WITH THE PLANTERS AND CLOVE-SCENTED WOMEN by Penka Karaivanova
In the distant year 1968, the renowned Bulgarian political scientist, journalist, Latin American scholar and long-time lecturer at the Faculty of Journalism and Mass Communications at St. Kliment Ohridski Sofia University Prof. Dr. Penka Karaivanova visited South America and there had the chance to meet some of the greatest writers who brought fame to this continent. Prof. Karaivanova published her conversations with them and her impressions of that voyage in a book entitled The Golden Mirage (Narodna Mladezh Publishing House, 1970) which is now a bibliographic rarity. Prof. Karaivanova passed away recently, aged 86. One can read an excerpt from this book about her meeting with the Brazilian writer Jorge Amado thanks to her daughter, the talented translator and journalist Zdravka Mihaylova, and her co-translator Marc Dubin, who kindly prepared it for publication on this website.
WITH THE PLANTERS AND CLOVE-SCENTED WOMEN
One of the picturesque two-storeyed houses on Itaperuna street was emitting bright lights tonight. Every ten minutes, the black-faced doorman was ringing the door bell on the low stone-built fence of the garden. He was giving a sign to the hostess, calling her to come and welcome the newcomers. This time the door opened wide. Along with the fresh air, into the spacious living room rushed the usual Brazilian vivacity, and the inevitable – when meeting old friends – unconstrained exclamations. Even more than ourselves the guests, the hosts impatiently expected Senhor Jorge Amado and his wife Doña Zelia. Among the newly arrived group of people one could distinguish the most popular in our country Brazilian fiction writer, familiar from his photos on book jackets. Only the graying strands in the hair over the high forehead have become more numerous. The expression of the eyes, the vividness of his speech and gestures were a reminder that some folk manage to preserve their youthful élan. Or perhaps these were ordinary manifestations of the extroverted Brazilian character.
Even for the rest of the guests –a talented painter with Indian features, and several younger or older literary personalities from Saõ Paolo – encounters like tonight’s were not too frequent. Once a year Jorge Amado undertakes a trip to this city lying at a distance of more than thousand kilometers from his native Bahia. In Saõ Paolo (7 million inhabitants) are the offices of his publisher. The writer’s brother, a well known doctor, lives in the city. For this reason, the writer’s rare visits assume for his friends the character of a long-deferred celebration.
I was just on the verge of making a journey to the land of cocoa, to the state of Bahia, when I learned that Jorge Amado had arrived in Rio de Janeiro. The newspapers usually don’t miss such news. When I looked for him in Rio, he had already left for Saõ Paolo. Such a “chase” is not an easy task at all in a country with distances like Brazil’s. But this time our situations coincided. I took down the addresses of all clinics in Saõ Paolo until I came across the one that the writer’s brother works at, this being my only notion of how to find him; that is how I found myself among the noisy guests in the sitting room. Senhor Amado didn’t have any other time to spare, and in order for the long-sought meeting not to fall through, he suggested that he take me with him to a visit already arranged. The delay in his arrival tested the hosts a bit. That lasted as long as a handshake, while they tried to remember where exactly Bulgaria was. But their cordial demeanor and talkative manner facilitated my joining the general conviviality. I only sensed their disappointment that part of the time promised to them would be dedicated to someone else or, more precisely, to a particular country. But Jorge Amado had already invited me to a quieter corner of the sitting room, and the jealousy of the other guests was kept out of our conversation about Bulgaria, about life in his native Bahia, about his last books. There was only a faint trace of disappointment that we were not sitting in his spacious house in Bahia, built in the local architectural style. In it, as my interlocutor described the building, there is a strong sensation of the land and the nature of cocoa. My first question was related to this house, to the return of the writer to Bahian horizons in his mature years.
–Why did you choose to settle again in Bahia?
