by E.R. Monegal
In the unlikely event that anybody not named Miguel, Rise or Scott is still reading Caravana de recuerdos this month, I have a multiple choice literature question for anyone who happens to stumble across this post: should João Guimarães Rosa's 1956 Grande Sertão: Veredas be considered a Boom novel? Your choices are a) yes; b) no; c) who cares?; d) this is a trick question; e) all of the above. Got it? The correct answer is...well, more on that in a minute. Of course, a perfectly natural response, a letter "f)" for the rules and regulations committee as it were, might be: well, how are you defining "a Boom novel"? Too bad we don't have time for that sort of question! However, if we can all agree that folks like Julio Cortázar, Carlos Fuentes, Gabriel García Márquez, and Mario Vargas Llosa were there at the creation so to speak and that people like Jorge Luis Borges, Alejo Carpentier, Juan Carlos Onetti, and Juan Rulfo can constitute a debatable but generally agreed upon field of formidable pre-Boom precursors, then the kind of table of contents company that João Guimarães Rosa kept in Luis Harss' 1967 Los nuestros [first published in English in 1966 as Into the Mainstream] is quite persuasive and maybe prophetic as well: Alejo Carpentier, Miguel Ángel Asturias, Jorge Luis Borges, João Guimarães Rosa, Juan Carlos Onetti, Julio Cortázar, Juan Rulfo, Carlos Fuentes, Gabriel García Márquez, Mario Vargas Llosa. Despite being the only writer on Harss' list of interviewees to have written in Portuguese, JGR sure seems like a Boom or at least a pre-Boom candidate to me. That should cover answers a) and b) for now.
Setting aside our trivia(l) question for the moment and with the full understanding that response c) might be a rallying cry both for any reader who dislikes JGR's novel and for any blogging chump who wishes to pretend that "literary fiction" is an actual genre rather than just a meaningless descriptor, let's return to the pressing matter of where GS:V fits within its specifically Brazilian literary context. To help us out with this, I'm enlisting the aid of Emir Rodríguez Monegal (1921-1985), the Uruguayan critic who was last heard from on this blog bandying about the Exorcist-like proposition that "the true theme of Gran sertón: veredas is diabolical possession." Sound scary? It needn't be. In fact, by way of an intro, here are three things about Rodríguez Monegal I find rather, well, charming: 1) A longtime friend of Borges' and supposedly one of the first important critics to bring Borges to the attention of English-speaking audiences, Emir Rodríguez Monegal himself has a cameo in the story "The Other Death" from Borges' 1949 The Aleph. In other words, he's a character from a Borges story--hard not to like that. 2) I'm just approaching the midway point in the author's 1968 El desterrado. Vida y obra de Horacio Quiroga [The Outcast: Life and Work of Horacio Quiroga], one of the most perceptive and otherwise enjoyable literary biographies I've read in ages. 3) In 1985, Rodríguez Monegal "famously" verbally bitchslapped Jacques Derrida for his "heavy, redundant, and repetitive style" and for having stolen many of his best ideas from E.R.'s Buenos Aires friend: "I could not understand why he took so long in arriving at the same luminous perspectives which Borges had opened up years earlier." In other words, he's just like a real life character from a Borges story--hard not to like that.
So what does E.R. Monegal have to say about GS:V and "The Contemporary Brazilian Novel"? Although just under a third of his study is dedicated to Mestre Guimaraes alone (to put this into perspective, can you imagine a similar amount of attention being lavished on a single U.S. author in an article on "The Contemporary American Novel" of today?), he spends the opening and closing passages of his work discussing João Guimarães Rosa's immediate predecessors and contemporaries. A few notes on the former from pages 988, 990-991 (ellipses added), and 991-992 (ellipses added again):
As a novel, [Mario de Andrade's 1928] Macunaíma is a beautiful failure. Too incoherent, obscure, and episodic, too loosely woven, it has many of the defects of an experimental work like Ulysses and few of its virtues. As a milestone, however, Macunaíma is a success. It pointed out, at the very beginning of the modernist movement, two extremely important truths: documentary realism is a dead end; language is the first and most critical problem faced by the novelist.
