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Boundless love and death in Bahia.

BULLETINS FROM THE WORLD'S PRESS LAST YEAR CHRONICLED JORGE AMADO'S deteriorating health, his admittance to Alianca Hospital in Salvador, and his subsequent release last July. Plans were under way for Amado's eighty-ninth birthday celebration on August 10 when the news came: E morto lo scrittore Jorge Amado--Jorge Amado esta morto--Brazilian Author Jorge Amado Dead at 88. On August 6, 2001, the author whose own works often blurred the line between the physical and the spiritual, the living and the deceased, slipped away from those who loved him.

Loved--amado--the Brazilian icon himself could hardly have invented a more inspired name for a writer whose admirers spanned the globe and erected shrines in his honor long before his death. In Salvador da Bahia, thousands of usually exuberant Bahians filed past his coffin, subdued, in white mourning clothes, showing their respect for a dignitary of the Candomble religion and an author whose novels have touched the hearts of people in more than fifty countries."

"When he died, everything came to a stop," says Rosa Lobo Resnick, an artist and native of Salvador. "Everyone loved him. He was not only a great writer, but a great man."

Public adulation for Brazil's most renowned writer has long welled up from the ordinary folk, the marginalized masses, even from those Bahians who may never have leafed through one of his books. "Strange and original land," marveled Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa, visiting Bahia on the occasion of Amado's seventieth birthday, "where writers are as famous as football players."

Throughout his and productive life, Amado reciprocated the great affection shown him by the people of Bahia. In one of his early works, Captains of the Sands, he writes in an afterword, "In order to put these novels of mine together, I tried to seek out the people, I went to live with them, ever since my childhood on cacao plantations, my adolescence in cafes in the capital, my trips all through the State, crossing it in all manner of conveyances, listening to and seeing the most beautiful and strangest parts of Bahia's humanity--no one until today has dared look face to face with so much love at Bahian humanity and its problems."

My own journey to the land of Jorge Amado began inauspiciously enough, over casual conversation in a Rio de Janeiro restaurant transplanted from Bahia and named after the African deity Yemanja. When I learned that Salvador da Bahia was a favorite vacation spot for Rio's fun-loving cariocas, I resolved to one day visit the state of Bahia and its principal city, Salvador (sometimes, confusingly, also called Bahia). And I began to read Amado. Eagerly I plunged into his circuitous plots, tracked his numerous characters, absorbed his personal asides to the reader--or, as Amado slyly put it toward the end of War of the Saints, "undertook the penance of following the plot, the tribulations of the characters--not to mention those of the author, as a matter of fact, suffering the atrocious pains of lumbago just now."

Finally, my chance came to travel through a slice of the sprawling northeastern state--the teeming two-tiered capital, Salvador; the fertile region known as the Reconcavo, which hugs the Baia de Todos os Santos; the bay itself, with its lyrically named islands; and rural towns as far south as Ilheus, Amado's boyhood home. If reading the novels had proved a good prelude to traveling in Bahia, the reverse is also true: the landscape, littered as it is with bars, beaches, and buildings frequented by Amado's characters, offers the perfect prologue to the writer's works.

Everywhere in this sunny tropical expanse can be found the very characters who jostle for attention in the pages of Amado's books--if not those exact individuals, certainly their successors--a smiling, strutting, thumbs-up crowd who greet you with enthusiasm and charm you with their unabashed sensuality, flaunting their physical beauty and reveling in their African-infused culture. It's as though the Bahian Carnival of 1997 never really ended. That was the year that Amado's creation, "Tieta," reigned over the extravaganza, Caetano Veloso provided the musical beat, and a multitude of prancing, posturing Vadinhos, Dona Flors, Gabrielas, Pedro Arcanjos, and other "Amados Amigos de Jorge" paraded through the streets.

Ground zero for a pilgrimage to the land of Jorge Amado, so inextricably bound up with the physical state of Bahia that the two merge in reality and imagination, is the Casa de Jorge Amado in Salvador. The pastel blue sobrado overlooks the Praca Jorge Amado in Pelourinho and serves as a focal point for expressions of Bahian culture--just as intended, according to Myriam Fraga, director of the Jorge Amado Foundation. "There was some opposition to locating the foundation here," says Fraga, a poet who had joined other friends of Amado to explore ways of preserving the author's works and promoting Bahian culture in general. In 1986 they established the foundation, then settled on this location, thereby helping to reverse a long period of deterioration in the historic district. "This building was important to us," says Fraga, surveying the rooftops of the upper city from her fourth-floor office, "not because of its architecture but because of its location in the heart of Pelourinho."

