SHOWDOWN By Jorge Amado Translated from the Portuguese By Gregory Rabassa Bantam. 422 pp. $18.95
IN BRAZIL, whose territory nearly matches that of the continental U.S., the frontier has a familiar mystique. And there as here, myths of frontier independence have often conflicted with reality. Showdown is the guts-and-genitals tale of the founding of a Brazilian frontier town, told by Brazilian master storyteller Jorge Amado.
Amado has been a popular novelist, both in Brazil and abroad, since the 1930s. In those days Amado, son of a cacao plantation owner in the state of Bahia, was a staunch supporter of the Brazilian Communist Party. He wrote self-consciously "proletarian novels," with plots drawn along ideological lines -- Cacao (1933), about exploitation of black and mulatto plantation workers; Sweat (1934), about the world of urban dockworkers and prostitutes of Bahian capital Salvador; Jubiaba (1935), shocking among unabashedly racist literati for its black hero. His popularity was unpopular with the Vargas regime, which banned his books in 1938.
By the time he returned from roving exile in 1943, Amado had mellowed -- not in his populism, but in his literary style. The Violent Land, about plantation politics in the cacao zone, may still be his masterpiece and is the consummate act of betrayal by the son of a cacao planter. In it, Amado also found the tone that made his novels more than political schemas; it is thick with sex, battles over honor and local ritual.
Amado was part of an intellectual movement that asserted, heretically for the time, that mixture of the races was a positive force in forming the Brazilian nation. His work forms a fiction analogue to the work of noted Brazilian sociologist Gilberto Freyre (The Mansions and the Shanties). Amado's later novels have threatened, however, to make him not the populist storyteller but the soft pornographer of Brazilian popular literature.
Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon and Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands feature heroic mulatas whose sexual exploits are the novels' narrative road, and Tereza Batista: Home from the Wars is a paroxysm of sexual excess. The rich detail of Bahian black culture, the violence of daily life, the passions of people unsung in high literature are there in all three novels, but their heroines are goddesses carved in the image of Brazilian machismo.
Showdown is a second look at the terrain Amado covered in The Violent Land. It has the plot drive that has kept people reading the latest Amado novel all these years; it's loaded with sex and violence; and the picaresque characters all share their inner lives with the reader through Amado's omniscient narration.
The story is the founding of the interior Bahian town of Tocaia Grande, or "Big Ambush," which gets its name when one cacao lord runs another off the land. The victor's henchman Natario decides to settle the beautiful valley that he first saw as the victor of an ambush.
The settlement slowly fills with the kind of people who have settled Brazil's interior: a Lebanese merchant; local whores; a family of squatters thrown off their land in the neighboring state; the blacksmith, a black man who abandons life as a semi-slave and who falls in love with the adoring white girl. There's one of everybody, including the village idiot.
For hundreds of pages, the miracle of life proceeds, propelled by lust, dreams and folk religion. Babies are born in profusion, all of love, licit and illicit; no one dies. Then the plagues begin: first floods, then epidemic disease and finally the worst and most inevitable curse of all -- a land rights battle. The son of the plantation owner who had magnanimously bestowed Tocaia Grande on his henchman returns from sybaritic city life. In a fit of pique, the fat little lawyer-planter decides to wage war again in the lovely valley.
Showdown isn't just a frontier epic. It's revisionist popular history. It portrays the conquest of the Brazilian frontier as the work of those who were rejected by or who escaped the agricultural elite. And it shows their work stolen, again and again, by the powerful who seize it when it's ready to harvest. The revisionism doesn't reflect only Amado's political past, but some of the best recent research by Brazilian social historians. The story continues; landowners on Brazil's northwest frontier are today pitching lawyers and gunmen against squatters who carved out productive enterprises in unmarked lands.
The fleshing out of that message, however, is fleshy indeed. Translator Gregory Rabassa, who has done another superlative job, must have strained his thesaurus for genital synonyms. In the Amado tradition, men are men, women are mothers and (happy) whores. Fecundity is the primal metaphor of the people's vitality. Also in the Amado tradition, there are no mean emotions among the poor; they have limitations of viewpoint, but their emotional and symbolic lives are rich.
Once again Amado has made pulp-popular a story as Brazilian as cacao. Showdown is a lusty, satisfying read, and a vigorous retelling of Brazilian rural history. Popular fiction that gains in reputation from the Latin literary "boom," it shows that there's still novelistic room for a well-told tale.
Pat Aufderheide, a senior editor of In These Times, teaches in the Center for International Studies at Duke University.