Sarah Odedina was inspired to write this blog about one of her literary heroes, Jorge Amado. On her most recent trip to Brazil, she visited the Jorge Amado Foundation House, which preserves his archives.
If we read to be introduced to the ‘other’, as well as to reflect our own stories, Jorge Amado is for me a wonderful guide and companion to another place. His place is Bahia in the North East of Brasil, and more specifically the beautiful colonial city of Salvador with his thronging population and pulsating energy. It is a city which features in most of his books and one which he clearly loved and which forms the backdrop and beating heart in most of his literature.
2012 was the centenary of Jorge Amado’s birth and his work is being celebrated around the world. Translated and published in over 50 countries Jorge Amado painted portraits of the people of Salvador in his novels. From the international hits of DONA FLOR AND HER TWO HUSBANDS and GABRIELA, CLOVE, AND CINNAMON to the less well known ‘O COMPADRE DE OGUM’ his books introduce readers to the lives of ordinary working class Brazilians generally not featured in novels – the fishermen, street hawkers, prostitutes, children, black people.
When he began to write in the 1930’s it was fairly exceptional that he chose these people as the subjects of his fabulous novels. And he did it with tactful and detailed brilliance. Their idiosyncrasies and eccentricities both celebrated for their uniqueness and recognized for their ordinariness. He doesn’t have heroes battling arch enemies, he has the ordinary person walking their way through their life and enjoying their relationships, ordinary people making do and working out how to survive. They are books that ennoble the ordinary person and show each small victory in life as being heroic in itself. His books remind us too that no matter our complex and different social back grounds, as people we share the same concerns about our families, and our lovers and our friends. It maybe being played out in a small broken down shelter under a bridge in Salvador or in a flat or house in London, but ultimately we are, as people, facing the same emotional challenges.
In the centre of Salvador is the Fundacao de Jorge Amado which is a wonderful institution existing to celebrate the author’s life and work. The touching detail of the exhibits, from his shirts and his typewriter and marked up manuscript pages, to the extensive displays of the jackets found on the foreign editions of his books and many prizes from around the world for his literature, remind the visitor not only of the breadth of his work but also the way in which he mingled with and lived in the city, and how very much he is revered and loved by Brazilians. Jorge Amado is a local hero and like the characters of his book he was accessible and kind and clearly much loved.
Milton Hatoum, one of Brazil’s most important contemporary writers, was 14 when he first read a Jorge Amado novel. Milton Hatoum was living in the city of Manaus in the Amazon. The book was Captains of the Sands, which tells the story of street children living wretched and difficult lives. Written in the 1930’s the book is as true today as it was then as it portrays gangs of street children stealing to survive, without any adult guidance or protection – a familiar sight in many cities around the world. Hatoum has said, “To me the world was Manaus, surrounded by water and forest. Suddenly I was transported to a whole different place with these street children. It was the revelation of a different social and geographical landscape in the same country. The world he created is full of lively, colourful, sensual characters. Not exotic. But then again, they may seem exotic to those who have never seen what Brazil and Bahia are like.”
Not everything he has written is available in translation but what is is so very well worthwhile reading. With the centenary of his birth there has been a lot of new interest in his work and I am sure over the next few years we will be lucky enough to be able to read more of his books in translation. His particular brand of magical fantasy which is combined with a beautiful realism and pride in the everyday-ness of peoples lives makes him an unusual and original author whose work does deserve a worldwide audience.