Jorge Amado and the complicated optimism of Brazil

Jorge Amado and the complicated optimism of Brazil

When the (English-speaking) readers are asked to name popular Brazilian authors, the lionized name of Paulo Coelho is typically first to pop in mind. Strange and indubitably ignorant it is that the abundant caverns of that vast nation’s literary heritage are but so scantly explored by the Anglosphere. Take the acclaimed modernist Jorge Amado, for instance. Accolades from Camus and Sartre. A bouquet of medals from USSR and Francois Mitterrand. Retold in 49 languages and immortalized on film. And yet, many of his colourful works are only now beginning to be properly courted by translators, with a number of some lovely English versions arriving on bookshelves in recent years.

In thirty-odd novels Amado gives us Brazil as it was growing into its glorious self in the first half of 20th century. Vibrant, messy, joyful, confused, diverse, hungry, lusty, devout, loving, jealous, and above all passionate for life as it unravels, faithfully accompanied by fiery cachaça. It is not all carnival, vaudeville, and picaresque though. There’s also slavery, exploitation, class struggle, poverty, and the complicated wealth of cocoa plantations. This elaborate tapestry is sewn together by the elegant threads of Amado’s aesthetics. At times, it almost reads like a bombastic cocktail of Mark Twain and Nikolai Gogol: buxom dames, heart-of-gold bums, charismatic thieves, philosopher shopkeepers, erudite vagabonds, and other assorted folk from various walks of life in sunny Bahia. Amado the communist doesn’t always go to labour to fully delineate the ideological barricade between the “rich baddies” and the “poor goodies”, however the message that the best kind of fun love, friendship and loyalty can only be found among the inhabitants of poorer communities is clear and recurring.

In Amado’s The Two Deaths of Quincas Water-Brey (A Morte e a Morte de Quincas Berro D’Agua) traversing class divides is the only remedy from monotonous ennui that afflicts a tenured civil servant Joaquim Soares da Cunha who, one fateful day, takes a tired glance at his wife and daughter, calls the both of them “vipers,” and departs, forever bolting up the door to his middle-class comforts, choosing instead the moist embraces of Salvador slums and a crown of “patriarch of prostitutes.” A few deliciously bohemian years later, Quincas (da Cunha’s slum nickname) dies, his weathered body submitted to intrusive and outrageously disrespectful post-mortem grooming by a great number of nasty relatives, all too eager to whitewash Quincas’ scandalizing, “family-shaming” metamorphosis. They dress him in a suit and put him and his respectable casket under surveillance, and all goes toward a perfectly boring bourgeois funeral. Thankfully, the gods of slums are not without mercy and send a throng of vagabonds to “rescue” Quincas’ body (no underwear but nice shoes!) and to give him his last legendary romp around town. Alcohol flows, fish stew in clay pots gives off fragrant fumes, bosoms tremble, arses shake, and Quincas, more alive than dead now, dances toward the sea, for he is “an old sailor without a sea and without a ship, corrupted on land but through no fault of his own.” Taking the last few thirsty gulps of cachaça, he submits his body to the sacred sea, the nurturing sea, the all-forgiving sea, as his fun-loving friends wave goodbye and return, once again, to their epicurean routines.

In a few dozen free-flowing pages of this novelette, Amado gives us, first of all, loads of saucy Rabelaisian fun as well as a lighthearted commentary on complex social structures and the nerve it takes to put a lid on the smouldering cauldron of etiquette micro-dramas, ties, suits, briefcases, and other nonsense. The resurrection of vagabond Quincas can also be read in a Jungian manner, as a ritual nod to the likes of Osiris, Dionysus, and other historical archetypes resonating with the collective unconscious. Quincas, after all, dies more than once, first as a civil servant, then as a vagabond, only to be resurrected, in both instances, by those who wish to place him squarely within the social class shelf they alone see fit for him to occupy. Quincas’ tango with death is his resounding refusal to be caught, to be classified or labeled, a fate, in his eyes, worse than ignoble oblivion.

The story of Quincas Water-Brey is but one of Amado’s many literary gifts to his motherland. Written throughout many decades and touching upon a plethora of subjects, they all nevertheless unite in an abundant wreath that celebrates, above all, joy, beauty, and optimism throbbing at the core of a complicated country.

Image: A still from the film Quincas Berro d’Agua (2010)

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