Showdown, by Jorge Amado
by Jorge Amado.
Translated from the Portuguese by Gregory Rabassa. Bantam. 422 pp. $18.95.
Brazil is a marvel, a continent-country that exists simultaneously in the late 20th century and the mid-19th. Like India, but less bellicose, it is an ungainly, shambling, fragile Third World power. In the country’s southeast, an inventive, pragmatic people sell light tanks to Iraq, send Mercedes Benz trucks to the North American market, and dream expensive dreams of nuclear self-sufficiency (and perhaps, some day, a bomb in the basement). In the north, sweeping all the way over to the west: drought, poverty, landlessness, and an immense birth machine that powers vast migrations. These, in turn, fill urban slums, set off Wild West shootouts over Amazonian land claims, knock down rain forests, open up a still unpeopled interior.
Viewed from within a contracting sphere of American strategic concern, Brazil nowadays appears—when it appears at all—largely as carnaval plus $113 billion or so in foreign debt. Viewed in its own terms, however, the country is undergoing an explosive transformation that could easily continue for another fifty years.
Countries in this kind of tumultuous adolescence batten on myths, those they want to believe of themselves and those they want others to believe of them. In the case of Brazil, the mythmaker who has lived most comfortably at this crossroads for decades is Jorge Amado, now seventy-five and described on the dust jacket of Showdown, his latest novel, as “Brazil’s greatest living literary institution.” Not as great an accolade as one might wish for, perhaps—but still, there are the millions of books sold, the translations into forty-six languages, the sensuous, picaresque images of Donna Flor and Her Two Husbands and Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon.
These were the books that brought Amado worldwide (i.e., North American) fame—comic novels that condensed an image of Brazil itself as a libidinous, free-spirited female principle: poor but passionate, sexually inexhaustible, available for everyone’s taking yet possessed of a sensibility that ultimately allows no fetters. Above all, color-blind: Amado exalts miscegenation, the fusion of Brazil’s Indian, European, and African (predominantly Yoruba) strains as the basis of Brazilianness itself. In the most profound sense, Amado is a cultural nationalist, one whose literary images pay constant homage to a culture and a nation in the process of gestation.
The passage of Amado into international literature and acclaim has gone hand in hand with his acceptance as Brazil’s Great Silver-Haired Radical. A Communist adherent half-a-century ago, when the Maoist-style armed struggle of the Brazilian Communist party was as big a legend as the exploits of Nicaragua’s Augusto Sandino, Amado has remained a lifelong militant leftist. Before he fell into the mode of the picaresque, he wrote bitter, social-realist tales about murder and land-grabbing in the cacao plantations of Bahia. These stories helped to earn him the Stalin Peace Prize in 1951, and have kept him on the Soviet charts of progressive literary internationalism.
But the days when virulent radicalism led to occasional exile—where would Latin American literature be without Paris?—are over. Now there is a Jorge Amado cultural center in his beloved city of Salvador da Bahia; Brazilian television long ago launched an evening soap opera based on Gabriela; a feature film also based on the novel is currently in production. Still voluble enough, Amado has nonetheless been absorbed into the mainstream.
So much has this been the case that he seems to have been submerged for most of the past decade and a half. Thus it was something of a surprise when Bantam, with considerable fanfare, unveiled the English translation of the master’s latest novel, beating the literary drums no less loudly here than they had sounded in Brazil when the book first appeared, under the name Tocaia Grande, several years earlier. Amado in former days used to be mentioned in tandem, say, with John Steinbeck; was he now being resurrected to play the role of Brazil’s James Michener?
There is more than that to be said about this tangled, elegiac sprawl of a novel. Showdown is a disorderly, gloomy work, heavily salted with comic flashes. At times it has the appearance of being no more than a rehash of some of the author’s prior motifs: untrammeled randiness; whores and thieves turned everyday heroes; the frantic, comic life of the poor and dispossessed. But there is considerably more going on here. In Showdown, Amado has returned to some of his earliest, most radical concerns, confronting Brazilian society, memory, and mythmaking, and aiming to show, by anecdote, how the Brazil of the modernizing present has buried its (criminal) past.
The criminality of bourgeois history is Amado’s most important concern. Its epicenter for his purposes is the (fictional) modern city of Irisopolis, “a community born out of the rainbow on a distant day of well-being, peace, and brotherhood among men.” On the town’s 70th anniversary, the narrator (Amado) asserts, its actual origins have already been forgotten, along with its original name, Tocaia Grande, the Big Ambush. For this settlement has sprung not from “well-being, peace, and brotherhood” but from a mass murder in a war between cacao colonels of the northeast, a war in which the gunmen of one side, led by a part-Indian foreman named Natario da Fonseca, have waylaid and massacred the hired killers of another. In the ensuing period of peace and economic consolidation Natario has asked for, and gotten, the area around the ambush site as a subordinate fiefdom.
Natario has a vision: this will someday be a thriving town. But for the petty brigands, runaway black servants, and countless prostitutes who drift into Tocaia Grande, the future does not exist. There are only the hypnotic urgings of sex and the drudgery of work—often, for the women, one and the same thing. Still, no life, however lowly, is totally unredeemed. As Amado puts it, in one of Showdown‘s few quasi-philosophical statements: “Every living person, no matter how miserable and dispossessed, how sad and lonely, has the right to a quota of joy; there’s no destiny made entirely of bitterness. The cost, the price to be paid, doesn’t matter.”
Tocaia Grande is a settlement without historical consciousness of any kind: there is only one calendar in the place, and it is useless, since days have been torn off arbitrarily. No one knows when Sunday is, or Brazil’s independence day. Anyway, for most residents, “the story of independence was sheer drivel, vague and abstract, beyond any comprehension or importance.” What abstract consciousness the settlement has belongs to a Lebanese Maronite peddler, Fadul Abdala, known as the Turk, who sets up shop amid the squalor and, with his own vision of the town’s future, provides a petit-bourgeois voice of a kind that crops up more than once in Amado’s novels and upon which he lavishes a certain sympathy.
Bandits attack Tocaia Grande and are driven off by whores; a flood ravages the town and kills ten; fever kills many more. But as a town resident remarks at the book’s beginning, no frontier affliction is deadlier than the law. When it arrives, Tocaia Grande is doomed. As the scabrous residents of the settlement struggle to build their town, the family of the feudal cacao colonel who granted the site slips into decadence. When the old man dies, his son, a lawyer, takes back the ground with the help of deputized gunslingers. The epic of Tocaia Grande begins and ends in massacre.
The profoundly rebellious point of this abrupt, sometimes glowering novel is that no matter how it is currently disguised, justice does not exist for the people of Brazil. In the American sense of the frontier this is anti-mythmaking: when the sheriff arrives, justice disappears.
Amado is certainly not alone in taking this view of his ridiculously overregulated, still-corporatist country. Getulio Vargas, the Brazilian dictator of the 30’s, once famously remarked, “For my friends, everything. For my enemies, the law.” But the resonance of Amado’s work in its native context cannot be overestimated. It speaks for a powerful, restless populism that equates right with might, and argues that there can be no justice without insurrection. For this dark revolutionist message alone the book should not be dismissed. Although as a novel Showdown does not have the romantic savor of Donna Flor, it remains an engaging, cynical, and significant work by a still-angry Old Left master.