Wednesday 10 July 2013

Dona Flor and her Two Husbands by Jorge Amado

When Dona Flor's husband dies suddenly, she forgets all his defects and remembers only his passion. Erotic nightmares haunt her. Dr Teodoro, a local pharmacist, proposes marriage and Dona Flor accepts, hoping to recapture the ecstasy she now craves. One night, her first husband materializes naked at the foot of her bed, eager to reclaim his conjugal rights. The visit is the first of many, as Dona Flor, racked by desire but reluctant to betray the upright pharmacist, responds to the ethereal demands of her first husband. Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands shows why Jorge Amado is Brazil's best-known writer. It is the work of a brilliant story-teller whose love for his characters matches his powers of evocation. An epic book.
Amazon description

If I told you that Dona Flor's first husband Vadinho dies on page 3 and doesn't turn up as a ghost until 425, you wouldn't be surprised to hear that the description does not really cover what this book is about. It is a long book - my version amounted to 550 pages - and offers the reader a rich tapestry, filled with the colour, tastes (Dona Flor teaches Bahian cookery), smells and sounds of the Brazilian city of Bahia. In particular Amado draws the twilight world of gambling dens, casinos, whores, crooks and conmen that Vadinho lived in. The first half of the book is filled with tales about how Vadinho courted Dona Flor and their married life, and not only their lives but the lives of the many characters that inhabit Vadinho's and Dona Flor's lives.

Vadinho is the ultimate loveable rogue; indeed Dona Flor's passion and love for him survives his death. He is a gambler and womanizer. He is constantly on the lookout for people he can scrounge money off. He wins Dona Flor under false pretensions (claiming to be someone he is not in order to get into a party), and continues to deceive and play false with her, stealing money, disappearing for days and nights on end, having affairs with her pupils and the local prostitutes. Nevertheless this larger than life character is able to sustain Flor's interest and affection, as he does ours. One thing in his favour is that he is very good in bed, which is the reason Dona Flor finds herself overwhelmed by feelings of lust after his death. 

In contrast, her second husband, Teodoro, is an upright, hard-working and loyal husband, whose orderly behaviour verges on the obsessive compulsive, e.g. sex takes place on Wednesdays and Saturdays with an encore on Saturdays, optional on Wednesdays. But he is not enough for Dona Flor and with the arrival of the lusty ghost of Vadinho she is faced with a dilemma: neither man is perfect. Vadinho is no more reliable dead than alive and Dona Flor is reminded of the nights spent waiting fruitlessly for his return from some casino or harlot's boudoir. 

What Amado has done with this book is explore the dilemma many women face: a choice between the exciting bad boy and the reliable but boring good man. As Vadinho explains: I came back from the beyond and here you have me. To bring you joy, suffering and pleasure…to stir up your longing and provoke your desire, hidden in the depths of your being, your modesty. He [Teodoro] is the husband of Madame Dona Flor, who protects your virtue, your honor, your respect among people….To be happy you need both of us. 
In Amado's hands the theme is treated with humour and a sense of fun. In others' the heroine is destroyed by the problem.

The book, having been very realist for four hundred pages, explodes with magic with the arrival of the ghost and the resolution of the story. The book draws on Afro-Brazilian candombl√© beliefs, which are similar to Haitian voodoo. Interestingly Amado published this book in 1966, before Marquez published One Hundred Years of Solitude and yet here is a book which combines magic, realism and a sense of humour in one book.

One of the problems of trying to reach a definition of magic realism, which is one purpose of this blog, is the issue of how we deal with subject matter that is a sub-genre in itself, in this case the reappearance of Vadinho after his death. Is this book a ghost story? It has a ghost. But then that ghost is not treated as unusual: Dona Flor seems to be half-expecting him. And the ghost offers the writer and the reader the way to explore then bad boy/ good man theme. Is that what makes this magic realism and not just a ghost story?  

I enjoyed this book, although on occasions I found myself wanting the book to get back to the main plotline, rather than be diverted down admittedly colourful sidestreets. Give yourself time to read and enjoy it. It is a book to be read with a large box of chocolates and a bottle of wine near at hand. 

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