Jorge Amado has come a long way since 1937, when 2,000 of his books were burned in a plaza by order of the Brazilian military. Amado is now a Brazilian institution, the most widely read novelist in his country and, with his works translated into 43 languages, the most widely read Brazilian outside it. Actress Sonia Braga, his uninhibited and spectacularly undressed compatriot, became an international star playing two of his characters, Don a Flor and Gabriela, on movie screens around the world.
Amado has written about the people of Bahia, in Brazil's northeast, since he began to work there as a young journalist more than 50 years ago. The northeast is an area of implacable poverty for most, and of great wealth for the plantation owners and merchants who control what has always been a colonial economy, dependent on the needs and whims of foreign markets.
The flamboyant heroines of the later works, especially in "Gabriela," "Clove and Cinnamon" and "Don a Flor and Her Two Husbands," tend to overshadow Amado's wider concerns. They are creatures of exuberant sexuality, and the films made from the two books predictably dwell on their sexual, and often comical escapades. But the sexual comedies are played out against the backdrop of Bahian society -- the social divisions, the movement between social classes, the rise and fall of families, the struggles between the old aristocracy and new wealth that have been the classic grist of novels since the early English writers. Throughout his writing, Amado has always made clear his interest in seeing society whole, and his sympathy for those on its lowest rungs.
That sympathy is especially clear in "Jubiaba'" and "Sea of Death." These novels from the 1930s, part of Avon Books' continuing effort to bring Latin American fiction into English, are the works of a younger, more intensely political Amado. The sensuality that characterizes all his work is there, but the social analysis is undisguised, the revolutionary purpose explicit. You can picture the colonels reaching for their matches.
"Jubiaba'" traces the life of a poor black from the hillside slums around Bahia through street gangs, petty thievery, boxing, exploited labor on a tobacco plantation, to an epiphany during a strike among stevedores on the Bahia docks. The protagonist, Antonio Balduino, finally finds meaning for his life in communal rather than individual action. In so doing, he moves beyond the traditional wisdom of Jubiaba', the medicine man who rants against the injustice of past slavery but can offer no solution to the exploitation of the present.
It is clearly the work of a young writer. Amado's political views -- he was a Communist until the 1950s -- are too baldly stated. "Sea of Death" is a better novel and benefits from the more skilled translation of Gregory Rabassa, a one-man conveyor belt bringing Latin American literature, both Spanish and Portuguese, to English-speaking audiences. Again, Amado's concern is with the poor of Bahia, in this case the pilots of the small sloops who carry much of the coastal commerce. But to his sympathy he adds a more careful development of character, especially of the heroic sailor Guma, and of the women who love him: his faithful and fear-obsessed wife Livia, and the tempestuous Esmeralda.
"Sea of Death," as the title suggests, is a fatalistic book, and Guma's fate is never in doubt. Still the story ends triumphantly as Livia puts to sea in Guma's boat, conquering both her fear and the economic pressures that send the young widows of sailors into prostitution.
While the story lines in both are mechanical, the books are enriched by Amado's love for Bahia. He weaves in all the cultural richness, the religious beliefs, songs, dances, codes of honor, and local characters that so fascinated him. Like many other writers throughout Latin America in the first half of the 20th century, he was finding in his own continent all the material necessary for literature. Like them, he brandished his pen against social injustice, putting down the roots of realism from which the magical Latin American literature of the second half of the century continues to draw.
But Amado's work uniquely bridges those two literary eras, and at 72, he shows no sign of leaving the field. Last month, all the bookshops in Rio were prominently displaying his latest novel, "Tocaia Grande," an epic of the turn-of-the-century cacao boom. Everyone I asked said it was his best yet.