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The next day I flew to Springfield and, after a wonderful dinner with the entire family, I spoke to Homer. Below, you will find a summary of the insightful conversation we had about his life and the importance of fatherhood:

Linguagem: Mr. Simpson, how do you plan to celebrate Father’s Day with your family? Are you going anywhere fancy?

HS: What’s the point of going out? We’re just gonna wind up back here anyway.

Linguagem: I see. How do you feel about life in general?

HS: I’ve learned that life is one crushing defeat after another…

Linguagem: Do you follow any particular philosophy on how to educate your kids? Can you give us an example of how you discipline them when they are out of line?

HS: Now Bart, since you broke Grandpa’s teeth, he gets to break yours.

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Linguagem: And what about when your boy reach puberty?

HS: …I told my wife how to go about teaching Bart how to become a man: The code of the schoolyard, Marge! The rules that teach a boy to be a man. Let’s see. Don’t tattle. Always make fun of those different from you. Never say anything, unless you’re sure everyone feels exactly the same way you do.

Linguagem: Hmmm. As a Dad, what are your hopes for your children?

HS: I believe that children are our future. Unless we stop them now.

Linguagem: Are you a religious man? Do you thank God for the great life and wonderful family you have?

HS: I’m normally not a praying man, but if you’re up there, please save me, Superman. But I remember saying on one particular occasion: Dear Lord, the gods have been good to me. As an offering, I present these milk and cookies. If you wish me to eat them instead, please give me no sign whatsoever…thy will be done.

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Linguagem: What would you do if there were some kind of emergency with your kids?

HS: Operator! Give me the number for 911!

Linguagem: What is the best advice you could give to kids who didn’t accomplish what they had wanted to?

HS: Kids, you tried your best and you failed miserably. The lesson is, never try.

Linguagem: Do you consider yourself a good role model for your children?

HS: I think the saddest day of my life was when I realized I could beat my dad at most things, and Bart experienced that at the age of four.

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Note: all Homer’s answers are actual quotes from the very successful and funny TV show. Homer may sometimes sound harsh, but he is a loving father and adored by his dedicated wife. Happy Father’s Day to all.

Jorge Sette

 

 

 

10 Major Benefits of Reading


Reading is one of the great pleasures of life. It’s an acquired taste, though. It doesn’t develop naturally. The habit of reading starts at home. Kids will probably develop a liking to books eventually, if they see their parents reading; if there are shelves with books around; if they are allowed to spend time in libraries and bookstores just playing with and touching books; or if they are read to by their caretakers. I grew up among books, and many people in my family read for pleasure, so, for me, it was easier to tackle the complex task of going through words and sentences and trying to make sense of them. It gets better and easier with practice.

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In addition to giving pleasure, there are many other proven benefits associated with reading. Here are some of them:

1. It’s entertaining. Reading is a wonderful and relatively cheap hobby. It helps you pass the time; it takes your mind off problems; it’s relaxing. You go places and meet interesting people in the stories you read.

2. Books can be mentors.  It’s said that to develop a professional skill or hone a natural talent, one needs coaching and mentoring. Not everyone can get these services. Great leaders, artists and people who stand out in their jobs and careers have always been mentored. Books can take this role. If you don’t have access to a human mentor, read their written words. Buy his/her biography. Books will even give you the opportunity to follow a number of mentors and get from them what suits you better. Vicarious experience can be a great source of learning.

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3. Reading improves your creativity.  Of course, the most direct consequence of reading is improving your writing skills. There’s nothing like exposure to good writing to put you in the right direction of writing well and more creatively. But reading also opens many other doors in your brain: You develop new perspectives and insights. You add new knowledge to what you had accumulated before and.. bang!…all of a sudden you come up with a super original idea. Innovation leads to success.

4. You will never feel lonely again. Have you ever travelled alone? Maybe not as a hobby, but, sometimes, you need to do that for work. And it can be very lonely. If you like reading, books will be friends you can take along with you wherever you go: Especially now, when you can have your whole library on your smartphone or tablet,  being able to download a new title at the touch of a button.

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5. Reading can be a life-changing experience. Some books have such a profound impact on people that they actually change the course of their lives. They give you such new angles on things, you decide to behave in a different way or start something new. They may make you go to another country; start a new career; decide to take a course on a new subject, change your investment plans (thousands of people have, for example, reported how the personal finance book Rich Dad, Poor Dad, by Robert Kiyosaki, has changed the way they think about their future).

6. Reading makes you smarter. It affects your brain in very powerful ways, creating new synapses (connections), improving your memory, broadening your attention span. Reading is the best brain workout. Great leaders are readers and this should say enough about how the activity boosts the powers of your mind.

