João Guimarães Rosa 1908–1967
Brazilian novelist and short story writer.
Rosa sets much of his work in the awesome primal beauty of the backlands or sertão of Brazil. However, Rosa's masterpiece, The Devil to Pay in the Backlands (Grande Sertão: Veredas), is a novel of international interest and importance, transcending the intense regionalism toward which Brazilian fiction tends. In a difficult but stunning language that is a combination of folklore, mythology, and words of his own invention, Rosa presents the sertão as a metaphor for "the mystery of all life."
Rosa's world is a mystical one, seen from the perspective of narrators who live somewhat on the edge of civilization. In this world good and evil confront each other directly and there is the constant, timeless struggle between persons and nature.
(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 89-92 [obituary].)
I can recall only one instance of a greater impact on contemporary Brazilian literature than that produced by the books of Guimarães Rosa: the publication of Gilberto Freyre's Casa Grande e Senzala (The Masters and the Slaves) in 1933. The repercussion of the Pernambucan sociologist's book was felt throughout Brazil. Moreover, it became the point of departure for a group of novelists who found their inspiration in the drama of the people and the land of Brazil. (p. vii)
Guimarães Rosa made his appearance on the literary scene … with a book of short stories, Sagarana. He and his fellow trailblazers represent the second generation, whose themes reflect that upsurge in their country's development set off by the Revolution of 1930, an upsurge which has been in the nature of an ascending spiral…. The movement was characterized by a determined and highly controversial effort to give new forms to the literary language (still unpolished and rough in the first generation of writers, who were engaged in the task of transforming the vernacular of Brazil into an instrument of artistic creation). The new literature divided critics and public; some became enthusiastic supporters, others violent opponents.
The critics … saw only the formal, stylistic aspect of Guimarães Rosa's work through which he was attempting to create, in keeping with the subject matter, a new narrative instrument. The outward cloak of this formal aspect seemed to conceal and hide from certain critics that heaving universe, brutal and tender, violent and gentle, of landscapes, beings, dramas, battles, wild backlands, the cruel, at times ludicrous sorrows which comprise the vast, unique world of Guimarães Rosa, Brazilian and universal at one and the same time. (pp. vii-xiii)
It is odd that Guimarães Rosa should be a Mineiro. In the cautious and, for the most part, conservative state of...
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A jagunço is a horse-oriented primitive, somewhat like the cowboy in his style of life, unlike him in that his primary business is gang warfare rather than either range-riding or individual badmanship…. Activities of the jagunço take place in the sertão, or badlands, vast regions of north eastern Brazil which have about them something of the jungle, something of the desert, and something unearthly and indefinable but probably infernal….
Riobaldo, the hero of ["The Devil to Pay in the Backlands"] is a jagunço: he is such by choice, for he is well born and eventually enabled by his inheritance to leave his semi-outlaw status, but it is his career as a jagunço which he tells us about here. How, motivated first by a sense of adventure coupled with admiration for certain great leaders, later by desire for revenge when one of his chieftains is treacherously slain, he goes from battle to battle and crisis to crisis…. There is no pause for coffee breaks or a swig of cachaça or even chapter headings, asking of his putative listener (and incidentally the reader) a patience as vast as the sertão itself. Yet the rewards for those who have the endurance to follow his zigzag forays through the jungle are not inconsiderable. The book has an authentic epic sweep (apparently Brazilian novelists are capable of this sort of thing, for in scope the present work is reminiscent of the great sagas of Erico Verissimo) and it does present a world new to most of us, impressive in its grandeur….
Nor is Riobaldo just an ordinary jagunço. He has his sentimental life, including a love for his young and somewhat enigmatic comrade Diadorim, a love which troubles him for it seems to pass the limits of the permissible. He has another romantic ideal in the sweet Otacfils. And he has deep in his heart an uneasy sense of the presence of evil, and a dark notion that he himself may in some way be doing the devil's work.
