by Tamara Kaye Sellman
Saraminda: Black Desire in a Field of Gold, by José Sarney
I couldn't wait to read this book when I landed a free copy through LibraryThing. I'd already read the gorgeous Sarney novel, Master of the Sea, and knew I'd be in for some lyrical language, exotic landscapes, and heady magical realism in the classic spiraling narrative form exemplified by many South American writers. Saraminda: Black Desire in a Field of Gold, which first appeared in 1978 in Brazil in the author's native Portuguese and which now appears nearly 30 years later in English courtesy of Gregory Rabassa's translation, fits this description well.
Saraminda is told predominantly—though not entirely—in retrospect, as a conversation between the now-dead prospector, Cleto Bonfim, and his business partner, Clement Tamba. Tamba is, himself, facing death after years of hardship following the bust of the gold boom in what is now known as the Brazilian state of Amapá, a region famous for its gold rush at the end of the 19th century. At the time of the story, both Brazil and France are disputing claims over the largely lawless territory and fluid borderlands in the region between the Oiapoque and Araguari Rivers, where a "Wild West" climate has developed as nationals dispute land that will eventually become French Guiana.
Specifically, it is near the legendary Calçoene River in this region that Cleto and Clement travel, like other prospectors, in search of la couleur (a popular French term for gold). And it is here that they encounter the title character. Saraminda is a nubile 15-year-old woman of Creole descent who arranges her own "marriage" at auction, a common practice for the times, where women are sold to the miners as companions. However, Saraminda is hardly the typical passive participant, and the deal she baldly negotiates with the richest man, Cleto Bonfim, is entirely her own design. Not only that, but Saraminda's shapely figure and exotic beauty exude an animal magnetism that entire camps of prospectors can hardly resist. Sarney unapologetically uses her beauty as a metaphor for the powerful lure of gold, which seems to come alive in the hills of its own accord, which seems to require the spilling of blood to be plentiful, and which is embodied by Saraminda in breasts which literally leak the soft metal.
The young bride, who begins right away to suffer dissatisfaction with her arrangement, grows excessively demanding of her new husband. Their relationship is fraught with tension as she makes nearly impossible, complicated, and wildly impractical demands of him, all of them of a material nature. For instance, when she asks that he import for her a carriage direct from France, the complexity of their relationship deepens when a third character, Kemper, arrives to deliver the vehicle across unforgiving and dangerous terrain and becomes the unwitting target of Saraminda's desires.
How the triangle resolves itself is for the reader to judge, but the atmospheric quality of this tale, borrowing from the lush mysteries of the Amazonian jungle, combined with Sarney's curious, nonlinear narrative, makes this a good choice for readers who appreciate Miguel Ángel Asturias, Gabriel García Márquez, William Henry Hudson (Green Mansions), or Álvaro Mutis, who wrote the Maqroll stories. I actually also felt a strange parallel between Sarney's novel and Passion by Jeannette Winterson. Both novels explore obsession, forbidden love, and historical turning points (for Sarney, it is the settling of French Guiana; for Winterson, it is the rise and fall of Napoleon).
It's worth mentioning that the author, José Sarney, is former president of Brazil (1985-1990) and was, in fact, the first civilian president to take office in Brazil in 21 years. Since leaving the presidency, Sarney has served a role as senator, leading the Brazilian Senate as recently as 2005. Before he held office, he was the author of several best-selling novels which have been published in Portuguese, English, and Arabic. His entrance into politics came, not surprisingly, after years of political activism, which seems characteristic of many Latin American novelists in the mid- to late-20th century, as exemplified by Isabel Allende, García Márquez, Asturias, and others.
I enjoyed reading this novel because of its author's deliberate decision to write it out of linear form. The chapters are short and shift between both points of view and temporal realities within the universe of this single narrative. For some readers, it may be disquieting to move from one short chapter to another where the switch isn't entirely clear at the start, and I think Sarney might have done just a little more to finesse this technique, but for me, reading this book was rather like constructing a jigsaw puzzle. The first chapters seemed to represent the finite border of what the story is about, with the following chapters filling in all the details that render it rich, colorful, and complete. The ending was not entirely predictable and, at least for me, satisfying.
The magical realist aspects of this novel should appeal readily to fans of South American magical realist literature. Between Saraminda's literal embodiment of gold, the conversations between the dead, the hyper-exaggerated confines of the jungle, the anthropomorphication of the gold itself (with its need for blood to live), the heightened political nature of the time and place, and the nonlinear narrative scheme, readers will find a good story to match their interests in other South American authors. This is magical realism of the classic, timeless variety.
Story Copyright © 2008 by Tamara Kaye Sellman. All rights reserved.
About the author
Tamara Kaye Sellman is the publisher of Margin: Exploring Modern Magical Realism (www.magical-realism.com) and director of MRCentral.net, an interactive membership celebrating literary magical realism worldwide.