Captains of the Sands – Jorge Amado

She went out, closing the door. Legless stood stock still, not moving, not even answering her “good night,” his hand to his face at the spot where Dona Ester had kissed him. He wasn’t thinking, wasn’t seeking anything. Only the soft caress of the kiss, a caress such as he had never had, a mother’s caress. Only the soft caress on his face. It was as if the world had stopped at the moment of the kiss and everything had changed. In the whole universe there was only the soft feel of that maternal kiss on Legless’s face.

The final in a series that Amado called ‘The Bahian Novels’, written when he was twenty four, Captains of the Sands follows a group of homeless children as they beg, steal and con to survive, while they dream of something better, never knowing if the roots of their life are too entangled to let them go.

The leaders of the Captains try to help and protect all the boys in the group, providing a ultimately good, but slightly skewed moral compass, as they are forced to survive in a city that rejects and persecutes them. They are not without friends, and father Don Pedro, Don’Aninha, Gods-Love and others help the children where they can.
They are hardly the downtrodden angelic poor however, the leader Pedro Bala, ‘Bullet’, in one scene effectively raping a young girl as she crosses the sands on her way home. He is racked with guilt afterwards, and while he has no excuse, there are moments when Amado pulls you back to realise how young they are, they are not fully formed adults, raised without guidance or parental influence. Indeed Legless, who uses his lame leg to con his way into rich houses, so he can scout them out and the let the Captains rob them, is torn when the owner of one of the houses takes him in and treats him as a replacement for her dead son. She treats him with the love that he has never had and always craved, and the conflict in him, when he feels like he has a chance to escape his life to one that seems better, at the price of abandoning the people who have been his family, is sharp, his thoughts confused and his decision almost leaves no hope for him.

The appearance of Dora into the Captains subtly changes the group, as she becomes a surrogate mother and sister, as well as lover to the orphaned boys. Eventually Bullet is captured and Dora put into an orphanage. After his escape and rescuing of Dora the group we have been following slowly breaks up. Professor leaves to learn to paint in Rio, Legless struggles to resolve the burning anger in him, Cat follows his lover to Ilheus and Lollipop follows his calling into religion.

While this is a little less polished than Amado’s later works, and the sense of Bahia itself is less pronounced, something that I found surprising given the theme of these novels and how strongly he evoked the place in his later books, I still enjoyed Captains. Amado doesn’t go in for the straight poor but good angle, but seems to truthfully try and reveal the life of all of Bahia, one facet of the soul of the city he has tried to evoke in his series. He portrays the life of the boys as a series of adventures, which fall on both sides of the law but ultimately which they participate in to survive, while each one dreams of escape, or of a maternal love they have never known. Legless is perhaps the most poignant story of them all, and his decision half way through the book was one that I genuinely couldn’t work out if there was a right or wrong answer. When you learn what happens to them as they grow older, they never seem to quite escape from their roots, no matter how far they get, and I think Amado does well to portray their life the full light of the Bahian sun.

The Captains of the Sands look at little mother Dora, little Sister Dora, Dora, sweetheart, Professor sees Dora, his beloved. The Captains of the Sands look in silence. The mae-de-santo Don’Aninha says a strong prayer so that the fever that’s eating Dora will disappear. With a branch of elder she orders the fever to go away. Dora’s feverish eyes are smiling. It seems that the great peace of the Bahia night is in her eyes too.

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Snuff – Terry Pratchett

The wind was murmuring in the trees; Vimes mildly disapproved of trees, but Sybil liked them and that was that. Things that he didn’t care to know about rustled, whooped, gibbered and went inexplicably crazy in the darkness outside. He didn’t know what they were and hoped never to find out. What kind of noise was this for a man to go to sleep to?

Hilarious, laugh out loud funny, I’d forgotten just how brillian Pratchett was, how piercing his eye and his humour were. A comment on marriage and raising a young child as much as genocide and bigotry, Snuff sees long time Pratchett favourite Vimes on holiday, where he doesn’t relax until he has a crime to solve. One of the joys of Pratchett is the ability to ignore any messages you might read into in the story, and just enjoy the endless humour.

