miércoles, 26 de junio de 2013

Vidas Secas

Vidas Secas [Vidas Sêcas] (New Yorker Video, 2005)
Directed by Nelson Pereira dos Santos
Brazil, 1963
In Portuguese with optional English subtitles

Are we all prisoners in an unknown land or is it just the unfortunate who are fucked like that?  Minus the f-word, that's one of the central questions taken up by Nelson Pereira dos Santos in his 1963 Cinema Novo film adaptation of Graciliano Ramos' subtle, deceptively simple 1938 Vidas Sêcas [Barren Lives].  A relatively straightforward but maybe not so subtle adaptation of the Brazilian regionalism classic, Pereira dos Santos' film follows migrant cowherd Fabiano, his wife Vitória, their two young sons, and their pet dog and parrot on a long, arduous journey through the sertão in northeastern Brazil in search of a new home and a refuge from famine and drought in the early 1940s.  Unfortunately for the parrot, food is so scarce that it gets eaten barely five minutes into the film.  Unfortunately for the rest of the family, life is so harsh that after a brief respite the cycle of misery will continue literally and metaphorically.  Although the film strikes me as if not exactly heavyhanded at least as more monochromatic than the book in some ways, I think it still offers several things of value to the potential viewer.  I'll limit myself to two examples here.  First, the cinematography by Luis Carlos Barreto and José Rosa is fantastic.  Vidas Sêcas was shot on location in Palmeira dos Índios in the state of Alagoas, so it affords the non-Brazilian viewer both a rare glimpse of the city where Graciliano Ramos was once mayor and--more importantly--a visual appreciation of the sertão scrubland that he might have only read about in Ramos', Euclides da Cunha's, or João Guimarães Rosa's works.  For me, worth the price of admission right there.  However, the cameramen also earn high marks for using handheld cameras and point of view footage to establish a you-are-there ambience that makes the burning sky shots of the sun even more unsettling to behold.  Second, although the narrative is raw and stripped down to a fault at times, Pereira dos Santos does a good job at interspersing the occasional surprise (i.e. a scene where Fabiano and Vitória talk over each other as if giving separate interviews to an unseen bystander and another scene where the older child mutters "hell, hell, hell" over and over again to the dog after his mother has cuffed him just for asking what hell is) with what occasionally seems like a static storytelling mix.  Of course, on that note, the best jolt of all is the one already touched on above: the non-showy but extremely effective point of view shots where, borrowing a page out of Ramos' novella, the camera follows each character's line of sight, approximating a subjectivity for the parents, the kids, and even the poor dog Baleia ("sick," possibly with rabies, below).  Baleia has the best and worst scene in the movie just as she does in Ramos' book, by the way, but it may be hard to appreciate the Pedro Páramo-like purity and transcendence of the moment when the human characters are saying things like "I want to die and get it over with" and watching birds of ill omen drink up the dwindling supplies of muddy water required by man and other beasts.

Baleia, as herself

domingo, 23 de junio de 2013

Vidas secas

Barren Lives [Vidas Sêcas] (The Texas Pan-American Series, 1965)
por Graciliano Ramos [traducido del portugués por Ralph Edward Dimmick]
Brasil, 1938

