Book Whore’s Reader’s Digest: A Literary Flavor Of Life

So I’ve decided to spice up my life—in a literary sense (although on a personal sense that wouldn’t be so bad either—life’s a doldrums—sigh). For the longest time I have wanted to expand my literary repertoire and read past the academic selections of the literary canon or my own, at times, vulgar taste. My premier destination of choice currently is Latin America.

My selection of this cultural region, and I mean that in a very broad non-regional sense—has  a very specific purpose, which has much to do with the subject matter of my novels and my writing. It is a culture, which although I am not part of, I grew up around and has always fascinated me. The second motive stems from my dissatisfaction with the American focus on primarily authors from the US or England, and not the cultures and regions closest to it (I mean not even Canadian writers get a mention). Since we are one of the most ethnically diverse cultures in the world, I feel our literary selections should be more reflective of that.

So my first author of choice is a man widely touted as being Brazil’s finest and most celebrated—regionally and internationally—author, Jorge Amado. Although his name rarely, if ever, gets dropped in American literary circles, internationally he is respected and admired, and in Brazil he is almost an institution. So who is Jorge Amado? His bio in a nutshell: he was born in 1912, the son of a cacao (cocoa) planter in the region of Itabuna, Bahia. He grew up however in Ilhéus, a nearby city which plays subject to quite a few of his novels. He went onto study journalism and law, and began his literary career in the 1930s. His earlier writing was heavily influenced by his political alignments—which was leftist—something which forced him to flee the country several times, until the late 1950s when he abandoned his political activities altogether and focused primarily on his writing until his death in 2001.

Amado’s most famous books internationally are, Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon and Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands. Both books were turned into movies and even a television series, with the latter being for a time, the highest grossing film in Brazilian history. For my literary journey I decided to read the celebrated Gabriela and an earlier, lesser known work, The Violent Land.

The novels, although published well-over a decade apart with The Violent Land coming out in 1943 and Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon published in 1958, feel very much like Volume I and Volume II of the same story, which based on its overall theme, should really be called—Ilhéus, A Love Story. While both novels are heavily peppered with a large menagerie of fascinating and often-times humorous characters, the clear character and star is Ilhéus.

In The Violent Land, the setting is around 1913, when the last great cacao wars take place. The novel opens with a group of passengers boarding a ship in Salvador, Bahia the capital of the state of Bahia, situated in the north-eastern region of Brazil (note: although the capital is Salvador, within the novel and assumingly in common parlance, it’s just referred to as Bahia). They are headed  toward the then town of Ilhéus—a land we are told by the various passengers, all basing it off the stories they have heard, as being rich with cacao, overflowing with money, and where a man with enough courage—i.e. balls, i.e. can kill without compulsion or guilt—can make his fortune.

Each of the characters on the boat all have their story, which in the various interlaced plots, gets played out in the novel. There are those aboard the ship who are going to Ilhéus based off the lure of supposed easy-money, still some for revenge, another, in the case of a gorgeous blonde prostitute to reunite with her lover, and another going back home to expand his family’s empire.

Once they arrive you are now introduced to the main character of the novel, Ilhéus, which in many ways resembles both the world of the Southern plantocracy married to the lawlessness of Dodge City and the Wild West, topped with its own unique twist. Traditional values to what we understand them to be, and actually even in the Brazilian sense as this is explicitly noted, is perverted here. Courage is a man who can kill another man who stands in his way in the expansion of his empire, or affronts his masculinity in any way—which can be as simple as a misunderstanding exaggerated into a scandal by malicious gossip, or sleeps with his wife, to which the wife also earns an automatic death sentence—a facet mentioned here, but that Amado goes into much greater detail in Gabriela.