More interesting [than Jorge Amado] is the case of Lins do Rêgo... Lins do Rêgo wrote not with a Marxist blueprint in hand, but out of his experiences as a boy born and educated in the sugar mills. He was the son of the owners; what he wrote in rich, chaotic, and undisciplined prose was his own remembrance of things past. Like Don Segundo Sombra (1926), a masterpiece by the Argentine Ricardo Güiraldes, his books are full of nostalgic memory. Lins do Rêgo had a less poetic and more comprehensive vision of his world than did Güiraldes. He wrote with bravura and feeling, and with a deep personal concern for the harsh reality of the North-East... While de Andrade's aim was really to replace an old-fashioned rhetoric with a new one, Lins do Rêgo sometimes created the impression that he wanted only to eliminate all rhetoric. In his novels, which are characterized by great freedom of speech, he attempted to transcribe the "real" language of his characters. What he lacked was the discipline to keep the spoken language continually creative. Because of his effort to be faithful to the actual words and sounds used by people, he occasionally became literal, monotonous, and ungrammatical to the point of distraction. The result often justified the charges of certain of his critics that he wrote badly.
Among the North-East novelists, the writer who did care about good writing was the novelist most Brazilian critics hail as the best of that period: Graciliano Ramos (1892/1953)... In a period when the vital books of Amado and the loosely constructed novels of Lins do Rêgo were best sellers, [Ramos'] Vidas sêcas was a lesson in austerity, in depth of observation, and in antiheroic attitudes toward a stark and cruel reality. Since the late thirties, new literary forces have transformed Graciliano Ramos into a respected but not deeply influential master. Lins do Rêgo once called him "Mestre Graciliano." The title was well deserved, but during the last ten years Brazilian novelists have discovered another master: Joâo Guimaraes Rosa. Paradoxically, his first book was published the same year as Vidas sêcas, but, instead of ending a creative trend, Sagarana was opening a new one.
Since I'm well aware that I might be the only aficionado/geek planning on using Rodríguez Monegal's criticism as a road map for future reading, I'll cut to the chase and move on to what he has to say about Mestre Guimaraes and GS:V. This is probably the most enthusiastically-written part of his essay anyway. Similarly to what we saw in Antonio Maura's 1999 prologue to GS:V, Rodríguez Monegal begins by taking a swipe at regionalism in the Brazilian novel or what he elsewhere calls the notion of "regionalism as a dead end" (989). Unlike Maura, though, the Uruguayan critic uses international examples to make his hemispherical point: "The problem of regionalism as it was discussed in the twenties and thirties in Latin America is a false one. It was presented as primarily geographical rather than literary. From a strictly literary point of view, all novels are regional because they belong to a certain linguistic area" (993). Don Quixote, Madame Bovary, The Brothers Karamazov, Gulliver's Travels, Candide, The Trial and The Castle, and even the idea of his friend Borges writing about "Scandinavian or Chinese or Irish heroes" from "a cosmopolitan suburb of the world: Buenos Aires" all get called in as character witnesses to prove two important points: 1) "It does not actually matter very much what the writer's geographical situation is. What really matters is the nature of his approach to reality"; 2) "Joâo Guimaraes Rosa (b. 1908) managed to be universal in his outlook without being unconcerned with his own native territory" (Ibid.).
Rodríguez Monegal continues to riff on these points in the ensuing paragraphs. To give you an idea of why I tend to find more value in a careful 50 year old close reading than in the kind of vacuous criticism provided by some of the cutting edge literary theorists today, here's a good example of just one of those riffs on the nature of the geography on display in Grande Sertão: Veredas and the sense of space in the works of other new era Latin American contemporaries. The first part of the comparison is from page 994, the second from 994-995:
Riobaldo's monologue creates a world. It is the world of the Minas Gerais backlands, a high and deserted country that borders on the Northeastern Sertâo, a smaller desert which had already been explored by Brazilian novelists and sociologists. Guimaraes Rosa once told me with visible pride that, compared to the Minas Gerais, the Sertâo is but a fringe of desert, not far from the coast and the sea. The title of his novel, literally translated, indicates this extra dimension of land, Big Desert: Little Rivers. Compared to the enormousness of Minas Gerais, his long book is the record of only a small excursion.
