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Jorge Amado: Gabriela, cravo e canela (Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon)

With this novel, Amado writes his first great novel. While the background of violence and the frontier mentality are still there, Ilheus is now trying to become more civilised. Of course, the old ways are still there. The novel starts off with two key events. Firstly, one of the colonels (plantation owners) catches his wife in flagrante delicto with the local dentist. He shoots and kills both of them. It is generally accepted that he had the right to do what he did. The other key event is that Nacib, a local bar owner, loses his cook, who leaves town to go and live with her son in another town.

Most of the story revolves around Nacib’s problems and the solution which is, as the title clearly indicates, Gabriela. Gabriela is a migrant, coming with her uncle (who dies en route) and a group of other people, to look for work in Ilheus. Nacib eventually goes to the slave market, the name the Ilheans give to the market where migrant workers congregate looking for work, to look for a cook and there he finds a grubby, ragged woman – Gabriela. To cut a long story short, once cleaned up, she turns out not only to be an ideal cook, both for his home and for his bar, but also a very attractive (and willing) woman. The problem is that all the other men think so. Can he marry her? It would definitely be a step down for him socially but eventually he does so. The problem is that Gabriela is a free spirit and does not want to be constrained by tight shoes (she prefers to be barefoot), social conventions, boring parties and, of course, fidelity. When he catches her in flagrante delicto, he does not shoot her but is able to annul the marriage. The problem is that he still needs her – both as a cook and a wife.

While this is the main story, there is a secondary plot, which is the civilisation of Ilheus. Mundinho Falcão, a cocoa exporter and relatively recent arrival, is determined to make Ilheus more civilised. One of the ways of doing so is to have the sandbar in front of the harbor removed so that large ships can come in, instead of the exporters having to take their cocoa to Bahia for shipment. All the political machinations around the sandbar, as well as the comparison between the old ways, represented by Colonel Ramiro Badaros, and the new ways represented by Mundinho Falcão, are superbly painted by Amado. Indeed, this book is so rich that it covers far more than I could begin to outline here. But it is the story of Nacib and Gabriela that makes it his best book so far.

Publishing history

First published 1958 by Livraria Martins
First published in English 1962 by Alfred A Knopf