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.
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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...
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