Of course the double standard of male promiscuity is gone over in glorious detail, as the town’s overwhelming sexism, machismo, misogyny—however you want to term it—is laid down in blunt detail. A man’s right to fuck around on his wife is unquestionable; it is a vice—but one that only he is allowed to indulge in. The curious thing, which is a facet seen in both novels, is the classification of three types of women; the prostitute, the wife, and the concubine. Prostitutes, are prostitutes—so for the men, not much is said about them, only that at this time marriageable women are scarce, and in the cabarets and bordellos, they serve a much needed function. The wives are supposed to be content in their ivory towers, as the exclusive properties of their husbands, but concubines are another story. To a certain extent the concubine, or the kept woman, is the freest woman. In a world where women are really not allowed to exist independently of men, the concubine is the only one permitted to fuck around—that is that by doing so she doesn’t automatically earn a death sentence. Indeed because she is not entirely his, other men are free to court on her (depending on which man she belongs to, as that does vary), and if she is beautiful enough can reap some rewarding financial offers. She is pampered, paid more attention to, and often times treated better than the wives, who aside from her clothes, last name, wealth, and the sanctity of her home and respectability—things which many cling onto voraciously—she has nothing else.

By the middle of the novel, the story begins to move into one direction, which is the war that rages between the largest cacao planters in the region, Colonel Horacio and the Badaros clan. It is an all-out battle over the conquest of the Sequeiro Grande forest, an area of land, which once cleared, promises to be the most fertile region for planting cacao. The war is bloody—deemed the bloodiest ever—and for me this when the novel really starts to pick up as that, along with other smaller but equally interesting plot lines start to unfold and in the end there is only one winner.

The beauty of this piece and Amado’s writing in general is the detail and complexity of his characterization. He paints a portrait so rich in color that you feel, just by reading it, that you are there. He is also quite humorous, and although I feel, just by the wording, that the novel would be funnier in Portuguese if you understood the cultural context—his writing is such that the comic aspect does not get lost in translation.

In Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon, you revisit this incredible town again, now in 1925, twelve years from where The Violent Land ends. The word of the day is progress, progress, progress! (Seriously that word gets dropped so often I almost felt as I was reading, like I was going over some Sesame Street word of the day). Progress, however has various meanings to various people, and is something that is questioned and bitterly fought over. The novel opens with two particular events. One is Colonel Mendonça discovering his wife in bed with a prominent dentist and proceeding to engage in his marital right as the cuckolded husband, by shooting them both to death; and the lesser, but to the character personally significant problem, one that earns the book its title, of Nacib’s—invariably titled “The Arab” or “The Turk”—he is in fact Syrian—cook finally carrying out her long-standing threat  of quitting her job to join her son,  leaving him stranded, two days before he is supposed to host a big dinner in his bar. This single event leads to what is termed the great “love story.”

Although I can go into so many details for brevity’s sake let me just say that the novel basically goes into two basic directions. The overarching story of the struggle for progress in Ilhéus, embodied in the person of Mundinho, an outsider coming from an illustrious family in Rio, who does more for the town in four years than some of the colonels (Note: the title colonel is more an honorary one given to the planter class; it is not actually reflective of a military rank) have done in decades, and the old bastion of power Colonel Ramiro, the undisputed ruler of Ilhéus. He appears to be a reincarnated version of the character Horatio in The Violent Land.

The second story and the one that nearly everyone who has read the novel focuses on (which is funny, given the fact that the novel—despite the title—is far more devoted to the first story) is the love story of Nacib and Gabriela, a poor migrant worker who comes to Ilhéus after a devastating drought has ravaged the region where she was from. Interwoven between both stories are smaller stories and characters which in some ways I found at times to be funnier and more interesting than either of the main threads.

Without giving away too many plot details let me just come out and say that I am not in love with the love story of Nacib and Gabriela. It is unconventional in its flow and ultimately conclusion, at least from where the book ends, but my main problem is that I am not really in love with those two characters. Nacib, arguably the more significant (which again, the title of the book suggests otherwise) is a tall, very fat (he is described as having a big fat face, and nine-month belly) is amiable enough, but is still invested with the raging sexism of the town, although in comparison to the violence of the other men, is seen as being more “civilized” than the others. Nevertheless upon listening to the discussion of Medonça killing his wife—something that is unanimously seen as  justified by everyone—Nacib, whom you later learn is appalled by this event, still decided to add his own tall tale that in his father’s country men chop women up into pieces, and the offending men get their penises hacked off. This is a bold-faced lie, but exaggeration is the grapiúna (term for a resident of Ilhéus, learned this in The Violent Land) way.

