by Mario Vargas Llosa
Mario Vargas Llosa's provocatively-titled essay "¿Epopeya del sertón, Torre de Babel o manual de satanismo?" ["Sertão Epic, Tower of Babel or Satanism Handbook?"], originally published in the Peruvian journal Amaru in April 1967 and recently reprinted in the February 2007 special issue of the Revista de Cultura Brasileña dedicated to "El mundo mágico de João Guimarães Rosa" ["The Magic World of João Guimarães Rosa"], is one of the cooler pieces of Grande Sertão: Veredas criticism I've yet come across or at least read. It's so cool, in fact, that I've decided to share several highlights from it with you despite knowing that a piece of literary criticism in Spanish on the subject of a Brazilian Portuguese novel that nobody but Rise can seem to find in English isn't going to help me win friends and influence people in any language anytime soon.
Interestingly--at least to me since I used the same translation of JGR's work for our recent group read--Vargas Llosa begins his commentary on Gran Sertón: Veredas with a potshot at Ángel Crespo's Spanish translation of the novel that had just come out a good decade and change after the Brazilian original. Although Vargas Llosa gives Crespo credit for the use of a "daring" ["osado"] and "legitimate" ["legítimo"] translation strategy approach and notes that Guimarães Rosa himself affirmed that "era ésta la mejor y más fiel de las versiones extranjeras de su novela y que, incluso 'superaba al original'" ["this was the best and the most faithful of the foreign versions of his novel and that it even 'surpassed the original'"] (100), the Peruvian faults the translator for unsuccessfully trying to reproduce in Spanish "las audacias sintácticas, las proezas fonéticas, la arrolladora originalidad estilística de Guimarães Rosa" ["the syntactic audacities, the phonetic tours de force, Guimarães Rosa's sweeping stylistic originality"]. He is unapologetically blunt about the translation's supposed shortcomings: "La tentativa de Crespo era soberbia, su fracaso es también excepcional" ["Crespo's attempt aimed high; his failure is also exceptional"] (101). Be that as it may (as a non-native Spanish speaker, I should note that I wasn't troubled by Crespo's so-called daring failure and in fact enjoyed it very much), Vargas Llosa concedes that:
aunque debilitada estilísticamente en el viaje del portugués al castellano, la novela de Guimarães Rosa sobrevive e impresiona como una alta, formidable creación, gracias a su fuego imaginativo, su riqueza anecdótica, la variedad de planos de realidad en que se mueve, la vivaz y multiple sociedad humana que retrata y la sutil perfección que se integran en ella, gracias a la maestría del autor, una naturaleza llamativa, una historia de un dinamismo sin tregua y una compleja problemática spiritual (102).
[although stylistically weakened in the journey from Portuguese to Spanish, Guimarães Rosa's novel survives and impresses as a towering, formidable creation thanks to its imaginative fire, its anecdotal richness, the variety of planes of reality in which it moves, the vivid and many sided human society that it portrays, and the subtle perfection that are all integrated in it thanks to the author's expertise, a striking naturalness, a story of a dynamism without let-up, and a complex spiritual set of problems.]
Given the title of the essay, it won't come as any surprise that this "complex spiritual set of problems" will dominate the rest of the study on the "caballeresca odisea del yagunzo Riobaldo" ["chivalric odyssey of the jagunço Riobaldo"] (101). However, Vargas Llosa, building on W.H. Auden's observation that the literary worth of a book can perhaps best be measured by the number of possible different readings it can sustain, first claims that Guimarães Rosa's novel is a marvelous example of Auden's thesis, "pues este libro, tan enigmático y polifacético como su autor, es en realidad una suma de libros de naturaleza bien distinta" ["since this book, as enigmatic and versatile as its author, is in reality a summa of books very different in nature"] (103). What types of books can be found contained within this summa? For Vargas Llosa, what he calls a quick and innocent reading of GS:V "que atienda sólo a la vertiginosa cascada de episodios que componen el argumento de la novela y salte alegremente sobre los obstáculos y las dificultades estilísticas" ["that only pays attention to the dizzying cascade of episodes of which the novel's plot is composed and happily ignores its stylistic difficulties and obstacles"] will offer the reader "una espléndida epopeya costumbrista del sertón" ["a splendid costumbrista epic of the sertão," "costumbrista" being a difficult to translate term having to do with a picturesque representation of everyday life with plenty of local color] or a novel of action (Ibid.). A more penetrating and provocative reading of the novel that doesn't shy away from but actually confronts its "complejidad lingüística" ["linguistic complexity"] (104), though, will reveal something altogether different: "una realidad verbal" ["a verbal reality"] in which Riobaldo's words themselves and his manner of expressing himself function as a beginning and an end of their own. "Leída así, dejándose esclavizar por su hechizo fonético, sucumbiendo a su magia verbal, la novela de Guimarães Rosa se nos aparece como una Torre de Babel milagrosamente suspendida sobre la realidad humana, sin contacto con ella y sin embargo viva, como una construcción más cercana a la música (o a cierta poesía) que a la literatura" ["Read in this way, letting onself be enslaved by its phonetic witchcraft, succumbing to its verbal magic, Guimarães Rosa's novel appears to us as a Tower of Babel miraculously suspended over human reality, without contact with it and yet alive, like a structure nearer to music (or to certain poetry) than to literature"] (105). For people yet to fall under Guimarães Rosa's backlands spell, the usually down to earth Vargas Llosa may seem unduly hyperbolic or maybe architecturally mystical here. Yet he goes on to argue that many of the most disquieting aspects of the novel and in particular Riobaldo's frequent return to his possible pact with the devil throughout his monologue point to yet another possible way to read the novel--as a work in which "la realidad entera sea una proyección del infierno" ["the entire reality is a projection of hell"] (Ibid.).
