«It's sweet to die at sea…»

Sea of Death, Jorge Amado

by Gabriele Dessin

A vagrant breeze often pauses in a place and becomes stagnant, as if by magic. Hence this chosen land becomes intoxicated with it and gains tone, taste and smell. The same thing happens in great novels and Jorge Amado’s Sea of Death, is one of them. Port of Bahia is its land and its salty wind impregnates every page of it.

Night fell unexpectedly.
The men looked at each other as if they were questioning themselves.
Night came that day without music to greet her.
It was a different, oppressive night, and the men looked restless [1].

These are the first four sentences, of the first four paragraphs, of chapter 1‒ Storm. There is no reassuring hand accompanying the naive reader into the new revealingworld. It is a sense of sudden bewilderment, of a sudden awareness that catches the landlubber who suddenly juts out from the edge of a boat towards the open sea. All of a sudden reality seems to withdraw and the unconscious dreamlikeworld manifests itself with its ambiguous face. Rarely do we find ourselves both immersed inand emerged fromreality; this is the story of a landlubber, who transcribes voices of seamen, and of the sea he speaks of. 

It is nothing more than a profession of faith in the unknown, in the mystery that opens at the edge of a dock, deep under the keel of a saveiro.

About the sea neither the landlubber nor the seamen‒ nor us ‒ would be able to say: “I recogniseit, it is familiar to me, and hides no secrets”.

… Now I want to tell the stories of Bahia’sshores. Old sailors mending sails, masters of saveiros, tattooed blacks, beggars, know these stories and these songs. I have heard them on moonlit nights at the market, at fairs, in the small ports of the gulf, next to the enormous Swedish ships on the decks of Ilhéus. The people of Iemanjá have many stories to tell.

It is nothing more than a profession of faith in the unknown, in the mystery that opens at the edge of a dock, deep under the keel of a saveiro. There, where the boundary between sea and land becomes vague, even between life and death it is the same. For the sea is unpredictableand slips between the meshes of man’s projects. Sailors go out to sea, they know how and when to leave their port, loosen the hawsers of their boats at anchor and sail on the bay; but they do not know how, when and if they will return.

Who has already deciphered the mystery of the sea? Music, love and death come from the sea. And isn’t themoon more beautiful seen at the sea? The sea is unstable, and so are lives of the men of the saveiros. Which of them has had a death equal to the men on land who caress grandchildren and bring families together at lunches and dinners? None of them walk at a steady pace like landlubbers. Every seaman has something at the bottom of the sea: a son, a brother, an arm, a saveiro who was shipwrecked, a sail blown away by a violentstorm. However, who of them can’t sing songs of love on the nights in the harbour? Who of them cannot love with violence and sweetness? For each time they loveand sing, may be the last.

We are not going to talk, here, about the love story of Guma and Lívia, that of Francisco and his saveiro Valente; Jacques and Judith, Esmeralda, Rufino, Maria Clara, Chico Tristeza… we are not going to add another landlubber’s voiceover these stories. We are going to talk about the sea, the ladyof the sea and of sailors. Because in this Bahia de Todos os Santos men and women of different cultures find themselves living together, and each of them carry beliefs of their native lands. And in this bay, which is the world’s cradle for its children, the sea is a woman, it has a history of a woman and five names:

She is the mermaid, the Mother of Water, the Lady of the Sea, Iemanjá, dona Janaína, dona Maria, Inaê, Princess of Aiocá. She dominates these seas, she adores the moon that comes to watch her on cloudless nights, she loves the music of the Negroes. Every year, the feast of Iemanjá in the Dique and on Mount Serrat is celebrated. That is why she is known for all her five names, given all her titles, brought gifts and sung to.

Iemanjá is the fine line between reason and folly. She is the respect of the laws of nature and the capsizing of the laws of man; she is the ambiguity that cannot be solved, the weapon that kills and heals, the burden of life and the joy of death. Seamen love her, because they know that she will love them in return when they do not return to shore.

She is the Mother of Water, the Lady of the Sea, and for this reason all men who live on the waves fear and love her. She punishes. She never shows herself to man except when he diesat sea. Those who die in storms are her favourite.

In order to see her, many of them throw themselves into the waves with a smile. She embodies their dreams of love, like the calm embrace of the sea and the overwhelming passion of its storms; she «is blonde and has long hair and swims naked beneath the waves, her hair can be seen when the moon passes over the sea». 

Even women love Janaína, for they too are women of the sea, and she protects their men. But they fear her and almost hate her because they know that she too loves their men, and at any moment she could take them with her as lovers, «sailing all the ports, encompassing all the seven seas»; for they are «women of the sea, women of equal destiny: waiting up during stormy nightsto hear the news of a man’s death».

Inaê is also a woman, and some old Bahian sailors know her story; she tells it at night, with a whisper of her voice, because it is this story that ignites Iemanjá’s wrath and leads the saveiros to shipwreck:

Iemanjá is merciless because she is mother and bride. Those waters sprang from her the day her son owned her. Not many people in the harbour know the story of Iemanjá and her son Orungã. But Anselmo does, and so does old Francisco. They hardly talk about it because it is what makes Janaína angry. It was by chance that Iemanjá had from Aganju, god of the terra firma, her son, Orungã, who became god of the wind, and of everything between earth and heaven. Orungã walked these lands, lived in these winds, but his thoughts did not stray from the image of his mother, the beautiful queen of the seas. She was the most beautiful of them all, and all her desires were addressed to her. And one day Orungã couldn’t resist and raped her. Iemanjá fled and while escaping ripped her breasts, and so the waters were formed along with Bahia of All Saints. From her impregnated belly, the most feared orixás were born. Those who command lightning, storms and hurricanes. 

Therefore, Iemanjá is mother and wife. She loves seamenlike a mother,seeing them live and suffer. But when they die it is as if they were her son Orungã, lustful of desire, yearning her body.

We eventually understand that the wave that overwhelms us while reading Sea of Deathis the very ambiguity of existence. It is an airrich with briny fluids, that hovers over the sea from unclear boundaries. Joy and pain, life and death, love and rape, everything blends and turns upside down on itself. It is still in Bahia, when the moon shines that Iemanjá’s hair shines on the water’s surface.

[1] J. Amado, Dead Sea. The translations are all edited by La Livella’s translator, although there is a translation in Portuguese by Gregory Rabassa.