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Tuesday, September 7, 2010

A Master Storyteller Tells a Wonderful Tale




Have you ever encountered a writer and become so enchanted with his books that you couldn't get enough of them? I have, and Brazilian novelist Jorge Amado is one of them.

Translated into some 49 languages, several of his novels were made into film (“Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands”, “Gabriela” and “Tieta”, all of which I've seen). Gabriela (1958), The Two Deaths of Quincas Wateryell (1959), Home Is the Sailor (1961), Shepherds of the Night (1964), Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands (1966), Tent of Miracles (1969), Tereza Batista: Home from the Wars (1972), Tieta, the Goat Girl (1977), Pen, Sword and Camisole (1979), Showdown (1984) and The War of the Saints (1988), I owned, read and re-read every one of them. All of them deal largely with the lives of the poor urban black and mulatto communities of Bahia State, where he grew up. As a story teller, I considered him a Brazilian Charles Dickens, and still do.

When I first read "Tent of Miracles" in the early 1970s, I fell in love with it. Of all of Jorge Amado's novels I have read, this is probably my favorite. I say "probably", because it's hard to pick a favorite out of so many fine works. Reading it again after more than thirty years, I am pulled in all over again to the streets of Salvador, Bahia, following the mulatto Pedro Archanjo in his rambles, his conversations, his love affairs and his obsession with telling the story of his people in four books published by friend and "brother", the miracle painter Lidio CorrĂ³.

"Tent of Miracles" is about Bahia's African and mestizo people, their rich culture, their poverty, and their struggle against the racism, with Pedro as their advocate and champion. It's also about his "rediscovery" by the North American Nobel Prize winner and scholar, James D. Levenson, whose attention makes Archanjo the focus of a major "cultural event" that celebrates the 100th anniversary of his birth. The celebration turns out to be a monumental farce in which Pedro Archanjo's memory is laundered and turned into a commercial icon. In 1969 he's still too uncomfortable to the political powers to leave him as he was in "real life", a "donnadie" (Mr. Nobody), a self-educated man of the people whose life ended at age 75 when he died of a heart attack on the way to the room an old friend had given him in a brothel.

It's too bad Amado has been largely forgotten by North American readers; he is far too good for that. It wasn't too long ago that I could find him on the shelves of Barnes & Noble and all of his books on Amazon. Amado, who died in 2001 (he was born in 1912), is one of America's foremost writers. For me, rereading him is like getting together with old friends and taking up where we left off the last time we met. I know exactly what neighborhood I am in, where we're going next, and who we'll meet. I can hear the talk and the laughter, smell the smells of the street and the food, and hear the singing and the sounds of the guitar, berimbau and drum.

If you haven't read "Tent of Miracles", buy a copy and read it. The New York Times called it "a most enjoyable romp", which is like calling a drop-dead beauty "a nice-looking gal": way, way too insipid to fit the reality.

My hat is off to the University of Wisconsin Press for bringing this book out in this fine paperback edition. It sure has set me on fire again!

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