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Book World Live

Kunio Francis Tanabe
Senior Editor, Washington Post Book World
Tuesday, February 15, 2005; 3:00 PM

What do you call an adulterous affair with a ghost? A spiritual liaison? A ghoulish romance? A voodoo hoodoo? Jorge Amado's "Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands" grapples with just this question.

Washington Post Book World Senior Editor Kunio Francis Tanabe was online Tuesday, Feb. 15, at 3 p.m. ET to discuss Amado's book, this month's Washington Post Book Club selection.

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Kunio Francis Tanabe: Welcome to Dona Flor's kitchen where the pungent aroma of Bahian cuisine blend in with the rhythmic samba sound from a guitar with vocals from your favorite Brazilian singer.
If we were not limited to words, our conversation would be accompanied with images of the Brazilian city of Salvador in the northeastern province of Bahia, with its rococo cathedrals, faded pink, blue and orange houses, where Jorge Amado lived and where the novel, "Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands" takes place. And, in the background, we would play the theme song from the movie starring Sonia Braga. (I rented the videotape of the movie a few days ago and replayed the segment of the tape several times just to hear the theme song. Pity that I don't speak Portuguese.) Although we could not rouse Jorge Amado from his deep sleep (as Jorge was able to resurrect that rascal Vadinho), we did, in fact, attempt to recruit Sonia Braga into our discussion. Alas, she is busy making a film in Los Angeles.

I'd like to widen our discussion today not just to Amado's novel--it's more about sex than food, you might observe correctly-- but to the topic of food in literature (and in movies). Your suggestions on novels, poems, etc. on the subject of cuisine, will be appreciated by all those who join this online chat. You may complain that Amado's recipe for marinated crab in the novel doesn't work. Be that as it may, let us begin.


Washington, D.C.: Was this book originally written in English or Spanish? What, if anything, do you feel has been lost in translation?

Kunio Francis Tanabe: Dona Flor was written in Portuguese. Brazilians, after the huge country was colonized, took on the language of the conquerors.


Kunio Francis Tanabe: Other movies that I liked are "Chocolat," based on Joanne Harris's novel and starring my favorite Juliette Binoche. I just love the whole magical setting in a tiny, provincial French village. Eating fine food is always a guilty pleasure especially in an austere village such as this one or the tiny Danish fishing village in "Babette's Feast."


Alexandria, Va.: I read Dona Flor in English, however, I lived for two years in Brazil as a Peace Corps Volunteer and was fluent in Portuguese. I too found some of the transactions of slang to be difficult. I believe that this is because Brazilian slang is very hard to translate. This is partly because slang sometimes makes obscure references which the translator might know, but the typical English reader would not. What do you think?

Kunio Francis Tanabe: Amado is probably difficult to translate with his Bahian dialect (I am presuming here). The book is much too long, I thought. It could be reduced by a third. Perhaps a new translation is in order?


Washington, D.C.: Did you see the movie based on the book? Would you say it was a good adaptation? How did the movie deal with the affair with the ghost?

Kunio Francis Tanabe: I did read (somewhere on the web) that Amado did not like the movie adaptation. I think he called it near pornography. But the scenes of Salvador in Bahia are well done and Sonia Braga is always a delight to see. As to the character who played Vadinho, I thought he was miscast. He lacked the round, pleasant features that I visualized Vadinho to be. I wanted someone like Jorge Amado himself, a very down-to-earth man but with a certain elan of a provincial rogue. Besides, he was stark naked and too real as a ghost.


Washington, D.C.: My favorite movie with a culinary theme is "Eat Drink Man Woman." I'm curious if you've seen it and what you think about it.

Kunio Francis Tanabe: I saw the movie a while back. A very entertaining book about a Chinese cook in--was it Hong Kong? Chinese cuisine is definitely one of my interests. The other day I went all the way to the Southwest market to buy live crabs. They are now in season, plump and heavy. I devised a new way to kill crabs--make them comatose by putting them in the freezer for a while, then splitting them in half with my cleaver. Crabs with black bean sauce is a delight--finger-licking good.


