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Jorge Amado; Writer Revered as ‘Balzac of Brazil’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Jorge Amado, considered Brazil’s greatest contemporary writer for raucous, bawdy novels that celebrate his country’s underclasses, has died. He was 88.

Amado died Monday evening, hours after being admitted to Alianca Hospital in Salvador in the northeastern state of Bahia. The cause of death was heart and lung failure.

Amado was hospitalized several times in recent years because of diabetes and heart problems. In late June he was admitted to a Sao Paulo hospital for high blood sugar and chest pains, briefly fell into a coma and spent several days on a respirator before being released July 16.

His 32 novels have been published in 50 languages and have sold millions of copies. Among his best-known works are “Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands” and “Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon,” both of which were made into movies starring Sonia Braga.

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Amado’s leftist politics and frank portrayals of sex made him a controversial author. He was twice jailed by the Brazilian government and his books were publicly burned. He spent many years living in exile in Argentina and Paris before returning to Brazil.

The revered author was variously referred to as the “Pele of the written word” and the “Balzac of Brazil.” Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa called him not only “one of the greatest writers alive,” but “one of the most entertaining.”

But Amado preferred to call himself “a novelist of prostitutes and good-for-nothings” who, like Llosa and Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez, sought to illuminate the national character.

He set his novels in the rugged, poverty-stricken back country of Bahia, the northern province where he was born. His characters were thugs, tramps, peasants, taxi drivers, sailors and other colorful members of Brazil’s lower classes.

“The hero of my novels is the Brazilian people,” he once told an interviewer. “My characters are the most destitute, the most needy, the most oppressed. . . . I believe that only the people struggle selflessly and decently, without hidden motives.”

Amado was born in the Bahian town of Ilheus and as a child witnessed the rise and fall of his father’s fortunes. Ruined in a flood, his father, a cocoa farmer, turned to making and selling wooden shoes. When he saved enough money, he began to buy land and became a prominent landowner with a street named after him.

The land wars that made Amado’s father wealthy formed the plot of “The Violent Land,” which critics consider the most accomplished of his early novels. Published in 1942, it focuses on the bloody rivalry of two powerful cocoa farmers on the Brazilian frontier.

Amado’s literary sensibility was stirred in boarding school, where he read “Gulliver’s Travels” and “David Copperfield.” He would later name Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Francois Rabelais and Miguel de Cervantes as among his chief influences.

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In the 1930s, he joined a group of bohemian writers in Bahia and wrote for a local newspaper while working on his first novel, “O pais do carnaval” (“Carnival Land”), about the slums of Salvador, Bahia’s capital.

In the 1940s he represented the Communist Party in the Brazilian parliament. He was exiled to Argentina in 1941 after one of his books was banned, then to Europe in 1948 when the Communist Party was outlawed. His years abroad widened his international reputation, which helped protect him from repressive movements under later regimes.

In 1970, Amado announced that he would no longer publish his books in his own country if the military dictatorship then in power insisted on prior censorship. Joined in his crusade by other writers, Amado did not have to carry through his threat: The censorship plan was quietly shelved.

His earlier novels were humorless examinations of Brazil’s social problems in which the poor were good and the rich were bad. He was criticized for sentimentalizing the poor, as he did in his 1937 novel, “Captains of the Sands,” which describes the desperate lives of homeless children in Bahia.

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When he returned from exile in the mid-1950s, he decided that he could not be a writer as well as a political militant. “I made the decision to quit being a member of any political party, and decided to be a writer,” he said. The social realism that permeated his earlier works gave way to humor, irony and caricature.

“In ‘Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon,’ published in 1958, he explored the on-again, off-again romance of a Syrian bar owner and his cook, whose culinary skill not only expands the bar’s business but leads to a marriage proposal. Amado’s descriptions of steamy sensuality shocked readers on Brazil’s political right and left, but the book became an international success. Harriet de Onis, in Saturday Review, wrote that she did not know “what to admire most: the dexterity with which Amado can keep half a dozen plots spinning; the gossamer texture of the writing; or his humor, tenderness, and humanity.”

The lighter, more picaresque view of life continued in “Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands,” Amado’s 1966 masterpiece about a woman who can’t get rid of her unfaithful spouse even after he dies of overindulgence and she remarries his opposite, a hard-working, straight-laced pharmacist. Time magazine hailed the work as “rich and leisurely, as much verbal aphrodisiac as novel.”

Amado is survived by his wife, the writer Zelia Gattai, and two children, Joao Jorge and Priscilla. His body was to be cremated Tuesday.

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Excerpt From ‘Dona Flor’

From “Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands,” by Jorge Amado. Translated from Portuguese by Harriet De Onis.

“Dona Flor made her way through the crowd in the wake of Dona Norma, who went clearing a path for her with elbows and her great popularity: ‘Come, step aside, folks, let the poor thing get by . . . ‘

“There lay Vadinho on the mosaic paving blocks, a smile on his lips, blond and fair, the image of peace and innocence. Dona Flor stood for a moment, looking at him as though she had trouble recognizing her husband, or perhaps, and this was more probable, in accepting the fact, now indisputable, of his death. But only for an instant. With a scream that came from the very depths of her being, she threw herself upon Vadinho, clasping his motionless body to her, kissing his hair, his rouged face, his open eyes, his jaunty mustache, his dead mouth, forever dead.”

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