Biography

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1044

Jorge Amado (uh-MAH-doo) was Brazil’s most popular twentieth century novelist. He was born in the municipality of Itabuna in the cacao region of southern Bahia. His father was a cacao planter who lost his first plantation in a flood in 1914 but later was sufficiently successful in the business to...

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Jorge Amado (uh-MAH-doo) was Brazil’s most popular twentieth century novelist. He was born in the municipality of Itabuna in the cacao region of southern Bahia. His father was a cacao planter who lost his first plantation in a flood in 1914 but later was sufficiently successful in the business to send his son to boarding schools, first in the state capital of Salvador and later in the (then) national capital, Rio de Janeiro. Amado was not a good student—though he liked to read and write—but he eventually managed to complete a law degree, the diploma for which he never bothered to claim. By the time he had completed his studies, in fact, he had already worked as a reporter, joined a bohemian group called the Academy of Rebels, and published two novels.

In his second novel, Amado abandoned the rather pretentious intellectualism of his first work and turned to his memories of life on the cacao plantation as the basis for his fiction. In his third, he portrayed urban slum dwellers in the city of Salvador. These two locales, the lawless frontier of the cacao planters and the milieu of the lower social strata of Brazil’s oldest city, are particularly important to Amado’s canon. His first novels are neither pleasant memories of a childhood gone by nor picturesque glimpses of colorful folk—Amado was clearly an angry young man, a fact the Brazilian government recognized several times in the 1930’s by burning his books in public and sending their author to jail and even into exile. Amado returned to Brazil in 1945 at the end of the dictatorship of Getúlio Vargas. In that same year, he married Zélia Gattai, with whom he would have two children. He was also elected to the Brazilian Congress that year, running on the ticket of the Brazilian Communist Party.

The Party operated openly and legally only for a brief period, however, and within two years Amado was again in exile, first in Paris and later in Prague, where his daughter Paloma was born. In 1951, he won the Stalin Peace Prize. Amado’s leftist sympathies were largely undisguised in the early works, which display increasing skill in evoking scene and sentiment and progressively more elaborate narrative structures. His political commitment reached its peak in the trilogy Os subterrâneos da liberdade (the freedom underground), a work of considerable narrative skill whose art is diluted by a tendentious quality which many readers found irritating. The first volume of the work was published in 1954, when Amado returned to Brazil from his exile.

In 1958, he published Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon, which many critics considered a watershed work in his canon. It is a convoluted and dramatic narrative that not only lacks but also undermines the righteous tone of some of the earlier works. It purports to be no more than a “chronicle of a town in the interior,” and its narrator appears to be as bemused by the goings-on as many readers are likely to be. This work marks the beginning of the quintessential Amado, a gifted narrative craftsman with a keen eye and a finely tuned ear who could turn the minor triumphs and traumas of Brazil’s lower social registers into something that might be called high comic melodrama.

Certain features of this “new” Amado were present in even the earliest works, but Amado’s novels published after 1958 are all essentially comic. They are also all set either in the state of Bahia or in the city of Salvador, whose magical quality Amado exploits in the manner New Orleans writers exploit the special character of their city. Bahia is not only Brazil’s oldest city, it is also the most African—and it is tropical. The setting means that the scene is exotic even to most Brazilians, and Amado takes full advantage of the otherness implicit in that fact to fashion stories that could have taken place only in such surroundings. Many of his later novels feature direct intervention in events by African deities.

Although the overt political element seems largely absent from the later novels, the ethical bent of the later works is expressed in terms of hostility to propriety and contempt for the establishment. Earlier Amadian heroes and heroines were angry rebels and innocent victims—the later ones are rather more like gleeful subversives. In Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands, the heroine manages to find happiness by having two husbands—one of them is dead, to be sure, but he nevertheless remains remarkably lusty after death. In Tieta, the Goat Girl, yet another heroine (heroines outnumber heroes in these works) uses money earned in prostitution to save the ecosystem and sagging economy of her hometown, providing lessons on life and love along the way.

After 1952, Amado lived in a charming but unpretentious house in Salvador. He did much of his writing in the homes of friends elsewhere in Brazil and in Portugal, however, because his residence became a tourist attraction. Brazil’s most prolific writer of best-sellers, he also became something of a rarity in Brazilian society in another sense: He was a writer who lived by writing alone. In 1961, Amado was seated in the Brazilian Academy of Letters. He died in 2001 just before his eighty-ninth birthday.

