Everything is a Question: Jorge Amado’s The Double Death of Quincas Water-Bray

August 21, 2012 | 2 books mentioned 11 3 min read

covercoverThe Brazilian writer Jorge Amado, who died in 2001, would have turned 100 this August. Penguin has released two of his novellas, The Double Death of Quincas Water-Bray and The Discovery of America by the Turks, to coincide with the centennial.

Jorge Amado was well-known in Brazil and internationally. His work was translated into forty-six languages (or as Rivka Galchen writes in her at times oddly snarky introduction to The Double Death of Quincas Water-Bray, translated into “more languages than most Americans know exist.” Because, you know, Americans are dumb.)

He was prolific, highly talented, and prone to political alliances of the kind that are at worst indictments of character, at best appallingly naive. Write-ups of his life tend to make mention of his leftist views without quite mentioning that he was pro-Stalin. I’m very glad I didn’t know before reading The Double Death of Quincas Water-Bray that he’d edited the books section of a pro-Nazi newspaper in the early 1940s, or I doubt that I would have read his work.

Because if you’re the kind of reader who can separate a writer’s politics from a writer’s work, Amado is worth reading. The Double Death of Quincas Water-Bray, originally published in 1961, is a brilliant work. It is a book concerned with perception as much as plot; it is, as Galchen points out, a novel of spin. These are the facts that all parties can agree on: the man known as Quincas Water-Bray — or Quincas Wateryell, in an earlier translation — is found dead one morning in his filthy room of unknown causes, his toe protruding from a dirty sock and a smile on his face. Beyond that, almost everything is in question.

Before he was known as Quincas Water-Bray — enthusiastic drunk, expert gambler, and on friendly terms with every low-life and prostitute around — he was Joaquim Soares da Cunha, respectable citizen and exemplary employee of the State Bureau of Revenue. He remained Joaquim Soares da Cunha until the day when, entirely out of the blue, he spat the word “Vipers!” at his domineering wife and daughter and calmly walked out of the house.

He reemerged as Quincas, transformed from a repressed and somewhat sad office worker into an exuberant drunk, and it was as Quincas that he’d been scandalizing and humiliating his family for some years. They’d been speaking of him in the past tense for a while now. In fact, when his daughter and son-in-law hear the news of his death:

…a sigh of relief arose in unison from the breasts of the couple. From now on it would no longer be the memory of the retired employee of the State Bureau of Revenue overturned and dragged through the mud by the contradictory acts of the tramp he had been transformed into toward the end of his life. The time for a bit of deserved rest had arrived.

He is dressed in a new suit and shoes and laid out in a coffin for a somewhat perfunctory wake. The undertaker didn’t do anything about the smile on the corpse’s face, though, and it seems to his daughter, sitting by the coffin in the candlelit room, that the smile becomes more pronounced as the hours pass. Did she hear him mock her just now? She can’t be sure. She’s exasperated that he’s still exasperating her, even in death. When Quincas’s heartbroken best friends arrive to pay their respects, it begins to seem like it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world to leave them alone with the coffin, even if they do seem like drunken low-lifes.

It seems to them that his smile broadens when they tell jokes. They prop him up and give him a drink. He has a funny way of drinking — it mostly spills out the side of his mouth — but the man’s got a right to drink however he pleases, they decide, and he seems to be enjoying himself. His family are all blockheads and vipers, he tells them.

Is he alive, or is he dead? There are moments in this very funny, very ghoulish novella when he seems definitely one or the other; other moments when he might somehow be both. He’s roughly the fictional equivalent of Schrödinger’s cat. Did he die once, or twice? This is the question on which his long-suffering family and his friends disagree.

Amado was a master. Everything about the novella is expert. The one discordant note is his insistence, still far too common among non-black authors, in identifying black characters as such while omitting any mention of the races of anyone else. And an argument can be made, of course, that a man born in 1912 was a man born into a different world, but it goes without saying that the fact of his having been a contributor to a Nazi newspaper casts this habit in an unfortunate light.

It seems to me that the novella functions beautifully as a study of freedom. Who was Joaquim Soares da Cunha? What he wasn’t, apparently, was the man he wanted to be. The number of times he died is in question, but he did manage to live two lives, and in the second one he was truly alive.

is a staff writer for The Millions. Her most recent novel, Station Eleven, was a 2014 National Book Awards finalist. She is married and lives in Brooklyn. www.emilymandel.com.


  1. I don’t understand why you would feel it was wrong for Amado to work for a pro-Nazi paper, but overlook his Communist and pro-Stalin views? One is as bad as the other. Stalin was the mastermind of genocides as great as the Haulocaust.
    It seems clear that Amado was not a Nazi, but was acting in accord with the September 1939 decision by the Soviet Comintern for all Western Communist parties to suspend all anti-Nazi and anti-fascist propaganda following the signing of the treaty of non-aggression between Germany and the Soviet Union in August of 1939.
    That Amado left the Communinst party in the mid-50’s seems to suggest that like many early Communist sympathizers he became disillussioned with Stalin when after his death, during the Khrushchev Thaw, the scope of Stalin’s atrocities began to be revealed.
    I do not know much about Amado, other than what I gleaned in ten minutes reading Wikipedia, and then making the above surmises based upon what I know of other early-Communist sympathizers. It is a bit of a shame that you seem to have used the same Wikipedia article for your source of biographical information – though without much understanding of the politics of the time, or you would never have assumed that Amado was Nazi symply because he briefly worked for a Nazi paper.
    What would make Amado’s writting of interest is if his later work evinced a feeling of regret or remorse for the politics of his youth. Does it?