Vidas secas, el conocido abanderado para el llamado movimiento de regionalismo brasileño antes de que João Guimarães Rosa se presentó y cambió de todo, es una obra sutil y engañosamente sencilla que cuenta la historia del recorrido largo y difícil de una familia humilde en el nordeste del país en busca de un refugio de la sequía y del hambre.  Aunque los desgraciados lo encuentran, durante algún tiempo al menos, otra sequía sigue y la novela breve es muy dura en su totalidad.  De hecho, Graciliano Ramos implacablemente pormenoriza las tragedias que la familia sufre día tras día (al principio, tienen que matar a su loro domesticado por falta de comida, y hacia al final, tienen que matar a su perra porque tienen miedo que el animal tenga el virus de la rabia; los personajes, llenos de remordimiento por estas dos muertes, están tan traumatizados por los eventos que los creen ser el equivalente del canibalismo y/o la matanza de un miembro de la familia) de manera que se ve que hay cierto parecido entre la vida precaria de la familia y la vida precaria de las bestias.  Además, hay un tono amenazador a ciertas descripciones reiterativas (como la descripción de "la pila de piedras adonde tiraban los serpientes muertos" ["the rock pile where they threw dead snakes" en la traducción en inglés de Barren Lives que leí]) (49) que sugiere que la tierra es o un enemigo o un infierno a los pobres del sertón. En otras palabras, absolutamente nada que tiene que ver con la representación de color local o algo por el estilo.  Si, a lo mejor, a un lector moderno el tema de la relación hombre-ambiente parece ser un poco anticuado después de (o en comparación con) El Llano en llamas, de Rulfo, ¿qué más puedo decir en cuanto al estilo de la escritura de Ramos?  Un par de cosas.  Primero, yo fui cogido por sorpresa a veces por la intensidad de la narración.  Aunque la historia se narra en viñetas dedicadas a Fabiano, el padre, a Vitória, la madre, al hijo menor y al hijo mayor en su turno e incluso a la desdichada perra, el ritmo lento del argumento y la sencillez de la prosa tienen tendencia a calmarte hasta que algo emocionante pasa  --la muerte de la perra, un símbolo de la inocencia, por ejemplo-- y te mata sin previo aviso.  No estoy bromeando al decirte que la escena donde muere la perra va a atormentarme por mucho tiempo, y sin embargo, es de lo más sencillo, sin trucos algunos.  En segundo lugar, la estructura cíclica de la obra  --el sentido en el que uno se puede leer los capítulos como unidades independientes o como un conjunto de "cuentos" interconectados-- hace hincapié en otra verdad enteramente distinta: la disgracia y nuestros sueños rotos son cosas que pasan, y a veces --como la sequía y el hambre, o como un viaje largo y difícil hizo bajo un sol candente-- se repiten.  ¿Es que todos somos prisioneros en una tierra desconocida o es que sólo los desgraciados son así?

Graciliano Ramos (1892-1953)

miércoles, 19 de junio de 2013

JOÃO GUIMARÃES ROSA, or the Third Bank of the River

"JOÃO GUIMARÃES ROSA, or the Third Bank of the River"
by Luis Harss and Barbara Dohmann
Argentina, 1966

Well, I guess Chapter IV of Into the Mainstream: Conversations with Latin-American Writers should be just as good a place as any to wrap up the Grande Sertão: Veredas festivities for the moment.  The set-up:  sometime during the early to mid 1960s, Luis Harss and Barbara Dohmann traveled to Rio de Janeiro to interview the Brazilian novelist, and the 35-page word portrait--part biography, part criticism, part interview--that came out of the encounter is sandwiched in between similar profiles of Jorge Luis Borges and Juan Carlos Onetti that I hope to share with you someday.  Appropriately enough given João Guimarães Rosa's interest in the region, the chapter begins with a mention of Brazil's sertão in which the authors note that "to name the sertão is to evoke a vast highland expanse that stretches across a third of a country and several geological eras" (137).  A reference to Euclides da Cunha's "momentous evocation" of the land and the "epoch-making" military expedition that he chronicled in Os Sertões [Backlands: The Canudos Campaign] naturally follows, which produces the usual comparison between Da Cunha and Guimarães Rosa but one couched in unusually heated language.  All the same, I have to say that I quite enjoyed this bit even though I feel Da Cunha gets wounded in the crossfire (139-140):

Da Cunha, a reformer on the stump, combined documentary zeal and fine scholarship with poetic flair.  He gave a dramatic account of the campaign, and also drew an authentic portrait of social crisis, in a vigorous, flexible, baroque style of enormous influence in Brazilian literature.  Guimarães Rosa in some sense takes up where he left off, but on another level, far beyond anything da Cunha probably ever dreamed of.  He not only fulfills a vision but culminates a whole literature.  He is at the confluence of many streams, a humanist, like da Cunha, but also, and perhaps more important, a badman, like Conselheiro.  Where da Cunha scratched the surface, he draws blood.  The fires that feed his work are abysmal.  So is his language, often invented, always hammered out in a deep inner forge.  In this he is in the tradition of a long line of renewers who in various ways fought a more or less losing battle against the petty tyranny of the flat style predominant in Brazilian fiction, which, in spite of enormous mineral resources, has always been allergic to new forms of expression.

After mentioning two steppingstones in the form of Oswald de Andrade's 1922 trilogy Os Condenados [The Condemned] and Mario de Andrade's 1928 "imagistic prose poem" Macunaíma and just before giving a curt backhanded compliment to the Brazilian regionalism movement ("Certainly there is much to be said for the northeastern novel, the first to reveal some of the more desolate aspects of Brazilian reality in their true color, but its conventions, suspiciously homogeneous, have worn, and it has begun to seem a bit prehistoric"), Harss and Dohmann add an emphatic exclamation point to their verdict:  Guimarães Rosa "stands squarely in the mainstream of modern literature, with its complex Proustian wiring, its Joycean undertow.  At his shoulder is the Goethean alchemist, only a shade removed from the Dostoevskian mystic.  Not that he echoes anybody.  He is the original mesmeiro, to use one of his own terms: the man who is always himself, perfectly sui generis" (140-141).  Also, "in him outer scope is inner range.  His sertão is the soul of his country, as the Chekhovian steppes were the soul of Russia" (142).

