06 February 2016

Book Review: Captains of the Sands by Jorge Amado

A blog reader from Brazil (Hi Renan!) once recommended me this novel a long time ago. Though I haven't forgotten it, my reading list was rather long and therefore it took a little bit of time to get to it. However, almost a year later, I have finally read this, and I have to say that it provides a very good literary preview of Brazil. After all, I asked for recommendations for books that would provide me a narrative that was set in Brazil. As I haven't been to Brazil at all, reading about it is the next best thing to do in order to get an image of the country. So I started with this book.

What is this book about?

This is a book about street children in Bahia. I don't remember which city it actually was, but come to think of it, they refer to it as Bahia, which most probably refers to the capital of the State of Bahia, Salvador. The Captains of the Sands is a collection of teenage children who are street criminals: they rob people, they have plenty of modus operandi to basically relieve rich people of their belongings. In a sense, this book is like Robin Hood or Oliver Twist, with the main characters being members of society's undesirable sub-group. In this book, the Captains of the Sands are led by Pedro Bala, but there are several other characters, and the book doesn't really focus on one character, but rather, takes the collection of children as a whole as the focus, jumping from one child's story to the next.

The narrative is highly political. I can see it as the author's social commentary. Upon finishing the book, I read the postface and sure enough, there is a political bent to this novel. In fact, Jorge Amado apparently was exiled from Brazil for a time due to his left-wing political sentiments. The book definitely portrays the poor as oppressed, and strongly makes a case for them, even to the point of almost glorifying the crimes that these street children do.

See, this is where I am torn. On the one hand, I do agree that the street children are poor and oppressed, and yes, society is to blame. Society, as led by the rich moguls and aristocrats, these people are to blame when the poor keep on getting poorer and the rich richer. It is not an egalitarian society, after all. However, I still think that the street children need to be punished when they commit those crimes. Maybe I just distinguish between the society and the individual. But I don't think that robbing a rich lady of her belongings or killing a policeman is the way to equalize things. I don't say I am rich, but I have enough money. Does this mean that I am personally to blame when there are starving populations in Africa?

Life is unfair, get over it. When we are born, we're already put into various different classes, and depending on which class we are put in, the rate of success or failure in this single chance of life we are given is different. It is an idealism, a pipe dream, to believe that all humans are equal. I don't think we are.

I was born in the Philippines and ended up being Filipino. If I were born in Niger, I probably would not have the amount of education I have right now. I probably would have a short lifespan. I probably would be malnourished. Imagine that, and compare that if I were born in Finland instead. So no, humans are not equal.

I used to be a fan of communism. However, history shows that communism in its truest form doesn't really work. Humans are inherently selfish, in my opinion, and so we all try to be better than the next, richer than our neighbor. We all want to have the greenest grass in the neighborhood. And so we try hard to improve ourselves. It just happens that some try harder.

I am not being snobbish here. I guess I am just being pragmatic. Sure, it is unfortunate to have poor street children, but it is also naive to think that a utopian society is possible, where there are no poor people and everyone is well-off. That there is inequality is just a fact of life. In Amado's novel, there are street children who improved their lives, and there are children who were less fortunate.

Politics aside, another aspect that disturbed me in this novel was the notion of ethics and morality. Of course, one must read novels through the lens of the generation they were written in, but I believe there is a limit to that. What disturbed me the most was the gender inequality, especially with respect to sex. The characters make a big deal about "being a man" or doing things like a man, where femininity is seen as a weakness. Latin American machismo is oozing so much out of this book, which I found quite disturbing. I also did not like the characters' notion of sex, especially that inappropriate value to virginity, as well as on rape. Non-consensual sex for me personally is definitely a no-go, and so I find it hard to sympathize with characters who engage in such. It was somewhat bizarrely hilarious to read of this one episode (I believe it was Pedro Bala) where the boy wants to rape this girl, the girl doesn't want it, the girl says that she is still a virgin and wants to remain so, and so the boy says that he would fuck her in the ass instead.

I was like, what the fuck?!

Anyway, like I said, this book provides a literary snapshot of Brazil in the early 1900s. There are definitely plenty of things to improve on, not only on economic but also on moral and social issues. Overall, I liked this book, and would consider reading Jorge Amado's other novels in the future. I give this book 4 out of 5 stars.

See my other book reviews here.


  1. Hi there!

    It is good to see this book reviewed in here.

    Indeed this book gives a reader one of the images Brazil has to offer. I say one because the region pictured in the book - Bahia - is one of 27, and peculiar in many ways.

    Bahia has created and given new tastes to religions, dishes, accents and folklores (well, I had already said religions), that eventually spread to other parts of Brazil. It also produced musicians and writers whose works marked the lives of so many Brazilians and foreigns that lived here from the sixties up to this day. Go to Bahia, and you will see that the way the residential areas were built are not very reminiscent of other areas of Brazil, and the people smile and behave in a more chilled way. Also, nowhere in the world I have been so strongly harassed to buy stuff in the streets. The differences are not subtle, they flash to your eyes. When I went there, I felt a strange pride of being born in a country that has Bahia. It was a sweet and pleasant delusion that the Brazilian diversity is not the result of accidents of the history, but the result of the talent and creativity of the people that inhabits its area. I was like a foreign enjoying a place and realising all of a sudden: "wait! I'm not a foreign. This is mine."