On this high bluff overlooking Baia de Todos os Santos, a Portuguese settlement took root in 1549, then spread to the coastline on both the bay and Atlantic sides of the peninsula. Slaves bound for the sugarcane fields were gathered at the auction block here, and the whippings they endured gave rise to the name "pillory" or Pelourinho. Colonial cathedrals and other ornate buildings testify to the wealth that accrued over two hundred years, from 1549 to 1763, when Salvador was the colonial capital of all Brazil.

Amado, who moved here in 1963, called it the "capital city of dreams," in War of the Saints. In the Casa de Jorge Amado, displays of memorabilia include the old-fashioned manual typewriter on which Amado tapped out so much magic. Next door, Cafe Zelia Gattai, named after his wife, the writer who shared his life for more than half a century, offers fruity graviola juice from the Amazon amid walls lined with a colorful collage of book jackets, all emblazoned with Amado's characters, arranged by the countries in which they were published--thirty-one for Portugal, one for Thailand (Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands); the U.S. set numbers seventeen, while the German collection of twenty-five is one of the largest among non-Portuguese languages.

From the steps of the Jorge Amado house, the triangular space that spreads before me resembles a stage set for Tent of Miracles or Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands. Down the slope to my right rises Nossa Senhora do Rosario dos Pretos, the sky-blue gilded church built by slaves. Just beyond is Casa do Benin, which celebrates the ties with the West African country that, along with Nigeria and Angola, helped to populate Bahia. There's also the headquarters of the carnival group Afoxe Filhos de Gandhi (Children of Gandhi), once banned from participating in the yearly bacchanalia because of their African roots but now crowd favorites. Local streets and plazas take theft names directly from Amado's books: Praca Jubiaba; Largo de Quincas Berro d'Agua; Largo de Tereza Batista; Largo de Pedro Arcanjo.

Tourists from every continent negotiate the steep cobblestoned streets, snapping photos, poking into colonial buildings reborn as shops and galleries, clapping to the intricate rhythms of a drum ensemble, sampling savory acaraje proffered by a full-skirted Bahiana--all the while lending new meaning to Amado's opening lines in Tent of Miracles: "In the neighborhood of Pelourinho in the heart of Bahia, the whole world teaches and learns."

Fittingly, the Museu da Cidade stands next to the Casa de Jorge Amado. Life-size orixas on its ground floor offer a primer on the Afro-Brazilian deities that animate religious practices in local terreiros and pervade Amado's work--so much so that several of his books contain a glossary of esoteric terms such as axe (the ethos of Candomble, a vital force), mae de santo (female religious leader), and the pantheon of African spirits brought to Bahia by slaves.

Amado himseff was initiated into Yoruba Candomble as an oba oralu, a title of honor, in 1959. To write about these matters, he once explained, it was necessary to be more than a reporter looking on from the outside. "Only thus will I be able to recreate theft truth, to re-create the faces of the men and women who surround me, whose feet fashion the most beautiful dance, men and women who brought from the depths of slavery, on their injured shoulders, such beauty that they have rescued and preserved for us."

Amado's intimate knowledge of Bahian syncretism, which arose out of the slaves' need to mask their forbidden African deities with Catholic saints, propels the plot in works like Tent of Miracles and War of the Saints.

In a much earlier work (1934), Amado places the action "in one of those strange tenements on the Ladeira do Pelourinho." Today, the Hotel Pelourinho proudly traces its heritage to the days when Amado captured the lives of his fellow tenants in the novel Suor [Slums, 1938]. The future UNESCO World Heritage Site was at that time little more than a slum, and Amado, already married to Matilde Garcia Rosa, was only twenty-two years old. By the time he turned twenty-five, he had completed his sixth novel, Captains of the Sands, a stow about the abandoned street children of Salvador. The young writer, who had joined the Communist Party, was driven to expose the harsh injustices that he viewed among the underclasses of Bahia. During this period Amado also completed his law studies in Rio, was jailed by the government of Getulio Vargas, won an award for his novel Sea of Death, and traveled throughout South America, Mexico, and the United States.

In front of a breezy beach restaurant in Barra, lithe youths run after a soccer ball on sands lit by city lights and backed by Atlantic surf crashing on rocks, sending fluorescent waves high into the air. Before me, a coconut shell filled with lobster in coconut milk, piped with mashed potatoes and studded with gemlike squares of red and green pepper, seems like a concoction to warm the heart of Amado's cooking instructor par excellence, Dona Flor.

