Here is a passage from Brazilian writer Jorge Amado's short story 'The Miracle of the Birds' that seems a fair summation of his work. "Wanderer though he was, he had a house and home - several houses and homes - in Bahia and Sergipe. Why not, with his good looks and his reputation? So many women and Ubaldo was true to all of them, for his was a faithful, constant heart...Whenever a woman left him he felt as if he were losing the only one in the world. However many others there might be, each one was the only one, and if that riddle baffles you then you don't know much about love." Here we have the setting for much of Amado's fiction, Bahia. A region in the north east of Brazil, with a coastline, it was Amado's birthplace and functions a little like an actual Macondo, Gabriel Garcia Marquez's fictional Latin American universe. But any fidelity to place is countered by infidelity to the real: Amado's story ends with Ubaldo being hoisted into the air by numerous birds, after running away from the vicious, murderous husband of his latest conquest. How you might ask do the birds do so, and this is where we see the Magic Realist attention to detail meeting the rollicking absurdity of Amado's style. Ubaldo has escaped out of the window just as the husband has come through the door, and all he has to protect his nakedness is the flimsy lover Sabo's baby doll nightie. As he runs through the streets, his member bouncing up and down with the husband closing in on him whilst wielding a knife, Ubaldo crashes into wooden cages in the bird market stacked one on top of the other. The cages smash, the birds escape, and pigeons, thrushes, canaries and lovebirds, pick him up by the wispy nightgown and take him into the clouds.
This is Amado in miniature, a tale running to less than ten pages when Amado's novels often sprawl to over more than five hundred. Both Dona Flor and her Two Husbands and Tereza Batista are big books, almost nineteenth century tomes in their rambling approach to character and event, yet decidedly more modern in their sexual explicitness and moral flexibility. The material is similar to 'Miracle of the Birds'. In Dona Flor and her Two Husbands, the title character's first husband isn't very different from Ubaldo. Vadinho is less careful with money, has only one wife but numerous lovers, and a gambling and drink habit that makes him a life force in the community, but not much use in the domestic sphere. The novel opens on his death at a carnival in Bahia, and goes back and forth in time to show how Dona Flor and Vadinho got together, and how she copes in his absence. As in much of Amado's work, the story doesn't flow smoothly, it yoyos and pendulates, digressively taking in numerous characters, before the second half of the book attends to her marriage to her new spouse, and the return of Vadinho in sensuously ghostly form. Nobody else can see Vadinho, but Dona Flor doesn't only perceive him she receives him in her bed, with Vadinho still a great lover even from beyond the grave.
The novel could be summed up succinctly as an account of the sensual and the sensible, with the two husbands representing the two sides to Dona Flor's personality in a work that never indicates a weakness of mind (like other tales of schizophrenic thinking: Dr Jeckyll and Mr Hyde and Confessions of a Justified Sinner), but a tolerance of attitude. Dona Flor admires her second husband, knows he is a fine doctor with a good brain and high standing in the community. But he is a someone who believes in rigid times for sexual intercourse, and has a controlling aspect to his nature only countered by his utter devotion to Dona Flor that means he is willing to temper it for love. "A Place for Everything and Everything in its Place" is the motto that hangs in his surgery, and Dona Flor is expected to know her place too. Not because the doctor lacks respect for his wife, more that he must be careful not to lose any of his own self-respect. Order is what gives him strength. When another woman comes on strongly to the doctor, he runs out of his surgery, with some of the townsfolk seeing a man finally scared of women and their capacity to play havoc with the doctor's life. Where Vadinho would have taken the woman there and then, the good doctor takes off.
Amado seems a writer always on the side of womanizing over moral rectitude, and then tries to find a value within the energetic rather than defending more static forms of behaviour. This leads to an interesting ethos that understandably has to accept that Vadinho's behaviour causes Dona Flor plenty problems when he is alive, and a few when he decides to return as a ghostly yet sensuous presence, but never to the detriment of the life force he represents. Vadinho could be presented monstrously in another novel, with anyone from Hardy to Chekhov seeing in a figure like Vadinho a moral monster reliant on a devilish charm that can destroy a good woman. We might think of the womanizing D'Urberville in Tess of the D'Urbervilles who takes Tess's virginity and leaves her pregnant, or the character in Chekhov's Story of a Nobody who accepts the woman leaving her husband but has little interest in committing to her in return. We don't want to suggest Hardy or Chekhov simplify the characters or the situations, but they do not create in their womanizers a deep sympathy for the energy that they possess. In both 'The Miracle of the Birds' and 'Dona Flor and her Two Husbands', these are men given the force of life, as Amado sees that the first duty to the self is the manifestation of desire.
