Thursday, January 28, 2010

Brief Review: "Pen, Sword, Camisole" by Jorge Amado

Pen, Sword, Camisole: A Fable to Kindle a Hope by Jorge Amado, originally published in Brazil in 1980, translation from the Portuguese by Helen R. Lane in 1985.

Like other of Amado's novels, Pen, Sword, Camisole combines comic farce, biting satire, and life-affirming joy in one work that is a delight to read. The novel is set in Brazil in late 1940 and early 1941, a time when the country was under the control of a rigid dictatorship with clear totalitarian leanings as well as close connections to Nazi Germany. The Chief of National Security is one Colonel Sampaio Pereira who delights in the nickname bestowed upon him by his enemies, the "Brazilian Goebbels," and whose greatest ambition -- aside from participating in the worldwide triumph of Nazism -- is to be chosen a member of the illustrious Brazilian Academy of Letters. The death in occupied Paris of the great Brazilian poet Antonio Bruno creates a vacancy among the 40 members, and the Colonel, through his sycophantic ally Lisandro Leite (already a member of the Academy), begins his campaign to be elected. However, a number of Academy members can't stand the thought of the liberal, peace-loving Bruno being replaced by a self-proclaimed Nazi; two of them in particular, Afranio Portela and Evandro Nunes dos Santos, take it upon themselves to prevent his election and found a committee to launch a counteroffensive.They find a higher-ranking army officer with literary accomplishments to run against Sampaio Pereira, one General Waldomiro Moreira, and persuade him to run for the vacant position; they employ several different tactics, including convincing several of the deceased Bruno's former mistresses to help "persuade" some of the undecided Academicians to vote against the Nazi (the pen may be mightier than the sword, but the camisole quite possibly is mightier than both). Plot and counterplot on both sides swirl, tangle, and intertwine in farcical profusion, and the outcome hangs uncertainly in the balance, right up until a totally unexpected occurrence radically alters the entire situation, and the Afranio - Evandro committee suddenly finds itself having to drastically change course in midstream with little time left in which to do so.

The novel is a excellent satire of academic and social pretension as well as of Brazil's "New State" (as it was called during the late 1930s and 40s) and a thoroughly enjoyable comic romp. But, as always with Amado, there is also joy; here, it takes the form of several accounts by Bruno's former lovers of their relationships with him and how, through him, they came to recognize and embrace the joy that is the essence of being alive, as Bruno himself believed. It is this combination of comedy, satire, and joyous recognition that marks Amado's best works, and Pen, Sword, Camisole belongs solidly among them.


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