An epic … somewhat on the lines of "Moby Dick," less subtle, less profound but not unworthy at least of the comparison.
Thomas G. Bergin, "Cowboys and Gangsters in Brazil's Badlands," in Books (© I.H.T. Corporation; reprinted by permission), May 19, 1963, p. 8.
"The Devil to Pay in the Backlands" deserves [acclaim]…. Rosa has written nothing less than a twentieth-century Brazilian "Iliad." Told in a powerful and sensitive vernacular …, his story captures the peculiar ambience of the feuds that formerly raged throughout the northern Minas Gerais and turns it into the genuine background of epic.
"Notes on Current Books: 'The Devil to Pay in the Backlands'," in The Virginia Quarterly Review (copyright, 1964, by The Virginia Quarterly Review, The University of Virginia), Vol. 40, No. 4 (Autumn, 1964), p. xvi.
[João Guimarães Rosa] has given depth, new vigor, and a sort of universal applicability to the regionalism that characterized much of Brazil's best modern fiction but which, prior to his advent, appeared nearly spent. He has also enriched the language—that is, Brazilian Portuguese—by his imaginative, lyrical prose, which defies both the dictionary and conventional syntax….
All nine of the stories in Sagarana are beguiling and three of them are, beyond question, masterpieces. The author has made the Brazilian backlands into a vast (and therefore paradoxical) microcosm. With his voraciously perceptive mind and his own special tension between discipline and emotional abundance, he has poured into these stories an almost Shakespearean wealth of experience….
[Love and humor] pervade the book. The humor is mostly ironic. If there is any quality that persists through the years in the best Luso-Brazilian fiction, it is irony. It unites the mystical, telluric Guimarães Rosa with even such metropolitan writers as Eça de Queiroz and Machado de Assis.
For there is a sense of mysticism in this book and indeed, in all of Guimarães Rosa's fiction. The elements of his rich, varied world seem to be deeply rooted in a subterranean awareness. Sometimes he suggests this by his use of animals. Thus, in one story it is hard to tell whether certain elemental feelings are emanating from a young boy or...
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["Sagarana," Guimarães Rosa's first book,] marks the beginning of a new direction for Brazilian letters. In search of a valid setting and technique which would escape the constrictions of provincial literature, Guimarães Rosa followed da Cunha in making use of the variegated folklore and magic of the backlands while avoiding at the same time a tiresome exploitation of the picturesque. All the stories in "Sagarana" are open to symbolic interpretation. The title of the book is an indication of the author's method—it is a word of his own invention which combines the Old Norse root saga with the Tupi suffix rana, meaning "in the manner of." In doing so, he proclaimed a new stylistic approach to the tradition-hardened and European-oriented Portuguese.
Guimarães Rosa began the forging of a new language through prodigious linguistic play and the creation of new words. In his work, oral, literary, archaic and slang languages are fused into a highly personal instrument which can only be called Brazilian. Thus "Sagarana" points to the magnificent achievement of the later "The Devil to Pay in the Backlands."… Guimarães Rosa is the first expressionist writer in Brazilian, and a myth maker of the first order. His settings are the brute and primitive universe of the backlands, a magic world where sorcerers are adulated, omens are heeded and where conflicts between men end in violence.
The stories are full of mortal threats: floods, malaria, snakes, herds of wild bulls, men seeking vengeance, and each tells of a final resolution of the mythic conflict between Man and Nature….
While the nine stories in this book are not openly related to each other, the whole is consummately structured. Each bursts with wit, vitality and an unerring vision of the monumental reality of the backlands. In "Sagarana" the sertão becomes yet another variant of the mythic American cosmos.
Alexander Coleman, "Thinking Beasts," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1966 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 17, 1966, p. 5.