Yet equally this is true of the women also. There seems to be no such thing as a fallen woman in Amado, especially if we think of the terribles times of the mulatta Tereza Batista in the novel of that name. As the italicized narrator says at the beginning of the book, "all bad luck needs is a start in life. Once it gets going there's no holding it; it spreads and it flourishes. Talk all you like, bad luck's a product of mass consumption if ever there was one. Now happiness, on the other hand, is a mighty finicky kind of plant, old pal." The book will give Tereza plenty of bad luck, but it will also reward her by the end through the return of the sailor she fell in love with years before. On the way to this happy ending the book follows the young woman brought up by an aunt who sells her as an early teen to a ruthless, sex-addicted captain, someone who beats her regularly, takes her body when he wishes, and has sex with numerous other young women as well. Tereza, several years later, while still held semi-captive falls in love with the youth of a wealthy family and feels that she has found love. He promises to take her away, saying "Yes, I'll take you to Bahia, don't fret about it anymore", sealing "the promise with a kiss in which their tongues entwined greedily." But it ends unhappily.
Amado gives many pages over to this affair, and sees in it not so much a passion blind as Daniel will eventually let her down when the captain bursts in on them, Tereza kills him, and Daniel makes his escape, but a burgeoning emotional sight. "She had died with the rod, the belt, the whip, the iron, but now she was born again." The narrator says of the affair. "in possession once again of every particle of her being, when the test came, without a trace of fear, but in all her beauty compounded of sweetness and valor in equal parts, the famous Tereza Batista rose to her full stature." Sticks and stones have tried to break her spirit, but even a spineless lover like Daniel allows her to discover herself as sexual being. Amado doesn't present Daniel as a villain during their affair, just as someone feeble and opportunistic: he has strong feelings for Tereza but is a weak figure himself. This allows the reader to see through him because the narrator has the advantage of seeing Daniel for what he is and not as the love object seen through the eyes of Tereza. When he lies in bed with her he thinks of telling Tereza that he will soon return to the city. "He foresaw a bad quarter of an hour ahead of him; how tiresome it would be. Daniel had a horror of all scenes, ruptures, leavetakings, weepings and laments. Their whole last night would be spoiled." If Tereza throughout the book is no-nonsense, Daniel is all nonsense, but he invokes within her a passion that leads to killing her oppressor. He might not be worthy of her feelings, but he is a useful catalyst in releasing her from her bonds. Where Hardy would be more inclined to see Angel as a pathetic figure not up to the moral task of accepting Tess for what she is (a woman raped by the rich Alec), and that eventually will lead to her execution after killing D'urbeville, Amado, working with much less subtle characterization than Hardy, and putting the murder much earlier in the book (it happens before the halfway stage), sees it not as a final act that seal's a woman's fate, but a necessary evil that leads to Tereza's freedom.
Tereza is locked up for her crime, but gets released with the aid of a wealthy doctor Emiliano, whose lawyer manages to get her out of jail. She lives with the doctor and initial distrust gives way to great feeling, even if she remains merely his lover, nothing so grand as a prospective wife. When she becomes pregnant he insists Tereza aborts the child, or he will have to disown her. "Listen to me, Tereza, and then decide for yourself. I love you so much that I'm willing to let you have the child, if you insist, and support it as long as I live - but I won't recognize it as mine. I won't give it my name and our life together will come to an end." She aborts. It is a decision he will live to regret, especially when he is close to dying. After all he will leave the world having two grown up children who hardly fill him with much pride, and generally a family he dismisses: "Bad blood, Tereza. My blood, and my family's blood, is corrupt." Just before dying he believes that he is no better than the doctor who abused her as she was growing up, but Tereza insists that he shouldn't compare himself to such a beast, no matter his past exploitation of others and his family's corruption. He has been a good man, someone we might think has made amends through his relationship with Tereza rather than happening to be someone who has done good throughout his life. Tereza gets the best of him, but we can see why someone whose one good deed includes a failure to do right even there, is inclined to hyperbolize his guilt.
