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SHOWDON. By Jorge Amado. Bantam. 422 pp. $18.95

It's a mistake to see Jorge Amado as either a great literary artist or a soft-core pornographer, although North American reviewers have characterized him as both. The grand old man of Brazilian letters is, rather, a twentieth-century Charles Dicker: master craftsman, sentimental hack, great storyteller, vulgarian. Like Dickens, he pleases the literary masses while unsettling the elite, who cannot decide whether to hold him in esteem or contempt. One of the last exemplars of a regional tradition whose roots stretch down to the bedrock of classical pastoral, he is also a political novelist in a distinctively modern vein. His -protagonists are the wretched of the earth, idealized beyond belief.

A former Communist, Amado left Brazil in the early 1940s for Europe, China and the Soviet Union. Later, he retreated from the militancy of his earlier books and found a popular formula for best-sellers. Like his forty-year-old novel The Violent Land, Showdown takes place in the cacao-producing frontier country of Bahia, but it has none of the political edge that made the earlier work so powerful. Set at the turn of the century, it tells the story of the settlers who later became Brazil's proletariat: gunslingers, landless farmworkers, prostitutes, peddlers and cowboys, many of them the children of slaves. The characters endure the archetypal troubles of frontier life (an invasion by bandits, a catastrophic flood, a plague) and find joy where they can, in sex, romance, folk rituals and celebrations. The book ends with their defeat at the hands of an unscrupulous and decadent urbanite, who represents the forces of "progress."

As in all Amado's novels, Showdown's characters are drawn literally larger than life, with great big hearts and giant genitalia. The black protagonist, Ticao, is "a huge, proud animal . . . a happy, transparent creature" with glistening white teeth. (Amado always serves the Brazilian myth of racial democracy by including at least one character of each color.) Fadul, the obligatory Lebanese trader, is a lovable thief with an enormous penis much admired by legions of whores. (Almost all Amado's female characters are whores.) And Natario, a gunslinger turned landowner, is the classic Mediterranean man of honor mixed with prescient primitive; women scarcely say hero before lying down before him. All this is the stuff of 1940s westerns: as a Time reviewer put it, Amado is "Louis L'Amour with a Portuguese accent."

The myth these characters are meant to serve concerns not only the opening and closing of the Bahian frontier eighty years ago but also the budding and destruction of an idyllic communistic community. Amado's paradise is full of paradoxes. The narrator tells us that "because nobody here orders anybody else around, everything is done by common consent and not out of fear of punishment." In fact, this is a world of ferocious hierarchies whose rulers enforce their dominion through force and fraud. The poor lead "miserable lives," and feudal landlords hover over the scene, albeit at a safe distance. Benign and macho men of honor, they provide the model for male behavior: "Whoever wins power and authority also takes on obligations. He must fulfill them." The women, of course, are strong but submissive; they know their place and do as they're told. The only one who doesn't is a nymphomaniac.

Showdown's feudal paradise and its destruction by the venal forces of urban society are both completely consistent with the regional tradition Amado represents. The British critic Raymond Williams used the phrase "residual community" to describe the world of the pastoral, where the idea of rural community, selectively remembered, serves "as idealization or fantasy, or as an exotic . . . leisure function of the dominant order . . . usually at some distance from [it]." Amado's paradise is safely remote form present-day Brazil. The reader becomes a tourist in 1908 Bahia, watching the natives quaintly dance. This vision threatens nothing.

Showdown's past contains many echoes of contemporary Brazil. There is still a lawless frontier, where landowners hire private armies to force homesteaders off disputed property, and look for "a capable thug to ride herd" on their sharecroppers. Corruption is still rampant, just as it was in 1908: "At the land office, whose wheels the colonel had oiled in advance, there wasn't the slightest difficulty with the registration of the survey and the fifing of the tides." But the country as a whole has changed a great deal, which is why Amado's is a dying genre in Brazilian literature. When Amado wrote The Violent Land in the 1940s, nearly 70 percent of Brazil's population lived in the countryside; today, 70 percent live in cities. Two of those cities, Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, are among the largest in the world.

Contemporary Brazilian literature is far more varied than novels like Showdown might lead one to believe. Scores of novelists are writing about urban life, but most of the books that have found their way to the United States concern rural themes. For us, too, Brazilian culture is residual. Many of the translated novels serve to perpewate not only our stereotypes of Brazil but our idealization of; mythic rural past. And while Amado's rollicking, flashy books are quickly translated and hyped in the United States, more challenging and relevant writers remain virtually unknown.

