Master of
The Sea

José Sarney
Gregory Rabassa,

Anatão Christório's lusty young son finds himself, on the evening of Faustino's dance, in the underbrush, with lovely Dina, "on a carpet of leaves."

    The stars and desire. Mouth to mouth, mouth next to mouth, sex to sex. Smell to smell. And love was born out of flesh one and the same.

But then comes her husband Carideno, and "in the middle of everything Jerumenho feels the broad blade of the fish knife in his back and the frigid warmth of a strange sun."

    Dina hugs him, hugging night and death, and he loses his mainmast, then silence.

It is rare to pick up a novel and find a first chapter that won't leave you alone, that drives you, until you reach the very last chapter, equally as compelling. But The Master of the Sea has stars and moons and blood and fun and lechery and lust and night and storms and spells and magic to hold it together, and it is classic, tragic, funny, awful, and alive.

Captain Anatão Christório, father of poor love-dead Jerumenho, works the Maranhense Gulf in Northern Brazil. He has two wives, kicks his daughters out of house and home if they are caught with would-be lovers, and is one of the best fishermen at finding sardine, shark, catfish, hake, tarpon --- and ghost ships from the sea's great past.

One might think Anatão Christório to be a madman, what with his constant encounters with monsters, the dead (his own children who have passed away), and the sailors of two centuries gone:

    Christopher Columbus is spotted on one of the darkest nights, on his face the expression of madness and desire. He is on his way to impregnate the Indian women of the New World and then request the price of his discoveries from the kings of Spain.

Francis Drake, Magellan, Vasco de Gama, James Cook appear, as do the other men who sailed on that sea that "plows its way through the fishermen's heads."

Then there are the monsters, the piocos,

    up to their chests in water, a red light coming from the one large eye in the middle of their foreheads, their throats all covered with hair and roaring like tethered bulls ... stinking of brimstone and billy goat.

This is no simple tale of fearless fisherfolk who go out despite storms, rocks and tides to make a living. With the swirling spirits and visions of vessels out of the past, it comes to feel more like a Greek epic, with jealous gods and conniving humans battling it out in a spate of love, hate, spite, jealousy, fear and general bedevilment:

    Right then and there the sardines were no longer sardines, they were lights like the sparklers on Saint John's Eve, lighting the whole sandspit of Guarapirange as they covered it like a great cloak that dazzled and stirred up the sea with fire. At the end of the night, far off, between the darkness and the light of the sardines, they saw a torch of yellow fire in the stove-black distance. And Christório had no doubts, declaring, "It's the Ship of the Dead..."

Anatão Christório may be a master of the sea, but he is also a man. He lives with his wife and her sister, but the witch Maria das Aguas comes to him on the happy island, Banco Feliz: "She was naked, holding her dress in her hands to dry after it got soaked in the crossing. Out of that salt body emerged a seagull ready to perch, the tips of its black wings folded and its breast puffed out."

    Christório looked at her body and saw that it had an earthen color. All of a sudden it turned white. He got closer and it was dark again. Her breasts were pointing to the sea, two eyes, small black beaks surrounded by broad purplish rings. The eyes had an undefined mystery about them. They held the revelation that she might disappear. All over her body was an awakening of the female that kept growing, spreading to her hair, her hips, her broad sex anchored between plump thighs, and there was a smell of water about her that Christório judged to be the perfume of enchantment, because as he smelled it he lost his speech and a silence invaded his soul, covered his ears, halted the wind, and he trembled as though he were isolated from everything, with no air or color, a taste of the infinite and the heights, and he only became aware of himself when he saw that he was wrapped around her, clutching, dominated by unending pleasures. He'd never thought that a woman would be able to have that taste and sweet smell, something that wasn't just possession but a feeling of vastness.

§     §     §

This is no simple doughty tale of a fisherman surviving in the cays and rocks and islands and loves and fantasies of Northern Brazil. And author José Sarney is no simple doughty writer who suddenly makes the world of dreams, fish, and madness live. For he is somewhat of a fantasy himself. O Dono do Mar was published in 1978; seven years later, Sarney was elected President of Brazil.

Eh? A great writer ending up as head of the sixth largest country in the world? (His was the transition government from a military dictatorship.)

Can you imagine the President of the United States being revealed to have written a lusty funny tale of fishermen and monsters and passion, the story of a man with a wife who at the end of the forty years with him can say,

    Let's forget about time Cristório. It doesn't exist here and still we count it. Let's get rid of days and nights, months and years and leave everything as though it was only Sun and Moon. Time's something people get into their heads. They invent it.

Could you and I dream of having a president who could write like that, tell us that time is something people have just made up? Or that "He'd never thought that a woman would be able to have that taste and sweet smell, something that wasn't just possession but a feeling of vastness?"

Wouldn't having the leader of our ship of state write like that make us deliriously happy?

--- Carlos Amantea
Send us e-mail


Go Home

Go to the most recent RALPH