Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: Tent of Miracles, by Jorge Amado

A biography of a remarkable (and fictitious) man and a chronicle of Brazil's racial struggle.

Tent of Miracles

University of Wisconsin Press, 1969, 396 pages

A very rich and exotic novel . . . tells the story of Pedro Archanjo, mestizo, self-taught ethnologist, apostle of miscegenation, laborer, cult priest, and bon vivant. . . . Amado's joyous, exuberant, almost magical descriptions of festivals, puppet shows, African rituals, local legends, fascinating customs, strange and wonderful characters . . . result in a richness and warmth that are impossible to resist.

Crossposted to books1001.

"Not even God who made us all can kill everybody at once. He kills people one by one, and the more he kills the more people are gonna be born and grow up and go on being born and growing up and mixing, and no son-of-a-bitch is gonna stop 'em!"

Jorge Amado is another one of those authors I'd probably never even have heard of if not for the books1001 project. If the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die list is a little top-heavy with certain popular authors, it's also introduced me to writers I'd otherwise never have read, like Shashi Deshpande and Sam Selvon and Dino Buzzati.

First of all, I've seen this book shelved as "magical realism." People! People! It is not "magical realism" just because it was written by a South American and it mentions candomblé! Though I will grant that the abundance of women who exist in the book to be harvested by men like tropical fruit makes comparisons to Gabriel Garcia Marquez not inappropriate.

Tent of Miracles (originally written in Portuguese: Tenda dos milagres) is profound on many levels — it comments on race, on class, on national identity, on family, on history and who owns its narrative, even on religion.

"For years and years I believed in my orixás just as much as Frei Timóteo believes in his saints, in Christ, and in the Virgin. At that time all I knew was what I had learned in the streets. Later I went in search of other sources of knowledge, and though I learned many things that were good, I lost my faith. You, professor, are a materialist, you say. I haven't read the authors you like to quote, but I'm just as much a materialist as you are. Maybe more, who knows?"

Pedro Archanjo is a self-taught mestizo who lived an impoverished but rich life in the Brazilian state of Bahia, born to mixed parents in the 1880s and growing up in a Brazil slowly sloughing off its colonial slavery past but still very much a color-conscious society, with even more complicated gradations of color than the U.S. Proud of his mixed blood, outraged by the racism and arrogance of so-called "pure" European Brazilians who seek to purge all Afro-Brazilian influences, such as candomblé, in order to make Brazil a modern, "civilized" nation, he fights a lifelong battle against injustice and inequality. He is a man of the people, warm and humane, and he dies in impoverished obscurity, unknown and unrespected except by those few who knew him.

Then an American professor visits Bahia, an instant celebrity in a country with serious self-image problems and desperate to be respected by its North American uncle, and declares that he came to Bahia to see the birthplace of Pedro Archanjo, "one of the founders of modern humanism." And suddenly everyone is falling all over themselves to proclaim their lifelong respect and adoration for the man and his works. The College of Medicine where he was a low-paid messenger for thirty years, and eventually dismissed because he embarrassed his old nemesis, a Hitler-admiring professor who proposed concentration camps for Negroes in Brazil, post-humously practically elevates him to the status of Professor Emeritus. Newspapers run glorified biographies of his life story. Liquor companies offer scholarships to schoolchildren to write essays about the great national hero.

Jorge Amado then takes us back, back to the real story, tracing Pedro Archanjo's life, his humble beginnings, his humble ends, and the brave, warm heart with which he lived.

You may gather that I found Pedro Archanjo to be a deeply admirable, and interesting individual. And he was. What makes this book so lively and vibrant is that I was aware the entire time that it's a novel, and Pedro Archanjo was purely the author's creation, yet it read like it was a true-life story. As it covers Archanjo's life, it also covers the history of Brazil in the early 20th century.

Showing no surprise at receiving an unexpected guest, he placed the picture against the light and gazed at it a long time, getting it by heart. The gringa, who was tall and slender, looked at it over his shoulder with enthusiastic approval, vehemently clapping her hands and exclaiming unintelligibly. Now the only person missing was Rosa the wanderer; and who could tell, maybe she would suddenly appear in the flesh. In the Tent of Miracles anything could happen, and did.

The Tent of Miracles is a tiny tent/bookshop where Pedro Archanjo and his friend Lídio Corró hold court. Lídio is a "miracle painter," Archanjo is just the neighborhood wise man, go-to guy, and seducer of gringas (and any other women he meets). However, he is also a self-taught ethnographer, and he and Lídio manage to publish four of his books over the years — those books which will, years later, reach Columbia University and bring a famous American college professor to Bahia.

The volume closed with a long list, the basis for all the shouting and scandal and persecution of its author. Pedro Archanjo listed the noble families of Bahia and filled in their family trees, which had heretofore gracefully bypassed certain grandmothers, legitimate marriages, and bastard children. There the genealogies were, based on irrefutable proof from the trunk to the twigs; whites, blacks, and Indians, colonists, slaves, and freedmen, soldiers and men of letters, priests and witch doctors, the good old Brazilian mixture. At the head of the grand parade were the Avilas, the Argolos, and the Araújos, the ancestors of the professor of Forensic Medicine, the pure-blooded Aryan who wanted to practice the strictest discrimination and deport those born criminals, Negroes and mestizos.

The book was dedicated to that gentleman, in fact: "To the distinguished Herr Professor and man of letters, Dr. Nilo d'Avila Oubitikô Argolo de Araújo, as a contributor to his study of the question of race in Brazil, the modest pages which follow are offered by his cousin Pedro Archanjo Oubitikô Ojuobá." Archanjo had refused to weigh the consequences.

Told from multiple points of view, skipping back and forth in time, Tent of Miracles is a long personal and political satire, interspersed with humor and irony and bittersweet romance. It's a moving, modernist chronicle of Brazil.

Verdict: While Tent of Miracles was not my favorite books1001 selection, it was a good read and I'm glad I read it and got a chance to sample Brazil's most famous author. Brazilian readers are probably much more familiar with Jorge Amado and his works, but including him on the list of 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die is certainly merited, as he was more prolific than many authors who have several works on the list.

My complete list of book reviews.
Tags: books, books1001, literary, reviews

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