Lament for the Baccklands – Interview, South August 1987

South August 1987


Antonio Torres, like Jorge Amado, has roots firmly established in Brazil’s northeast, where his novel The Land is set.

“It was a sad story, for 80 per cent of the population has migrated to São Paulo this year – just like in the book, “ he says.

Migration is a problem in Brazil because of the drought. It was very dry when I went there. People were queueing up to buy tickets to São Paulo. They had to wait for four months for a seat on the coach.

This is one of Brazil’s serious problems – the lack of a policy of integration to keep peasants in rural areas. There is no real concern.

I was born in this small village and went to school in a town nearby. At 18, I went on to Salvador, the capital of Bahia, to work for a newspaper.”

Why was it that the best Brazilian authors came from the north? “ It is a question of tradition. We northerners are deeply influenced by the early days of brazilian history. Iberian influences are very powerful in the north – minstrels, singers, folk poetry.

“I grew up listenin to stories sung in verses, which in my part of the world are called the ABC of the Backlands, or rhymance. It is a romance, a rhyming novel.

“Scholars call it Literatura de cordel (string literature) because the leaflets are suspended from strings in  stalls at market fairs. They are folk tales, very popular; people learn them, repeat the and sing them from one generation to the next.

“I grew up in that kind of atmosphere, in a world cut off from civilisation, just like the world described by a singer who is very popular in the northeast, Luis Gonzaga, the king of baiao.

“He used to sing a song about a place where there was neither radio nor news from the more civilised lands. This has a lot of meaning for me because I was born in such a place. It was a place that had to make up a great deal of fiction in order to recreate is own life. Where nothing much happens, people create things.”

Why was it that northern Brazil, so rich in culture, history, literary tradition, music, mythology and song, was not integrated into the more central parts of the country so that the area could improve economically and achieve a higher standard of living?

“This is indeed amazing, especially considering that our President comes from the northeast.

“I believe Brazil has a very serious problem of centralisation. There is a very high degree of centralisation in the central and southern parts of the country – an economic centralisation.

“On top of this, the northeast has a serious problem of its own – rural oligarchies. There are men of great power, thanks to the lands they own, men who, even though they now live in the cities, acquired their wealth in the farms.

“I think they are small-minded, old-fashioned men who practise an old-fashioned from of capitalism. That is why the northeast cannot develop. Power is concentrated in the hands of a few men who are not willing to share it, to delegate it.

“The Brasil of today is country which resembles Europe and the US in many aspects. There are some highly developed and tecnologically advanced areas, and also vast areas dotted with pockets of poverty.

“This conflic tseems to me be behind the main issue in Brazil at the moment – the need for an internal system of equilibrium between those areas. I’m not sure I’ll live long enough to see the country achieve this equilibrium, for there are also serious regional problems.”

The Big Ambush by Jorge Amado ( Souvenir Press, UK)

The Land by Antonio Torres (Readers International, UK)