Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 557
Most of the story takes place during different time periods in the old neighborhood of Pelourinho, where a type of a free university of Afro-Brazilian culture holds sway, owing to the practices of popular mestizo poets, artists, storytellers, musicians, craftsmen, singers, capoeiristas (dancers of a self-defense sport), black magicians, cult priests, and folk healers. This natural campus, actually situated near the state’s official school of medicine, has as its main building a shop called the Tent of Miracles where Master Lídio Corró runs his printing press and paints miracle pictures for those who wish to acknowledge their gratitude for having had their prayers answered.
The chancellor of this unofficial university is the protagonist, Pedro Archanjo, a mestizo whose knowledge, books (published by Corró), camaraderie, honor, generosity, and sexual feats command the respect of this community. Pedro Archanjo’s story is told in 1968, one hundred years after his birth, by Fausto Pena, an unappreciated poet, hired by the handsome and blond American scholar, winner of the Nobel Prize, and professor at Columbia University, Dr. James D. Levenson, to do research on Pedro Archanjo for an introduction to the professor’s English translation of the mulatto’s works. Unknown to the rest of Brazil’s literati until Levenson’s discovery, Pedro Archanjo’s works are praised and consecrated by the famous American’s recognition of their overall ethnological merit. Considered to be indispensable reading for understanding the racial problem in Brazil, these acclaimed works spark a local and national campaign for institutionalizing Pedro Archanjo as a Brazilian hero. In counterpoint to the fanfare and ultimate fictionalization of Archanjo as a national hero in 1968, a factual historical account, narrated by an omniscient voice, traces the hero’s humble beginnings from 1868, when his father was killed in Brazil’s devastating war with Paraguay, up to his position as messenger in the school of medicine in 1900, and during the time of his main publications (1904-1928) which cause a reactionary debate by the racist professor Nilo d’Ávila Argolo de Araújo with his theories of Aryan superiority.
Eventually discredited when Archanjo’s research reveals Argolo to be his distant relative, the pedant epitomizes the prejudice and hatred engendered by a black/white dichotomy inciting racial, economic, social, and political divisiveness. Archanjo’s defense of miscegenation leads to his imprisonment and to the destruction of the Tent of Miracles by the vigilante police chief, Pedrito Gordo. While Fausto Pena’s narrative closes with the protagonist in prison, the omniscient narrator resumes the rest of the story, paralleling the indigent mulatto’s death in 1943 with allusions to Nazism and the impact on the world of its belief of Aryan supremacy. Before dying, Archanjo, always the crusader, reminisces over his lifelong battle against the evil forces of bigotry and exhorts those who are to come after him to close the “gates” of division between the races by making the mixture of blood complete.
As the narrative draws to a close with the hypocritical pomp surrounding the centennial celebration of Archanjo’s birth, promoted by Bahia’s politicians, businessmen, and pseudointellectuals, the novel ends with the carnival of 1969, where Archanjo’s glory is celebrated. More festive and authentic, this popular tribute, in the form of a samba school’s musical theme, symbolizes Archanjo’s humane, real-life mulatto existence in the colorful streets of Bahia.
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