Wednesday, 19 June 2013

He knew of no career more beautiful and nobler, a career that required more virtues, knowing how to shoot and having guts: A Return to Jorge Amado

In 1935 Jorge Amado (1912-2001) published Jubiabá. This was his fourth novel. Previously he had published O País do Carnaval, Cacau and Suor. From what I can gather, Amado’s literary life can be divided in two periods: the first includes all his novels up to Os Subterrâneos da Liberdade, a monumental trilogy about the dictatorial regime of President Getúlio Vargas, known as the Estado Novo (1937-1945; not to be confused with the Portuguese dictatorship known as Estado Novo too – the lack of originality perturbs me), published in 1954, curiously the same year Vargas died (I learned this from reading Rubem Fonseca’s Agosto, a future post). This period is characterised by a strong identification with communist and socialist ideals, with realism, with denouncing the plight of the working classes and showing the social, economical divergences between the rich and poor, particularly the exploitation in the countryside plantations and the moral degeneration of the urban slums. Then in 1958 Amado published hi landmark novel, Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon, a worldwide success. It was the first of his sexy novels with a female protagonist, and in later years Gabriela would have the company of Tieta, Dona Flor, and Teresa Batista. I don’t know a lot about this period.

I wouldn’t consider the first three novels Amado wrote particularly good. O País do Carnaval, if my memory doesn’t fail me, is a grave novel about a young Brazilian intellectual returning from Europe, full of big dreams and projects to improve his backward country, only for indecision and lust to undermine him. In other words, it’s a novel that answers the much wondered question of what Carlos da Maia would be like if, instead of Eça de Queiroz, a dour young pamphleteer had created him. Cacau is a grave novel about the workers of a cacao plantation, which answers the much asked question of where Alves Redol, father of the Portuguese Neorealist novel, got his inspiration for Gaibéus, a grave debut novel about workers in a Ribatejo plantation. Suor is a grave novel about the tenants of a slum building, and solves the mystery of how Albert Cossery’s The House of Certain Death would have been like if it had been written by a naïve writer who idealized the poor.

But Jorge Amado couldn’t run on passionate grave indignation forever, so he came up with Jubiabá next, his most novelistic novel up to then. It’s a vast improvement, mainly because it’s a picaresque novel with an anti-hero who travels all over Brazil having tragic and comical adventures; and also the bildungsroman of black man Antônio Balduíno, thief, samba songwriter, boxer, plantation worker, circus fighter, stevedore and union member. It’s not that Amado ignored his socialist convictions, instead he found a way of reconciling them with a way of telling a good story in novel form.

I’m a strong believer that character is the kernel of a novel. People remember characters better than they remember passages or sentences. People remember Don Quixote, Madame Bovary, Julian Sorel, Winston Smith, Raskolnikov – beautiful prose, not so much. We forget the actual words and retain only the gist of the story. No one remembers actual sentences word for word, but no one forgets a memorable character and his actions. I think this is what sets Jubiabá apart from Amado’s previous novels. Finally he imagines a protagonist with personality and a rugged identity worthy of being told.

Antônio Balduíno, or Baldo, grows up in a Bahia slum. An orphan, he’s raised by Aunt Luíza. He knows nothing of his father, Valentim save that he was one of Antônio Conselheiro’s jagunços. To him his father was a hero, and “[s]everal times he fought for the heroic memory of the father he didn’t know. In truth he fought for the father he imagined, the one he’d love if he knew him.” Of his mother he knows nothing, not even a name. Baldo dreams of becoming a jagunço too. “He knew of no career more beautiful and nobler, a career that required more virtues, knowing how to shoot and having guts.” He likes to listen to stories about brave black slaves who rebelled against their white masters and admires criminals like Virgulino Lampião, a notorious sertão bandit. Before he’s ten he decides he’ll be immortalized in folk songs narrating his deeds and bravery. He grows up looking up to scoundrels and street thugs, learns capoeira and how to play guitar and compose songs, and always listens to the stories about famous thieves and thugs killed in knife duels or hunted down by the authorities. From birth he has few options open to him: either he becomes a thief or a ruffian, or becomes an office clerk, a slave. Obviously he prefers a life of freedom and adventure. From an early age Baldo develops a heightened sense of superiority over others, the belief that he’s reserved for greater things than the ordinary men.

Our anti-hero doesn’t go to school, thinking education is a trap to enslave fools. His education is the life on the street, hanging around with Zé Camarão, capoeira master and guitar player, and following Jubiabá around. Jubiabá is a healer, spiritual guide, wizard, a holy man much admired and respected in the slums because of his medical knowledge and his powers to control spirits. During his childhood he meets this mysterious figure at his home many times, since Jubiabá is the only person who can ease the constant headaches afflicting Aunt Luiza.

