Themes and Meanings
The novel’s central theme focuses on this struggle for racial equality within a society manifesting insidious prejudice and practicing covert and overt discrimination which at times becomes unexpectedly violent. Plagued by the turn-of-the-century spurious theories of Joseph-Arthur comte de Gobineau on the inferiority of the black race, Brazil is portrayed here as a country striving to eradicate an image that might label it as a backward nation. Ironically, it is an American, bestowing a foreigner’s approval of Archanjo’s worth, who ignites Brazilian interest in its own racial history and resources. So concerned about projecting the right national image, Brazil is mocked and satirized by Amado as a society and a government dependent upon foreign influence.
The issues of image, racial bigotry, and socioeconomic inequities surface via Amado’s deft treatment of shifting points of view, rich symbolism stressing the spontaneous mixture implicit in carnival and miscegenation, and contrastive narrative techniques. For example, the true account of Archanjo’s humble beginnings, life, and death are told by an omniscient narrator in direct contrast to the first-person version developed, almost uncontrollably by the naive, well-intentioned, but unreliable narrator Fausto Pena, a middle-class poet used in 1968 by local politicians, businessmen, and the state to create a profitable and “safe” myth out of Archanjo’s bawdy but noble life.
The preoccupation with a “correct and proper image” leads to the question about the actual interpretation of social history and the relativity of points of view. The reader questions this process as he views how the pernicious powers of the media and the state reinterpret history for their own aims. The Archanjo and Pena stories mirror, respectively, the fact and fiction dilemma or, in other words, the reality/image dialectic. This problem has more subtle implications when the reader considers the hidden realities of the violent 1868 and 1968 periods in Brazilian history and their “official” images as promoted by the government. Added to this sense of history and “image-making” are allusions to the rampant presence of Nazism and its racial campaign within Brazil and abroad in the 1930’s and 1940’s, during Archanjo’s time. The historical parallels here are more than coincidental. Thus, by underscoring a local incident, Amado, with the use of contrastive techniques and a historical framework, undermines the inhumanity of racism and violence, thereby raising important questions which accord his novel true universal meaning.