The novelist is not really concerned with the documentary aspects of the world about which he's writing. Like some of his more brilliant counterparts in the Spanish-American fiction of today (such as Alejo Carpentier of Cuba and Julio Cortázar of Argentina), Guimaraes Rosa does not overlook the misery or exploitation around him--but he knows that reality goes deeper than that. His experiences as a country doctor and later as an army doctor made him familiar not only with the men of the region but also with their inexhaustible language. Through the artistic re-creation of this spoken language, he manages to convey the whole reality of this brutal and tragic land. His childhood was spent listening to old men telling tall stories about the fierce and bloody bandits of the Sertâo, the grotesque errant knights of a dubious crusade. In his youth, he traveled extensively through the strange, hard, haunting landscape of the Gerais, spent a great deal of time exploring very small towns or pacing down roads that led to nowhere, and became intimately acquainted with the squalor and misery of his very wealthy country. His life was a quest for a creative language.
In addition to landscape and language, Rodríguez Monegal points out that time also factors into JGR's "approach to reality": "Through a technique and sensibility that were molded by the experimental writing of the twenties and thirties (his debts to Joyce, Proust, Mann, Faulkner, and Sartre are obvious), Guimaraes Rosa, in Grande Sertâo: Veredas, plays with time and space, telescopes events and persons" (995). However, our critic is quick to add that JGR also sports a playful side ("He uses the most shameless conventions of melodrama and never slips into the stale conventions of documentary realism"), a parodic side ("Indeed, he even makes fun of these conventions, sustaining (like Cervantes) a subtle note of parody from the beginning to the end of his tale"), a classical side ("One of the best-kept secrets of Riobaldo's monologue, for example, is the name of his father. When it is discovered, the whole book assumes the form of a quest for identity, one of the basic literary themes since the Greeks") and, finally, a medieval side ("Like those prototypes [from medieval epic fiction], Riobaldo is inspired by honor, by unearthly love, by pure friendship, by a noble cause; and he fights against treason, carnal temptations, the obscure power of darkness") in his quest for a modern day/modernist sense of reality (995).
Still, as we have heard before, "the real theme of Grande Sertâo: Veredas is diabolical possession" (996). If we take this assertion of Rodríguez Monegal's at face value, what can a novel about diabolical possession possibly have to tell us about GS:V's place in the Brazilian, modernist, and Boom canons? Let's start with Guimarães Rosa's vision of Brazil. According to Rodríguez Monegal, "At the center of this epic tale--full of battles, murders, and sudden death--is the story of a soul divided between love and hatred, friendship and enmity, superstition and faith. It is nothing less than a mythopoetic creation, a literary microcosm of the component elements of Guimaraes Rosa's own huge, chaotic, angel-and-devil-ridden Brazilian motherland" (Ibid.). Even though the portrayal of the backlands in GS:V would seem to be grounded in a specific, regional reality, the sense in which it is "a mythopoetic creation" would surely disqualify from it having too close of a family tie with "the regionalist movement of the late twenties," which Rodríguez Monegal elsewhere explains "grew up as a reaction against the extreme academism of Brazilian literature, which was still culturally dependent on Europe" (987). Following this line of reasoning, GS:V is at most a hybrid work in terms of its regional sense of place. What about its so-called modernism? Although the critic has previously asserted that JGR's indebtedness to the likes of Joyce, Proust, and Mann are clear, he reminds us that "as the sheer force of the narrative takes over, a whole world is re-created through language" (996). This world, "unlike Euclides da Cunha's masterpiece," which was based on "the closeness of Da Cunha's sociological reporting," actually benefits from a "double point of view" (i.e. Guimarães Rosa's own and those "tales told by survivors" of the jagunço wars that he heard in his youth) designed to imaginatively recreate a past time through an experiment in language (996-997). As Rodríguez Monegal suggests, "every phrase of this novel is written as if it were a line in a poem. The invisible but omnipresent structure of verbal sound is as important as the story itself. The distribution of accents in each phrase and the general movement of each paragraph sometimes reveal more about the real mood of the protagonist than any given situation or episode" (997). Whether you feel that Rodríguez Monegal is stretching to make a point here, it's undeniable that his basic premise--the hegemony of language in JGR's novel--explains why GS:V is both a modernist work in orientation and why its very language makes it so difficult to translate. As he explains it on pages 997-998,
It is this peculiarity of style that accounts for the difficulties Guimaraes Rosa's novel presents to translators and even to readers of Portuguese. In fact, the American translation (done with tremendous care by James L. Taylor and Harriet de Onís) reads much more easily than the original, for to a certain extent the translators were forced to simplify and explicate the text. According to the author, only the recent Italian translation of Corpo de Baile, a volume of nouvelles, and the German version of Grande Sertâo: Veredas achieve the almost impossible task of being both faithful to the original and readable. Translating Guimaraes Rosa is like translating Joyce: his, too, is a purely verbal world.
