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Truth and Tomfoolery in the Tropics : THE WAR OF THE SAINTS, By Jorge Amado, translated by Gregory Rabassa (Bantam Books: $22.95; 357 pp.)

January 02, 1994|Bondo Wyszpolski | Bondo Wyszpolski is book critic for the L.A.-based journal "News From Brazil."

Jorge Amado wrote his first novel in 1931 when he was 19-years-old. The title, "Carnival Country," could be applied to the body of work he's been amassing ever since.

This is the Brazilian novelist who gave Dona Flor two husbands (one living; one dead, but livelier), and he's still mixing wry, ribald poetry with literary soap opera. Even now, Amado remains idealistic, boyishly romantic, a jester and a humanist whose compassion for the downtrodden is unstinting. What makes it all rather fun is that Balzac seems to be whispering into one ear while Henry Miller whispers into the other.

Now there's "The War of the Saints," a novel so loud you can find it with the lights out. Over and around the story line, Amado has thrown together a one-man shindig for his beloved Salvador da Bahia. In the author's hands, this former capital of Brazil is like a chessboard; each piece, each character, is moved with gusto and a roaring generosity. Host or author, party or novel: good question, for everyone Amado has ever shaken hands with seems to put in an appearance.

The author confines his story to 48 hours and drops it into the early 1970s, during the gloomy nadir of Brazil's 21-year-long dictatorship. Not that there's any constraint in Amado's writing; he's just too zestful for that. Anyway, Dom Maximiliano von Grudin, director of the Museum of Sacred Art in Bahia, has assembled a jewel of an exhibit and acquired the loan of a priceless statue--Saint Barbara of the Thunder--which is transported down the Paraguacu River. However, "Before Master Manuel and Maria Clara had finished mooring the sloop and managed to lift out the saint, the saint herself got down from the litter, took a step forward, smoothed the folds of her cape, and walked off."

The mystery of the saint's disappearance and Dom Maximiliano's dark night of the soul (he'll tussle with humility and self-pride before Amado's through with him) are the first of several subplots already swimming off, to emerge periodically until the end of the book.

Three other subplots will sashay across the dance floor of love gained or regained. When their parents died, Mariety went to live with congenial Aunt Gildete, Manela with strict Aunt Adalgisa. Or, as Amado says, "in the lottery of orphanhood, it was Mariety who had won the grand prize." This sets up Manela as our sympathetic Juliet, her Romeo being the taxi driver Miro, poor but pure and brazenly Brazilian. Couple number one.

The second couple is Manela's Aunt Adalgisa and Uncle Danilo, an ex-soccer champ who rarely stands up to his wife and who'll only stand up for Manela when Adalgisa dumps her into a convent. That's a story in itself. Danilo and Adalgisa have a stalled-on-the-tracks 20-year marriage, but we'll see what a splash of Afro-Brazilian religious ritual can do about that.

Lastly, there's the young and untainted Father Abelardo Galvao gently pursued by Patricia das Flores, an aspiring actress and a knock-out, it appears, in both body and brains. An actress and a priest? Oh, my, what possibilities.

In each of these instances Saint Barbara will play a key role. Amado goes to great lengths to decorate the stage, and he won't be rushed: there's usually a payoff 200 pages down the line. He relishes his diversions and he lovingly dotes on his characters. Those in search of a straightforward, snappy narrative are advised to move on.

Amado has listened well to the song of the land and the song of its people, but this depiction of Bahia is closer to "Peter Pan" than to Hector Babenco's "Pixote." For example, Amado's captains-of-the-sands, those abandoned youngsters who roam the waterfront, are not quite the lovable rascals he portrayed 50 years earlier. To his credit, he treats them all like grandchildren--neglecting to let on that in the city of Bahia some 80% of its inhabitants are underemployed, or not employed at all.

What he says instead is: "Anyone who wants to know more about these matters of saints, voodoo, candomble , macumba , possessions, mixed blood, and orixas should try to put a little money together and take a trip to Bahia, the capital city of dreams." Hmmm. All that's lacking is the color insert and the travel coupons.

The War of the Saints is undermined somewhat by its diversions and its asides, which--and here's the dilemma--are not only funny but provide color and rhythm. Ultimately, they tend to deflect the main thrust of the novel, leaving behind handsome vignettes that--mostly--will soon disperse.

A mixed blessing, all this, with blessing decidedly emphasized. As a prose stylist whose flourishes descend with the accuracy of a Bob Hope punch line, Amado is quite an entertainer. His stereotypes, his tomfoolery and his formulas, trotted out again and again, may prevent his acclaim as a great novelist, but Amado is every bit a child of tropical Brazil. It pulsates in virtually every line. Whistling in disbelief--and we'll do a lot of that--is no deterrent to our wanting to find out what happens next.

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