The Brazilian Frontier

Brazilian literature is a part of the literary world I have rarely ventured into. Yes, I have read several of Paulo Coehlo’s works but beyond his philosophical pieces, I am mostly in the dark where Brazilian literature is concerned. One name that I repeatedly encountered every time I dropped by the book store was Jorge Amado. However, I kept bypassing his novel; I had any iota of him and his works barely rang any bells of familiarity. In September 2020, I finally decided to acquire a copy of one of his books that I encountered through an online bookseller; they have been handy during the time of strict implementation of COVID19 lockdown protocols. After all, it has always been my goal to push my boundaries as a reader; I was hoping that Jorge Amado would transport me worlds beyond my reach.

Upon learning that Amado was Brazilian, I lined up Showdown to be part of my first-ever Latin American reading month. The novel opened with the celebration of the seventieth foundation anniversary of the fictional city of Irisópolis in the state of Bahia. A lot of events were in line to commemorate this special event which also coincided with the fiftieth anniversary of its elevation into a city, regional center, and municipal seat: “So all Brazil, from the Amazon to Iguaçu, can gaze, in the light of the commemorative bonfire, upon the glowing face of Irisópolis, a community born out of the rainbow on a distant day of well-being, peace, and brotherhood among men, as was proclaimed in the poem written in blank verse by the principal bard of the region, whose name you have certainly heard on the lips of his admirers.”

But before Irisópolis became the city that it was today, it was once a fertile agricultural zone. These zones were divided into cocoa plantations, primarily owned by two colonels, Colonel Elias Daltro and Colonel Boaventura. Do note that their titles were more out of courtesy rather than actual military rank. The arable land beyond their respective plantation’s boundaries held high prospects. In hopes of expanding their territory, they were both willing to go beyond their means, even if it meant violence. Colonel Daltro’s armed men gave him the immediate advantage. However, Colonel Boaventura possessed a dark horse in Natário da Fonseca. A jagunço, da Fonseca was a cunning man who had an intimate knowledge of the area and its environs.

“Laudatory articles were written that, with the requisite emphasis and rhetoric, recalled the deeds of the colonel and the doctor: pages of civic virtue, lessons of history, examples for generations to come. Words that served as a splendid model for emulation by notables, intellectuals, youth – the hope of the nation – in short, for everybody capable of recognizing and applauding these eminent forebears’ heroism and devotion to the public cause.”

~ Jorge Amado, Showdown

The book was originally published in 1984 in Portuguese as Tocaia Grande, which literally translates to “Big Ambush”. The English title nonetheless was befitting for the novel as the story was bookended by two showdowns, by two massacres. Both of these showdowns were seminal to the story of Tocaia Grande and its transition to Irisópolis. The first of these two massacres was perpetrated by da Fonseca. With the aid of an accomplice who relayed to him the timing of the arrival of Colonel Daltro’s twenty hired gunmen, da Fonseca was able to plan ahead. He surreptitiously set up a death trap the opposing colonel’s gunmen unsuspectingly walked into: “The colonel (Daltro) looked at the blood-spattered bodies. Berilo had died revolver in hand. He hadn’t had a chance to shoot; the bullet had torn away the top of his head. The colonel his eyes away. He understood that the carnage there meant the end; he no longer had the means to go on. He kept his affliction inside his breast, showed no signs of it, wouldn’t let others see it.”

There was, however, something about the place that captivated da Fonseca, now elevated to the rank of a “captain”. Despite this violent backstory, da Fonseca resolved to establish a settlement that was eventually called Tocaia Grande. While its history was already tarnished by bloodshed, da Fonseca was still hoping that Tocaia Grande will blossom into a thriving frontier town. His vision of a pseudo-utopia slowly disintegrated when the frontier settlement invited a different crowd. High in the wilderness and obscured by the jungle, its location made Tocaia Grande a perfect safe haven for juvenile delinquents, bandits and other outlaws, runaway slaves, and prostitutes who made it their home. This was not the image of Tocaia Grande that da Fonseca has envisioned. Before his very eyes, it was turning into an oasis for all kinds of outcasts.

The novel is divided into eight sections that charged the growth and development of Tocaia Grande. The first part carried the generic title “The Place”, an allusion to the uncharted and desolate setting. As the story moved forward, the section titles captured the expansion of the place, from “A Place to Spend the Night” to “A Row of Houses” before turning into a thriving village. Each part was further divided into subsections that carried titles. Each subsection also captured only important junctures in the growth of the settlement and also the important phases in the individual lives of its denizens.

