Reading Guide

The Discovery of America by the Turks

The Discovery of America by the Turks


Translator: Gregory Rabassa

INTRODUCTION

As the preface explains, the road to publication for The Discovery of America by the Turks was a long and strange one. It began with an invitation to write a novel in commemoration of the five–hundredth anniversary of Columbus’s voyage to America. The novel would join newly commissioned works by Norman Mailer and Carlos Fuentes, so that each of the Americas (North, Central, and South) and their major languages (English, Spanish, and Portuguese) would be represented. The trilogy, however, never materialized. It is just as well since the polemical fervor that surrounded the quincentennial would not have warmly received Amado’s satirical and impish novel.

Partly at the suggestion of his wife, Amado chose for his Columbus project to elaborate on a discarded passage from his 1984 novel, Showdown, about a Lebanese peddler in early twentieth–century Brazil. Set in the cacao frontier of Bahia, The Discovery of America by the Turks revolves around the plans of a Muslim merchant named Ibrahim Jafet to marry off his eldest daughter, the intractable and plain Adma. In the absence of her deceased mother, Adma assumes the role of matriarch, browbeating her father and sisters, all married, for their perceived errant ways. To sweeten the deal, Ibrahim offers the would–be husband a share in the family business, a proposition that attracts the attention of Jamil Bichara, a recent immigrant from Syria. It would be, as we later learn, a pact with the devil, or, more specifically for Jamil, with the Islamic Shaitan.

Within this conventional Taming of the Shrew plot, Amado examines a number of themes about Brazilian history. First, Amado’s choice of subject matter for his Columbus project is significant. Rather than add to the well–known story of Spanish/Portuguese conquest and Indian tragedy, he sheds light on an overlooked chapter in Brazil’s official history: the wave of Arab immigration in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Official histories, the narrator warns us, are often blinkered and inaccurate, and the “Discovery is all a great mélange” (p. 3). Similarly, the Turks of this novel—Raduan Murad, a Christian from Lebanon, and Jamil Bichara, a Syrian Muslim—are not, in fact, Turkish. They become Turks because their official Ottoman travel documents say they are. Look closely enough at the official version of anything, the novel implies, and you will find a much more complex story.

Not only is the official or conventional version of an event limited in its perspective, but it can sometimes be entirely fictitious. On their transatlantic passage to the New World, Raduan, who is said to be a scholar, speaks of a Moorish sailor on board Columbus’s first voyage with the same name as Bichara. A forebear of Jamil’s perhaps, “the truth, or a bunch of bootlegged goods?” (p. 4), asks the narrator. Raduan, we are also informed, is the inventor of a famous card trick. What we think is the past may be the truth or merely a sleight–of–hand illusion. This epistemological struggle takes on a wider religious significance for Jamil and Adma. Jamil sees his destiny as a marriage with Adma, but in fact the promise of a business venture and the sexual favors of Adma’s more attractive sister “was part of the scheme put together by Shaitan, the Islamic devil” (p. 28).

However, both the Islamic Allah and the Christian Jehovah divinely intervene by providing a means for Adma to be wooed not by Jamil but by a Brazilian–born Arab barkeep named Adib. When Jamil stumbles upon the couple’s wedding, uninvited, he finally sees the error of his judgment and laughs heartily at Shaitan’s broken illusion. The fates of Jamil, Adma, or all of Brazil are not necessarily controlled by Allah, Jehovah, or any number of Candomblé divinities. Rather, the irrepressible sexuality of the novel implies that a pleasure principle sets the course for its characters and all of Brazilian history, particularly in Bahia. It is responsible for the great “mélange” of races and religions, capable even of bringing Allah and Jehovah together. Far from a retelling of conquest and genocide, Amado’s “Columbus” novel is a celebration of Brazilian eros, multiculturalism, and fraternity.

 

ABOUT JORGE AMADO

Jorge Amado, one of Brazil’s most beloved novelists, was born in the northern state of Bahia in 1912. The son of a cacao planter, his earliest fiction portrayed the struggles of the cacao plantation workers, beginning with his first novel Cacao(1933), published when he was just nineteen. As many other leftist writers of the 1930s and ’40s, he employed a social realist aesthetic in his fiction. His first critical success came with Jubiabá (1935), a novel about racial relations on a tobacco farm. His outspoken communist politics eventually led to his imprisonment and exile. In 1948, he left Brazil for more than a decade, living mostly in Europe.

His novels of the 1950s and ’60s took on a new satirical and picaresque style, especially the two comic novels for which he is best known: Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon (1958) and Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands (1966), which was later adapted into a successful film and Broadway musical. In 1961, he was elected to the twenty–third chair of the Brazilian Academy of Letters, a post he occupied until his death in 2001. Despite his international fame, he never abandoned the cause for social justice in Brazil, nor did he ever lose his affection for his home state of Bahia. One of his proudest honors was the title of Obá, a civil post in the Afro–Brazilian Candomblé congregation in Bahia. In 1987, he launched the House of Jorge Amado Foundation, whose mission is to “promote cultural activities in Bahia.” His works have been translated into more than forty–five languages.

