Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Whoever’s born in Tocaia Grande is jagunço: Jorge Amado and the shadow of Canudos

Lost somewhere in the Brazilian hinterlands there is a thriving modern city called Irisópolis. It has businesses, institutions, culture. It’s a city like any other. But Irisópolis harbours a dark history written in blood. “In its commemorative texts, literates, politicians and journalists have almost always omitted the town’s primitive town; obvious reasons relegated it to oblivion. Before being Irisópolis, it was Tocaia Grande.” Jorge Amado’s novel Showdown narrates its birth, rise and destruction.

The first man to idealize Tocaia Grande is Captain Natário Fonseca, a fearsome jagunço who serves Coronel Boaventura in the territorial fights for control of the sertão and its fertile lands, where cacao plantation can build fortunes. Natário once killed a businessman in a whorehouse and became a fugitive of justice until he found political protection under the Coronel. Forever obliged, Natário serves in the coronels’ wars lead Boaventura to reward him with some lands. Taciturn but loyal and courageous, Natário is a man with Indian blood, an unrivalled sharpshooter and natural leader of the coronel’s jagunços. Natário achieves mythical status when he sets up an ambush that wipes out most of the forces of Coronel Elias Daltro, giving Boaventura an advantage in the war and bringing peace to the region. The same land where he organised the legendary ambush becomes his to build his home once he decides to settle down and become a cacao planter, making the first steps to build a town there. (Tocaia Grande, in Portuguese, means exactly big ambush.) Despite the place’s ugly history, Natário is attracted to it. “A prettier place, by day or night, with sun or rain, didn’t exist in those parts; better to live in, nowhere.” Natário is a complex man, and opinions about him vary. He’s a loving husband who nevertheless cheats his wife with prostitutes. Some people love him, others hate him, all respect him. Although Tocaia Grande starts humbly, he’s also the first to realize its potential and to promote its development, by encouraging people to settle down there.

Tocaia Grande at first is a storage centre where cacao from the surroundings is kept before being shipped away. Its first inhabitants are the workmen who toil in the fields, the man who sells drinks to them, and of course the prostitutes who work in a nearby whorehouse. Later an enterprising businessman, Fadul Abdala, an Arab from Lebanon (but everyone calls him Turk in the novel) sets up a shot to sell wares to the workmen. Fadul is a true Brazilian self-made man, an immigrant who succeeds thanks to his hard work and because he has a vision of Tocaia Grande as a future great city. Natário is pleased with the Arab opening a shop there and becomes his protector. One of the episodes that demonstrates Natário’s laconic, strict but honourable personality is how he deals with three jagunços who rob Fadul’s store. The three men find themselves unemployed after the war between Coronels Boaventura and Elias Daltro comes to an end. Roaming the countryside, they learn Fadul is away on business and so raid the store, hoping to find money stashed somewhere. No one in Tocaia Grande lifts a finger to stop them, and when Fadul returns he finds his store looted. Refusing to give up, the hard-working businessman reopens his store, although his former joviality has evaporated. A week passes before Natário visits him. Instead of bringing up the robbery, the Captain just makes small talk while sipping cachaça. “Surprised and disappointed by such indifference, Fadul barely contained himself not to transpire the disappointment, the sorrow caused by such an attitude from the Captain, of whose friendship he had bragged.” Only when he’s about to leave does he produce a pocketknife the jagunços stole from his store:

   “Isn’t this yours, friend Fadul?”
   He put the object on the counter’s wood, Fadul Abdala felt a thud in his chest:
   “It’s mine, yes, Captain. If there’s no harm asking, how did it get into your hands?”
   “And how else would it be, friend?”
   He walked to the side of the house, came back with the mule, put his foot on the stirrup, read the anxious question in Fadul’s eyes, mounted and answered:
   “As soon as I knew of the thing, I quickly found them. Three bad brutes, friend Fadul.”
   The Turk’s eyes gleamed, a smile appeared in his mouth, at the same time he felt like crying, nevertheless he wanted to confirm:
   “The three, Captain?”
   “The three, in the same grave. See you around, friend.”

Although Natário stops being a jagunço for Boavantura and becomes a farmer in his own right, he continues to watch over Tocaia Grande’s security as if he had never hung up the rifle. The success of Fadul’s shop is instrumental in grounding people to the settlement. Also, whenever he finds people on the road, Natário would direct them to Tocaia Grande as a good place to start a new life. This is how the first family arrives there, running away from a corrupt senator in another state.

In time, Tocaia Grande became the favourite stopping place of the workers who came from the huge area of the Cobras river that enclosed a great number of properties, amongst them some of the largest estates in the region. The news of the construction of a business shop raised by the Turk Fadul, a clever man, of vision, contributed to the quickness with which new abodes showed up: shacks, cabans, barracks, some of beaten clay, others of wood, the poorer ones of dry straw.