Arequipa, Peru: Estimado Senor Tanabe,
There is much debate in our literary circles here in Arequipa about this book. For instance, was Dona Flor a real person? Was she based, perhaps, on a love affair Jorge Amado was conducting with a local beauty in Bahia?

And one more small question: What is it about Brazilians anyway? All that sex!
Thank you for selecting a book that is so -- as we say here in Arequipa -- caliente!

Kunio Francis Tanabe: Ah, a question from deepest Peru. Was Dona Flor a real person? My guess is that Amado created her from within himself--like the way Flaubert created Madame Bovary. "Madame Bovary? C'est moi!" is his famous answer. Both Vadinho, that drunk, that hopeless gambler, that fantastic lover, that everyman who loves the poorest of the poor and tolerates bad poets, all that I associate with Dona Flor.
And, yes, those Brazilians. It must be the breeze coming across the Atlantic and the scent wafting from the Amazonian jungle, the spices in their food and the hex by all those shaman magicians that drive them wild! And don't forget the music. What wonderfully potent music!


Laurel, Md.: This might be an extreme example of use of food in a book or film, but in "The Pianist" by Wladyslaw Szpilman, hunger, and life being reduced to a desperate search for food is very powerful.

Kunio Francis Tanabe: Oh, the movie that won the Academy Award. Yes, I remember how the hungry pianist finally gathered together something to eat from the leftovers of the German officers' party. The pleasures of food are, as Socrates described his sensations after being free of shackles, associated with the pain, in this case hunger. I can still recall the taste of fresh milk on a hot summer day after walking for miles with a thirst only a French legionnaire in the Sahara could understand.


Rockville, Md.: Would you agree that writers from older cultures better incorporate food into their stories than do North American authors? If not could you recommend a few to read that may feature good old fashioned American cuisine?

Kunio Francis Tanabe: First: good old American cuisine. I have not read Anne Tyler's "Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant," but doesn't she write well about food? The reason I mention this is because, years ago, I personally assigned Julia Child's cookbook to her. If I recall correctly, it was on the strength of that novel that made me think of her.
The finest European book that touches on the various aspects of the sensation of eating is Proust's "A la recherche du temps perdu"==Remembrance of Things Past. I will include an excerpt from it later on.


Buzzards Bay, Mass.: If you are using the translation by Gregory Rabassa -- that is as good as it is going to get. Rabassa was recruited for the English translation to help a campaign to get Jorge the Nobel prize. Amado's style was very much of the 19th century. Long sentences and paragraphs with many asides -- enjoyable reading for some but not the modern style like Hemingway.

About 40 years ago on a trip to Bahia, I was shown a woman who owned a bar and was supposed to be the inspiration for the story. She had been a traveller selling alcohol across the state and supposedly had not two but three husbands in different place and eventually settled down with two of them.

I met Jorge twice. He was barred from the United States because he had once been a communist congressman about 1946, even though he later was an anti-communist and supporter of the military coup of 1964. It was said that there was one anti-communist Swede, who was a member of the Nobel jury, and strongly opposed to giving the prize to Amado.

Kunio Francis Tanabe: What an insightful anecdote about Amado and the Nobel committee. I do wish to read Rabassa's translation but have not come across it. My English version was translated by Harriet de Onis (accent over the second "i").
I did know that Amado, like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, was blacklisted. I've never come across a full list of blacklisted writers but I wouldn't be surprised if it read like a who's who of world literature.
I love your story about the Bahian woman who traveled selling alcohol. And with three husbands? I must go to this bar if it's still around. 40 years ago? Not likely. (I know of a bar in Roppongi, Tokyo, run by Henry Miller's former wife. I do want to hear stories of Henry Miller as well. Wild stories!)


Munich, Germany: In the introduction of a German translation of "Os Pastores de Noite" (title translated as "Nights in Bahia") by Amado, he is described as the Brazilian Boccaccio and the Brazilian Gorki. While Amados books are known to be entertaining and humorous, his criticisms of social institutions have resulted in the bannings of some of his works in Brazil.

Are there any elements in Dona Flor that betray Amando's socialist-Marxist beliefs. Amado was jailed for a while in Brazil, was he not?