It did, however, took some time before Tocaia Grande started witnessing substantial growth. The long-awaited progress started to take place with the arrival of Ambrosio and Evangelina, otherwise known as Vanje. They were from the neighboring state of Sergipe and traveled to Tocaia Grande, along with their family, after hearing of opportunities to work there. They left Sergipe in haste after a colonel illegally ejected them from their land and they could no longer find work. Their experience in farming proved pivotal in the expansion and economic development of the settlement. The Sergipeans were followed by more families from other parts of the country. They brought along with them their knowledge and experience not only in the cultivation of the land but also their expertise in animal husbandry. Tocaia Grande’s future was finally secured. The arrival of these families from different parts of Brazil resulted in an interesting fusion of different traditions across Brazil.

“A person with no brains shouldn’t choose the profession of whore, which isn’t a simple profession. It’s really quite complicated. She thinks it’s only picking lice, flashing a smile, putting perfume in the right places, but she’s so wrong. A woman in this trade is like a nun: when she enters the convent she puts everything else aside. Father and mother, brother and sister, her real name and the right to get pregnant and give birth. Except that a nun becomes a saint and goes to heaven to sit in God;s hand, while we never go beyond being whores, condemned without redemption.”

~ Jorge Amado, Showdown

Amado’s prose vividly captured, in intricate details, community life. While there was a thin plot, the novel was populated by a vast and eclectic set of characters which also included a Lebanese merchant referred to as a Turk and a score of plantation owners. It was these characters who propelled the story forward. The growth of these characters was inevitably tied with the story of Tocaia Grande. As the pioneers of the modern Irisópolis, we read of the challenges they encountered in the midst of the wilderness of Bahia where conflicts abounded. We read of poisonous snakes and of a flood that leveled the town and killed ten of its citizens. They were not also safe from fever and other maladies which claimed more lives.

The conflicts, however, were not purely between men and nature. The conflicts between men and fellow men were also ubiquitous; the novel’s first pages, after all, painted a horrific but pivotal event. The settlement was, at times, overran with bandits. At one point, the store of a prominent citizen was ransacked because robbers believed he kept gold. Order was also abandoned for self-indulgence. We read of a community that was beyond the bounds of the law. The citizens conduct their own business the way they see fit. The novel is permeated with images of arbitrary sex and violence. Shamelessness and lawlessness have become a normal way of life. The lenses from which they were observed were bereft of judgment.

However, not all were draped in darkness. The transformation of Tocaia Grande also witnessed its citizens starting to form dreams of their own and work hard towards achieving them. In the wilderness hope still beaconed. Jacinta Coroca, a prostitute, worked herself into becoming a midwife. Another character, a bandit, became a successful plantation owner. Da Fonseca’s own vision for Tocaia Grande was mirrored by the visions of a foreigner, Fadul Abdala, who settled in the community. A Lebanese Maronite merchant simply referred to as “Turk” by the locals, he set up his own shop, notwithstanding the destitution that surrounded him.

But as they say, all good things come to an end. Catholic missionaries soon found themselves scouring the depths of the Brazilian frontier and in a matter of time, they were converting the locals. However, the community’s biggest foe came in the form of Colonel Boaventura’s son. As the settlement and its citizens descend into the underbellies of eternal doom, Colonel Boaventura’s own son has fallen into decadence. He was sent to study law to secure his future, and by extension, that of the plantation’s future as well. However, rather than assuming the role his father reserved for him, he pretended that he was taking additional courses but was in fact busy indulging his vices. He returned to the plantation upon his father’s death. Da Fonseca, however, refused to work for him, thus causing him to forcefully seize Tocaia Grande but with the approval and aid of state authorities.

“Tocaia Grande: refuge of bandits, murderer, the unlawful and the unruly, gunen and sluts – excommunicated by the envoy of God. It was imperative to put a brake on the violence and debauchery, an end to to disorder and villainy: thus decreed the bigwigs and their flatterers. The rumors grew into demands in the courts, in City Hall, at the cathedral, in the cabarets.”

~ Jorge Amado, Showdown

Historical contexts were both subtly and vividly highlighted in the story of Tocaia Grande. We see images of Brazil as it was divided into agricultural plantations. While the landowners and the elite indulge, the poor and the dark-skinned were exploited and discriminated against. We also read of corrupt politicians. The Turk, on the other hand, was more than just a play on diversity. His presence underscored the Arabian diaspora that took place towards the end of the 19th century and how their influences have been woven into contemporary Brazilian culture. Amado would eventually publish a novel titled A Descoberta da América pelos Turcos (The Discovery of America by the Turks) in 1994.