Yet we can also note that Amado would see such a capitulation as a failure of life - it isn't a question concerning the conservative argument against abortion, more that life has to be defended as fundamental value: we have to be true to our desires and what brings more life into being as a consequence of them. As the seventy year old Amado said in an interview with Berta Sichel "I am a sensual and romantic Brazilian who lives the admirable life of the Bahian people." (Bookrags.com) How could he side with the values of propriety and saving face over giving birth and bringing another person into the world? The doctor's exaggerated sense of contrition nevertheless is justified in the Amado universe as it brings together a failure on two levels. The life force just invoked, and the quashing of a people also. The doctor's refusal to acknowledge the child in Tereza's belly that she will then abort, is the power of wealth capable of keeping the people down so completely that he presents even the child's birth. He can't countenance this child of his from the loins of a mulatta. When Amado sees himself as a political writer he says to Malcolm Coal, "the only hero of my book is the people of Brazil, and in particular the people of Bahia..." (Index). "Every writer is political, even those who think they have nothing to do with politics, since the mere act of writing is a political act the writer exerts influence on the readers, and this is a political action." "I am a writer who basically deals with social themes," he says in the interview with Sichel, since the source material for my creation is Brazilian reality.... [Many of my] novels narrate the life of the people, everyday life, the struggle against extreme poverty, against hunger, the large estates, racial prejudice, backwardness, underdevelopment." "My characters", he insists, "are the most destitute, the most needy, the most oppressedcountry and city people without any power other than the strength of the mestizo people of Brazil. They say that I am a novelist of whores and vagabonds, and there is truth in that, for my characters increasingly are anti-heroes."
Yet a lot of literature that passes for the socio-political possesses a depressed people or a suspect force, evident in writers including Emile Zola and Juan Rulfo. We see this in the negative energies that flow through the working class people in L'Assommoir, La bete humaine and Therese Raquin, and the Rulfo stories in The Burning Plain. Here we have the notion of a people, and a force but the people are driven by drives beyond their control, and a baby born into the world is a dubious premise, since they will likely carry the sins of the fathers in their blood, no matter how long it takes for them to be stirred. In Therese Raquin, Zola's narrator tells us that the character of Laurent had been a typical peasant, "heavy, stolidly canny and full-blooded, eating, drinking, and sleeping like an animal." After meeting Therese, however, he "lost his calm ponderousness and ceased living in a state of somnolence...the nerves became predominant, and he fell into the agonies that torture those whose minds and bodies are disturbed." The narrator adds "it would be interesting to study the modifications that sometimes take place in certain organisms as results of predetermined circumstances." The first person narrator in Rulfo's The Burning Plain announces of his son, "He was just like me and with something mean in his look. He had to get some of that from his father."
Unlike Amado, Zola and Rulfo are not writers of the vital but of the debilitating, and this is no sort of criticism just as it needn't necessarily be cause for praise: it is an act of differentiation. Not that criticism isn't useful once the distinction has been made, but if we don't make it first we could be implying that a writer's optimism or pessimism is an a priori reason for their work being good or bad.
If we might have problems with Amado's fiction it rests, if anything, on the conjunction of the optimistic and the pessimistic for the final promotion of the former. One of the features we find in Amado's books is what we might call the melodramatic undulation: a book's need to march the optimism all the way to the top of the hill only to to march it down again, and vice versa. It is there in numerous great nineteenth century writers, and none more so than in Dicken's and especially Oliver Twist where the boy's trials and tribulations are precisely melodramatic undulations. Oliver is brought up in terrible conditions, appears to be released from them through a kindly parish undertaker, only for the undertaker's wife to take a disliking to him. Oliver then runs away to London and falls in with a gang of thieves, gets caught but is befriended by the wealthy victim who sees some good in Oliver, before Oliver is then kidnapped by the gang and so on until the novel concludes on a generally happy ending for Oliver.
Tereza Batista is in some ways Oliver Twist in sensual form, with Tereza the orphan brutally brought up by the thuggish captain, before she then discovers love for the young Daniel, kills the captain, ends up in jail and falls in love with a doctor who dies, before final happiness with the sailor, along the way working as a prostitute, confronting the evils of small-pox, and taking on corrupt cops who want to move the local brothel. Despite modernist interventions including a chorus-like narrator in italics, the book feels narratively old-fashioned and yet sexually up to date. It has the melodrama of a nineteenth century work, but without the moral imperatives indicating that Tereza ought to be broken by her status as a fallen woman. Both battered and bruised as a teenager, and reliant frequently on prostitution for her income, Tereza is never a victim, but instead a survivor. These are two easy-to-hand dichotomous definitions of the woman falling on hard times, but nevertheless useful ones if we open up the problem to explore what sort of literature comes out of them. If Hardy's characters are often victims rather than survivors, this also gives to novels like Tess of the D'Urbervilles and Jude The Obscure, the tragic trajectory over the melodramatically undulated. As G. D. Klingopolus says of novels such as Tess and Jude: "all these work towards a sombre denouement and must be regarded as the practical application of Hardy's lifelong notemaking on the subject of tragedy." Hardy needs victims here, and Jude The Obscure is a series of terrible turns of the screw, with the book's most horrific moment when Jude's young son kills his lover's two children and hangs himself. In both Tess and Jude, the title characters are unfortunate victims of circumstance, but Tereza in Amado's novel is, like Oliver in Dickens' book, a survivor of circumstance.
