By Noemi Jaffe
Speaking Portuguese is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing for the beauty of the language, for the literature it has produced and for the cultures it represents, in Brazil, Portugal, Mozambique, Angola, Cabo Verde, Goa, and Macau. But a curse because — and I can say that with certainty — if an author such as Guimarães Rosa had written his books in English or French, today he would be as important for world literature as, say, James Joyce or Marcel Proust.
You may think I’m exaggerating or being excessively chauvinistic. But just wait for the translation Allison Entrekin is preparing of Grande Sertão: Veredas, and then you tell me if I wasn’t right.
Together with Machado de Assis, a writer from the end of the nineteenth century — better known in the US — Guimarães Rosa is considered, by any serious Brazilian critic or researcher, the best writer of Brazilian literature. And I usually say that that’s a fight where both contendents are, fortunately for us, equal winners, only with a huge difference between them: while Machado de Assis manages to find hypocrisy and evil where anyone would see only truth and good, Guimarães Rosa, on his turn, always reveals love and transcendence where everyone only perceives lies and treason.
INVENTED A NEW LANGUAGE
Guimarães Rosa was born in the interior of Minas Gerais, in 1908, and died in Rio de Janeiro in 1967, only a few days after being chosen for the Brazilian Academy of Letters, a nomination he had been refusing for some time, because he used to say he knew that, as soon as that happened, he would die. No sooner said than done, as with many other amazing stories that took place throughout his life.
A doctor and later a diplomat, he first traveled through the “sertão” of Minas Gerais caring for patients, later becoming consul of Brazil in Hamburg, Germany, during the years of the war, where he and his wife, Aracy de Carvalho, bravely helped numberless Jews to escape from the country to Brazil.
Guimarães Rosa can be said to have invented a new language, mainly extracted from Portuguese –of course– but also from the other 19 languages he spoke and, more than anything, from being able to capture the poetry and the peculiarities of the “sertanejo“, the language spoken in the deep interior of Minas Gerais, one of the largest states in Brazil. By combining folklore, erudition, oral traditions, Icelandic sagas, the Greek and the Latin of classical poetry and the tragedies, Dante, Shakespeare, and many others, besides creating a vast amount of neologisms –there’s a dictionary totally dedicated to his own vocabulary– Guimarães Rosa created a rhythm and syntax of his own, where every single sentence resembles a verse, and where we delve into the mysteries and the philosophy of the pre-Socratics, the alchemy, and the battle between reason and faith.
MYSTICAL NOT RELIGIOUS
His first book, published in 1946, called Sagarana, already represents what would later be called “universal regionalism”, a title not totally accepted by all critics in Brazil. Right or wrong, this name is at least convenient to portray a part of his ingenuity: to be extremely particular in terms of character construction, plot, language and orality, but, at the same time, as Tolstoy used to say, universal, for the width and depth of the issues that are being approached, such as greed, time and the eternal fight between heaven and hell.
Guimarães Rosa was extremely mystical, which is not exactly religious, or rather quite the contrary. His most important book, Grande Sertão: Veredas, for example, carries, in its very title, a combination of three cultures and faiths, so to speak: “ser” (or being, inherited from the Greek culture and philosophy), Tao (from the Japanese tradition) and Vedas (the book of Hindu mysticism). And, the book just mentioned, Sagarana, also refers to both the Icelandic sagas and an indigenous word, “rana”, which means “like a”. Or rather, the book we’re about to read, “sagarana”, means “like a saga”, only with the detail that it implicitly mixes Brazilian Indians with Icelandic medieval traditions. His creed is a combination of all the creeds he studied, and, after his death, people were amazed to find, in his library, not only books of literature, science, and philosophy, but also countless books about Egyptology, numerology, cabala, alchemy and other of the occult sciences.
Another possible attempt at defining his work is by calling it “transcendental immanence”, a contradiction, yes, but of an intentional kind. One of his most well-known sentences –and he created many– is “where nothing is going on, a miracle is happening”. Sure, because a miracle, for him, is simply the fact that we are able to move, to drink water, to recognize each other, to travel by train or to choose what we like to eat. It doesn’t have to be extraordinary to be a miracle, but his skill is to transform any ordinary act into something unique and even supernatural.
In one of his most beautiful short stories, for instance, belonging to his book Primeira Estórias (First Stories) –and how difficult it is to write in another language and not be able to tell the secrets contained in every title and word of his books– called “Soroco, sua mãe, sua filha” (Soroco, his mother, his daughter), a man called Soroco is walking towards the train station of a very tiny town, leading both his mother and his daughter, both mad, to be taken to the nearest psychiatric hospital. The two women are dressed in colorful rags and they sing words that nobody can understand, but that sounds beautifully strange. The people from the city follow the three until the two women are put into the train that will carry them to a place –we all know in Brazil– that can be compared to hell on earth, where people are taken to be treated like animals. “For the poor the places are further away”.