After this intro, a mini-biography leads up to a description of the meeting with Guimarães Rosa.  "Physically and temperamentally he carries his German ancestry clearly written on him," we are told.  "German, with its infinite subtleties, is the foreign language he seems to speak best, from natural preference."  German is the language that our three South Americans will conduct the interview in (145):

We mix it with English, French, his battered Spanish, our broken Portuguese.  He is a great linguist, philologist, etymologist, semanticist, who, besides Portuguese and, of course, the basics--German, French, English--reads Italian, Swedish, Serbo-Croatian, and Russian, and has studied or dabbled in the grammars and syntaxes of most of the other main languages of the world, including such tongue twisters as Hungarian, Malayan, Persian, Chinese, Japanese, and Hindi.  Understanding the structures of other languages, he says, with undeniable logic, helps you use your own; it reveals hidden possibilities, suggests new forms.  It also sharpens your ear to people.  A Pygmalion who likes
to shape characters from their speech, he can tell a man, his region, his occupation, from his accent.

His occupation?  Some possible leg-pulling aside, a surprisingly personal portrait of Guimarães Rosa the man as opposed to Guimarães Rosa the writer eventually begins to emerge from the hybrid biography/criticism/interview format employed by Harss and Dohmann.  Some of it is sad: "If I had another hundred years to live," said the storyteller who would be dead before long, "I wouldn't have time enough to write down all the stories I have in my head" (146).  Some of it is kind of funny because it's exactly how I would expect the author of GS:V to talk: "I'm against time and in favor of eternity" (148).

Although I unfortunately don't know anything about Dohmann's background or writing role as far as Into the Mainstream is concerned (in the Spanish version of the work translated as Los nuestros, Harss is given top billing and Dohmann is only listed as a contributor), I suspect that the Chilean-born and U.S.- and Argentinean-raised Harss' experience as a critic is likely responsible for some of the nuanced close readings featured in this chapter.  Unlike what you might expect from the previous quotations, Guimarães Rosa isn't given a free pass from "negative" criticism of his work.  For example, here's an instance where a critique of the use of the unnamed listener as a foil for Riobaldo's monologue in GS:V morphs into a spirited description of the novel's structure:

The Conrad-like convention somewhat hobbles the story, which is perhaps overly discursive, but also shapes it.  A single initial impulse that gathers momentum as it goes--there are no chapters--becomes a mighty outpour somewhere between a confessional monologue and a happy-go-lucky picaresque, comic, parodic, effusive, extravagant, recalling both the medieval romance and Cervantes.  But the self-torturing, inner-questioning strand that runs through the book like a dark thread is in the great tradition of the Russian and German novels.  The structure is circular.  The voyage through space and time ends where it begins, in the psychic present, a constantly evolving mental substance out of which conscience is gradually formed.

And here's an even more strongly worded complaint about some of the great novel's alleged minor defects:

Grande Sertão, like the Talmud, is an intricate and somewhat unwieldy colossus.  Not all is perfection.  The wasteful convention of the listener, which is bothersome at first, and sometimes retardatory later, seems unnecessary and unreal.  Riobaldo is a great raconteur.  He needs no specific audience.  But here is another pitfall.  Riobaldo has a breath-taking tall tale to tell.  Little wonder he gets carried away with himself.  He talks circles around us.  Because the hectic pace of word and imagery he sets at the beginning has to be maintained throughout, the verbiage sometimes tends to short-circuit the narrative.  The circular structure helps clog the pipes.  In spite of constant action and movement, many pages seem static.  The very wealth of detail, one of the beauties of the book, is numbing in the long run as it begins to cancel itself out.  Then there is the matter of Diadorim, who, unlike the other characters, all--except perhaps for the women, who are less individualized than the men: they tend on the whole to be fairly conventional figures--vivid portraits, rounded out at their fullest point, never quite materializes (168-169).