Families in search of a better life start migrating to Tocaia Grande. Other businesses open up: a black man, Tição Abduim, starts providing services as blacksmith and, occasionally, dentist. Slowly Tocaia Grande grows from a mere dormitory for plantation workers to settlement, then a town in its own right. Social rituals and traditions start forming. From Coronel Boaventura’s workers, who refused to move a finger to save Fadul’s shop from robbers, to the population mutually helping itself in the wake of a devastating flood, the inhabitants of Tocaia Grande become more and more imbued with a spirit of community. Questions of identity even become a matter of interest. How to name the citizens? Tocaios, tocaienses, tocaianos? Fuad Karan, friend of Fadul, simplifies the issue retorting that “Whoever’s born in Tocaia Grande is jagunço.” In the sertão, where social mobility is practically non-existent, this is a constant reminder that that Tocaia Grande is always at the mercy of the true masters of that region, the rich landowners.

Nothing seems to stop Tocaia Grande’s meteoric rise until Coronel Boaventura dies and his dissolute son, Venturinha, takes over his affairs. Given to authoritarianism, Venturinha feels slighted when Natário refuses to work for him, claiming that his bond was to the coronel only and that his former patron assured him he’d have the freedom to be his own man one day. Humiliated, Venturinha uses his political influence to make the military police expel the Tocaios from the land. Using a legal loophole, given that Boaventura verbally gave the land to Natário and no signed contract exists, he accuses the citizens of being land stealers and has the law on his side.

Showdown is a novel written in the shadow of Euclides da Cunha monumental book Os Sertões. It’s hard not to see Canudos’ fingerprints all over the tragic story of Tocaia Grande. The Tocaios are on the whole lower-class people, workers, freed slaves, prostitutes, like the heterogeneous followers António Conselheiro attracted to Canudos. Behind the justification of restoring order, a war is waged against the town, defend by its citizens to their dying breath. The novel takes place some twenty years after the abolition of slavery in Brazil (1889), so some ten years after Canudos was wiped out, making the case that violence, political corruption and authoritarianism are linked in the sertão and no lesson was learned.

At the same time the novel portrays Tocaia Grande as an Eden, a promised land of happiness and justice where people could live freely and in peace. This being a Jorge Amado novel, the characters spend more time having sex than fighting, living in a state of innocent communism. It is perhaps telling that the prelude to the war is the arrival of two missionaries, the severe Father Zygmunt von Gotteshammer, and his younger helper, Father Theun, both foreigners. Appalled at the licentiousness of the land, they preach against the prostitutes and the loose customs of the people, and make efforts to replace the local pagan beliefs with Christian values. The transition is relatively painless, even though the whorehouse, an institution of the town, never disappears. The whiff of sexual repression, however, signals more important changes in the values of sertão. Although Tocaia Grande always existed by the grace of Coronel Boaventura, the idea of him breaking his word was unthinkable. Honour was too valuable a commodity in the world of Natário and Boaventura. In the new world of the Bohemian Venturinha, not at all.

Showdown has a lot of the western genre. It’s hard to miss the similarities, with gunfighters riding horses and killing outlaws. But more important to the idea of the novel as a Brazilian western is the theme of the frontier, the remote land still waiting for man to civilize it. Unlike the American western, however, which is invested with a simple mythology of good and evil, the Brazilian western inverts the roles. The outlaws are the good guys and the forces of law and order are corrupt and grubby. These themes we’ll find again in the novels of João Ubaldo Ribeiro.


  1. Miguel - These posts on the genre of sertão literature are revelatory; i envy your having read these authors/works. The comparison to the American West and to the genre of the western seems a fertile one, and I like your interpretation of the the Brazilian version being an inversion. For me one of the more fascinating factoids in da Cunha was learning of the 1701 law that prohibited contact between the backlands and the south, effectively cutting off and isolating the sertão for a couple centuries, such that the "forces of law and order" would be viewed, almost de facto, as invaders. And it's so interesting, once we get to Grande Sertão: Veredas, to see the varying approaches to establishing backlands "law and order" on display there. That's certainly one book where the government forces are seen as, at best, bothersome pests - and not the silver-star-sporting good guys they are in the American West.

    1. Just to bring up the subject of Manifest Destiny to reinforce the inversion idea

    2. And the Manifest Destiny dovetails nicely with the Puritans' belief that America was new sort of Jerusalem, which in turn allows us to relate it to a descendant of Puritans, the great Nathaniel Hawthorne, who, as I wrote before, is a writer conscious of the violence and curtailment of freedom involved in the actual process of building early America.

  2. I've heard good things about Amado over the years, but I've also heard people refer to him as a bit of a lightweight. Do you have a personal top choice for an introduction to him, Miguel?

    1. I myself am beginning to discover Jorge Amado.

      From what I understand, and this from reading Pablo Neruda's fascinating memoirs, his great friend Jorge had two different periods: up until the fifties, he was a very politicized writer, deeply committed to communist ideals, and the novels of this period are revolutionary and concerned with social injustices, etc.

      Then in 1958 there's a shift when he publishes 'Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon,' the first of his famous novels with a female protagonist, with the sexy style that made him famous worldwide. Apparently these novels are more 'literary.'

      I've read a bit of both periods and I much prefer the latter one. Showdown is a fine novel, it works as a good introduction.