BORN ON A CACAO plantation in the state of Bahia in Northeast Brazil, Jorge Amado, Latin America's most widely read writer, is now in his 50th year as a novelist. He started writing as a police reporter at the age of 15, and his first novel, The Land of Carnaval, was published when he was 19, in 1931. Since then his works have been translated into 40 languages, and sold an estimated 20 million copies, bringing alive to readers the world over the sultry, tropical city of Salvador, Brazil, where he has lived and worked.

"The success isn't mine, the success is of Brazil," Amado, 68, reflects as he relaxes in his hilltop villa overlooking the sparkling South Atlantic. "My books show how the Brazilian people are -- how they live, laugh, dance, go to bed -- their way of being, this mixture of races, bloods and cultures that characterizes Brazil. I think this is what interests foreign readers.

"The success of a writer like my friend Gabriel Garcia Marquez is that he is fundamentally a Colombian writer; the success of [Mario Vargas] Llosa is because he is fundamentally Peruvian -- the universality of these authors comes from their national character."

In Brazil, Amado is a living monument -- rivaling Carnaval or the state tourism agency in drawing tourists to Salvador. Bars and restaurants bear the names of his characters, and his best-selling novel Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon was serialized as a soap opera before a nightly audience of 25 million Brazilians.He is often proposed as a candidate for Brazil's first Nobel Prize in literature. Amado says, "Readers write me furious letters -- 'Why haven't you won the Nobel Prize?' Everyone thinks I have an obligation to win it." But he dismisses the subject, saying, "It's a bore."

The sale of movie rights for Gabriela to Metro Goldwyn Mayer paid for the construction of Amado's spacious house. Two years ago, a movie adaptation of his novel Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands became Brazil's biggest box office hit in the United States. Now, Italian director Lina Wertmuller is shooting his recent Tieta, with Sophia Loren in the title role.

Few Latin writers have approached this success, and Amado attributes his popularity to his subject: "From the first to the last, my books have a line of unity, which is faithfulness to the people, a position of the author by the side of the people," he says. He complains that much contemporary Latin American literature has "elitist tendencies," and he has described the hero of such fiction as "a middle-class intellectual full of litle agonies, little solitudes and little problems, which are of little interest to the people."

A prolific writer, Amado has often been called Brazil's Balzac, but he prefers to describe himself as "a novelist of prostitutes and good-for-nothings." He says life as he lived it inspired his moving portrayals of the drought-stricken Northeast and his amusing accounts of Salvador's colorful, buoyant, urban poor.

"During my youth I lived the freest life possible," he remembers, "mixing with the people on the docks, in the markets, at the festivals, in capoeira schools, or candomble. Even today, you won't find me in nightclubs or at fancy dinners."

[Capoeira, a form of karate set to African drumbeats, was developed by slaves in Brazil for self-defense. Candomble, an Afro-Brazilian religion popular in Salvador, features 12 deities worshipped in ritual chants in Yoruba.]

With 80 percent of the population descended from African slaves, Salvador is the capital of black Brazil.

"Africa has a tremendous weight here," says Amado, who visited Senegal tiwce last year. "If you listen to Brazilian music, immediately you feel it; if you see a Brazilian dance -- be it samba or classical ballet -- you will sense the presence of Africa."

Bahia is closer to Angola than to Portugal or the United States, and Afro-Brazilian ties have remained strong for centuries. After abolition, thousands of former slaves returned to Benin, Nigeria, and Togo, "contributing progressive ideas of freedom and independence to these countries," Amado says.

At the gate of Amado's house on Blue Lizard Street hangs a bronze bow and arrow -- the symbol of Oxossi, goddess of the hunt and the writer's orixa, or patron saint. A candomble community in Salvador made Amado an oba, or one of 12 ministers in the court of Xango, the god of thunder and lightning for their religion. Although Amado is an agnostic, he received this honor for his struggles against religious persecution and racial discrimination -- both common themes in his books.

Like many Latin authors, Amado has frequently plunged into the political fray. A lifelong socialist, he was elected a communist deputy in 1945 and successfully sponsored a constitutional amendment outlawing religious discrimination. But his outspokenness in the cause of social justice landed him in jail three times and forced him into exile for seven years -- in Buenos Aires, Paris and Prague. In 1943, military authorities burned nearly 1,700 copies of his books in the main square of his beloved Salvador.

"I am against any type of censorship," he says flatly. "Many people are against censorship when it touches them, but when they arrive in power, they censor." In 1970, he announced that he would not publish his books in Brazil, where he was the best-selling author, if the military passed a bill establishing prior censorship for books. The plan was quietly shelved.

Although the military still runs Brazil, elections are scheduled for next year, and Amado admits, "There is much more liberty today. The films of Costa-Gavras were banned for political reasons," he says. "Today they are shown; the public attends. What happens? Nothing. Censorship is absurd."

Amado's communist militance mellowed after Stalinist atrocities were revealed in the mid-1950s, and today he says he is "for socialism, but only with democracy."

"In the first part of my work there was always a political speech alongside the plot," he recalls. "I didn't have sufficient experience to understand that in a novel you convey through the plot -- a speech within a novel is an excrescence."

Amado is one of an estimated five Brazilian writers who makes a living from his writing. Market surveys show that less than 10 percent of Brazil's 120 million citizens can afford to buy books. "We don't have professional literature," he says. "Our authors are doctors, dentists, farmers -- people who write in their free hours."

A Brazilian best seller often sells as few as 10,000 copies. Since publication in 1979, Amado's most recent work, Uniforms, Robes and Nightgowns, has sold 130,000 copies in Brazil alone.

Today, Amado says he is in a fallow phase -- allowing ideas and characters to mature. "I am not writing," he says."But I am working -- I am working in my head."