Jorge Amado’s Novels: Marxism, Humor and the Beauty of the African-Brazilian Culture


Jorge Amado (August 10, 2012 – August 6, 2001) was a very prolific Brazilian author, having written more than 30 novels, translated into some 49 languages. Most of his stories are set in the state of Bahia, the region where he was born. His works highlight the brutal economic inequality of the society and the richness of his state’s Afro-Brazilian culture: the empowering traits of the religious cult of Candomblé, the beauty and creativity of its mestizo people, the spicy flavors of the delicious local cuisine, and the rhythms of its music and local dance/martial art (capoeira).

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Salvador, the capital of Bahia, the state Jorge Amado was born in. Photo: April, 2019. Jorge Sette.

Through Amado’s characters, we get to hear the voice of the lower classes, the poor, the fallen and the discriminated against. We also hear the voices of the strong women of Brazil. Despite the fact that his early books were derogatorily characterized as sentimental Marxism, Jorge Amado matured as a writer, as of the late 1950s. With the publication of Gabriela, Clove and Cinammon (1958), his novels became a lot more sophisticated, funny and authentic. Satire became a strong element of his style. The main themes of Jorge Amado’s books, however, remained the same: the lives of the poor people of Bahia, their traditions, the religious syncretism between Catholicism and the African cults, the prejudice and discrimination against the mixed-raced (mestizo) people of Brazil (which, ironically, comprises most of the population!) and open criticism of the hypocritical moral values of the Brazilian upper and middle classes.

Jorge Amado was a member of the Brazilian Academy of Letters from 1961 until his death in 2001. Here’s a list of his most popular works.

1.  Captains of the Sands (Capitães da Areia, 1937)

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Captains of the Sands, a rather romanticized account of the lives of a gang of abandoned street kids in the city of Salvador (called the city of Bahia in the book), whose crimes terrorize the local population, may sound a bit tame by today’s standards. After all, the level of real juvenile violence experienced in the big cities of Brazil (exposed in books such as City of God by Paulo Lins, for example) surpass by far what we read in this novel, which takes place in the 1930s.

However, the reader can still be moved and relate to the thesis of how the social-economic context deprives these kids of their innocence and childhood and is ultimately responsible for their corruption and lack of choice. Reminiscent of Charles Dickens and Mark Twain, the book focuses on the adventures of the leader of the gang, Pedro Bala (bullet), and five of his closest allies, living off theft and petty crimes, and sleeping in a shack by the sea. We follow their early years as members of the feared gang of the Captains of the Sands and the different paths taken by each of them as they grow older and leave.

2. Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands (Dona Flor e Seus Dois Maridos, 1966)

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It’s surely inconceivable for most Latin American males to accept that it may take more than one man – at one given time – to completely satisfy the many facets of a woman’s life. In this widely successful novel (turned into a hugely popular movie in the 1970s), Jorge Amado adopts a very liberal and perhaps feminist point of view in this respect.

Flor, an adorable young woman in the Bahia of the 1920s, is an expert in the local cuisine. Her recipes are so popular that she decides to open a cooking school for girls. Soon afterwards, she meets and falls in love with the irresistible Vadinho, a typical “malandro” (a bohemian ruffian), an incorrigible rogue who spends most nights gambling and drinking in the company of prostitutes. The marriage takes place against her family’s wishes, as the whole conservative society of the time seems to foresee that it’s doomed. The couple is perfectly matched sexually, though. Vadinho fulfills Flor’s every fantasy and surpasses all her expectations in the bedroom. When he suddenly dies, celebrating Carnival, Flor is left inconsolable.

After a year of mourning, the widow finally marries the local pharmacist, a very decent man called Dr. Teodoro, who has nothing of the passion for life that Vadinho did. Teodoro stands for respectability, tender love, a reliable routine and financial safety. For a while, Flor seems happy and grateful for the arrangement, but it does not take long for her typical ardor to flourish again; she deeply misses Vadinho’s passionate lovemaking. After a couple of months living in this torture, her desire for Vadinho becomes so strong, that it brings him back from the dead. Only Flor can see him, when he appears, always naked, at the most unexpected times. He is invisible to everyone else. What will Flor do about this?

3. The War of the Saints (O Sumiço da Santa, 1988)

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The holy icon of Saint Barbara (or Yansan, the goddess of thunder and lightning, 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, and winks at her fellow passengers and simply walks off through the market quay, 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.