After Aunt Luiza is committed to a madhouse the events start coming in a rush. Baldo is adopted by a well-to-do family and falls in love with their daughter, Lindinalva, only for a jealous maid to conspire against him. Thrown into the street he becomes the leader of a group of boys, who beg and mug people for their survival. Then he becomes a successful boxer, but his career is cut short after he is defeated while fighting drunk. The need to run away from his shame makes him board a ship with a friend and he ends up working in a plantation, where he kills a man over a woman and escapes a siege in the jungle. Afterwards he becomes a circus wrestler, only to return to Bahia with a woman in tow, only for him to cruelly dump her. In Bahia he adopts Lindinalva’s son and becomes a stevedore in order to raise him.

The events are so manic one hardly notices Amado is not a great prose writer. I mean, he doesn’t have that flair for verbal exactness, for the carefully-constructed sentence. Much admired by José Saramago, his friend, he has none of the Portuguese novelist’s dazzling mastery of language. His vocabulary is simple and the storytelling straightforward, in keeping with his rustic characters who. But there are writers and writers. Some are great stylists and others great character builders. I think Amado belongs to the latter. If nothing else, Antônio Balduíno is a rounded, contradictory, ambiguous character – selfish, arrogant, supercilious, but also kind, meditative, and carefree; a womanizer who nevertheless remains spiritually loyal to Lindinalva. Brutish but also protective of the weak. As a gang leader he took care of the others, split the money equally and settled feuds between the other boys. As a songwriter, he spent all his money on drinks for his friends. And when he returned to Bahia from the countryside, he goes to see Lindinalva, now turned into a prostitute, to pay for her just to spite her after she rejected him, only to find a broken woman on her death throes, which prompts him to promise to look after her son. It’s also his love for Lindinalva’s boy that makes Baldo, the haughty rebel who considered himself freer than other men, to take a miserable job as stevedore to support him.

Although the picaresque side of the novel is composed of many entertaining episodes, it’s the bildungsroman aspect of it that matters to Amado, who, true to his socialist beliefs, turns the novel into Baldo’s transformation from a dumb, macho egotist into a fervent supporter of the proletariat. The novel, like Suor before it, ends with a general strike that begins with the public transportation workers and attracts workers from several businesses and industries around town. Baldo is carried away by the frenzy and discovers that the unity between the workers is better than the lonely life he led. And this is perhaps the falsest note in the novel, or perhaps Baldo’s conversion is too sudden, but it doesn’t seem realistic to me anyway. It’s a good novel with a choppy ending, but the journey is very good.

In spite of the light at the end, it’s a novel full of darkness. Written in a deceptively carefree style, the novel barely brings attention to the horrors in Baldo’s live: the racism, the child prostitution, the rapes against boys and women, the deaths of his friends in the boy’s gang, suicide as a way out of a life without horizons. In 2013 these are still heavy themes, in 1935 I’m amazed how this was published.

The novel is also steeped in Brazilian culture: the martial arts capoeira, the music of samba, the magical rituals of macumba and candomblé, imported by African slaves. Often I’ve wondered why the novel is named after Jubiabá, the holy man, and not Baldo. A hypothesis is that Jubiabá perhaps represents this mixture of Afro-Brazilian culture illuminated by the novel that is the distinctive Brazilian identity. In that case the novel is treading similar ground to Mário de Andrade's Macunaíma. What that makes of Baldo, then, is anyone’s guess.


  1. I have not read Amado but it sounds as if I should.

    Something that you wrote is something that I have been thinking about lately,

    "But there are writers and writers. Some are great stylists and others great character builders."

    The diversity of great authors is astounding and is one of those little things that may make life worth living.

    1. Yes, each writer has his strengths. And to be honest I prefer a great character maker who can't write brilliant prose to a master stylist who can't bring a scene to life.

  2. Well, "no one," not no one. One can train oneself. Granted that most of the available sentences are not worth remembering.

    But our preferences, given your last comment, are exactly opposed on this matter.

    This Amado novel sounds really fine, more appealing than others I have read about. Very interesting.

    1. Well, certainly, I belong to those who also remember sentences and paragraphs :)

      What other Amado novels have you heard about, Tom?

  3. Besides from you The only titles that stand out - and I needed a prompt - are Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands and Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon.

    1. I'm curious to read Gabriela, but after I wrap up my Brazilian readings this month I'll take a break from Brazil for a good while, so I don't know when I'll do that :)

  4. Maybe somewhat of topic maybe not... check Zumbi out, while listening to this (:

    1. I think this Zumbi is also mentioned in the novel, or perhaps some other Zumbi :)