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IN BRIEF

Fiction

August 09, 1992|MICHAEL HARRIS

THE GOLDEN HARVEST by Jorge Amado , translated from the Portuguese by Clifford E. Landers (Avon: $12.50; 368 pp.) Those who fear that the U.S. economy is slipping into a Third World, two-tier mode--like Brazil's--may read this 1944 novel of boom and bust in the cacao fields as a cautionary tale. Serious U.S. writers who long ago abandoned the sprawling socio-economic saga to the drugstore-shelf literati will be reminded of how it used to be done.

Veteran Brazilian novelist Jorge Amado, best known here for "Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands," wrote "The Golden Harvest" as a sequel to "The Violent Land," which described the conquest of the Bahia region by pioneer "cacao colonels" who cleared and planted the land after much intramural bloodshed. Now the pioneers have grown old. Their sons are weaklings, playboys, dabblers in Nazi politics. Their rural empires are ripe for a takeover.

The new exploiters--as ruthless as the pioneers but lacking their homespun virtues--are U.S. and German export firms, which conspire to raise the price of cacao to unprecedented heights, let the landowners overextend themselves, then engineer a crash and buy them out. The "colonels" are ruined. Their workers, hardly better off than slaves even in boom times, are reduced to begging and prostitution; some simply starve.

Amado displays an intimate knowledge of his society, from top to bottom. This may explain why, though he clearly sides with the "colonels" against the exporters, and with the workers against both, he draws his characters with an even-handed humanity. His condemnation of the system is absolute--even the boom corrupts more than it enriches--but he's interested less in ideology than in the macho strut, the erotic spice, the musical sadness of Brazilian life. As a result, this novel hardly seems dated, except for its invocation of communism as a fond, if distant, hope.

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