7. Studies have indicated that reading can be a strong protection against the onset of brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s and dementia. It looks like the exercise brains go through when submitted to the effort of decoding, processing and linking words, making sense of passages and connecting them with what was read before acts as a shield against those conditions.

8. Reading reduces stress. It changes your mental context, makes your focus on something other than your most immediate worries; calms you down, and helps improve your general health.

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9. In the context of foreign language learning, reading is the most powerful skill in acquiring a new language. Reading in the target language – starting with simplified, graded readers and progressively moving on to unabridged books – is the strongest way to consolidate the grammar, vocabulary and linguistic functions you have been studying, as you observe them being used communicatively in its natural context.

10. Books will make you a better person. Reading about other people’s problems and lives, be them fictional or real; learning about how other people feel and see the world; exposing yourself to different dreams, passions, and aspirations; all this opens up your mind and boosts your empathy. As a result, you become a lot more tolerant of diversity and turn into a more evolved human being.

Are there any other benefits you would like to add to this list? Please feel free to write your comments below.

Jorge Sette.

 

 

 

 

 

 

How to Become a Better Reader in 11 Steps


First, let me explain what I mean by becoming a better reader. It does not mean to read faster, but to read more often and more efficiently. I know it may sound contradictory, but reading faster and reading better are not the same thing. As a matter of fact, reading better means reading more slowly: in the sense that you put more time in savoring every word of the book, appreciate and reread sentences, try to decipher the deepest meanings of a novel; reading slowly also means to understand and reflect on the author’s views, if you are reading non-fiction, and decide if you agree with them or not. What motivated the author to write his/her piece? What is he/she really trying to say? Is the plot the most important element or just a gimmick to sustain interesting characters and what they represent?

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Here are a few tips to improve your reading process:

1. Don’t feel guilty if you don’t finish every book you start. Read for pleasure and fun. If you have read, let’s say, 20 pages into a book and the story (or the material) still doesn’t hold any real interest, why go on? Quit it and get something more pleasant.

2. On the other hand, make time to read more serious or difficult books (once a day or a week, maybe). It’s important to stretch your reading skills. So, now and then, make an effort to read beyond your proficiency level or your sphere of interest. You will develop as a reader and find it progressively easier to tackle harder texts. And the payoff will be huge.

3. Try audiobooks. Especially the ones you suspect you will never find the energy to read. Listening can be great in situations in which you are doing mechanical things and cannot use your hands to hold a book or another reading device (such as driving, or riding a bike, or commuting on a bumpy road – some people get nauseous if they read even while moving smoothly on a train or bus, for example). I live in a city with some of the worst traffic jams on the planet. I don’t know what I would do without my precious audiobooks.

4. Keep informed about interesting books: readers’ lists; publishing staff’s picks; lists of the 100 best books ever in different categories; books which have won prizes (the Booker Prize and the Pulitzer prize winners or shortlisted books are a sure way of getting great recommendations for your future read).

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5. Make time for skimming. To read better, there’s no need to apply your full concentration every time you pick a book or magazine. Practice skimming: going through a number of articles in print or electronic format just to get the gist, the main idea. This is an excellent way to acquire a reading habit or develop your reading strategies.

6. Join a book club. Being part of a group of readers will give you structure and will help you keep the interest and motivation. It adds accountability to the process, so you will feel the pressure to get it done, so you are able to discuss the assigned chapters in the next meeting.

7. Reread: there is no need to read new stuff all the time. Reread your favorite books as often as you wish. They are a tried and tested source of pleasure. Besides, you will always find something new; a passage or sentence you either don’t remember or hadn’t noticed before. When I reread books I first read years or decades ago, I’m usually surprised at how much I missed the first time around: I was younger and did not have the necessary maturity to grasp all the richness of the material.

8. Write your impressions about the books you are reading. Keep a journal. Highlight and write notes about your favorite passages on the page itself (remember you can add notes to ebooks as well!). Ask yourself questions about the book and try answering them. Some books already bring ready-made comprehension questions to help structure the reading process. Answer them in writing.

9. Try different genres, do not limit yourself to what you already know or like. You will be surprised at the new possibilities of discovery this will open.

10. Always carry books with you: in print or e-format. I usually travel with at least one paperback, in print format, and my whole ebook library on my iPhone. I’m terrified at the prospect of having free time and nothing available to read.

11. See a movie version of the book you are planning to read to make it more palatable. Now that you have the context, it may be easier to cope with the heavier language of the book.

I would love to hear your own strategies and tips on how to read better. Would you share them with us, please?

Jorge Sette