Book Reviews

Alfred Döblin: «Amazonas»

«Our Savior loved all people alike, no matter the color of their skin. Descend from your throne, King of Spain, make way, you counselors! You have sent out robbers and murderers and arsonists, you disgraced the name of the white people, and instead of introducing Christianity, you wiped it out. I have seen your people in the New India, and they were guided not by Jesus Christ, but by greed, belligerence, and misanthropy. They breathed wickedness and cruelty. Therefore, King of Spain, if you are truly a Christian, do not hesitate to leave your throne. Take a look at the New India and see the millions of people lying dismembered, flayed, starved. This was the work of your people.» These are the words Alfred Döblin has one of the protagonists of his «Amazonas» trilogy say, the Spanish Dominican monk Fra Bartolomé de las Casas (1484–1566), a fervent defender of Indigenous rights.

An epic, sweeping like the Amazon itself

The German doctor and writer Alfred Döblin (1878–1957) is mainly known for his novel Berlin Alexanderplatz, which was published in 1929 and meanwhile filmed three times (in 1932, 1980, and 2020). Nearly unknown, however, is his enthralling and captivating epic, his «Amazonas» trilogy of novels, which he wrote during the years of his exile in Paris from 1935 to 1937. It comprises almost 1,000 pages on the Conquista and the Jesuit republics (1610–1767) on the territory of today’s Paraguay, Argentina, and Brazil.

In the archives of the French national library, Döblin found all the sources, historical treatises, and documents he needed to describe the events as vividly as possible. He presented not only the perspective of the conquistadores, but also that of the Indigenous people, who in vain opposed European exploitation and domination. Döblin, who had never set foot on the South American continent himself, also wove a variety of legends, tales, fairy tales and myths of the autochthones into the trilogy. Together with his incredibly realistic descriptions of landscape and nature, he created a dramatic and expressive image that casts a suggestive and lasting spell on us. Döblin’s book is meandering, powerful, intense, and sweeping like the Amazon itself.

Amazonas as a «general reckoning with our civilization» 

The story starts with Incas being driven away by whites and fleeing to the Amazon region, where they encounter autonomous matriarchies that have successfully emancipated themselves from male rule («Amazons»). The second book is dedicated to the conquista on the territory of today’s Colombia, where the conquistadores Quesada, Federmann, and all the rest, searched with ample bloodshed for El Dorado along the Rio Magdalena. An impressive narrative strand is about the invaders gradually mingling with the natives and adopting their customs. Between the cruel conquerors and the vanquished, Döblin places the church and its priests, who were not always well-liked. In particular, soldiers, and merchants later on too, were not overly fond of the church, since it did not unconditionally support their ruthless exploitation of the indigenous people.

Reducciones – a Jesuit utopia

In the next part, «The Blue Jaguar», Döblin refers to the Jesuits by way of example. Freshly disembarked in Brazil, they had difficulty to assert themselves against the rapacious merchants of Piratininga, later São Paulo, and were downright persecuted by these bandeirantes. Driven south, the Jesuits successively established the so-called reducciones as spiritual and later also economic and political bulwarks. The reducciones were colonies where the natives, having been more or less converted to Christianity, were «instructed» by Jesuit padres in crop cultivation and animal husbandry—without detriment from the bandeirantes and other white intruders, whose conduct did not exactly correspond to Christian models. The newly founded peaceful (!) Jesuit republics were guided to unforeseen prosperity and great wealth by Jesuit leaders like Manuel da Nobrega, the author of, for instance, the treatise Caso de consciencia para a liberdade dos indios (Cases of the Constriction of Liberty of the Indios). The reducciones were soon put under the direct control of the Vatican and the Spanish crown, and enjoyed numerous privileges.

Soon, more than 100,000 people lived together under Jesuit religious self-administration in more than 30 exemplarily organized model villages with a new political, social, educational, and cultural system, for which there was no existing model anywhere else. The reducciones thus evolved into a proto-socialist success story that held up an increasingly embarrassing mirror to the rest of the «Christian» world. The Jesuits even enforced the use of weapons to defend their «Noah’s arks». Nothing seemed to stand in the way of their goal-oriented and pragmatic efficiency. But precisely this «virtue» or «strength» soon became the undoing of the Jesuit order, which, over the course of generations, had slowly but surely turned into a serious threat to the highly conservative European political system.

As a result, Europe withdrew support and increasingly neglected the Jesuit empire on South American soil. The empire crumbled perceptibly, until it was finally dissolved in mutual agreement with the Pope in 1753, along with the dissolution of the Jesuit order by the Marquis de Pombal (1699–1782), ruler of Portugal and Brazil.

The last part of the trilogy («A New Jungle») is a fast-forward into the 1930s in Europe. In an unfortunately too forced attempt, Döblin seeks to somehow reflect his epic narrative there. Previously enraptured in his apotheosis of the socialist model of the Jesuits, he now turns to moralizing and denounces the godless, soulless nihilism of his time (quod erat demonstrandum). This chapter regrettably offers no further insight, concluding this otherwise great book like a strange and useless appendix.

«Who rests safely in God may play with the Devil,» says the Jesuit padre Emanuel to his colleague Mariana.


As far as I know, there is only one version in Spanish and one in English. The first volume is the most readily accessible in both languages:

Döblin, Alfred (1995). «El país sin muerte». Amazonas: trilogía novelada. Jesus García Vera, translator. Bogotá: Arango Editores.

Döblin, Alfred (2022). «The Land Without Death». Amazonas Trilogy. Chris Godwin, translator. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Galileo Publishers.

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