Jorge Amado’s novel is titled Terras do sem fin (the endless lands) in Portuguese. This story is the standard-bearer of the cacao cycle in Brazilian literature, a series of novels exposing exploitation of cacao workers. Brazilian novelists have long been making a huge mosaic of Brazil with their novels, each novel being a tiny stone in the literary mosaic of that subcontinent, and Amado’s work is a worthy contribution and his masterpiece.
The Violent Land (first published in English in 1945) is the story of Bahia’s Panhandle, where a balmy climate, fertile soil, and lack of high winds make it one of the few areas on earth well suited for chocolate trees, whose weak stems and heavy pods need heat but cannot stand strong winds. Amado’s characterization is particularly representative of the raw frontier that the Panhandle of Bahia (a narrow strip stretching southward toward the mountains of Espirito Santo) has been for so long. The reader thus sees not only an area where the “colonels” and their heavily armed cohorts oppress the weak but also the Bahian sertão (backlands) in general, brimming with blood, old feuds, religious messianism, and fanaticism. Amado’s characters are thus not larger-than-life but authentic, flesh-and-blood realities from rural Bahia. His principal characterization flaw is an error of omission, for the warmly human types so common everywhere in Brazil, including Bahia, are lacking in the pages of The Violent Land.
This novel refreshingly explodes the oft-heard myth that Brazil, unlike Spanish America, is a bland and frivolous land not given to violence. Amado’s novel bristles with the violence and mystery endemic to the sertão, and it is for this reason that Amado’s title of The Endless Lands has been changed for the book’s English translation into The Violent Land. Amado paints a land fertile with blood, as his preface indicates. Set at about the end of the nineteenth century, when cacao was power, wealth, and life, the novel’s action portrays the enslavement of everything and everyone to the cacao pod. The shadow of cacao darkens every heart. It smothers finer instincts and levels all characters from aristocratic Colonel Horacio da Silveira to the more common Badarós. Nothing washes away the cacao stain. Workers in the orchards have a thick crust of cacao slime on their boots, and the colonels, lawyers, merchants, and jaguncos (hired killers) have cacao slime in their hearts.
The Violent Land reflects progress, however, for the colonels are drawn as a crude but civilizing force in Brazil’s historic “march to the west” that opened up the once trackless sertão. Amado was born on a cacao plantation in 1912 and admired the fazendeiros (ranchers), such as his own father, who settled the raw Panhandle, crossed lands, built roads, and founded towns, all this through heroic strength and what Amado terms “the poetry of their lives.” The novel’s first scene, symbolically enough, is aboard a ship drawing away from the black-tile roofs of the baroque city of São Salvador de Bahia. The passengers aboard are immigrants to the rich but violent lands of the Panhandle and are discussing property, money, cacao, and death. They sing a sad song that presages disaster, but that night, in their staterooms and steerage quarters, they dream of laden cacao trees.
Landscape is an important factor in The Violent Land and reflects Brazil’s intrinsic beauty. Amado paints the golden mornings dawning over green palms, the red soil under the cacao trees, the blue-green waves of the sea, and indigo skies. One also sees stormy nights, wild Brahma cattle, birds, and snakes. Trees are almost idolized, especially the cacao. Above all, Amado lyrically paints the forest in the uninterrupted sleep that it enjoyed before the colonels came. Days and nights pass over the virginal expanses of trees, along with winter rains and...
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