  2. Another great book in the same vein as the Quincas Waterbray one is Jorge Amado’s Os velhos marineiros (The Old Sailors, or as it was published by Knopf : The Whole Truth Concerning the Redoubtful Adventures of Captain Vasco Moscoso de Aragao, Master Mariner). It was the very next book that Amado wrote after Quincas and it is delight to read as compassionate and as deep (in a humble way) as Quincas.

  3. Shawn, I didn’t overlook his pro-Stalin views. You’ll note that I mention them in the same paragraph as his contributions to the Nazi newspaper. I’m aware that Stalin killed millions.

    This is a brief book review with a little biographical background, not an extended biographical piece, but in the interests of accuracy, I didn’t “assume Amado was a Nazi.” You’ll notice that nowhere in the piece do I say that Amado was a Nazi. What I wrote, and what I understand to be true, is that he was a contributor to a Nazi newspaper. What I wrote, and what I believe, is that this implies, if not adherence to Nazi beliefs, at the very least a certain political naivete. (I consider his Stalinist beliefs to fall under the same category of misguidedness.)

    Although in my reading I did come across a long essay from a contemporary in the Brazilian literary scene who dismissed him as “a cheap Nazi”, my sense was that this essay was motivated by a personal vendetta, so I didn’t find it to be a credible source. Still, I did find it unsettling that a man who’d contributed to a Nazi newspaper felt it necessary to point out the races of characters who weren’t of the same race as the author.

  4. This is an interesting but also confusing piece. Your praise of the book is compelling, but your handling of the biography strikes me as muddled. Shawn has pointed some of that out. In your piece you say Amado “edited” a books section of a pro-Nazi paper (in your reply above, this becomes “was a contributor to”, a very different thing surely?) but we’ve no idea what “pro-Nazi” means in this context. Was it the party sheet of the Brazilian Nazi Party? Or a mainstream paper that trumpeted Hilter’s praise, policies etc? (regrettably not an unusual phenomenon for the time in South America). Anyway, it seems clear he was in no way a Nazi, although being a professed Stalinist is hardly an improvement.

    The reason I pick up on the Nazi thing is your statement that, had you known this, you “doubt that I would have read his work.” Now that you have read it, and also know what you know about him, does this remark seem wise? You would have missed reading a book wherein “everything is expert”. That sounds like a lot to do yourself out of on the tenuous grounds of his unclear association with a newspaper. To extrapolate this point, I’m assuming you haven’t (won’t) read Céline? Does Yeats’ latter-day adherance to eugenics take him off your bookshelf? etc. (If it does, that’s fine by the way – I’m just curious given how you describe this specific instance.)

    Finally I think that you’ve honestly misread the complex but also much less tense racial history of Brazil from a US standpoint. Bahia, where Amado is from and sets his stories, has a particularly rich legacy of racial inter-relations, which, though definitely stratified, is in my understanding largely free of the hatred that characterises such affairs further north. I’m not sure that describing a character as black carries the freight you ascribe to it here, though I acknowledge the wider point you make about “white” writers. LIke I said, this seems a discordant criticism based on what I know of the wider context around Amado. And I think linking the two facts – the unclear “Nazi paper” one with the use of black as an epithet – under the implication this makes Amado someone who endorsed the full horror of Nazi racial theories – is grossly unfair.

  5. Hi Ian. When I said that I’m glad I didn’t know about his political beliefs because that might have dissuaded me from reading his work, I was really just being honest about a personal bias, which is that I sometimes find it difficult to enjoy an author’s work when I find their politics appalling. I suppose I could have made that clearer in the piece, now that you mention it.

    I just mentioned his political associations in the piece because I found that part of his biography particularly interesting. It creeps me out whenever a writer, any writer, feels the need to consistently flag their characters of another race as such, and I found it slightly creepier than usual given that the writer in question was associated for a time with a pro-Nazi newspaper. (You’re right, “a contributor to” was a little vague; to be more precise, he edited a literary/cultural supplement for the pro-Nazi newspaper Meio Dia.)

  6. Emily:

    “It creeps me out whenever a writer, any writer, feels the need to consistently flag their characters of another race as such, and I found it slightly creepier than usual given that the writer in question was associated for a time with a pro-Nazi newspaper.”

    I think you’re guilty here of a type of contemporary thinking, heavily influenced by political correctness, that is in a way a type of next-level racism.

    Generally, as a reader, I assume the race of the character is the same as the author, regardless of the author’s own race. If the author is an asian from Japan, then I’m going to assume the characters in his novel are also asian, unless I’m told otherwise. If the author is from Nigeria, then I’m going to assume the characters in his novel are mostly black, unless I’m told otherwise. It would be quite strange if Chinua Achebe introduced one of his characters as “black,” just as it would be strange for Tolstoy to introduce one of his characters as “white.” But, if a character of another race enters the story, then why wouldn’t the author point it out? This is all Amado’s doing. I certainly don’t take offense when John Edgar Wideman or Toni Morrison draw attention to a character’s whiteness. Why would I?

    This is where the next-level racism comes into play: What’s happening here, is you, the reader, are bringing all the negative connotations to race, and blackness, to the novel, not Amado. Because Amado points out a character is black does not say anything, positive or negative, about the character. (Now, if all his black characters happen to be morons, or criminals, or something along those lines, that’s a different story entirely.) It is simply the color of the character’s skin. That is all. To take offense to this is like taking offense to an author mentioning a character is blonde, despite not mentioning the hair color of the protagonist. Surely the author is implying the character is stupid! But no, the author probably isn’t, just as Amado probably isn’t, despite whatever vague connections he had to Nazism.

    As others have mentioned, the last sentence to the second-to-last paragraph is woefully intellectually dishonest. You go right for the explanation most convenient to your thesis, which is largely speculative. I should hope, and you should hope, that whatever writer is analyzing your own life and work after you’re gone, is more thorough and charitable than you’ve been to Amado.

Add Your Comment:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.