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...
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