Reviews

Voyeur Galore

Anson Ching

My friend Erik warned me about Jorge Amado’s Captains of the Sands (Penguin Random House), a novel that follows a defiant gang of street children in northeastern Brazil. According to him, Captains of the Sands is despised by a lot of Brazilians, especially those in the south, who refer to the book as nothing but “poverty porn.” Erik has a point. The cover of my copy of Captains of the Sands is voyeuristic: jungle fronds frame a scene of silhouetted boys running on a beach. When I read Captains of the Sands, I had just come from Rawi Hage’s world of war-torn Beirut, as depicted in De Niro’s Game. I couldn’t help but see similarities: both Amado and Hage flood their pages with visceral and high-impact scenes, translating destitution for shock. With Amado, it’s rags galore. With Hage, it’s bombs. In such settings, characters act with chutzpah, but sometimes their gall leads to cruel indifference, a lack of curiosity in their fellow sufferers. In De Niro’s Game, the main characters, Bassam and George, do not see the women in their city—they simply use them to get by. This could be literary realism, but it could also be described as “war porn.” In Captains of the Sands, there is at least more nuance and commentary, even if it is indirect. One of the greatest tragedies in the novel is when a boy, the leader of a gang of street children, rapes a poor girl. Afterwards, she forces him to see the horror of what he did, and the power he’d always felt instantly melts away. He realizes that she’s just a child, and moreover, that he is just a child as well. While I can see why Amado is disliked by some, I have to say that his writing is more than “poverty porn.”

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