José Sarney
Gregory Rabassa, Translator

(Aliform Publishing)
Saraminda may even be more Cleopatra than Cleopatra who, we are told, said of Anthony,

    If you find him sad,
    Say I am dancing; if in mirth, report
    That I am sudden sick.

Saraminda might even be Hard-Hearted Hanna, the vamp of Savannah GA. But she is neither from the Nile, nor from the American South, but from the gold country of Calçiene River

    the Oh-My-God-Marsh, Limã, and Lourenço, and then the mysterious Salomoganha Mountain rose up, its base sweating gold.

"Its base sweating gold." Thus writes the talented, funny, lusty, master jokester and passionate chronicler, José Sarney.

It is disputed land, this Calçiene, claimed by both Brazil and France, owned by neither ... in truth, owned only by the gold that has to be pulled from the muck upriver from Cayenne, la couleur, that turns everyone black... in spirit, in heart, in soul. Gold: it is one of two of the major players in this wild country. The other: opportunistic, passionate, hungry, gorgeous, changeable Saraminda. Dark Slomoganha; golden Saraminda. An explosive joining.

She is a Creole, from Guyana, has eyes like emeralds, and, according to those few lucky enough to see her in the buff, sports breasts of gold, not unlike the couleur they pull from the rotten, pestiferous, base, disease-ridden land. In the brothel in Cayenne, where she worked, she comes up for auction; she, only sixteen, decides it is time to make her exit from whoredom.

Cleto Bonfim owns the major stakes in the gold-fields of Caléoene. He is one of the drunken gathering. She knows instantly, knows that he is the one. "I am not part of the auction," she announces. "I belong to Cleto Bonfim. I am going with him and I want to belong to him. I know where he is and as far as I'm concerned, the auction is over."

Bonfim, who has never seen her before, protests: "If you're after my gold, woman, I'll give you some, but don't try to put one over on me."

    I don't want your gold Bonfim. Gold is what I am. I've never owned anything and don't know what it's like to own something. But something tells me I should belong to you. That was the mission my destiny gave me. Come."

And he does.

§     §     §

We have told you before of our adoration --- corny word, but that's what it is --- of author José Sarney. He can stir up more fun and merry lust in less time than Chaucer, more descriptive wit than Dickens, more ribald pleasure than J. P. Donleavy. And under his art and words, you can't help but love his Saraminda, can't help but pity poor Cleto as he begins to spend his gold dust on a gingerbread house there in the ragged gold-fields, a carriage and dress from Paris, a huge Rhodesian dog from Africa.

O does she have him, runty sweating stake-claimsman that he is, trapped between the fields and her passion. She goes to see the thirty-seven pound nugget found by Li Yung, the Chinaman. Clément Tamba shows it to her and "I saw the dirty stone, reddish in color, porous and half covered with little holes." She says, "It doesn't look like much, so ugly. It's got the look of dead gold."

    I didn't think it was gold, it was so ugly, and then I got to understand the beauty of gold is in men.

And, too, the men she lusts after, the Frenchman Jacques Kemper, that she loves so much that she has her Cleo build a jail cell to hold him at the back of the house. He is to live there until he fixes the rip in the dress he brought from Paris. That's what she tells Cleto Bonfim. But when he is off in the claims, she goes back to the cell, says, "Look at me, Mr. Kemper, with your blue eyes." Then,

    "Kiss me, Mr. Kemper, kiss me. I'm crazy for you."

You can guess what comes of it all, and when it comes, most of these characters lie dead or mad or far away, as far away from the dark smell of gold and cinnamon as they can get.

Before he departs forever, poor Kemper nearly dies in an escape attempt. "No one wanted to take his pulse or test his breathing. His feet were stuck into what was left of his shoes, all torn apart with his toes sticking out, and there were his swollen private parts which from the outside looked like dirty acorns, the skin and filth indistinguishable."

    His shirt consisted of nothing but loose pieces held together by what had once been sleeves, the ragged remains curled around his armpits. All that was left of his pants were the knotted pieces of cord, evidence of his stumbling through thorns and vines in his path. A yellow sweat ran down his face. Everything stank.

"The people around were holding their noses. Every so often a deep moan would come out of his throat and give a quick gurgle in search and then sink into a sigh. Silence would fall again and everyone was waiting for his final death rattle."

§     §     §

Two years ago in our review of Master of the Sea, we marveled that author Sarney was somewhat of a fantasy himself. O Dono do Mar was published in 1978; seven years later, Sarney was elected President of Brazil.

What did you say? A fine writer ending up as head of the sixth largest country in the world? Can you ever ever picture 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 ever never ever 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 ... having someone running the whole comic state of politics being one who could write like that. Wouldn't it make us all deliriously, madly happy?

--- L. W. Milam
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