A number of good writers, like Mircio Souza (Emperor of the Amazon, Mad Maria arid the satirical The Order of the Day) still work with rural themes in the regional tradition. But the military dictatorship's repression in the 1960s and 1970s had the paradoxical effect of spawning great numbers of books by urban writers, some protesting the effects of dictatorship, others documenting the middle-class retreat from politics into an almost hermetically sealed world. In the first category, Ignacio de Loyola Brandao made a great splash with his 1969 novel Zero, which was not published in Brazil until 1975 and was quickly banned by the dictatorship. Zero is a brilliant but uneven portrait of the mood of the dictatorship, jumpily experimental, with few convincing characters. The protagonist, a supremely ordinary man, becomes a terrorist in an anomic urban landscape. (Since he spends considerable time either beating his wife or having bruW s" with her, feminists may find parts of the book repulsive. But then violent sex is not at all uncommon in recent Brazilian fiction; for some writers, the ideal woman is lithe more than a set of orifices on legs.) Brandao later wrote And Still the Earth, about a dystopian future when all of Brazil has become a desert and the cities have become automobile graveyards. This unrelievedly grim work has not had the same success as Zero, but its vision remains haunting, especially as its predictions of devastated rain forests and urban breakdown begin to come true.

Other young writers, like Marcia Denser and Vinicius Vianna (neither of whose books have been translated into English), describe a suffocating world of high-rise apartments and emotional isolation. Vianna's Dadcts Mamata ("Free Rider") recounts a young man is apolitical rebellion against psychological oppression: Despite his parents' and grandparents' militant "ample, he warns to drug dealing rather than joining the organized resistance to the dictatorship. The book is suffused with bitterness and nihilism, as is Denser's Diana Cacadora ("Diana the Huntress"), a woman's account of meaningless or brutal sexual encounters that provide both the escape from and the excuse for her despairing devotion to her writing. These authors' styles are as far as one can imagine from Amado's slick depictions of the vanishing countryside.

More romantic, and perhaps more effective, are the memoirs of two veterans of the late 1960s and early 1970s, when government repression was at its most violent. Fernando Gabeira (now a Green politician) and Alfredo Sirkis (who seems to have retreated to the counterculture) won literary prizes in the early 1980s for their accounts of their lives as urban guerrillas. Sirkis's Os Carbonarios ("The Carbonari") is the more vividly written, an anguished, suspenseful chronide of his transformation from student activist to desperate fugitive. Gabeira's two volumes, 0 Que E Isso, Companheiro? ("What's Up, Comrade?") and 0 Crepusculo do Macho ("Twilight of the Macho"), we cooler and more sardonic. Until Amado's sales surpassed theirs, Gabeira's books held the record as the biggest best-sellers in Brazilian publishing history. But the U.S. boom in Latin American literature has not extended to the memoirs of left-wing former terrorists, and it seems unlikely that these works will be translated into English. Another excellent example of this genre is Frei Betto's memoir, Batismo de Sangue ("Baptism of Blood"). In the late 1960s Betto was a young priest, a confidant of guerrilla leader Carlos Marighella. Under brutal police torture, he involuntarily revealed his meeting place with Marighellia, who was then unbushed in the street as the horrified priest was forced to look on.

Most of the currently available Brazilian books have taken at least five years to reach English- speaking audiences. Mario de Andrade's modernist classic Macunaima (1928) was not published in full in English until 1984. Consequently, the great diversity and liveliness of Brazilian literature are almost unknown to American readers. Even Amado has not achieved the same fame here as his Spanish-speaking contemporaries, though he is every bit as skilled. Despite its beauty, the Porwguese language is "the sepulchi of literature." Fortunately, most recent translations have been at least competent. Gregory Rabassa, translator of Showdown, has said that he struggled to find English words for about a dozen Portuguese terms for "penis," but he has not mentioned his tactful omission of the most logical English translation of the slang word for "vagina" that Amado habitally uses. Rabasso's translation preserves Amandos Howing, muscular style, while softening some of his crudities. His and other translators' valiant efforts make it more likely that Brazilian novels will reach American audiences.

It would take a book to trace all the currents of contemporary Brazilian literature. Amado cannot be said to represent the "mainstream" of Brazilian writing, since it has as many streams as the Amazon has tributaries. They flow out of the backhands, down to the cities, into the slums, beneath the high-rises and onto the beaches. Some of their themes - the grinding ordeal of change, the suffocation of dictatorship, the anomie of modem life-offer little comfort. Read Amado if you want to escape to the cliff overlooking the fertile valley where men are men and women are supine. Or take a look at those other books, the ones on the upper shelves, where you have to stretch to reach them.
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Author:Rabben, Linda
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 14, 1988
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