-That is where my roots are. Everything I depicted in my books is born out of the reality there. The entire initial period of my creative work encompasses what I’ve lived in my childhood, teenage years, and youth spent in the southern part of the state, mainly in the town of Salvador. Bahia and its people are alive in all my books. At a certain moment I felt the necessity to go back, to live there again, since I sensed a creeping estrangement from my homeland and my people, and that the colorful and rich language they speak has started to fade away.
–What is the thing that attracts you most powerfully to Bahia?
-The way of life, which can’t be lived either in Rio, nor anywhere else. You may think this is an exaggeration but every time I set off for Rio, even my shoes pinch my feet. I’ve always had a desire to have a home in Bahia. I managed to build it after the American film company Metro Goldwyn Mayer bought the film rights for Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon, though unfortunately they haven’t yet started actual work on the movie. My home resembles all homes in this area. The designer has used the architectural formula of ordinary Bahian houses. I live there with my wife, my children, with the many things that I love: paintings, books, phonograph discs, with interesting people who surround me.
–When are you writing?
-Usually I am doing creative work in the morning, whereas I dedicate evenings to my friends. Together with them I go to small, popular taverns where one can savor and feel our culinary mastery.
I already knew many of Jorge Amado’s heroes – from “The Knight of Hope” (ed. note: the real-life Luis Carlos Prestes) to the supple, clove-scented Gabriela. The artistic power of his The Bowels of Liberty trilogy had years ago made me feel the tragedy of the Indians of Rio Salgado, powerless vis-à-vis the white man’s depredation of their own lands with firearms. But probably more recently new trends have appeared in his work, as well as in Brazilian literature overall. I was interested in the opinion of this connoisseur and creative person about them. First I asked him about the main landmarks in the contemporary literary life of the country.
Brazilian literature is an amalgam of literary trends, varying from critical realism to “concretism”, from relation to folk poetry to object poetry. Dialogue and competition between these movements are essential essential for our literary production. Its main characteristic is a social character, displaying interest in the tribulations of the people and their striving for more justice and democracy.Following the best traditions of the past, modern writers are trying to penetrate more profoundly into the life and psychology of the people. This is the most decisive criterion for the originality and the creative merits of our poets and novelists. I would mention only two names. The first is that of the renowned novelist and journalist Carlos Heitor Kony. Recently he wrote a series of incisive and courageous articles that had great resonance among the public. Sérgio Porto, who often writes under the pseudonym Stanislaw Ponte Preta, is a remarkable humorist and satirist. His works acerbically criticize the political and societal mores of our country.
–You are one of the most popular Latin American writers in my homeland. Which of your new books would you recommend to Bulgarian readers?
–I hope that my novel Shepherds of the Night (Os Pastores da Noite) will soon be published in Bulgaria. It depicts the life of common people in Bahia, the misery and hardships that they face, the strength and their ability to resist and to love. The last book which I published is Dona Flor and her Two Husbands. This satire of social mores and the petty bourgeoisie touches on many aspects of Brazilian reality. Recently I began working on a new novel. I am trying to portray the struggle, undertaken in our difficult present circumstances, for preserving the most important human values. This book of mine doesn’t yet have a title.
In Brazil as in adjacent Hispano-America, land-owning inequality has burdened the peasantry for 450 years. The all-powerful latifundista still lords it over the people who actually work the land. Out of 50 million of these, only about two million own any land. Rural dwellers here doesn’t correspond at all to our concept of a Balkan peasant as it was before 1944. In no other country in the world will such a contrast between the village and the city be found, as in Brazil. The problems of Brazilian country folk have always been woven into the artistic fabric of Jorge Amado’s books. So I asked him what is it that brings him so close to the social tragedy of the people, and which of his books is most profoundly permeated by democratic ideas and the tradition of struggle.
