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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