Gabriela for her part impresses me even less. I am perhaps the only person who has read this book, based off what I can pick up from the reviews, that is immune to her charms. But my modern-woman sensibility just can’t seem to get over the fact that outside her cinnamon-brown skin, great beauty, fabulous almost legendary cooking skills, and free-spirited sexual attitude, that there is absolutely nothing deep going on with this character. Her “child-like” innocence seems to me like a sweet code word—for Gabriela, in spite of her indiscretions and questionable choices is never mal-intended—for a patent imbecile. In fact without her beauty, she has nothing to offer, something which is funny enough displayed when Nacib first meets her. He finds her at the slave market (called so, due to the poverty and desperation of the migrants who appear there looking for work) when he goes on his desperate search for a cook. She is filthy and covered in dust so he can’t see her beauty—or even determine if she is young or old. Her incessant laughing puts him off, because it singles out her lack of maturity or i.e. that she’s an idiot–and he actually turns around and passes on her. It is only when he overhears her say that he is a “beautiful man”—which shocks him, as neither he, apparently no one in his life, nor even you as a reader, based off his physical description if you are going in the conventional sense—would deem him to be beautiful. But Gabriela saw differently and that is what makes him change his mind on her. When he discovers, after she is cleaned off, that it is she that is the great beauty, things really begin for them.

Gabriela ultimately feels like a man’s—a somewhat sexist man’s (and I do believe in spite of Amado’s rich and varied portrayals of women that he is sexist—in the same way in spite of his inclusion and in many ways celebration of Afro-Brazilian culture is also paternalistically racist) ultimate dream woman. She is gorgeous, is a brilliant cook, keeps a perfect house, really desires nothing more than to cook and clean for her man, is averse to materialism, loves cheap things, doesn’t care if he fucks around, and has on her own, an inexhaustible sexual appetite (in spite of cooking and cleaning all day) and loves to fuck her man all night long with gusto; that she is also somewhat daft, makes her all the more perfect.

The only thing, other than her lack of cultivation of any type, that keeps her from being the perfect wife, is that although she has no problem with her man sleeping with other women, she also wants to sleep with other men. She is like a man—in the traditional sense—capable of having sex purely for the pleasure it brings without any emotional attachments. Actually it is the men that are more attached and broken up over her, in terms of the sex, than she is to them. She sees nothing wrong with sleeping with any man she deems beautiful and young, two key things as Gabriela is patently anti-materialism, so she isn’t seduced like traditional concubines by offers of wealth and will categorically refuse to sleep with old and ugly men. This element about her makes her quite interesting and will ultimately serve as a major tension in her relationship with Nacib that ultimately gets worked out in a bizarre way—but I won’t give that part away.

Not to totally denigrate Gabriela, as she does have her good points (aside from her looks, fucking, and cooking). Her “purity” in a way stands against the blatant hypocrisy engaged in by everyone and her desire to just live and enjoy life in the simplest, most unaffected way is something to take note of. She is truly a free spirit.

The problem though is that as it relates to Nacib and Gabriela—is that they never truly “see” each other. Gabriela seems mentally incapable of understanding why Nacib feels the way he does on certain things or his desire for acceptance, particular her acceptance, into society, as she is much too centered on pleasure. Nacib for his part sees her mostly for pleasure and when he tried to change her, it backfires in a terrible way.

Overall I found that I enjoyed The Violent Land much better (although I’m sure there would be plenty who would disagree on that point) as I felt that it had more going on story wise, but both books are well worth a read, especially together. As a literary craftsman, Jorge Amado is one of the best, and I highly recommend him to anyone looking to get lost in the richness and detail of the culture and world that he so gloriously displays.

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