Whether one agrees with the individual points or not, it's refreshing to see this sort of balance in a study that examines all of Guimarães Rosa's own body of work and in a work that Harss proclaims in a note to the new edition of Los nuestros was just "un libro de modestas ambiciones: juntar unos retratos de autores basados en entrevistas" ["a book of modest ambitions: gathering together a few author portraits based on interviews"] and "una reliquia de época" ["a relic of the age"] in which it was written (Madrid: Alfaguara, 2012, 11).  I'm looking forward to the other author profiles.  P.S. Those inclined to track down this long OOP text will be rewarded with a super juicy and personality-rich survey of Lat Am lit up through 1966, "Prologue, with Musical Chairs," which memorably begins as follows (1):

There used to be a tradition somewhere in Latin America--was it Guatemala?--that poets, the favorites of the Muses, got free bus rides.  The privilege, apparently, did not extend to novelists, who either had to pay their way or walk.  If there was a certain injustice in this state of affairs, it reflected an established fact in our literature.  Our poets were riding high when our novelists were still eminently pedestrian.

Harss, Luis and Dohmann, Barbara.  Into the Mainstream: Conversations with Latin American Writers.  New York, Evanston, and London: Harper & Row, 1966, 137-172 [note: the book lists a 1967 date; Harss and others claim it came out in 1966].  Photo of Harss: courtesy of his "personal archive."

domingo, 16 de junio de 2013

The Contemporary Brazilian Novel

"The Contemporary Brazilian Novel"
by E.R. Monegal
France, 1966

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).

lunes, 10 de junio de 2013

Recepción en España de "Gran sertón: veredas"

"Recepción en España de Gran sertón: veredas"
by Antonio Maura
Spain, 2006

Antonio Maura, barely a teenager at the time that Ángel Crespo's translation of João Guimarães Rosa's novel introduced the Spanish-speaking parts of the Iberian Peninsula to Gran sertón: veredas back in 1967 (note: that's the original cover from Seix Barral's Biblioteca Formentor pictured above), was hardly the only Spanish reader affected by this publishing industry milestone then or now.  But what can the history of the "Recepción en España de Gran sertón: veredas" ["Reception of Gran sertón: veredas in Spain"] tell us about the translatlantic impact of this lone, isolated translation event?  More than you might expect.  Way more than you might expect, in fact.  As just one example, I'm beginning to suspect that even if all roads don't lead to Rome as far as GS:V literary criticism goes, many of those that don't do lead through Canudos.  Da Cunha's Os Sertões, Guimarães Rosa's Grande Sertão.  What's in a name?
A little more context.  Maura, whose work here is actually the transcription of a talk given at a literary conference in Catalonia in 2006 celebrating the 50 year anniversary of the publication of João Guimarães Rosa's GS:V, notes that Ángel Crespo was actually beating the JGR drum in Spain as far back as 1963.  As the director of the Revista de Cultura Brasileña at that time, Crespo (1926-1995) wrote an article in which he claimed that "Guimarães Rosa ha abordado la descripción del sertón y sus habitantes desde un punto de vista tan personal que ha superado, casi diría de un solo plumazo, la tradición de la novela regionalista" ["Guimarães Rosa has tackled the description of the sertão and its inhabitants from a point of view so personal that he has transcended, almost one would say with a single stroke of the pen, the tradition of the regionalist novel"] (108).  Quite a feat.  But in addition to giving the Brazilian novelist credit for essentially having singlehandedly annihilated a tradition, the future GS:V translator also seized the opportunity to make a seemingly judicious if ultimately way off the mark prediction: "el particularísimo lenguaje de Guimarães Rosa, le hace prácticamente intraducible" ["Guimarães Rosa's so extraordinarily idiosyncratic language makes him almost untranslatable"] (10).  From those famous last words, let's fast forward to February and then June of 1967 when Crespo's translation of GS:V came out on Seix Barral and then was almost immediately followed by a special issue of the Revista de Cultura Brasileña dedicated to JGR and his novel.  Maura uses this part of his presentation to discuss the early Spanish reaction to the work.  For those who, like me, are either at least moderately interested in the contours of Spanish-language literary history in general or are maybe just curious about how Latin American authors of the Boom decade finally broke out of the critical and commercial stranglehold previously applied by Spanish peninsular literature critics and fans alike, some of the responses are fascinating.  Critic Julio Miranda, for example, concentrating on the mix of colloquial and learned language on display in the novel, concludes that, "Si hubiera que dar un solo calificativo a esta novela --o poema--, aparte del de genial, yo diría: barroca" ["If I had to come up with a single qualifier for this novel--or poem--other than brilliant, I would say: baroque"].  Although Miranda satisfactorily explains why he would choose this word, it's the comments he makes afterward that are so intriguing from a Spanish critic/Latin American novel point of view (112):

¿No es barroca la mejor literatura americana?  ¿No lo es Carpentier, no lo es Cortázar, Vargas Llosa, no lo fue Vallejo?  Y Guimarães se inmerge en lo americano con plena conciencia de lo que hace, sabiendo, como Riobaldo, que si vende sus recuerdos, "estoy vendiendo también a los otros".  Guimarães Rosa, que recorrió a caballo las tierras del interior de Brasil, como médico.  ¡Como médico precisamente!  Y no venderá a América, no.  El Gran sertón es un pulso sostenido a lo largo de 440 páginas por que nada se escape, por poseer literariamente esa América que necesita encontrarse a sí misma.  Novela del sertón, novela de todo Brasil, novela de toda América.  Novela del hombre humano.  Regionalismo y universalidad en contrapunto riquísimo.

