Some critics are made uneasy by the coexistence in Jorge Amado of Marxist commitment and the Bahian version of far niente, or “Let the good times roll.” Amado’s duality was evidenced by his popularity on both sides of the Iron Curtain and by the unlikely conjunction of his early propagandistic novels and his later spate of sexy best sellers. There is more consistency in Amado’s career than first appears, however. As Amado himself maintained, his sympathies throughout his writing were with the working class and the poor. In part, Amado’s metamorphoses indicate his strategy: He had to present his case in the face of disinterest, opposition, and censorship. After all, if sex and humor could be used to sell toothpaste and automobiles, then they could be used to sell Marxist views. Amado also answered the question of what to do while one waits for the revolution: One has a good time and invites the rich to a party. Indeed, in Amado’s easygoing Marxism, revolution might not even be necessary, as modern society seems to be evolving on its own toward a humane civilization free of want, repression, and prejudices.
The duality in Amado’s outlook is reflected in his depiction of the working-class poor. They are ground down by hunger and serfdom, yet, paradoxically, they are also heroic. As a class they are heroic because it is mainly with their blood, sweat, and tears that civilization has been built. The working class also furnishes most of Amado’s individual heroes and heroines. In the early novels, heroic proletarians abound, the most notable being the black António Balduíno, who becomes a labor leader in Jubiabá. Later examples are the mulatto beauties Gabriela and Tieta, who subvert the bourgeois social order with their sexual freedom. The Syrian immigrant Nacib Saad, who has to choose between Gabriela and bourgeois macho respectability, might also be included here. In general, the Bahian poor, with their urge to enjoy life, best exemplify Amado’s ideal of humane civilization, whereas the repressed bourgeoisie are driven by greed, puritanism, snobbery, and other demons. The bourgeoisie rule, but when they want a good time they have to go to the poor. Through the interaction of these two classes, Amado shows the evolution of society taking place.
The Violent Land
The most primitive stage of social organization is represented in The Violent Land, set in early twentieth century Bahia. Although Bahia has been at least sparsely settled for centuries, frontier conditions reminiscent of the Wild West of North America still prevail in the novel. The main enemy is the dark rain forest, the Sequeiro Grande, full of fearsome animals and imagined goblins presided over by an old witch doctor who delivers his curse. The jungle constantly threatens to reclaim the cacao plantations carved from it, a threat symbolized by the cries of frogs being swallowed by snakes in a pond next to a plantation house. The darkness lurking in the hearts of men and women—ignorance, lawlessness, amorality, and greed—also threatens. To bring order out of this impending chaos and drive the wedge of conquest deeper into the jungle requires a few strongman types; therefore, the resulting social order is a feudal plantation system presided over by the strongmen-owners, such as Sinhô and Juca Badaró and Colonel Horacio da Silveira.
The defects of this feudal strongman system, however, are immediately apparent. Only the strongmen (the “colonels”) and their close henchmen benefit substantially; the workers live at a subsistence level, laboring long hours daily and completely subject to the will of the strongmen. The social order achieved at such high cost is minimal: The only law is the whim of the strongmen. Corrupted by their power, the strongmen corrupt their followers; this moral morass is symbolized by the sticky cacao ooze that clings to the hands and feet of the workers, who can rise in the order only by becoming assassins for their bosses (a description that also gives some notion of how the social order is enforced). The only ideal is a macho code of personal courage (which, however, is flexible enough to allow bullying and bushwhacking; beating women is also considered acceptable). Most of the women serve as cooks or prostitutes, though Ana Badaró impresses everyone with her ability to shoot as straight as any man.
Paradoxically, the strongman social order is very weak. Dependent on the headman, it waits for his orders before anything gets done, and then it is limited by his vision. The system’s fragility is demonstrated most clearly when the strongmen clash, as happens in The Violent Land. The principle of survival of the fittest returns: In the cacao war between Colonel Horacio and the Badarós, the Badarós are decimated and their plantation burned to the ground.
Amado thus shows the feudal strongman system to be only one step beyond the jungle, a primitive stage that belongs to a civilized country’s past. As long as it stays in the past, it can be celebrated, and The Violent Land thus possesses epic qualities: a grand design, sweeping action, a lyric prose style that breaks out into ballads. The colorful characters tend toward the mock-heroic—gamblers, whores, assassins, adulterers, colonels. Above all, Amado has an epic theme: the struggle and sacrifice required to achieve progress. He never tires of saying that the land was fertilized by human blood, mainly the blood of workers. To lose what has been achieved at such great cost would be a betrayal.
Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon
Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon shows the next step up for society, the transition from a feudal order to a crude form of democracy. The novel is set in Ilhéus in 1925-1926, during a boom period for the cacao industry. Significantly, material change, especially the growth of cities, has preceded political change. Representing the old feudal order is the octogenarian Colonel Ramiro Bastos, in addition to a clutch of other colonels, some sporting scars of the cacao wars. Representing the new order is the cacao exporter Mundinho Falcão, who gathers a following of town dignitaries and a few enlightened colonels. Ruling by decree, Colonel Ramiro Bastos stands in the way of further progress—schools, roads, sewers, and especially a port that will accommodate large ships. Throughout the novel, the political campaign between Colonel Ramiro and Mundinho Falcão heats up. Colonel Ramiro’s followers propose to bring back the old-style violence, but their plans fizzle when the old man dies. Ultimately the issues are settled peacefully, by an honest election, itself an innovation for the region.
Significantly, the agent of change, Mundinho Falcão, is not a native of the region but the youngest son of a rich and politically prominent Rio de Janeiro family. Another, humbler agent of change is also an outsider: the Syrian Nacib Saad, owner of the Vesuvius Bar. The novel’s other main line of action...
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