Jorge Amado

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The Independent Online

Jorge Amado, novelist: born Ilhéus, Brazil 10 August 1912; married 1945 Zelia Gattai (one son, one daughter); died Salvador, Brazil 6 August 2001.

"SAVE YOUR coffin for the next round/ you won't catch me in a hole in the ground." So says Quincas, one of the Brazilian writer Jorge Amado's irrepressible heroes; and it is hard to imagine that Quincas's creator left this life any more willingly. By the time he died, Amado had over 20 volumes of collected works to his credit, and was still writing joyous celebrations of life in his native region of Bahia until shortly before his death.

Bahia, in the far north-east of Brazil, is the country's most racially and culturally mixed region. Fought over by the Portuguese, the Dutch, and even the British, it also had a large influx of black slaves for work on the sugar and cacao plantations. It was above all the unique society produced by this historical mixture that Amado celebrated in his novels.

But the history of Bahia has also been one of great misery and social injustice. The black slaves were only granted their freedom in the 1880s, scarcely a generation before Jorge Amado was born in 1912, the son of a plantation owner, near the small seaside town of Ilhéus. Although born into the well-to-do classes, the young Amado apparently identified from an early age with the poorer and less fortunate.

In 1930, at his father's insistence, he headed south to São Paulo to study law. But he was far more interested in literature and in politics than in pursuing any legal career – though he did receive a doctorate in 1935. By then Amado was already producing a novel a year, as well as writing for several political magazines.

These early works included Cacau (1933, translated into English as Cacao, 1981) about life on the plantations of Bahia, which was banned and led to him spending a night in jail – the first of many conflicts he was to have with the authorities. Another novel Suor ("Sweat", 1934) dealt with the hardship of blacks in Salvador, the capital city of Bahia, and was followed in 1935 by Jubiabá (translated into English in 1944), the first time in which Amado successfully evokes the richness of black Brazilian religious and cultural traditions. But perhaps the best of this early cycle is Capitaes do areia (1983, Captains of the Sand, 1988) an angry indictment of the plight of the homeless street children of Salvador.

In Brazil in the 1930s, as in Western Europe, progressive intellectuals were convinced that liberal democracy was ineffective as a means to combat the rising Fascist menace, and turned to Communism as a more militant response. Amado became a member of the Communist Party, and his political agitation plus the subversive spirit of his fiction, particularly Captains of the Sand, led to his expulsion from Brazil in 1938. Forced to live an unsettled life between Mexico, the United States, and Argentina, Amado was unable to produce fiction, but reaffirmed his political commitment in an enthusiastic biography of the Brazilian Communist leader Luiz Carlos Prestes.

On his return to Brazil in 1942, Amado produced a book that for many remains his masterpiece: Terras do sem fim (1943, The Violent Land, 1945). In this novel, he returns to the cacao plantations of the north-east and describes in epic terms the struggle for power and freedom of the workers pitted against the forces of traditional society.

A period of relative political freedom in Brazil in the late 1940s saw Amado elected to parliament for the Communist Party, when he helped draw up a new national constitution. Once again, however, his political involvement was swiftly followed by a further period of exile when the Communist Party was banned. This time Amado spent most of the period abroad in Europe, living in Paris and visiting eastern Europe.

It was on his subsequent return to Brazil in the 1950s that Amado decided to dedicate himself exclusively to writing. He was always careful to say that this was not the result of a crisis in political faith, but simply a pressing need to write. In a recent interview he also rejected any division of his work:

I see my work as being a unity, except that when I was younger I believed in other people's ideology, that the rich must be evil, the poor good. Over the years though I came to see that there is good and bad in everyone, and that it was more interesting to explore that.

The strongest expression of this new approach came with the novel Gabriela, cravo e canela (1958, Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon, 1962), in which for the first time the use of humour for subversive ends is tellingly employed. As Amado himself has put it. "I came to feel that true subversion comes through laughter and the release it brings; that's one of the most effective ways to deny an oppressor his power over you."

Gabriela, with its unconventional heroine and life-enhancing message made Amado immensely popular among a wide range of audiences in Brazil. It also helped him become one of the first Latin Americans to reach a mass audience outside his own country, firstly in France and in Russia, where his works sold in hundreds of thousands of copies, and then in the United States. He was immensely proud that his work had been translated into 49 languages (the latest of which, he announced with satisfaction, being Thai).

The strong characterisation, simple plots and vivacious humour made these novels excellent material for both films and television soap operas. The films in turn brought Amado an even wider audience, so that he became almost a national institution. A new generation of writers and critics accused him in fact of "selling out" by repeatedly portraying what they saw as a stereotype of happy black Brazilians living their unconcerned lives, but Amado shrugged this off by saying that he would expect young people to be angry, but that he was more interested in the dreams that keep people going when faced with adversity and oppression.

Amado illustrated this in two novels from the 1970s on the theme of prostitution: Tereza Batista cansada de guerra (1972, Tereza Batista home from the wars, 1975) and the more light-hearted Tieta do agreste (1977, Tieta, the goat girl 1979). He continued to produce exuberant novels such as Tocaia Grande (1984, Showdown, 1988) or O sumiço da santa (1988, The War of the Saints, 1993), insisting now that he simply wanted to "tell a tale" and "have fun." As such, his books still commanded a huge readership in Brazil and in other countries, although they enjoyed less critical success.

In his later years, Amado appeared greatly to enjoy the role of the "patriarch of Brazilian letters," still insistent that despite its immense problems Brazil was the country of the future, and that the writer still had to fulfil the traditional role of entertaining and enlightening in equal measure.

Nick Caistor