 

A CONVERSATION WITH JORGE AMADO

Q. In your estimation, how does Amado rank among Brazilian novelists or among Latin American writers generally? How does he fit into the, for lack of a better phrase, “magical realism” canon?

Jorge Amado is preeminently a teller of tales. In this he is closer to the tradition of the Arabian Nights or the African griots, as they embellish reality rather than fit into any “magical realism” canon. What might be considered magical is his lyrical and imaginative manipulation of reality. Only in his novel Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands and The War of the Saints do we have a touch of the truly magical.

Q. How will he be remembered in Brazil this year, the centenary of his birth?

In this centenary of his birth, he will be celebrated as a congenial relative and a true Brazilian.

Q. Why do you think Amado is relatively unknown to Anglophone readers?

Anglophone readers, when not local chauvinists, tend to be Eurocentric.

Q. Besides your translations of The Double Death of Quincas Water–Bray and The Discovery of America by the Turks, what other works of his would you recommend readers? Are they available in English?

Certainly Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands and The War of the Saints already mentioned, and also Captains of the Sands,Sea of Death, and Showdown, from which the story of the “Turks” is derived.

Q. Does Amado possess a signature style? How successful were you able to convey that in English?

His style seems to consist of a smooth running narrative, the kind one associates with a storyteller. It is quite open and uncomplicated, leaving any delving up to the reader.

Q. What was the most challenging aspect about translating Amado? Is there one feature of Amado’s prose that is inevitably and regrettably inaccessible to non–Portuguese readers?

One is most challenged by the epithets and nicknames. They sound quite smooth in Portuguese and do not always come across naturally in English if they hew too closely to the meaning. Dialogue is also difficult as Portuguese intonations show through so clearly in the spoken word.

Q. Some readers of this novel may accuse Amado of misogyny. Do you find parts of it sexist or offensive?

I do not find any parts sexist or offensive any more than life itself as Homo sapiens has seen fit to fashion it. At times, however, one wonders if Amado has avoided the sexist and misogynistic aspects of Islam as he deals with his Arabs.

Q. You also translated Amado’s Showdown, from which this novel emerged. Could you explain the relationship between the two novels?

Amado had originally meant to include the tale as part of the novel Showdown, wherein he touches upon the “Turks” part in the development of rural Bahia. He discarded the idea as too detracting from the scope of the longer book.

 

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. In the first chapter, we learn that the narrator is “a Brazilian of mixed blood.” What else do we know of the narrator or his motives in telling the story that follows? Are we meant to take his story at face value?

  2. The wave of Arab immigration to South America more than a hundred years ago is an event not well–known to most North Americans. How is this portrayed in the novel? What did you learn about Brazil’s history of immigration?

  3. How successful a melting pot is Brazil, as represented in the novel? Compare this portrait with any of early twentieth–century America with which you are familiar. Consider the ethnic makeup of the town of Itabuna and the marriage of Adib and Adma.

  4. Several times in the novel we are told how to tame a woman, i.e. “with pats and slaps” (p. 54). How do you read these overtly sexist comments? Is this the unvarnished advice of the narrator or author, or a commentary on the machismo ethos?

  5. The prevailing law among men and a few ladies, we are told, is that “a citizen lies with his wife respectfully and for the purpose of making children in her, a sacred duty. For indecent things, dirty work, there are whores” (p. 76). This is a law apparently ignored by Adib and Adma. Discuss the implications of this. Are we to see this as a commentary on Brazilian sexual mores?

  6. Bahia at the turn of the twentieth century in many ways resembles America’s Wild West of the nineteenth century. Both are populated by gunslingers, prostitutes, gamblers, and adventurers. Compare the history of the cacao rush of Bahia with the gold rush of California. Are they fundamentally the same, a combination of greed and lawlessness?

  7. This is an unusual version of the marriage plot, though it shares obvious similarities with Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. Is Adma a Brazilian version of Kate? Is there anything sympathetic about her character?

  8. Allah, Shaitan, and Jehovah are so involved in the novel they are almost characters. Is their presence a device of the narrator’s to explain events after the fact? Discuss the role of religion in the novel.

  9. The novel is filled with bawdy satire from the blasphemous epigraph to the sexual frustrations of Ibrahim to the discovery of Adma’s “divine twat” (p. 77) at the end. What purpose does this humor serve? Are we to read this as a blasphemous send–up of the Columbus anniversary? Is this scandalizing humor for the sake of it or something else?

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