As usual Vetinari is pulling the strings in the background, and the Watch are caught in a thread of their own, but this is Vimes’ story, as he is now comfortably navigating marriage, he turns his attention to his young six year old son, who is fascinated by poo and is brilliant portrayed as a six year old in all their uncomplicated way should be.
Horrified at having to take a holiday, the Duke of Ankh finds himself out on his wife’s country estate. For a man born, bred and raised in the city, it is an alien environment, and so he gropes for something to right himself, a crime. Naturally he doesn’t have to wait long as a mutilated goblin body is found and Vimes himself is arrested, you can imagine how that goes.

This follows on fairly closely from Thud! which I read some time ago, but it didn’t matter too much. There is a lot of introspection from Vimes, as he realises he is a thin line away from the schemers and murderers he brings in, but ultimately he is the moral compass in Pratchett’s Discworld. As he pulls at the threads and unravels the country idyll, he is ably assisted by Willikins, the gentleman’s gentleman, himself a very able killer and Chief Constable Upshot, the country copper who suddenly finds himself out of his depth but positively runs up the steep learning curve.

As he does so well, Pratchett pulls the Goblins into his world, he’s done this before with Golems, trolls, dwarves, stereotyping them almost to the point of parody, but not quite making a mockery of them. In fact all the races Pratchett writes about are as fatally flawed as the humans, who he also mocks mercilessly. The Goblins themselves, beaten down so much as to be permanently dejected and in wait for the blows to rain down, are still shown to have their own culture and beliefs that pull them back from being, well, just Goblins.

Tears of the Mushroom looked back at the picture and then back at Young Sam and then at the face of Vimes. She tucked the picture carefully into her apron and pulled a small, iridescent pot. She held it out to Vimes, her hand trembling slightly, and he found himself taking it gingerly in both hands. Then Tears of the Mushroom said in her strange voice, like a living filing cabinet, ‘Hearts have given.” Which almost brought Vimes to his knees.
He thought: it could just as well have been her head grinning on the pub wall! Someone is going to burn!

The chase hots up as Vimes chases both the killer and the bigger fish pulling the strings, all the while being ‘guided’ by Sybil who herself is very much the old coppers equal.
What I love about Pratchett, is that even when he follows a formula, as in here where Vimes chases Stanford who keeps getting away, Vime’s knows he will be back, it doesn’t seem formulaic, the humour and awareness of complete lack of it seem to put Pratchett in a league of his own.

I was immensely sadden to hear he had died, the discworld series is probably the greatest series of books by anyone, with barely a bad book in the whole series (if pushed, I would probably say Monstrous Regiment didn’t seem as funny as the rest) and it’s truly sad to know that the great mind behind it has passed away. Even though he concentrated much more on Vime’s and Moist Von Lipwig in the later books, what made the Discworld such a great series was the vast cast of characters who each had books of their own, the wizards and the librarian, the witches and Death were all part of the fabric of a world that I would love to visit for real, and almost feel I have, such is the power of Pratchett’s writing.

R.I.P Sir Terry, thank you for all the joy you have given me.

Vetinari sighed hugely. ‘No, Vimes! There was a slaughter! Do you not understand? At that point goblins were vermin and no, do not shout at me! At this very moment in palaces and chancelleries all over the world goblins are becoming as human as you or I, but that was then. I would like you to be fully aware that the reason that Stratford would have gone to the tender mercies of Mister Trooper is that he and his ruffians boarded the Enormous Fanny —Yes, what is it?
Vetinari looked round as Drumknott tapped him on the shoulder. There was a muffled whispering before Vetinari cleared his throat and said, ‘Of course, I meant the Wonderful Fanny,’ and he did not exactly meet Vimes’s gaze as he continued.