-It is known fact that I was born into a family of small-scale cocoa planters. But in a country like mine it is common for creative people originating from the more well-off classes to rebel against their origins. The writers of my generation introduced into their books the economic, social or simply human problems that ordinary Brazilians face. They rejected and condemned in their works the latifundia land-owning system. Before us the bucolic Brazilian novel was entirely idyll-oriented. We rejected this lyrical falsehood. Perhaps an important influence on us were personalities of Soviet literature’s earliest period:Maxim Gorky, the epic narrative of Sholokhov’s And Quiet Flows the Don, as well as books like Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry, Aleksandr Fadeev’s The Rout and The Iron Flood by Aleksandr Serafimovich. I highly value Ilya Ehrenburg as one of the greatest chroniclers of our era.
– Isn’t the close proximity of North American literature playing an important formative role for Brazilian writers?
-The creative concepts of many North American realist authors have had a benevolent effect in crystallizing the literary profile of Brazilian writers of my generation. Among North American writers I would single out Theodore Dreiser, Ernest Hemingway, Erskine Caldwell, and John Steinbeck during his first period. The complex nature of these influences as well as decisive internal factors have probably determined the intrinsic attachment of my writing to Brazilian life, to everything that is valued by my poeple. My numerous travels around the world, meeting foreign intellectuals, have only enriched my literary experience, and have contributed to the more profound Brazilian spirit of my works. The more ‘national’ a writer is, the more significant his value for world literature is.
The role of intelligentsia in the life of the people usually is not a controversial issue in Brazil. Its most talented representatives have always been engaged in the efforts for its cultural elevation and political maturing. And this evening Senhor Amado was claiming that intellectuals have to stimulate the masses into elevating their spiritual and political levels, to assist in the resolution of their own problems. He illustrated this concept with examples from the cultural life of the country.
-In today’s complex conditions, with a government that came to power via a coup d’état, the intelligentsia should play а responsible role in the struggle for the rights of the people. Despite the extremely serious and tension-charged situation, new, interesting phenomena are irrupting in Brazilian culture. Most symptomatic of these is the booming development of theatre. In recent years many new theatrical companies have appeared, both professional and semi-professional. Usually they stage performances in the open air, close to the dockworkers and fisherman; they are premiering plays by young playwrights with pronounced political content.
– Who are, in your opinion, the most distinguished contemporary Brazilian dramatists?
– I will not dwell on internationally well-known figures like Guilherme Figueiredo and Dias Gomes. Standouts among the young generation include Gianfrancesco Guarnieri – who first depicted working-class communist characters – Augusto Boal, and others. We acknowledge them as founders of the new Brazilian theatre. Bourgeois critics often dismissed them as not being involved in art, but rather in agit prop or proselytizing. In reply to such attacks, Augusto wrote: “There was a time when critics thought theatre shouldn’t touch on politics. This fear of the “forbidden issue” has always been invidious. Politics is as wonderful a material as any other. From it originates the requirement for a play to have an idea, e.g. the playwright expressing solidarity and compassion for a black man, for a worker, for a selfless woman – this already suffices to take seriously his creative work.” Augusto Boal sets out his theory of theatre in his most acclaimed play The Revolution in South America, a brave artistic analysis of Brazil’s political atmosphere.
The other guests were making polite but persistent entreaties that we join them soon, whereas I was not so keen to dispel the atmosphere of our conversation, redolent of golden cacao beans, primitive superstition, and life in the Amazon jungle. There the merciless planter’s whip whooshes through the air, the planter who by drawing human blood makes fragile cocoa saplings prevail against a wild, tangled web of tropical undergrowth. Jorge Amado’s eloquent depictions and felicitous wittiness were creating in our somewhat secluded corner a small rogues’ gallery of local characters, which one can find only around the famed Bahia of All Saints (Bahia de todos os Santos), the largest in the writer’s home state. The guests who gathered at Itaperuna Street that night to commune with Senhor Amado wouldn’t wait any longer. They insinuated themselves amidst the planters, the cocoa-grove workers and the cinnamon-scented women. They assimilated themselves within our conversation, flowing between the vast Bahian horizons.
The bell of the dark-skinned doorman had long ago stopped ringing.
Translated from the Bulgarian
by Zdravka Mihaylova and Marc Dubin
Source: Zdravka Mihaylova