Amado himself characterized his early works as "six books in which I have tried to set down the life, the customs, the language of my State. In O pais do carnaval, it is the restlessness of intellectual youth--Cacau tries to give a glimpse of the life of workers on plantations in the south of Bahia, its richest region. Suor exposes the most failed aspect of the State, creatures who have already lost everything and expect nothing more from life--Jubiaba is the life of the black race in Brazil, a life of adventure and poetry. Sea of Death is a new vision of the life of the sailors of small sailing vessels on the waterfront of the state capital and the bay."

To explore the waterfront, I ride the Lacerda Elevator from Cidade Alta (Upper City) to its base in Cidade Baixa. Across the street at Modelo Market a pair of young men exchange quick thrusts and parries to the rhythm of drums and the stringed instrument known as a berimbau. The ritual combat of capoeira, described by Amado as "part battle, part ballet" figures in several of his books.

The balcony of the Restaurant Camafeu de Oxossi, on the third floor of the market, makes a good vantage point for viewing the small fishing boats and the packed ferries that skirt the old fort in the harbor as they ply back and forth to islands in the bay. At the Maritime Terminal I board a schooner for a day trip to Dos Frades and Itaparica, two of those islands. No less dazzling than Amado's "sea of dreams" is Bahian creativity: On the boat an extemporaneous trio encourages communal singing to a samba beat, their percussion instrument a soft-drink can filled with pebbles.

"With the publication of Captains of the Sands, I bring to a close the cycle of works that I call `The Bahian Novels,'" wrote Amado. But fortunately for his fans, Amado went right on writing about Bahia, shifting his focus southward to capture the violence wrought by cacao "colonels" as they established land claims in his 1943 work, The Violent Land. More than twenty editions ensued, as well as film, stage play, television, and radio dramas. In a preface written for a later edition Amado states, "No other of my books is as dear to me as The Violent Land: in it lie my roots; it is of the blood from which I was created; it contains the gunfire that resounded during my early infancy."

Amado was born near Itabuna on a cacao plantation (Auricidia, the name he gives to a farm in The Violent Land), in the midst of the turn-of-the-century conflicts that characterized Bahia's inland frontier. In one incident, a bullet grazed his father while ten-month-old Jorge crawled at his feet. That, plus the destructive flooding of the Cachoeira River, prompted the family's move to Ilheus when Jorge was two years old.

Vivid incidents from his childhood, including the smallpox epidemic of 1918, later found their way into his stories. Even his first teacher, Dona Guilhermina, lives on in The Violent Land and Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon. Ten-year-old Jorge was sent to a boarding school in Salvador, where he encountered a professor who recognized his talent. "This one will be a writer," predicted Padre Cabral, and the priest introduced the precocious youngster to the world of literature. At fifteen Amado took a job as reporter, thus launching a writing career that would persist for three-quarters of a century.

But early on at that same school, Colegio Antonio Vieira, the boy's independent spirit asserted itself and he escaped, for two months wandering about the interior as a vagabond. Treasuring the experience, Amado called it "two months of marvelous vagabonding." It was the beginning of a lifetime of wandering, "from Siberia to Patagonia," Zelia Gattai later wrote.

Amado was elected federal deputy of the Brazilian Communist Party in 1945, the year after his divorce from his first wife. When the party was outlawed in 1948, Amado opted for self-exile, first in Paris, and later in Dobris, in what was then Czechoslovakia. He returned to Brazil in 1952, reportedly disillusioned with Communism and its treatment of political prisoners. "Prisons and police are equally sordid under every regime," his North American academic proclaims in Tent of Miracles.

As the emphasis on ideology began to fade, Amado's characters became more complex. Love, passion, and the drumbeats of Candomble obscured the eternal battles between good and evil. Though some critics accused him of pandering to the marketplace, Amado's sense of irony and his understanding of the sweep of history lifted his novels into the realm of universal literature. And Amado's women, meanwhile, grew more three-dimensional. Still focused on the south, Amado shifted his historical time period to the 1920s to narrate a bawdy, affectionate love stow against a backdrop of political struggles in the port town of Ilheus. The resulting novel became known to the world as Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon. Translated into thirty languages, Gabriela earned Amado five literary prizes; the first edition of twenty thousand copies sold out in fifteen days.