Concentrando una atención primordial en esa sucesión de alusiones sombrías, contaminadas de esoterismo simbólico, en esos fuegos fatuos que aparecen y desaparecen estratégicamente en la historia, bordando una sutil enrededera luciferina que abraza la vida de Riobaldo y el paisaje del sertón, Gran sertón: veredas aparece ya no como una novela de aventuras o una sinfonía, sino como una alegoría religiosa del mal, una obra traspasada de temblor místico y emparentada lejanamente con la tradición de la novela negra gótica inglesa (El monje, El castillo de Otranto, etc.) (106-107).
[Concentrating a primordial attention on that succession of gloomy allusions, contaminated with symbolic esotericism, on those will-o'-the-wisps that strategically appear and disappear in the story, tending to and enlarging upon a subtle, Luciferian creeping plant that clings to Riobaldo's life and the landscape of the sertao, Gran sertón: veredas appears not like an adventure novel or a symphony but as a religious allegory about evil, a work shot through with mystical tremors and distantly related to the tradition of the dark English Gothic novel (The Monk, The Castle of Otranto, etc.).]
Vargas Llosa's language is attention grabbing and memorable even for one who doesn't share the opinion that GS:V may be a distant relation of The Monk. Yet his next point is even more striking. Citing the Uruguayan critic and Yale University professor Emir Rodríguez Monegal, who in 1966 had written that "El verdadero tema de Gran sertón: veredas es la posesión diabólica" ["The true theme of Gran sertón: veredas is diabolical possession"] (107), Vargas Llosa writes that this third possible reading privileges the importance of a soul in the balance as the real hidden center of the work:
La odisea de Riobaldo lleva implícita, como hilo secreto que la conduce y justifica, una interrogación metafisica sobre el bien y el mal, es una careta tras la cual se halla emboscada una demostración de las poderes de Satán sobre la tierra y el hombre. La anécdota, el lenguaje y la estructura de la novela deben ser considerados cifras, claves, cuyos significados hondos desembocan en la mística. Ni obra de capa y espada, ni Torre de Babel: Gran sertón: veredas sería una catedral llena de símbolos, una especie de temple masónico (107).
[Riobaldo's odyssey implicity brings with it, as the secret thread which guides it and justifies it, a metaphysical interrogation of good and evil. It's a mask behind which is found in ambush a demonstration of Satan's powers over man and earth. The novel's anecdotes, its language and its structure ought to be considered as coded messages, the profound meanings of which lead to and run off into mysticism. Neither a work of cloak and dagger nor Tower of Babel: Gran serton: veredas would be a cathedral full of symbols, a sort of Masonic temple.]
While I personally love that last bit comparing GS:V to a sort of Masonic temple, Vargas Llosa himself begins his close by saying that if he had to choose between the three types of novels present within the work, he would probably preference the first one: "un libro de aventuras deslumbrante" ["a dazzling adventure novel"]. Yet he adds that other readings may well come to light over time, noting that Guimarães Rosa "ha construido una novela que es ambigua, multiple, destinada a durar, difícilmente apresable en su totalidad, engañosa y fascinante como la vida inmediata profunda e inagotable, como la realidad misma" ["has constructed a novel that's ambiguous, many sided, destined to last, difficult to grasp in its entirety, beguiling and fascinating like the profound and inexhaustible life adjoining it, like reality itself]. All these final descriptions but in particular the sense that GS:V is a sort of inexhaustible, unending river of stories flowing on into eternity via different branches and waterways struck me as I ended my own first reading of the novel and are a large part of why I hope to return to its narrative waters someday. For now, though, reliving the novel through criticism with you today will have to be an odyssey enough.
Vargas Llosa, Mario. "¿Epopeya del sertón, Torre de Babel o manual de satanismo?" Revista de Cultura Brasileña, 2007, 100-107. Mario Vargas Llosa photo: photographer unknown.