Sweat Novel, 1934 | Afterword by Luiz Gustavo Freitas Rossi
In the tiny, infested rooms of an old manor on the Pelourinho live six hundred people, among workers, bums, washerwomen, prostitutes, job seekers, anarchists – and thousands of rats. Episodes succeed each other and interpenetrate, weaving a collective panel in which the main character is the tenement itself, with its mounting pile of residents and life stories: the man who lost both arms in a work accident; the widow of the builder who fell from the scaffold because the foreman who was pushing for more speed; the tuberculosis sufferer who coughs without end and doesn’t have the money for treatment; the family head who is unable to pay the rent and ends up punching the Italian woman who comes demanding payment; the violinist who has nowhere to practice his craft. The logic of profit reigns supreme in the running of the manor. The rooms are divided and subdivided successively and even the patio is rented out to displaced peasants to camp on. The only empty space is the stairwell, where the residents relieve themselves, where the rubbish piles up, and where the cadger Cabaça keeps a pet rat. Among the many characters is the young Linda, who gets involved with the mechanic and union leader, Álvaro. Sweat is a portrait of the quotidian of misery, filth and promiscuity in the urban life of Salvador. Here, the sweat of each individual, be it of work or intimacy, is the object of exploitation and revulsion. The naturalist character of the descriptions is accompanied by the awareness that, in an oppressive context, where the exploitation of the other is the rule, the only way out would seem to be revolutionary inspiration.
Illustration by Mario Cravo Junior
The creation of Suor is directly linked to the personal experience of the young Jorge Amado. In 1928, at sixteen years of age, he took a small room in one of the colonial manors on the Pelourinho in Salvador, where he could witness close-up the daily lives of the men and women forced to live in cramped communion. Jorge Amado’s third novel, Sweat was written in Rio de Janeiro in 1934, when the author was only 22. The following year, the book was translated into Russian and published in Moscow, along with Cacau, his previous work. Sweat would later be published in Portugal and translated into seven other languages. In 1937, on the orders of the police of the Estado Novo, various copies of the book were burned in the public square in Salvador, along with other works by Jorge Amado. In the author’s own words, Sweat and Cacau together form the portfolio of an “apprentice novelist”. Though one of his first outings, the novel already features themes and concerns that would be returned to in later works. The use of the fragmented, polyphonic prose of modernism shows that investigations into language already occupied the young writer. Sweat was praised on its release by Graciliano Ramos and Oswald de Andrade. A sign that the passage of time did little to dent its vitality is that in the 1970s Celso Furtado used sections from the novel on courses he gave in the United States to illustrate certain Brazilian social structures. For the economist, what stands out in the literature of Jorge Amado is not the explicit message, but the density of the characters. As Furtado observes, Jorge Amado “leads us through the labyrinths of a cruel society, but one made up of people in whom the will to do good prevails, even when its realization is not within their reach”.
Seen from the street, the building didn’t look that big. You wouldn’t really notice it. Of course, you could see the rows of windows up to the fourth floor, but maybe it was the flaking paint that took away the impression of enormity. It looked like all the other old colonial storeyed houses squashed together on the slope of the Pelourinho and studded with rare tiles. But it was immense. Four floors, an attic, a tenement out back, Fernandes’ store out front, and behind the tenement, a clandestine Arab bakery. A hundred and sixteen rooms, more than six-hundred people. A world; a rancid world, with neither hygiene nor morals, overrun with rats, profanities and people. Machinists, soldiers, Arabs who spoke in staccato, peddlers, thieves, whores, seamstresses, packers, people of every colour, every origin, every manner of dress, filled the house to the rafters. They drank cachaça rum at Fernandes’ and spat on the stairs, where they also sometimes stopped to piss. The only free tenants were the rats.