Jorge Amado’s Captains of the Sand (Capitães da Areia)

By Rob Packer

Jorge Amado's Captains of the Sand (Capitães da Areia)

Jorge Amado’s Captains of the Sand (Capitães da Areia) was published and publicly burnt in 1937.

This now-legend is the opening of both the blurb of the copy I’ve just read and the afterword by modern Brazilian author, Milton Hatoum; and was what attracted me to the book. For a first-time reader, like me, Jorge Amado is a writer better known for folk novels depicting Bahian and Afro-Brazilian culture, than for book burning. From the start of Captains of the Sand, though, it’s clear that Amado’s political message—he was a long-time member of the Brazilian Communist Party—drives the story of a gang of a hundred orphans and runaways, the Captains of the Sand, stealing for a living and sleeping in a run-down warehouse in Salvador’s docks.

The book transcends politics, though, and is a bitter social commentary from its opening where the city authorities blame each other for the crime wave; while the police and the children’s court squabble, the Captains of the Sand get on with their business of clearing out rich patrician houses. Amado doesn’t glorify crime, but throughout the book, it seems by far the best option and Pedro Bala, the gang’s leader, equates their life of crime with freedom, when compared to solitary confinement and forced starvation in borstal (the reformatory). Crime is created by Bahia’s unjust society: rather than children born or predisposed to being criminals. In the afterword, Milton Hatoum, says that the most enduring part of the book isn’t its historical picture of child crime and violence, but that the social issues of wasted youth are the same ones that Latin American cities face today. But more importantly, he says, are the love and tenderness, the recurring and desperate desire to belong to a family and gain a decent place in society.

Whenever the boys are confronted with kindness, the idea that they’re inherently criminal seems meaningless: they’re just as in need of love as anyone else but the gang’s code of honour prevents them from receiving it. When the lame Sem-Pernas, haunted by memories of being tortured by the police, arrives at the house of Dona Ester in an attempt to live a few days off the kindliness of the rich while scouting the house for valuables, he’s unprepared for being treated as a lost son—genuine kindness—and must choose between repaying kindness with malice or staying loyal to his comrades. Meanwhile, the gang’s code says that girls are objects to be shared, and the arrival of the orphaned Dora nearly destroys the gang, before she turns into a mother figure.

The Bahian culture that Jorge Amado is famous for is very much present with the boys’ capoeira moves to escape the police and the orixás of candomblé, the African spirit religion of Salvador. But while I was reading the book, it kept making me think of Italian neorealist film, like the 1948 Bicycle Thieves (Ladri di Biciclette), often focussing on the difficult moral choices at the bottom of society with characters that seem all too real. It’s this, as well as the idea from the afterword that the book seems so up-to-date. It is, in short, an enduring classic.

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