Some Penguin Classics, as we’ve had occasion to note a few times in this ongoing series, are long overdue. This is especially true – and especially understandable – when it comes to the literature of the 20th century; not only are title so fresh in time often still net-tangled in questions of copyright and estate royalties and semi-deranged old widows with promissory notes, but there’s also the risk of premature apotheosis: after all, once you admit an author to one of the most prestigious and successful reprint catalogs in the world, you can’t ever change the fact that you did it. A Penguin Classic of mid-list John Updike (and all Updike is mid-list Updike) would be a hairy little thing to live down.
They’re not all tough calls, however, even for a century so recently ended. The poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay. The Velveteen Rabbit. The four great novels of Larry McMurtry. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. The great critical volumes of Edmund Wilson. And one other very easy choice, which has now been made by Penguin Classics: the novels of the great Brazilian writer Jorge Amado.
Amado was born in the lush and conflicted state of Bahia in 1912 and wrote his first novel when he was 18. By the time he’d finished his fourth novel, four years later in 1935, he was garnering praise from the likes of Albert Camus – but his ardent Communism had him targeted by Brazilian dictator Getulio Vargas. The state enmity – which he was always more or less eager to court in those early years – got him arrested and exiled, had his books burned, and drove him abroad (including to the Soviet Union, where he won that bygone keepsake, the Stalin Peace Prize, in 1951).
Return from exile in 1954 seemed to work deep changes in Amado. Slowly, but with steadily increasing power and confidence, he abandoned the explicitly political dogmatizing of his earlier novels and embraced a broader, far more humanistic authorial voice. And the rest of the world duly noticed: his 1958 novel Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon, was the first Latin American work of fiction to break onto the New York Times bestseller list, and his three masterpieces were to follow, A Morte e a Morte de Quincas Berro Dagua (persistently translated as some variation of “The Two Deaths of Quincas Wateryell”), Shepherds of the Night, and his single greatest work, Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands. His books were translated into dozens of languages and adapted for screen and stage dozens of times. By his death in 2001 he was one of the most revered literary figures in the world.
So his indoctrination into the Penguin Classics line is long overdue, and these four recent volumes are all the more welcome. Even sporting hideous covers (and these are the most hideous covers in a long, long history of hideous Amado covers – they outdo the Soviet editions, for the love of all that’s holy), these are welcome sights with their black Penguin spines and white Penguin lettering.
The first of them is titled in English The Violent Land, here given to Penguin readers in Samuel Putnam’s 1945 translation. It’s the story of the ruthless, powerful land-barons who monopolized Brazil’s burgeoning production of raw chocolate, cacao, and the brawling, often seedy cast of morally suspect characters who orbit the power-struggles of those barons. This new Penguin edition draws a parallel with Upton Sinclair’s Oil! – which is technically accurate in some ways but grossly unfair in that it saddles Amado next to a talentless hack. A much better comparison would be with an unknown American masterpiece, Mildred Savage’s 1958 novel Parrish, about warring families of Connecticut tobacco-barons; in both cases, the product overwhelms all other considerations in the novel, as one character bitterly observes:
“In this land, my son, a cacao grove can even produce a Bishop. It produces railroads, assassins, outsters, town houses, cafes, schools, theatres – even a Bishop. Yes, this country doesn’t only yield cacao, it yields everything.”
Alfred Mac Adam, in his Introduction to this edition, seems to be arguing that it yields everything except compelling fiction:
Amado cannot let his characters become too human, because that would make them interesting in themselves and not a reflection of the history of Brazilian cacao. His characters may have idiosyncrasies – they may believe in black magic, go insane, or become sexually infatuated with one another – but we do not find the narrator delving deeply into their minds to reveal hidden facets of their personalities.
But the irresistible Blanche Knopf, who convinced Franklin Roosevelt to let her go scouring South America for bargain-price literary talent in 1942, obviously thought otherwise and pushed the book accordingly.
Another of these Penguin editions is also another of Amado’s earlier, more programmatic works, 1937′s Captains of the Sands, here given a less grandiloquent but more nimble translation by Gregory Rabassa and a very smart, very knowing Introduction by Colm Toibin, who rightly points out:
Part of the drama in Captains of the Sands arises from Amado’s refusal to romanticize, to evoke the city of Bahia in all its exquisite beauty. The novel is not written for tourists; it is written to give substance to shadows, to re-create the underlife of the city, to offer the dispossessed and reviled an inner life.
“Amado is writing to save his country’s soul,” Toibin claims, and this is never more acutely true than in these early Bahia novels. In the new Penguin edition of 1959′s The Two Deaths of Quincas Wateryell, this time in a new translation by Rabassa titled The Double-Death of Quincas Water-Bray (sigh) there’s less soul-saving going on and more of Amado’s own generous voice as he and his art ripen into middle age. The book tells the gloriously Rabelaisian story of the eponymous giant among the kinds of marginal figures so poetically evoked in Captains of the Sands, who dies and is seen off into a kind of afterlife pub-crawl by his old cronies. The book is warmer and more approachable than anything Amado had done before – it’s the first book of his that seems to want readers rather than converts.
Rabassa also does the translating duties on the remaining Penguin volume in this set, The Discovery of America by the Turks, which the publisher is touting as the first-ever English edition of the work. This 1994 novel was the last book Amado finished, and it’s in many ways his oddest. The two “Turks” in the title – Arab immigrants – arrive on the Wild West Brazilian frontier in 1903 and fall into one hapless adventure after another – including a series of encounters with a merchant desperate to marry off his daughter. The daughter, Adma, is, as Jose Saramago hints in his Introduction, a bizarrely effective creation, by turns monstrous and sympathetic, not only a tribute to Amado’s love of Shakespeare but also a perfect illustration of strange, calmly confident wonders this author could work late in his career, when he’d thrown off the shackles of both ideology and expectation.
As mentioned, that career included a whole further landscape of high points, and now that Penguin has begun charting them, can Classics versions of Shepherds of the Night and Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands be long in coming? We can hope so. Plenty more souls needs Amado’s kind of saving, after all.