After Soroco leaves them both on the train, he’s ready to return home, and the people start following him. All of a sudden, he begins to repeat the words and the song his mother and daughter were singing, despite not understanding a word of what they mean. And, surprisingly, the whole city accompanies him, in a gesture of compassion but also of sharing the unknown, of letting the truth of that madness take hold of everyone who cares about Soroco. And that’s exactly the miracle for Guimarães Rosa, besides the language with which all these acts are narrated, inseparable from the story. It’s not something belonging to metaphysical or divine sources, but to the very core of the human soul, to the very reality of the sertão. And that’s what can be called immanent transcendence: the ability to recognize universal and spiritual happenings within the closest things. Especially in the book Primeiras Estorias, all of the stories can be said to follow this idea of transcendence emerging from triviality. This book, by the way, begins and ends with two stories about a boy in Brasilia, a city that was under construction at the time, and which, on its turn, entirely changed the contextual reality of the surrounding regions, bringing them urbanization and modernity, and therefore contributing to terminate with the traditional world of superstitions, oral justice, and the famous “jagunços”, an important part of Guimarães Rosa’s work. In the first story, “The Margins of Happiness”, a boy is traveling to Brasilia by plane, and he is in a state of wonder for the trip and the vision of a firefly. In the last story, though, the same boy experiences agony and sadness for the possibility of losing his mother. The middle story, reflecting both the first and the second half of the book, is meaningfully called “The Mirror”, a philosophical story/essay where a man, after completely losing his reflection in the mirror, tries to recover his inner soul.
THE BOOK THAT REVOLUTIONIZED BRAZILIAN LITERATURE
In 1956, Rosa published his most important work, Grande Sertão: Veredas, a book that revolutionized Brazilian literature. Riobaldo is its protagonist, and he addresses his life story to a so-called doctor, which can be interpreted as an alter ego of the author. This interlocutor never participates in the story of the epic, but the sheer fact that the story is being addressed to him is responsible for changing the way Riobaldo thinks and speaks.
Riobaldo is a retired jagunço. Jagunços are men –a sort of private army and guard– who dedicate their lives to serve a specific landowner, and who are in a constant war with other gangs. They follow strict rules of their own morality, justice and revenge, having their own linguistic habits, their rituals, food and celebrations. Everything between them is spoken –never written– which necessarily implies extreme rigidity and organization: honor is their main value.
Riobaldo tells this doctor the story of a battle between his group and the group of a very strong opponent, led by his greatest enemy: Hermógenes. Throughout the 600 pages, the reader travels through the extreme landscapes of the sertão, feeling hunger, weariness, thirst and suffering all kinds of dangers, from nature and his opponents. In this saga, Riobaldo is constantly followed by his most loyal friend, Diadorim, whose identity is surrounded by an aura of mystery all through the book. In the end, the reader and even Riobaldo, are faced with a revelation that at the same time alters the entire understanding of the book and its philosophical, cultural and literary meanings, while also contributing to making us understand the context in which the story took place. It’s one of those epiphanies that create a sort of wonder that only very few artworks manage to achieve.
In order to reach the position of leader of his gang, and manage to win the battle against his enemy, Riobaldo –like Faust– establishes a deal with the devil, rendering him his soul. The book, therefore, is also a questioning of the very existence of God and the Devil, in a place where the Catholic faith is certainly as sacred as life itself. “Sertão –one says–, if you wish to look for it, you don’t never find it. Suddenly, by itself, when we don’t expect it, the Sertão comes”. “God exists even when there isn’t God. But there is the devil even when it doesn’t exist”. “The devil is and is not. These melancholies”.
The revolution established by this book is due to many different and interlinked aspects: first of all its language, coinciding with its issue, as circular, inventive and dynamic as the very life of its characters and its landscape. But also the depth and density of its philosophical and metaphysical problematizations, all in the mouth of a jagunço, whose very similitude, though improbable, is all the more penetrating for this very reason. There’s also the historical and social criticism of the novel, portraying the decadence of a landscape, a way of living, a set of values, and a traditional society, that are all threatened by the construction of the capital of Brazil, in the center of the country, which brings to this region all the contradictions of a modernity that, if it carries the benefits of more employment, literacy, and industrialization, it also contains all the disadvantages of a phenomenon that –like almost everything in Brazil– is being done hurriedly, unfairly and maintaining all the privileges of the upper classes. Though Guimarães Rosa cannot be considered a writer whose literature is concerned with sociological issues, his symbolic and global view of the sertão also implies the depth with which these transformations were penetrating in its way of living and its world views.
By creating a series of works —Sagarana, Primeiras Estórias, Grande Sertão: Veredas, Campo Geral, Tutameia, Estas Estórias, and others– that, while telling the story and reality of a forgotten part of Brazil, also manage to transform the way the rest of the country perceives the relation between issue and language, form and matter, Guimarães Rosa keeps challenging new generations of readers and researchers. His is a world where literature creates life, where art precedes reality and where the main questions of being and humanity can be found in the minimum stories of everyday life, such as the story of the boy Miguilim, myopic, whose world view is transformed by a doctor who offers him a new pair of glasses. The same can be said about us, myopic readers, to whom new glasses are constantly offered by Guimarães Rosa’s literature.
About the Writer:
Noemi Jaffe is a Brazilian writer. She holds a PhD in Brazilian Literature from University of São Paulo (USP). Jaffe also works as a literary critic and a teacher of creative writing. She wrote “What are the Blind Men Dreaming?” (Deep Vellum, 2016), “Irisz: as orquídeas” (Companhia das Letras, 2015) and “O que ela sussurra” (Companhia das Letras, 2020), among others. She’s the founder of Escrevedeira, a literary cultural center in São Paulo.