4. The Two Deaths of Quincas Wateryell  (A Morte e a Morte de Quincas Berro D’Água, 1959)

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This novella tells the strange and hilarious story of a man who, getting fed up with the tyranny of a bossy and nagging wife and the pettiness of the codes of respectability of the lower bourgeoisie, suddenly decides to say goodbye to all that and start a new life as a drunk vagrant in the streets of Bahia. He leaves his family and dedicates himself to the most unthinkable hedonism: getting drunk every night, having sex with prostitutes and becoming the king of the bohemians of Bahia. He craves total freedom, has a legion of loyal followers and admirers, pledging that his tomb will be the endless sea.

When he suddenly dies, however, and faces the danger of having his corpse go through a respectable and catholic wake and burial, four of his closest friends show up to pay his respects and – in a sequence of scenes filled with humor and poetry – steal the corpse (or the living-dead man – as the reader is never quite sure how dead he really is) to take him for a last night of celebration in the city, before his second and final death.

On a deeper level, the story investigates the creation of popular myths and the distortion of reality prompted by the ingrained custom of gossiping, so typical of Brazil and Bahia, in particular.

Have you ever read any of Jorge Amado’s novels? How do you like his books? Please leave a comment below.

Au revoir

Jorge Sette.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon: a must-read novel


I’m planning to eat a moqueca today, a typical Brazilian dish consisting of salt water fish stew in coconut milk, onions, garlic, tomatoes, coriander and dendê oil from Bahia. This will be my way of celebrating having finished the delicious novel Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon by Brazilian writer Jorge Amado.

Despite the fact that our literature is not very well known outside the borders of Brazil, chances are the reader will have heard of Amado and his homeland, Bahia. He is one of our most popular writers of the XX century, and his books have been translated into more than 40 languages throughout the world.

Many of his works have been turned into famous Brazilian soap operas, miniseries and movies, but, of course, the experience of watching Amado either on the big or small screen does not compare to the much deeper pleasure of embarking on the deliciously funny, poetic and encompassing canvas of his writing.

Sônia Braga, as Gabriela

Sônia Braga, as Gabriela

Jorge Amado treats the reader with a wealth of unforgettable characters from the lowest to the highest echelons of the provincial cities of the northeast of Brazil, who intermingle in a network of politics, friendships, romance and violence.

Gabriela, the novel, is a dream of humor, poetry and cultural information. As a Brazilian, it felt great to be transported to the Ilhéus (a town on the coast of Bahia) of the first decades of last century, when the booming of the cacao exportation was making changes in the town and its customs at a pace never seen before. Progress was threatening the lifestyle and status quo of the families of the first farmers who got hold of huge expanses of land by force, with the help of their armed jagunços, never hesitating to use violence and murder in constant ambushes against their opponents. But now times were changing, with the arrival of technology and progressist businessmen, who came to those backward towns attracted  by the riches generated by the cacao.

Jorge Amado delivers his prose in a light, funny and detached tone, packed with irony, yet showing great warmth and understanding towards his characters. He depicts prostitutes, rich farmers (the so-called “colonels”), their minions (“jagunços”), churchgoing  and gossipy splinters, lonely concubines, small time businessmen and pathetic pseudo-intellectuals, against the backdrop of the geography and culture of the small provincial cities of the early decades of the 20th century. His prose will stay with you for a long time after you close the book (or switch off your Kindle), such is its power and universality.

Moreover, “Gabriela” is a very sensual text, filled with the colors, smells and tastes of Bahia. It’s a book that celebrates life and the liberation of minds, especially women’s, from the colonial chains and obsolete traditions of a male-dominated society. It’s a radical hymn against machismo, opening up doors to the possibility of freedom.

Gabriela, the protagonist, represents the essence of Brazilianness, in her beauty, simplicity, lightheartedness and pleasure for life. Of course, both the main characters of “Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon” and “Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands”, another famous Amado novel, are deeply associated in our minds with the image of Brazilian actress Sônia Braga, who portrayed them both in famous movies and soap operas during the seventies. Of course, I was too young at the time to fully enjoy them – this, however, does not stop me from putting the face of Ms Braga to the wild Gabriela of the pages of the novel. After all, Sonia Braga was an icon of Brazilian sexuality and beauty in her day.

Jorge Amado is a pleasure to read. His stories will certainly make a profound mark in your life and deepen the awareness you may have of Brazilian culture. I strongly recommend you have a go at it.

Au revoir,

Jorge Sette.