We can guffaw at the manipulations involved in a novel that allows the sailor who was thought to be dead, to return to the town on the very day that Tereza will marry another man whom she admires but does not love, but if the book left Tereza in a dull marriage where she is someone who constantly looks for sensual pleasure, it would be to turn her into a victim, and the novel into a work of sensual pessimism. (Hardy was a sensual pessimist, with Tess's assignation with Alec ruining her life, and Jude's sexual relationship with Sue leading to personal tragedy and social disdain.) But to dismiss the plot contrivances in Amado's work as he moves towards happy endings would be underestimate the ends to which they are serving. Amado is interested in a sensual literature that turns potential victims into sexual survivors, and in this Amado coincides with anybody from Henry Miller to Catherine Millet, with books that might ostensibly suggest despair but instead offer the situation as sexually triumphant. Whether it happens to be Miller bumming around Paris (Tropic of Cancer), or Millet (The Sexual Life of Catherine M.) taking on truck drivers, both writers refuse a descent into despair and insist on the elevation of self-assertiveness.
Finally this is what we find in Tereza, and also in Dona Flor. These are both women for whom the sexual has its place and it is Amado's need to combine the political with the sexual, the working class lives of its people with the sexual possibilities of his characters, which makes him a writer of interest. Indeed, the second husband of Dona Flor isn't too different from the man Tereza almost marries, a dutiful figure with whom Dona Flor can settle down, but who isn't quite laid back enough for her to get regularly laid. He is a regular guy in a literal sense: a man who can countenance sex a couple of times a week so that it can fit into an orderly existence. But while he is the sort of man who suits the demands of a mother-in-law who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing, for Amado's heroines sexuality isn't opposed to morality. It is in some ways an extension of the moral. Sex allows for a form of integrity rather than an escape from it. As the narrator says: "Whom did Flor love? Him, Vadinho, as he was, not the post he had invented, the job he did not perform, the money he did not have." Near the end of the book, after Vadinho has returned as a ghost, the narrator muses as if through two voices in Dona Flor's head "If you let Vadinho go, it will be easy for you to forget these few shameless nights, that mad ride and the moans of love...You will live at peace with your husband and your conscience. Your last chance, Dona Flor, to put your virtue in practice...are you or are you not a decent woman?" But is this where her decency resides? "Without love I cannot live, without his love. It were better to be dead with him. If I cannot have him with me, I will go seeking him desperately in every man that crosses my path, I will try to find the taste of him in every mouth, howling, a famished wolf running through the streets. He is my virtue."
Amado may utilise the melodramatic undulations of much 19th century fiction, but he does so for very specific ends. He is not interested in the social amelioration of Dickens, nor, like, the brilliant but deterministic Hardy Klingopolus sees, "at pains to explain that because everything is fated, the characters can only suffer as they follow their appointed courses." ('Hardy's Tales Ancient and Modern') Instead he shows us characters who survive partly because their deepest truth resides in their loins. Whether he is admiring of the womanizer in 'The Miracle of the Birds', utterly unwilling to regard Tereza as a fallen woman in Tereza Batista, or thoroughly understanding of Dona Flor's dilemma over a living husband who is sexually half dead, or her ghostly husband who is very much sexually alive, Amado is a novelist of the amorously sympathetic. There is of course a lot more to Amado than this, just as there are plenty other books and stories, includingGabriela: Clove and Cinnamon and The Violent Land. And where does Amado fit into the context of Brazilian literature, placed between two immense figures historically, Machado de Assis and Clarice Lispector? That would be for another piece; here our modest ambition has been to explore the importance of sexuality in a writer who is happy to absorb aspects of the nineteenth century novel whilst ignoring others, and who makes the five hundred page book fresh through the manner in which the sexual permeates the fiction. Some might be inclined to regard Amado as an upmarket purveyor of bodice rippers, but that would be to underestimate the blend of magic realism, political assertiveness, social concern and a sexual politics that is resolutely affirmative.
© Tony McKibbin