“Virtue might be excellent for getting into heaven after you’re dead, but in bed, my dear Ibrahim, what matters is the flesh, what is properly called ‘matter’” (21). These words ring true throughout Jorge Amado’s astonishing novella The Discovery of America by the Turks. Amado, who is heralded as one of Latin America’s most esteemed authors, weaves together a brilliant tale of love and desire, heaven and earth, and most importantly each man’s attempt at wealth. The story, recently translated for the first time in English by Gregory Rabassa, is now available as a part of the Penguin Classics series.
Throughout the entirety of the novella, we are greeted with sharp witticisms, brilliantly translated, that display the corrupt nature of life in the South American countries during Amado’s time. Commissioned by an Italian official to commemorate the fifth centennial of the discovery of the Americas, Amado wrote a book that was intended to be apart of a series of books written in English, Spanish, and Portuguese that would accurately portray modern life in each country. Amado used the corrupt nature of the original discoverers of the Americas as a launching point into a greater commentary on humanity in the present. The novella was set to be printed in 300,000 copies and handed out on airliners headed toward the South American continent. Ultimately, the contract fell through on the deal and the book was free for translation in multiple languages.
The novella initially follows the story of two men, the Sultan Jamil Bichara and the Prophet Raduan Murad, two Moorish immigrants from Turkey who wind up porting and integrating into the South American lifestyle. Raduan, described by Amado as the Devil incarnate, flourishes a friendship with Ibrahim Jafet, and attempts to marry off his final and most prudish daughter to Jamil, in order that his personal wealth may flourish. As the tale progresses, we see the tension drawn between living a morally pure, religious lifestyle, and one that embraces debauchery and fleshly desires. As the men attempt to find partners for marriage while keeping their whores for pleasure, there is a shift as they begin to discover that there is something to be said for experiencing true, spiritual love.
What initially purports to be a nihilistic tale of the South American life ultimately turns into a tale of the truth and necessity of love. We see Ibrahim destroyed by the death of his wife, the matriarch Sálua, and continue into decay by the inability of his chaste, puritan daughter to find a mate. As his daughter, Adma, goes walking in the streets one night, she is almost trampled to death, but is mysteriously saved by an archangel, a young boy named Adib who worked the counter at a his brother’s shop. This causes the tonal shift at the end of Amado’s narrative from the infernal nihilism to a Paradiso-like existence. At the end of the novella, Adamo says, “You know what it’s like. People start fooling around, a touch here, a pat there; then when you realize it, it’s too late – the meeting’s already been called to order” (67).
Humorously, sardonically, Amado gives his own view of life as someone who lived it in South America. A land filled with the “religious” who desire that God’s will be done as long it is in line with their own. People who “had no religious prejudices when it came to making money” (11), and who would rather spend a night having a little fun in a whorehouse than actually finding love. Amado holds nothing back in his novella, ripping straight to the core of our existence. We don’t live so we can be remembered in the skewed anthologies of history. Nor do we live to gain a small penance in order that we will have something to selfishly squander in the decaying bed of a whorehouse or stool in a bar.
The ultimate purpose of our existence, Amado asserts with a certain touch of brilliance – a point of brilliance not lost in the translation – is that we may love well, and enjoy happiness. At the close of the novel, we see the family gathered together in ecstasy and joy, the proof that love touches all. Each person, when confronted with the reality of true love, will fall down before it. Amado wants each person to know that while South America has its problems, as all nations do, no civilization is beyond the transforming power of love. For as he states at the novel’s close: “One miracle less, one miracle more; miracles happened at the drop of a hat in those good times of the discovery of America by the Turks” (77).
Review submitted by @TripStarkey