On Jorge Amado’s birthday, we celebrate thirty years of the edition in English of Captains of the Sands.
If there’s a Brazil you should know, it has to be Jorge Amado’s. It is not the touristic Brazil, there's no absurd exoticism, but rather a raw, honest yet beautiful portrayal of the culture and people of Brazil, specifically Afro-Brazilians in the state of Bahia. His depiction of places and characters in Salvador de Bahia, the omniscient setting-character, has delighted readers in his homeland and worldwide.
Amado was born on August 10, 1912 in Itabuna, Brazil. At twelve, he moved to Salvador de Bahia. He went into law school, but still made time to write stories. He was 19 when his first novel The Country of Carnaval was published, and by 1937, at 25, he had finished the collection of six novels entitled the Bahian Novels. Captains of the Sands, the last piece of this collection, is perhaps his most famous novel: a novel that follows the lives of children who live in the street and try to handle the cruelty of the world and society. They are children who have not experienced love or care but that show the reader the importance of being brave, loving and faithful to yourself and your friends.
As readers, we are transported by Amado's spare yet sweet prose. He makes us see and even feel Bahia, so that we end up knowing the city like the palm of our hand (it might be a result of the author’s experience as a police reporter). We can see ourselves in the shell where the boys live. We can feel the joy and excitement of the adventures. We can feel the pain, sadness, and fury some of them go through. The absurd binarism between “good and bad” becomes ridiculous as we know that the narrative, though fiction, is nothing but mere imagination. We love the courage of Pedro Bala (the leader), the charm of El Gato, the sassiness of Sem-Pernas, and the nobility of Pirulito. We admire their strength, wit, and individuality. But then again, we might be failing them in romanticizing something that should be upsetting and outrageous: social injustice.
The novel, which was finished in Mexico City on one of the many trips Amado made there, was not well received in his country. Captains of the Sands, a critique that explores topics such as racism and politics in Brazil, was considered subversive by the government, and copies of the book were burnt in public squares. As a result, Amado had to go into exile for a few years.
Critics argued that Amado’s style wasn’t “literary achieving,” to which he responded that he didn’t write for them: he wrote for everyone. Maybe this lack of “seriousness” is the reason why it took more than fifty years for this novel to be translated into English: the first edition, by Avon books, appeared in 1988. Now his novels are in more than 40 languages.
Captains of the Sands thrills and moves readers because of the story itself. However, it portrays the raw and cruel reality of children who have been abandoned by society: children who we can find in our own reality. Colm Toíbín wrote that this “novel is not written for tourists; it is written to give substance to shadows, to recreate the underlife of the city, to offer the dispossessed and reviled an inner life.” Amado, who wanted to make minorities be seen and heard, captured the essence of Bahia and gave his readers the representation they deserved, as well as the chance to see themselves in fiction, to show them that they matter and, as Toibin stated, that they have a place in their own world.