Ilheus is still Gabriela's town. Just behind the Catedral de Sao Sebastiao lies Nacib's Bar Vesuvio, where the seductive backlands beauty Gabriela added spice to both the Syrian owner's cuisine and his love life. From the cathedral, a short distance down Rua Jorge Amado, the Casa de Cultura Jorge Amado is the local shrine. Renovated in 1997, it was once the home of the Amado family; here, Jorge worked on his first novel, O pals do carnaval. As in Salvador, orixas are very much in evidence, this time in the form of statues filling a room on the second floor. Photographs and text preserve the memory of Ilheus's favorite son, friend to illustrious artists and writers the world over. Translations of his books are everywhere, now numbering close to fifty, from Albanian to Vietnamese.

A few steps down Avenida Dois de Julho, Restaurant Os Velhos Marinheiros beckons me to its palm-shaded, thatched-roof premises. Amado's book of the same title contained two stories, later published separately as Home Is the Sailor and The Two Deaths of Quincas Wateryell. In neither book is the protagonist a mariner, but the nautical references serve as a comical cover for Amado's examination into the nature of truth.

Once again my reverie is interrupted by the feast set before me, a sizzling stoneware casserole of shrimp, fish, coconut milk, dende oil, and farofa, described as "moqueca mista." The name recalls the gastronomic offerings created by Dona Flor for her beloved and voracious Vadinho. With these luscious Bahian dishes in their repertoire, it's small wonder that Dona Flor and Gabriela have become two of Amado's best-known characters. Besides their extraordinary talents in kitchen and bedroom, both were brought to life on the screen by Brazilian actress Sonia Braga, a long-time friend of Amado.

The bus line that spelled progress in Amado's 1925 Ilheus deposits me in Itabuna, from where I make my way to Cachoeira, on the Reconcavo. With evocative religious carvings interspersed among its colonial churches and crumbling walls, the town maintains an aura of Bahian mysticism. In August throngs of the faithful and the curious attend the festival in honor of the Feast of the Assumption.

In Salvador, I had seen photos of the Sisterhood of the Good Death (Irmandade da Boa Morte), a society of elderly ladies based in Cachoeira that evolved during the slavery period. Amado described the sisterhood in War of the Saints: "they wore their white skirts adorned with lace and embroidery over starched petticoats, their blouses displaying the scapular of the order: chains of eighteen-carat gold with two plates of the finest goldsmithery. Black, laughing, ancient, almost all of them were in their eighties, and some were over ninety."

"Jorge Amado was a collaborating friend of the Good Death," says Adenor Gondim, a photographer and friend of Amado. In 1995, the author successfully petitioned the state government to renovate four houses belonging to the sisterhood. Casa de Jorge Amado has maintained close ties to the organization, sponsoring exhibitions of photographs from Cachoeira. Though his health and his eyesight were failing, Amado continued to work till the end, on a novel to be called Boris the Red. "To write is, for me, the same as to live," his brother James once quoted him as saying.

But the same theme that engulfed his characters Vadinho and Quincas Wateryell finally overtook the author. Only now after his death does one passage from Home Is the Sailor strike a false note. "Off there in the city of Bahia," Amado wrote, "death was swift and banal. It was slight and commonplace, often warranting no more than two lines, swallowed up in all the life around it. There was no time to waste on it amidst all the anxiety and eagerness to live."

Amado's own death was the great exception. Friends held a vigil at the hospital. Mourners from around the world descended upon the Casa de Jorge Amado. In Cachoeira, at the August Festival of the Good Death, the Irmandade da Boa Morte paid homage to Jorge Amado.

At a family farewell ceremony, says Gondim, Amado's ashes were buried near a mango tree in the forest at the side of his house. "It was sad," he says. "It is life."

Selected Bibliography

O pais do carnaval, 1931 Cacau, 1933 Suar, 1934 [Slums, 1938] Jubiaba, 1935 [Jubiaba, 1984] Capitaes da areia, 1937 [Captains of the Sands, 1945] Terras do sem fim, 1943 [The Violent Land, 1945] Gabriela, cravo e canela, 1958 [Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon, 1962 A morte e a morte de Quincas Berro d'Agua, 1959 [The Two Deaths of Quincas Wateryell, 1965] Os vethos marinheiros ou a capitao de longo curso, 1961 [Home Is the Sailor, 1964] Dana Flor e seus dois maridos, 1966 [Dana Flor and Her Two Husbands, 1969] Tenda dos milagres, 1969 [Tent of Miracles, 1971] Tieta do Agreste, 1977 [Tieta the Goat Girl, 1979] O sumico da santa, 1988 [War of the Saints, 1993]

Joyce Gregory Wyels is a California-based travel writer and past contributor to Americas.
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Author:Wyels, Joyce Gregory
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Article Type:Biography
Geographic Code:3BRAZ
Date:Jan 1, 2002
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