Tent of Miracles
translated by Barbara Shelby Merello
University of Wisconsin Press ($16.95)
by Alicia L. Conroy
The songs of the samba circle and Afro-Brazilian candomblé rites, scents of rose perfume and fish frying in palm oil, the whirl of drunken camaraderie and violent police raids, cigar smoke in boardrooms and whispers in bedrooms—welcome to the parti-colored, engrossing world of Salvador de Bah’a, Brazil, the seaport setting of Jorge Amado's 1969 novel Tent of Miracles. The region's juxtapositions of class, ethnicity and religion—legacy of a more distinct African/Yoruba presence than in other parts of the country—provide Amado's favorite laboratory for exploring cultural and individual identity. Of course, there are the eponymous miracles, too: of love and friendship, and of the convergence of opposites. These temper the tart social commentary of one of Brazil's most popular authors, who died in 2001 at 89.
Many of Amado's books are anchored in his beloved Bahía, and they have a Dickensian sprawl, exploring myriad character types, denouncing or satirizing various failings of social justice, and unraveling plots that enfold the individual drama in institutional and national events. Tent of Miracles, recently restored to print, follows this form. It reveals the life of Pedro Archanjo, a boy raised in the streets of late 19th-century Bahía, who becomes a self-taught ethnographer and social critic. But he is also Ojuobá ("Eyes of the King"), candomblé cult practitioner, good-natured womanizer and rum-drinker, and defender of the poor. Importantly, he is also racially mixed, as are so many of his fellow citizens. The pains and hypocrisy of racism are contrasted to a heralded, multi-layered culture of "miscegenation, mixtures, mestizos, mulatas" as a major theme of the tale.
The "tent of miracles" is the workshop of Archanjo's friend Corró, painter of miracles and printer of Archanjo's books, a place that serves as ad-hoc community center. The friendship between the two men and their loves and extended "families" forms one pole of Archanjo's life, the other being the fight for justice for the disenfranchised. Pedro Archanjo is both an oddity and an emblem of Bahía: "the conversationalist and the bookworm . . . and the one who kisses the hand of Pulquéria the iyalorixá [priestess]—are they two different people, the white man and the black, perhaps? ...There is only one, a mixture of the two. Just one mulatto," Archanjo explains.
The book takes two tacks to explore how heroes and pariahs are created. One storyline unfolds a biography of Archanjo, while the other takes place in the 1960s, a century after his birth, and shows how the all-but-forgotten man is elevated (or invented) from a minor footnote to local genius by the attentions of a foreign intellectual. "They're building him a monument, all right," says one character, "but the Archanjo they're building it to isn't our Archanjo but another, far prettier, man."
Along the way, Amado engages in social satire, often with one-liners that skewer poet-wannabes, pompous civic leaders, or lustful dowagers. Particularly hilarious exchanges take place as modern ad-men try to capitalize on their newfound local hero. At the other extreme, the populist hero faces down racist professors and police who presage Hitler with a chilling similarity.
It's hard to resist the generous and good-natured spirit of Amado's writing—no character is entirely free from the author's ridicule, yet there's a warmth and poignancy, something deeply humane, about his vision. A tinge of romance reminds the reader that spirit-magic is as real as poverty and prejudice: deities come when asked by initiates, women of all ages are luscious seductresses, men like Archanjo are unfailingly potent. Yet Amado's perspective on the legacy of colonialism and slavery also reflects and contrasts how those issues play out in other New World nations.
A slight obstacle for non-Brazilian readers are the many references to candomblé religion and other Brazilian cultural practices, often using Yoruba and Portuguese words; a glossary is provided, but the process interrupts reading. This 1971 translation by Barbara Shelby Merello occasionally sounds stilted, and lacks the sparkle of Gregory Rabassa's 1993 translation of another Amado work, The War of the Saints. These are quibbles, however; this life-affirming tale sees the world with open eyes, and shows that our salvation lies in love—all kinds— and in right action.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2003/2004 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003