It's probably worth remembering that Ángel Crespo's Spanish translation of GS:V, an effort that JGR also deemed to be exceptional, would not appear until the year after Rodríguez Monegal's study: 1967, the year that Cien años de soledad [One Hundred Years of Solitude] made a little-known Colombian author a household name in the Spanish-speaking world. But before returning to whether Grande Sertão: Veredas ought to be considered as a Boom novel in its own right, I'd like to quickly draw your attention to Rodríguez Monegal's comments on O Novo Romance and to the authors who might be seen as JGR's contemporaries. Almost all of his attention after the Mestre Guimaraes portion of his article is dedicated to the figure of Clarice Lispector. Although Rodríguez Monegal asserts that Lispector "is the acknowledged master of the experimental fiction of the sixties" (998) and is generally favorable to her, he acknowledges that she's not for everybody. One noteworthy person who apparently didn't appreciate her was the author of GS:V himself:
Once I asked Guimaraes Rosa what he thought of Clarice Lispector's work. He told me very candidly that every time he read one of her novels he learned many new words and rediscovered new uses for the ones he already knew. But, at the same time, he admitted that he was not very receptive to her incantatory style. He felt it was alien to him. His reaction is not unique and explains Lispector's limitations as a novelist. Critics often talk about some form of art that needs an acquired taste. Lispector's novels belong to this category, I think, while Guimaraes Rosa's have a more universal appeal (1001).
Although Rodríguez Monegal never once mentions the word "Boom" in his essay on the contemporary Brazilian novel (I don't believe the term had been invented yet), he does close with a couple of pages worth of comments on "The Latin-American Context" that speak to the issue. This might be a good place for us to gauge how GS:V fits into the new paradigm. Like the Chilean-born Luis Harss above, Rodríguez Monegal seems perfectly content to grant Guimarães Rosa a place at the table for those who can agree with the idea "that a novelist's fight is mainly with language" and not with realism, "that documentary (or socialist) realism is finished," "that regionalism as a mere expression of local color is dead" and "that the novelist's real and only commitment is to his personal vision and craft" (1001). To this end, Rodríguez Monegal cites the works of "Borges and the Guatemalan Miguel Angel Asturias, of people like Alejo Carpentier of Cuba, Onetti of Uruguay, Juan Rulfo of Mexico, [and] Ernesto Sábato and Julio Cortázar of Argentina" as pioneers and the names of "Carlos Fuentes in Mexico, Gabriel García Márquez in Colombia, Mario Vargas Llosa in Peru, José Donoso in Chile, and Carlos Martínez Moreno in Uruguay" (pictured with Borges and Rodríguez Monegal above) as "the emergent new writers" who are the "counterparts of the new Brazilian novel" of Guimarães Rosa and Clarice Lispector (Ibid.). His enthusiastic voice of support for the idea that "to this continental task, the Brazilian novelists of this century have already made a great contribution" would seem to buttress the claim that GS:V is a Boom or at least a pre-Boom novel; nor does his final sentence, having to do with the claim that Guimarães Rosa's "vast fictional world" is part of "the line of writers who believe in the re-creation of a whole reality through language: the old line of literature" (1003) do anything to dispute the idea either. And yet, the correct answer to the question about whether GS:V can be considered a Boom novel or not must ultimately be either "d) this is a trick question" or possibly "e) all of the above." Rodríguez Monegal explains why in a wide-ranging and often amusing interview he gave to Alfred J. Mac Adam in 1984: "As I see it, the Boom was a publishing phenomenon, the result of an industry's decision to market a product it thought it could sell, namely, the new prose fiction of Latin America... The Boom was a publicity venture more than a literary event."
Monegal, E.R. "The Contemporary Brazilian Novel." Daedalus 95/4, 1966, 986-1003. Those with JSTOR access can read the entire article at http://www.jstor.org/stable/20027014 (maybe I should have mentioned that earlier).