[In Brazil the regionalists] took over the literary scene in the twenties and thirties and have practically monopolized it ever since. Unlike the urban novel, a relatively minor form concentrated in two or three big cities … Brazilian regionalism comes from all parts of the country…. The genre has all the familiar inconveniences. Its emphasis has been, predictably, on the collective…. A far cry from this is Guimarães Rosa, to whom the word "regional" no longer applies as a synonym for limitation. He can cover broad spaces because there is plenty of room inside him. In him outer scope is inner range. His sertão is the soul of his country, as the Chekhovian steppes were the soul of Russia.
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["The Third Bank of the River"] takes on even more poignance than it already possesses with the death last November of Guimarães Rosa, a distinguished Brazilian writer-diplomat who was, quite simply, Brazil's most distinguished contemporary writer….
Like Borges, once we are in his world, one sentence in, it is almost impossible not to go on. There is a magnet inside each story. His universe is at once vast and reduced—it starts with the gutty reality of the backlands, but he is in no sense an expansive writer….
"The Third Bank of the River and Other Stories" published in Brazil in 1962 as "First Stories," points up a newly attained distance from local realities; the stories...
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The Third Bank of the River contains twenty-two stories that average around ten pages in length. Reversing the Latin American inclination toward prolixity, toward using many words to say relatively simple things, Guimarães Rosa had abruptly altered his style and undertaken to accomplish the opposite. For while the stories of The Third Bank of the River are on the surface modest, unplotted sketches, they are infused with a tone of mysticism which suggests insights and meanings that project far beyond their immediate scope. In this fashion the author now proposed to communicate a great deal within a simple and concise form.
This may well be the key to interpreting the last stage in...
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One of Rosa's great contributions to Brazilian literature was to broaden the horizons of the language to a degree never seen before, not even during the inventive years of the great baroque writers like Padre Antônio Vieira or in the natural-flowing prose of Euclides da Cunha and the experiments of Mário de Andrade in the twentieth century. It is interesting that Rosa, in an introduction to an anthology of Hungarian short stories, comments on the malleability of that language, for that is what he did for Portuguese; he rediscovered its essential malleability, especially as it might be spoken by the sertanejo…. Rosa does not necessarily use the language of the sertão as it exists, rather he creates a...
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The isolated backlands of the interior Brazilian state of Minas Gerais—its cowboys, outlaws, and primitive dirt farmers—these are the raw material of [João Guimarães Rosa,] Brazil's most original short story writer of the twentieth century. Strange to say, this creator of stories so congenitally rooted in the sertão is no mere picturesque "regionalist" but an erudite master of language and a bold stylistic-linguistic innovator….
Guimarães Rosa is primarily a teller of stories, carrying on in literary fashion the oral tradition of time immemorial, a tradition replete with talking animals, extrasensory communication between beasts and humans, and a pervasive teluric mystique. In...
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[The] modern revolutionary in literature, and Guimarães Rosa in particular, is, in the last analysis, a classic in spite of himself. The first thing to be noted about Rosa's Grande Sertão: Veredas [The Devil to Pay in the Backlands] and his short-stories is that they belong to "universal regionalism," thus including themselves in the Brazilian literary tradition and, more particularly, in the tradition of Modernism. Regardless of any first impression we may have, Guimarães Rosa does not reject his country's literary history, and could not be a great writer if he did; his work is an effort, frequently successful, and always extremely original, to surpass and prolong that heritage by incorporating it...
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Language as a sign of life, and linguistic play as a sign of fecundity are the hallmark of João-Guimarães Rosa's Grande Sertão: Veredas…. Language in Grande Sertão is a bridge between nature, the sertão (backlands), and culture and is used by men, who also constitute a bridge between the two worlds, both to name their artifacts and to imitate the sounds of the natural world. The narrator of the text, Riobaldo, continues the bridge metaphor by living on the edge of the backlands, a citizen both of nature and of culture. The effect of his bridge identity on his discourse is that of deformation, a condition in which we see the narrator mutilating and recreating the language he inherits from...
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