Kunio Francis Tanabe: Back in 1937, Amado's books were burned in the streets of Salvador. A few years later, he left Brazil and took refuge in Argentina where he met his wife Zelia Gattai. After World War II, Amade went into exile in Europe. The Communist Party was banned in Brazil. Amado's earlier books were banned in the United States.
Brazilian Boccaccio? I love it. He could also be called Brazil's Balzac with his incredible appetite for seafood. Balzac consumed more than 100 oysters--and that was just an appetizer!


Falls Church, Va.: One of my favorite food movies is "What's Cooking" -- done by the woman who directed "Bend It Like Beckham." Great use of food, and Thanksgiving, as a way of story-telling... right down to the very different interpretations of Thanksgiving food eaten by four different families.

Kunio Francis Tanabe: I look forward to renting "What's Cooking" on DVD. My favorite movies on food and cooking are: "Babette's Feast," based on a short story by Isak Dineson,and "Tampopo," a Japanese movie about various aspects of eating but particularly on the search to make the perfect noodle soup.


Kunio Francis Tanabe: There have been famous detectives associated with cuisine. Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe series ("Too Many Cooks" and "Poison a la Carte," etc.)
Italian detective Montalbano, a creation of Andrea Camilleri, in a series that takes place in Sicily. I read "The Terra-Cotta Dog." Goes down like Baci chocolate. There is a series on Msz, channel 56 in Washington, that features Montalbano now and then. His "Voice of the Violin" is also a fun read. Like George Simenon's Detective Maigret, the police chief loves to eat and inevitably gets invited to the finest kitchen. Then there is the Arsenio Lupin series, detective Colommbo and Pepe Carvalho, a creation of Barcelona writer Manuel Vazquez Montalban.


Book Club Selection: Where can I find a list of the upcoming discussion selections? But then time I find out the book title, it is too late to read and participate.

Kunio Francis Tanabe: Apologies are in order for not publishing the book club selection earlier. In the past, we've listed the book titles the first Sunday of the month along with a brief description of the title to be discussed at the end of the month. This month, however, we were a week late in printing the introduction (which you may have seen in last Sunday's Book World). To make things difficult, we hastily chose the discussion to occur today. With a long novel such as "Dona Flor," it would take a very dedicated reader to finish the book in two days.
We are currently in the process of revising the Book Club format. Besides Michael Dirda's book chat on Wednesdays at 2 p.m., we will have book discussions on Tuesdays at 3 p.m.

Next Tuesday at this same alotted time, Deborah E. Lipstadt, author of "History on Trial: My Day in Court with David Irving" and "Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory" will lead a discussion on this topic. The review of her book will appear this coming Sunday, Feb. 20 (on p. 4).
Please join this discussion anyway since we want your input on books, poetry, movies that have food as one of its themes.


Kunio Francis Tanabe: To conclude, here is a brief passage from Marcel Proust's "Remembrance of Things Past" ("a la recherche du temps perdu," book one, "Swann's Way), perhaps the most sublime and celebrated passage about food in all of literature. It is also a moment of epiphany, that flash of understanding--of how our consciousness works and how the act of writing reveals itself as truth, when memory and all of our senses combine to recapture a moment, a process that can be seen as universal truth, as a significant discovery.

"Many years had elapsed during which nothing of Combray, save what was comprised in the theatre and the drama of my going to bed there, had any existence for me, when one day in winter, as I came home, my mother, seeing that I was cold, offered me some tea, a thing I did not ordinarily take. I declined at first, and then, for no particular reason, changed my mind. She sent out for one of those short, plump little cakes called ‘petites madeleines,' which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted scallop of a pilgrim's shell. And soon, mechanically, weary after a dull day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate than a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, but individual, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory--this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me, it ws myself. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, accidental, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I was conscious that it was connected with the taste of tea and cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savours, could not, indeed, be of the same nature as theirs. Whence did it come? What did it signify? How could I seize upon and define it?"

Thanks for joining us this afternoon. Now, some Brazilian music, please! And please serve us some of those Bahian crabs with white wine, of course.


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