Obituary: Alfredo Dias Gomes

Nick Caistor
Monday 24 May 1999 23:02

"GOD IS a great dramatist," the Brazilian writer Alfredo Dias Gomes once joked, "but his plots always end in death. If I were God, I'd think up a different ending." Unfortunately, he did not get the chance to invent another ending for himself, and died in a car accident in Sao Paulo.

Dias Gomes had plenty of ideas for his own plots. He was born in 1922 in the north-eastern city of San Salvador in Bahia, the most picturesque but most crushingly poor part of Brazil. He, like his internationally known Bahian colleague Jorge Amado and other writers from the same region, thought writing should combine an interest with social concerns and a celebration of life.

By the 1940s, like so many other Brazilians, Dias Gomes had headed south for the big cities. He won a playwriting competition at the age of 15, and at 20 had his first play on the stage in Rio, and then Sao Paulo. He also wrote several novels, but was particularly attracted to the more public medium of the theatre, for which he went on writing all his life.

In the 1950s, Dias Gomes found himself on a McCarthy-style blacklist for his left-wing political activism and for a journey he made to the Soviet Union in 1953 to celebrate May Day. For several years he composed more plays and pieces for radio under various pseudonyms but in 1959 - under his own name - wrote what was to be his most successful play, O pagador do promesas ("The Keeper of Vows").

Set in his native Bahia, it tells the story of a young man determined to keep the vow he has made to God, despite the mockery and intrigue of everyone around him. The play was made into a film, and in 1962 became the only Brazilian production to win the prestigious Palme d'Or at the Cannes film festival. It was also nominated for a foreign film Oscar. In his recent autobiography, Dias Gomes recalled how the idea for the play came from remembering how his own mother made more than a hundred vows to different saints when his brother was taking his entrance exam to become an army doctor.

His brother passed the exam, but Dias Gomes did not have such a good experience of the Brazilian military. Soon after they took power in 1963, the military authorities removed him from the post of artistic director of the national radio, and he once more found himself blacklisted in official art circles.

These difficulties only seem to have helped him get launched on what was to be a second and even more productive career. The new television company Globo was just starting up, and Dias Gomes had exactly the right kind of talent to write for the new national soap operas that became one of Globo's trademarks.

The work he did for them ranged from the adaptation of Brazilian literary classics, which for the first time in a country with high illiteracy rates were made available to a mass public, to series of his own, such as Roque Santeiro, which could not be screened until the end of the military regime in the 1980s, but was then hugely popular in Brazil, and was sold all over the world.

Dias Gomes's skill at writing for television, radio and the theatre was recognised when he was chosen to become a member of the Brazilian Academy of Letters in 1991. He continued to be a prolific writer into his seventies, and was at work on a television series based on the populist Brazilian president Getulio Vargas when he died.

His death was as dramatic as anything from one of his soap operas, and as absurd as so many of the deaths that occur in the vast and violent city of Sao Paulo. He was returning from the theatre with his wife in a taxi, when the driver apparently suddenly made an illegal left turn, and the car was hit by a bus. Alfredo Dias Gomes died instantly, his wife was injured, and attended his funeral in a wheelchair.

Nick Caistor

Alfredo de Freitas Dias Gomes, writer: born San Salvador de Bahia, Brazil 19 October 1922; married first Janete Clair (died 1983; two sons, one daughter), second Maria Bernadete Lys (two daughters); died Sao Paulo 18 May 1999.

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