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Amadan na Briona

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Tent of Miracles - Jorge Amado, Barbara Shelby Merello, Ilan Stavans Americans are very familiar with the history of racial struggle in the U.S., from the days of slavery to Jim Crow to the Civil Rights era to the modern day which, while unquestionably better than previous eras, is still a long way from perfect. Most of us know a lot less about Brazil, though Brazil has gone through very similar (yet different) trials. Another large, wealthy country that once practiced slavery on a large scale, then eventually legislated a racial equality on paper that was generations from the reality on the ground, Brazil is also a colonial state with a racial consciousness across the color spectrum that, if you read this book, you will see is subtly different from our own, even if there are obvious similarities.

Tent of Miracles is the epic biography of a fictional character who seems compellingly, vibrantly, historically real, and Jorge Amado puts life and breath and blood into all the characters. They all seem like real people whose stories he might be fictionalizing a little, but surely they really existed, the events are real, the history is real? Well, I'm sure some of the events were real, or at least were based on real events, but this is a novel. Pedro Archanjo never existed, but he should have.

We are first introduced to Pedro Archanjo by way of James D. Levenson, a Nobel-winning American professor from Columbia University, who visits the Brazilian state of Bahia and is feted like a movie star. Brazilians fawn all over the prestigious gringo from North America. At a press conference, he's asked about some famous Marxist, and he says:

"That's an idiotic question and only a fool would venture an opinion on Marcuse's work or discuss present-day Marxism in the framework of a press conference. If I had time to give a speech or a class about it that would be something else again; but I haven't got time and I didn't come to Bahia to talk about Marcuse. I came here to see the place where a remarkable man lived and worked, a man of profound and generous ideals, one of the founders of modern humanism — your fellow citizen Pedro Archanjo. That, and only that, is what brings me to Bahia."

What a flurry of commotion and lionization and hagiographies follows the endorsement of the famous gringo! All of Bahia promptly goes into a year-long celebration of their most famous, esteemed, and scholarly native son. The College of Medicine where he worked proclaims him to represent the very bedrock of their mission! He is the pride of Bahia! Surely the most eminent man ever born in Brazil!

And then Amado tells us Archanjo's story, going back and forth in time, jumping to many different POVs, from the schoolchildren who write essays about the great national hero years after his death, to his real history that follows the history of Brazil through the early 20th century.

Pedro Archanjo was a humble mestizo, and his job at the College of Medicine was not professor, or even adjunct faculty, but runner. He was an errand boy. He lived and died in poverty. He lived in a slum, spent his life fighting white supremacists like Professor Niles Argolo, a professor at the College of Medicine who wrote treatises on the inherent criminality and degeneracy of the black race and the need to segregate and exterminate them in order to save Brazil. Archanjo fights back by writing his own treatises. Though unschooled, Archanjo is brilliant, and a voracious reader, and over a period of several decades he and his friends basically self-publish four books: Daily Life in Bahia, chronicles the Afro-Brazilian candomblé cults and their influence in daily life (and coincidentally demolishes one of Niles Argolo's theories). He goes on to publish several more, including a meticulously researched genealogy of all the prominent families in Bahia, in which Archanjo is pleased to call the "pure European" Professor Argolo his cousin, after proving that he and Argolo shared the same Negro ancestors.

He's a clever, cunning, brave man who fights for the candomblés during brutal police suppression, even though he no longer believes. Students rally around him. He stirs up unrest but makes friends among the high and the low. He tweaks the noses of racists and perseveres. People (especially women) come in and out of his life, and everyone knows and remembers him. The people who really know him certainly don't remember the cross between George Washington, Thomas Edison, and Albert Einstein who's being celebrated in Bahia a hundred years after his birth and plastered on walls hawking cola.

Tent of Miracles is partly comic, as we see the glorious paeans to this great man and his works, followed by the real story behind it all. But it's also inspiring, and sad at times, and in the end, epic, covering a man's entire long life, a man who was never really appreciated until after some American dropped by and casually mentioned reading copies of his books that somehow made their way to Columbia University in New York.

Even in the English translation, Jorge Amado's prose is splendid, and full of Brazilian character. I feel like I was really walking the streets and watching the dances and tasting the food.

I give it 4.5 stars. It's a great book, but it is also a long literary book, not exactly a page-turner. And for all that Amado handles the question of race deftly, well, you can't help noticing that it's another one of those books where women are basically sex. All the men, the good men and the bad men, are pretty much strutting roosters. There are lots of women in the book, and they're interesting characters, but I don't think there are any who aren't described in terms of who's screwing them. (And Pedro Archanjo screws a lot of women.) Now, I am not usually up on my high horse about sexism in fiction (I admit to liking James Bond, after all), nor would I deny that Amado knows the Brazilian society he's writing about, but I call this a glaring gap for an author who goes out of his way to celebrate the personhood of whites, blacks, Negroes, mulattos, mestizos, and all the other people of the Brazilian color-caste system, but can't write women as anything other than lovers and mothers. Still, I'd call this oversight/blindness on the part of the author, not malice or contempt, which makes him better than, say, Ian Fleming.

This is a rich, warm, humanistic book with real characters, real people, and it will make you feel like you know a little tiny bit about Brazil's complicated history even if you've never set foot there.