    Jorge Amado and his wife, also a famous writer, are fascinating figures not only for their life stories and achievements, but also for their acquaintances. Take one of Jorge Amado's best friends for example: José Saramago. One that goes to the Jose Saramago Foundation in Lisbon has access to the correspondence between Jose, Jorge and their wives. It is fascinating to have a glimpse of their chatter, that covered memories of holidays they had spent together, their awe towards the incredible fax machine that made it possible for them to exchange letters so rapidly, and their desire to be awarded a split Nobel Prize (Jose and Jorge were nominated around the same time). Now one that goes to Bahia can visit the Jorge Amado foundation in Salvador and might be able to see some of the same correspondence, and appreciate some similarities not only between the writers, but between the cities of Lisbon and Salvador, and between the foundations with the names of the two writers.

    I hope you will forgive the patriotic impulse of writing this comment. Specially when you know that it comes from one that has the contempt towards religion and patriotism that they deserve, and that he is aware that being proud of the achievements of his neighbours just because they live close and share the language does not make much sense, and is probably no more than a confusion of his brains and instincts trying to protect and support the groups that could be holding common genes.

  2. My previous comment was rather digressive. But let me add some more specifically on the book now.

    You are right: the street children in the book live in the city of Bahia. So do other characters of many other books by Jorge Amado. It turns out though that the city is fictional. And yes, it is supposed to represent the capital of the State of Bahia, Salvador.

    This book was written when Jorge Amado was very young. Around that time he advocated for the communist party, and a couple of his books from those days are very disappointing because you can feel the artificial twists and developments of their stories, made to convey communist soap. Somehow Captains of the Sand does not suffer from that. It does go down the route of making a case for the poor, but does not go as far as to propose a socialist revolution. It stops after emphasizing one of the aspects of the reality, but, unlike a couple of other writings of his, does not step towards the fiction that we could coordinate the efforts and the kindness of the saint workers to reach a Marxist utopia.

    I hope I am not dis-encouraging anyone from reading other books of Jorge Amado. On the contrary: most of his books are treasures. Even those few that are impaired by ideology are good books. It is more that their plots are twisted by occurrences of political trance or ecstasy of their author. This great mind that Jorge Amado was soon got rid of religion - he was an atheist - but it took him a little longer to get rid of its brother, ideoligion.

    One book of his that I particularly like is "Tenda dos Milagres." The main character of this book is an intelectual that eventually detaches from religion and from ideology, without losing his appreciation for the culture of his low class and superstitious fellows. Although Jorge Amado has never been as poor as his character, and has never suffered the racism he did, I suspect he wrote a bit about himself in him.

  3. The view that criminals are only criminals because society pushed them into it, otherwise they would be awarded peace Nobel Prizes, is a common one in Brazil. That is probably why we are at the same time one of the countries with the highest crime rates in the planet, and hold such a soft system of punishment. It is a kind of a "crime pays" environment. I wouldn't say though that Captains of the Sand defends that the kids shouldn't be punished. I do agree that the book emphasizes the injustices that those kids suffered and pushed them into being thieves, but I think that this is one aspect of the reality that needs to be factored in planning a response to crime and to social problems overall.

    Now a subject to be debated taking another book as a reference. You asked the question: "I don't say I am rich, but I have enough money. Does this mean that I am personally to blame when there are starving populations in Africa?" Since a recent shift in my views in 2015, my answer to that question is: yes, you are! So am I. And there are things we can do to reduce the extent to which we are to blame, without doing much effort. And the effort is so little that we are even more to blame if we don't do it.

    Finally, 100% agreed on the gender inequality remarks. I would add that the fact that those episodes and behaviours are in the book doesn't mean that the writer supported them. I doubt he did. Also, Jorge Amado was very good at picturing his society. As you said, Latin America is crawling with machismo. I'm finally starting to see a shift here in Brazil. But those sexist behaviours that you found bizarre, including the rape episode and the rationale adopted by the characters to agree that it didn't imply an end to the girl's virginity, have been common here for decades and decades. The picture is accurate, unfortunately. We shouldn't blame - I don't think you are - a book for picturing the reality, or the messenger for sending the message of the disaster.

    Hey Jeruen. Have you heard that Brazil nominated another writer for the Nobel Prize this year? Cross your fingers. It is about time!

    1. Renan,

      Apologies for the delayed response, things are busy at home at the moment.

      Anyway, I thank you for the comments: you have more background than I do here, given that you are more familiar with Brazilian society than I am. Thanks for the additional information which allows the outsider reader to situate the book better with its literary and social environment.

      Now some comments about your comments:

      Yes, I see that I am to blame when there are starving children in Africa. Everything after all is connected, a la Butterfly Effect. Sure, I get that, but don't you think there's a difference between putting the blame on the rich society as a whole, and putting the blame on a particular rich individual? Everyone, after all, is just being selfish here, both the rich and the poor. I used to believe in socialist (if not communist) ideals, yet later on I realized that selfishness is so deeply rooted in all of us, that trying to equalize wealth is a pipe dream. While I do agree that a world where there isn't anyone poor is great, I am afraid that due to our own selfish tendencies, this remains a utopia.

      And yes, I agree that one shouldn't blame the messenger re: social depictions of inequality. If anything, I think it's great that there are writers like Amado who try to accurately portray these social issues. That way, people would be more aware of it, and hopefully, someone out there would speak against it and try to change it.