Personal history was also subtly woven into the tapestry by Amado. The cacao plantations of the Brazilian frontier were taken from his childhood; his father was a “colonel” who owned a cacao plantation where he was raised before they moved to the city. The outcasts settling down in Tocaia Grande were a reference to the author’s own political outcasting. His earlier political activism resulted in multiple incarceration and exiles. Like the characters of his novel, Amado lived on the edge. But while Amado was a prominent political activist prior to focusing on his literary career, the novel’s political spectrum was modicum.

The novel’s fine elements were woven together by Amado’s dexterous hands. He created a wonderful mix of characters who, in their own ways and their stories, gave the story distinct and interesting textures. The growth of the community and its citizens was scintillating to witness but the storytelling gets too verbose. In its wordiness, the story loses some of its sense and its power. The story also loses focus. It was a story brimming with incidents but what floats to the surface was the lack of a central plot. This undermined the story as what we read is a fragmented narrative.

In his 22nd novel, Jorge Amado vividly captured the story of a community, from its infancy to its growth into a village teeming with activities. We read how a community of outcasts, outlaws, and drifters rose from the Brazilian wilderness. We read of how these people shunned by society came together and formed a community built on brotherhood, symbiosis, and, to some extent, sex. Beyond the vivid portrayal of community life, Showdown did a remarkable job of weaving Brazil’s colorful albeit turbulent and dark past which seemingly got buried in oblivion, inundated by the country’s remarkable growth and development in the past few decades. The opening and closing lines of the novel were allusions to how it chose to move forward by washing the stains of history. While it is logical and even understandable that we choose to move forward, these sore spots still form an integral part of our identity.

While it was not perfect, Showdown did have its bright spots that gave me glimpses of Amado’s storytelling and prose. I was not entirely taken by the story and its execution although I did find several of the characters interesting. However, learning about Amado and his prolific career makes me look forward to reading more of his works.

“And here we have a pause in the beginnings of the history of the city of Irisópolis when it was still Tocaia Grande, the dark side. What happened afterward – progress, emancipation, a change in name, elevation to county seat; the town hall, the church, the bungalows, the villas, the English cobblestones; the mayor, the vicar, the prosecutor, and the judge; the courtroom and the jail; the Masonic lodge, the social club, and the literary society; the luminous side – isn’t worth mentioning, holds no interest.”

~ Jorge Amado, Showdown
Ratings

63%

Characters (30%) – 20%
Plot (30%) – 
15%
Writing (25%) – 
18%
Overall Impact (15%) – 
10%

Book Specs

Author: Jorge Amado
Translator (from Portuguese): Gregory Rabassa
Publisher: Bantam Books
Publishing Date: February 1988
Number of Pages: 422
Genre: Historical Fiction, Magical Realism

Synopsis

Amado’s largest, most magnificent novel to date is set in earthy, tropical Brazil. It is an unforgettable tale of the frontier full of violence and courage, lust and adventure. (Source: Goodreads)

About the Author

Jorge Leal Amado de Faria was born on August 10, 1912, in Ferradas, near Ilhéus, Brazil. Chile. His father, Colonel Joâo Amado de Faria, owned a cacao plantation, Auricídia. The family moved to Ilhéus when he was one year old. He attended a Jesuit college in Salvador, the state capital of Bahia, before studying law at the Federal University in Rio de Janeiro. However, Amado never got to practice law. His political activism made him the target of government crackdowns. At one time,  he was elected to the National Constituent Assembly, as a federal deputy representing the Brazilian Communist Party (PCB). He was arrested several times and his works were banned in Brazil and Portual. His works were even burned. He even went into exile in Argentina, Uruguay, and France. When he returned to Brazil in 1954, he abandoned his political activities to focus on his other passion: writing.

It was while studying in high school that Amado became interested in writing and journalism. He collaborated with and wrote for local newspapers and magazines. He was also active in creating literary groups such as Arco y Flecha, La Academia de los Rebeldes, and Samba. In 1931, he published his first novel, O País do Carnaval (The Country of Carnival); he wasn’t in his twenties yet. Two years later, his second novel, Cacau, was published. His second creative phase produced works like Gabriela, cravo e canela (Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon, 1958) and Dona Flor e seus dois maridos (Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands, 1966), and Tocaia grande (Show Down, 1984).

For his works, Amado received several accolades from various parts of the world. In 1951, he was the recipient of the Stalin International Peace Prize. He was also awarded the Juca Pato Prize for “Intellectual of the Year” in 1970 by the Union of Brazilian writers. In April 1961, he was elected to the Brazilian Academy of Letters. After his death on August 6, 2001, he was posthumously appointed as Commander of Meritorious Citizen of the Freedom and Social Justice João Mangabeira (CBJM) by the Legislative Assembly of Bahia.