Amado was sometimes criticized for being too facile a writer, for his blatant leftism, for his fondness for amoral or even immoral acts and characters, and even for being racist and sexist. Not much of this criticism stands up to close scrutiny, however, and some seems inspired solely by the belief that anybody who sells so many books cannot be worth much as a writer. No author in Brazil offers a serious challenge to his popularity at home, and his works in translation have sold well (and at times spectacularly) in the forty-odd languages in which they are available. This success may indicate that a well-wrought narrative, whatever malice it may express toward political or moral convention, has appeal to a broad segment of the international reading public. No Brazilian writer of the twentieth century did as much to give new life to the concept of the pleasure of the text, and few writers of any nationality rival him as an original and productive fabulist.

Biography

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 667

A Nordestino (a person from the Brazilian northeast), Jorge Amado wrote about the people and places he experienced at first hand: the cacao plantations and seacoast towns of his native state of Bahia. Son of João Amado de Faria and Eulália Leal Amado, he was born August 10, 1912, on his father’s cacao plantation near Ilhéus. When he was old enough, Amado spent his summers working in the cacao groves with other Bahian laborers. These early experiences among Brazil’s impoverished provided an invaluable learning experience for Amado and a foundation for much of his writing.

It was a turbulent and violent period, as documented in The Violent Land, where Amado depicts himself as a fascinated child observing a highly publicized murder trial. He attended primary school in Ilhéus; his headmistress, Dona Guilhermina, appears briefly in Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon, where her reputation for severity is “legendary.” Amado went on to secondary school in Salvador, first at the strict Jesuit Colégio Antánio Vieira (from which he ran away) and then at the progressive Ginásio Ipiranga. He attended law school at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, receiving his degree in 1935.

Appreciating Amado’s penchant for social realism requires an understanding of the sociopolitical climate in which he first began to write. Following a global economic crisis that shattered the coffee industry and forced masses of Brazilians into poverty, Brazil’s 1930 presidential election was also turbulent. When the liberal challenger Getúlio Vargas met with apparent defeat, he led an armed rebellion against the state and gained control of civilian and military institutions, disbanded the congress, and issued a decree of absolute power for his government. Initially, the overthrow of the old order produced a renaissance of sorts among Brazil’s writers. Vargas publicly advocated achievement and reform, and many writers were quick to adopt this spirit of social renewal. The new literature of Brazil revealed the squalor of the country’s lower classes and offered solutions for a nation needing change.

While a student at the Ginásio Ipiranga, Amado began writing for newspapers and magazines and joined the Academia dos Rebeldes (academy of rebels), a bohemian group of writers and artists. He continued similar activities in Rio de Janeiro, where he published his first novel when he was nineteen. By that time, he was already attracted to leftist politics, and his second novel, Cacáu, branded subversive, landed him briefly in jail. Thus began a whole series of clashes with censors, detentions and imprisonments (1935-1936, 1938), and exiles (1936-1937, 1941-1943, 1948-1952).

In 1945, Amado married Zélia Gettai of São Paulo; they would have two children, João Jorge and Paloma. Also in 1945, after the military overthrew the Vargas dictatorship, Amado, running on the Communist Party ticket, was elected federal deputy of the Brazilian parliament and helped draft a new constitution. His political career ended in 1948 after the Communist Party was outlawed and Amado was forced into exile. During his exiles, Amado traveled through the rest of South America as well as through Mexico, the United States, Western and Eastern Europe, and Asia, living perhaps for the longest periods in Mexico, Argentina, Uruguay, France, Czechoslovakia, and Poland.

After 1952, as Amado’s worldwide popularity increased, conditions improved for him in Brazil. From 1956 to 1959, he edited Para todos, a prominent cultural periodical in Rio de Janeiro. In 1961, he was appointed to the Literary Committee of the Conselho Nacional de Cultura (national council of culture) and was elected to the Academia Brazileira de Letras. In 1962 Amado traveled to Cuba and Mexico shortly after the death of his father, and in 1963 he and his family returned to Salvador to live.

After traveling through Europe and North America, Amado became a writer-in-residence at Pennsylvania State University in 1971. During the 1990’s he spent much of his time in Paris and London after his Salvador home began attracting hordes of tourists. He returned to Brazil in 1996 to undergo heart surgery, and he died in Salvador on August 6, 2001.

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