The forest lay sleeping its never interrupted sleep. Over it passed the days and the nights. The summer sun shone above it, the winter rains fell upon it. Its trees were centuries old, an unending green overrunning the mountain, invading the plain, lost in the infinite. It was like a sea that had never been explored, locked in its own mystery. It was like a virgin, it was lovely, radiant, young, despite those century-old trunks.
At the height of the Cacao boom in Brazil, two families battle for the pristine jungle of Sequeiro Grande, the rough, striving Colonel Horacio and the calm, steeled Sinho Badaro. Both surrounded by lackeys, hired assassins, lawyers, reporters and their families, they square off before being drawn inexorably towards each other over the last piece of their cacao empire.
A lyrical yet visceral look at human life on the frontier, as the colonels drive deeper into the virgin territory, replacing the ancient tangle of the jungle with the ordered rows of cacao trees. Where no man’s life is too expensive, and all too often is sold cheaply, especially as the booming industry pulls in the low and the desperate from miles around in search of their own little grove, but who end up indentured to those who have carved out the land before. The colonels themselves struggle to tame the land, progressing through their determination to bend the life of the jungle to their will. Horacio, oblivious to his wife’s listlessness at being transported from high society to the backwaters, a listlessness that dwindles slightly when the intellectual Virgilio arrives to help her husband out. Meanwhile Sinho is the calm at the centre of the Badaro storm, his hot headed brother Juca happy to kill anyone who stands in their way, while his daughter Don’ Ana, proves herself as tough as any man.
While both families make a show on pushing through the correct legal channels, Sinho and Horacio face each other down, pulling every trick they can to outwit the other and lay their hands on the jungle. Those that come thinking to get a piece of the cacao gold rush realise the harsh brutality, and even those who think of swooping in to make a quick fortune and escape, realise that their boots sink deeper than they planned.
It was Cacao that ran through Amado’s veins, and I can imagine this book pouring from him like a torrent in his beautiful, evocative prose. He ranks up with Saramago as one of my favourite authors, perhaps it is something about the Portuguese language, or more likely, the deft hand of the translator, here Samuel Putnam. While I didn’t travel to Ilheos while I was in Brazil, I did go to Bahia, and reading Amado never fails to send me back to the north east, even conjuring images of places I never been, down to the smells and sights on the street, an enveloping pleasure that whispers to me seductively, urging me to go, long after the book has finished.
His anguish increasing, he threw on his clothes as quickly as possible. He must let the rain fall upon him, upon his burning head, he must bathe his hands, foul with blood, his hands and his blood-stained heart. He forgot to exercise his customary caution as he went out through the garden and onto the railway tracks. Removing his hat, he let the rain trickle down his face, as though these were the tears he himself was unable to shed.