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

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

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.