While plotting and planning for my next WIP I’ve taken some time to meditate on story voice, and in particular, story point of view. Coincidentally I’ve also been indulging in some classic Brazilian literature – which is something I got into while researching my last novel, also set in Brazil.
And so while the debate goes on in my head over the merits of using a first person or third person, the reading part of my brain has been frolicking in a completely different type of point of view: the omniscient narrator.
Ask any serious writer, and they’ll tell you the omniscient narrator died out with the Dickens era. As readers and writers in the English literary tradition, who can blame us for believing this? As far as we’re concerned, omniscient narration did cark it back in the C19th.
Except what if it didn’t?
For those who are unsure what the omniscient narrator is, it’s basically novels written from the perspective of a God-like character who knows the thoughts and feelings of all the characters. In true omniscient narration, the author may even have little side notes where s/he addresses the reader directly. This is often done by addressing the audience as ‘reader,’ or ‘dear reader.’
I love reading Jorge Amado. There, I’ve said it.
Born in north-eastern Brazil in 1912 and passing away in 2001, Amado was considered a Nobel Prize candidate. His plethora of novels explore the political and social issues of a modernising Brazil.
For an outsider it’s difficult to appreciate the impact of Amado on Brazil’s national psyche. Sometime around the middle of his career, Amado turned his focus to more sensual story-lines, creating a slew of sexually aware female protagonists who have persisted as national icons in Brazil today.
At the same time, Amado tread a difficult tightrope with the topics he wrote about and his works are subject to extensive criticism, both good and bad. But let’s not forget that Amado existed in a time and place which was the consequence of hundreds of years of European colonisation, African slavery, suppression of indigenous persons, and inter-ethnic sexual power play. Furthermore, Amado usually set his tales in the north of Brazil, which has historically been a bit of a wild-west in terms of law and order and social progress.
It’s suffice to say that Amado was a contemporary of the infamous Brazilian sociologist Gilberto Freyre, whose controversial works detail Brazil’s history of race relations. Freyre had some pretty shocking things to say, alluding to the systematic rape of Afro-Brazilian women by white Brazilians as a something of a young man’s rite of passage. His works also perpetuated the old C19th Brazilian saying, which to a certain extent lives on in modern day Brazil:
A black woman in the kitchen, a mulata [mixed] in the bed and a white girl in the altar.
Now, if you were Jorge Amado, and you had a passion for writing about the society in which you existed, and you wanted to bring to the forefront some of these issues like class, sex and race relations, and you also wanted to write a novel that people wanted to read, and could enjoy, and which would also make them think critically about their own society, how would you go about writing your novel? What sort of characters would you include? Whose point of view should the story be told from?
Amado was a master of the omniscient narrator style. But none of this stuffy prim and proper Dickens-style narration for Jorge Amado.
Amado took this worn out traditional style and breathed fresh air into it, conquering that difficult challenge faced by author wanting to write so many things at once.
As an example in the beginning of his novel Tieta, Amado addresses us: ‘Reader, I’m telling you straight; I take no responsibility for the truth of the story related here.’ The novel Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands actually begins with a letter ‘written’ by the main character Flor to the writer himself, and the book’s pages include the occasional Brazilian recipe. In Tieta, Amado uses his sequences of God-like narration to explain the syncretic religious forces at work on his character’s lives.
Omniscient narration allowed Amado to a few things:
Invite the reader into the head of a large cast of characters, including both heroes and villains
Create incredible sub-text by making the reader aware of plot points which the characters are unaware of
Present hard-hitting topics through the medium of humour
Head-hopping between several characters is frowned upon in today’s publishing industry. But much like Dickens, Amado was a master at character development and pulled this off. This allows the reader into everyone’s thoughts: the prostitute, the rapist, the shrewd old Catholic widow, the young attractive and horny Catholic widow, the pimp, the murderer, the doctor performing the illegal abortion, the priest, and the corrupt politician. Amado gives these characters backgrounds and motivations, and always at the very least a slither of their own agency. He does not apologise for any characters’ actions, and while the reader may not agree with some of the awful acts perpetrated (many Amado novels feature sexual and other forms of assault), they can at least get an insight into why certain things happened. In the end, many of Amado’s more slimy characters do get their just desserts.
In turns of subtext – well, when you read a Jorge Amado novel you know who’s sleeping with who, who desires who, who’s trying to seduce the priest behind the alter, and who’s been reading (and perhaps responding to) other people’s mail. Oftentimes when two Amado characters are talking, you as the reader understand so much more than what is being said via dialogue. Still you want to keep on reading for the pure joy of being there when so-and-so finds out what’s been going on.
A master satirist, Amado was also able to make some of the more extreme inequality issues facing Brazil palatable to the reader. I admire Amado’s commitment to portraying his nation, warts and all. I also understand that nobody wants to read novel after novel filled with nothing but doom and gloom. Amado reached a nice balance between the reader think, and making them laugh.
Another reason why I love reading Amado is that he almost always cures my writers’ block. Amado famously wrote with a typewriter and did minimal revision. His novels therefore run on the long side, and I get the impression that had they been published as English-edition originals, they would’ve been slashed and burnet back by a keen-eyed editor. But sometimes it’s refreshing to read a piece which hasn’t been edited to within an inch of its life.
And so reading Jorge Amado has not only taught me a lot about Brazilian culture and history, but it’s also opened me up to some new perspectives, both as a reader and writer, and it’s encouraged my hovering fingers to get back over that keyboard.
What more can a writer ask for?