To Brazilians, the name Jorge Amado is to literature what Antonio Carlos Jobim is to Bossa Nova. In a career spanning 70 years that included 32 books, millions of sold copies, and translations in over 50 countries, Amado is often referred to as the “Pelé of the written word.” Best known for his three novels, Captain of the Sands, Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands, and Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon, all of which were adapted for film, this Bahian author who Peruvian Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa had at one time called “one of the greatest writers alive,” was also controversial. Amado’s left-leaning politics and sexual-laden novels got him jailed twice by the Brazilian government, and his books were publicly burned. He often referred to himself as “a novelist of prostitutes and good-for-nothings.” Yet he exerted a towering influence not only in his native country, but also on Latin American literature. So, when I learned Amado would read from his newly released novel at Endicott Booksellers, a local independent bookstore around the corner from where I was living, I jumped at the chance to see him.
At the time, I was attending Brooklyn College and living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. And on this cold Tuesday evening of January 26, 1988, I made the quick trip to hear the “Balzac of Brazil.” When I arrived, I thought for sure the place would teem with fans spilling out into the streets, but I was surprised to see that few had turned out and I was fortunate to get a good seat near the author.
Although I was born in New York, I grew up in São Paulo, Brazil as a kid during a time when a military dictatorship ran the country as my mom had married a Brazilian of Italian descent who wanted to return to his native country because he believed he could provide a better life for us there. My father owned Carlini’s, an appliance repair shop on Fifth Avenue in Park Slope, Brooklyn. He eventually sold the company to one of his employees because he had become weary of the daily back-breaking slog. (When I returned to Brooklyn in the late 80s, the shop was still in business into the early 90s.) With the hope of a better life, my mom decided to take the risk and leave the New York she had loved so much with my sister and me. (My mother only visited Miami briefly in 1971 to give birth to my younger brother because she wanted all of her children to be citizens of the United States.) But after spending several years in Brazil, my mother filed for divorce from my father, whom she later learned was a serial philanderer just like a character out of an Amado novel. And with all of her kids in tow, my mom left Brazil permanently to settle in Miami with her parents, struggling to raise three children on her own in the mid-70s. As a result of our brief education in Brazil at so young an age, we naturally picked up a fluency in the language.
When the reading had started, Amado, a white-maned, cherubic-faced ascot-wearing writer, read in Portuguese only as he could not speak a word of English, even though he was fluent in other languages like French and Spanish. This was perfectly fine with me, as I could follow along, having spoken Portuguese as a kid. However, he had a translator who would read afterward in English, which I felt was laborious. In town to promote his latest effort called Showdown (Tocaia Grande in Portuguese), which the publisher Bantam had reportedly paid him a staggering $250,000 advance—a tidy sum for a little-read author here in the states—banking on the prospect that he would make a big splash in the US and gain a foothold among readers of English, Amado continued reading in his mellifluous Portuguese voice. For years, the US market had eluded Amado, just as it had other Latin American authors. This time, his American publisher was pulling out all the stops to give Amado the shot that an author of his caliber merited. He was revered in France—where he once lived in exile for his communist sympathies—by none other than writers like Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre.
Bantam had organized a jam-packed schedule of events for their Brazilian author, including meetings with the National Book Critics Circle, major media, book signings, readings, and a lavish reception at the Brazilian consulate in New York, where he was able to network with diplomats, reviewers, editors, publishers, and academics.
After his reading, I hung around, hoping to meet Amado. His wife Zélia Gattai, an author herself of children’s books, and their daughter Paloma Amado Costa accompanied him. When I approached Amado, I said, “Gostei da leitura do seu novo livro e sou um grande fã.” Surprised to hear someone from the audience speak in Portuguese, his eyes lit up, and a broad smile fastened on his face. He turned to his wife and said, “Olha, Zélia, temos um Brasileiro entre nós.” There is no more dulcet sound—other than hearing one’s own name—than when someone speaks your own language when you’re far from your native soil.
Amado’s ability to convey the humanity of his people, as well as his intuitive comprehension of the predicament of “the most poor, the most needy, the most oppressed” of his fellow countrymen, impressed me even though I had only read a handful of his novels at the time. Like Charles Dickens, one of his greatest influences, Amado shared the same profound empathy for the poor, and gave them a voice that no other writer of his period achieved so effectively.
I floated out of the bookstore in literary nirvana after a wonderful half-hour talk with Jorge Amado and his family, feeling much richer for having met one of my all-time favorite authors.
Former restauranteur, musician, concert promoter, producer, publisher, manager, and impresario, Charles Carlini has synthesized these roles to become a dynamic force in the music industry–noted for his ability to bring diverse talent together to create innovative concerts and recordings that reach and move music-lovers everywhere.