[Isn't the best literature from America baroque?  Isn't Carpentier, isn't Cortázar, Vargas Llosa, wasn't Vallejo?  And Guimarães immerses himself in "the American" with full conscience of what he's doing, knowing, like Riobaldo, that if he sells his memories, "I'm also selling those of the others."  Guimarães Rosa, who traveled through the interior of Brazil on horseback, as a doctor.  As a doctor!  And he won't sell out the Americas, no.  Grande Sertão is a pulse sustained through 440 pages and from which nothing escapes, just to literarily grab hold of that America which needs to find itself.  A novel of the sertão, a novel of all Brazil, a novel of all America.  A novel of the human being.  Regionalism and universality in an exceedingly rich counterpoint.]

Miranda's point about the commonalities shared by the new Latin American literature, while adulatory and hyperbolic and paternalistic all at once, is nonetheless well taken.  For her part, the critic Silvia Moodie focuses on the unusual but "tremendamente realista" ["tremendously realistic"] depiction of the landscape to be found in GS:V--even likening it to Euclides da Cunha's Os Sertões [Backlands: The Canudos: Campaign] in some ways.  Anticipating the point that Maura would make in his 1999 prologue to JGR's novel, though, Moodie argues that Da Cunha's "positivist" portrayal of os sertões (plural) is very different from Guimaraes Rosa's often mystical treatment of the sertão (singular).  In the latter work, "el sertón es también símbolo de vida.  [...]  El sertón tiene una interpretación mística en la novela, donde el ambiente geográfico es llevado al plano filosófico vital.  El sertón está por todas partes, pero principalmente en el alma del yagunzo" ["the sertão is also a symbol of life.  The sertão has a mystical interpretation in the novel, where the geographical environment is transplanted to a vital philosophical plane.  The sertão is everywhere but primarily in the jagunço's soul"] (114).  From here, Maura takes a detour from the critical reception of the work to talk about an article on translation methodologies written by Revista de Cultura Brasileña managing editor Pilar Gómez Bedate.  Following her lead, Maura remarks that "Ángel Crespo era ya entonces un poeta reconocido que se interesaba por la traducción como una prolongación de su trabajo literario.  Es también destacable su versión de la Divina comedia en tercetos encadenados, las de algunas obras de Fernando Pessoa y la de la más significativa poesía brasileña de todos los tiempos" ["Ángel Crespo was already back then a reknowned poet who was interested in translation as an extension of his literary work.  His versions of the Divine Comedy in terza rima, some of Fernando Pessoa's works, and the most important Brazilian poetry of all time are also outstanding"] (115-116).  According to both Gómez Bedate and Maura, Crespo's risky intent--more than just to produce a simple translation like those of Taylor and de Onís in English or Jean-Jacques Villard in French--was an attempt at "transcreación poética" or something akin to a "poetic translation recreation."  Maura understandably explains the concept better than I can: "Es decir, que no nos hallamos sólo ante una traducción, sino ante el esfuerzo  --a veces descomunal y titanico-- de un poeta que trata de recuperar la pujanza de una lengua que, por el uso, ha perdido su brillo, su fogosidad y su vida" ["That is to say that we don't only find ourselves before a translation but before the effort--occasionally colossal and titanic--of a poet who's trying to recover the power of a language which, by use, has lost its sheen, its verve, and its life force"] (116).  Maura then dedicates his next two paragraphs to describing how the Revista de Cultura Brasileña crew presented GS:V as "una obra maestra del lenguaje de talla similar a la de Ulises de Joyce" ["a language masterpiece similar in stature to that of Joyce's Ulysses"] and as a work touted for being rather difficult to decipher--which is also how he first encountered the work in his university days (116-117):

Esta fue también la primera impresión que tuve de este libro del que me hablaron cuando estudiaba en la Universidad del Deusto, en Bilbao.  Estábamos entonces subyugados por la innovación lingüística y léxica de Joyce y de su ex-secretario Beckett, por el denominado nouveau roman, por la magia del sur faulkneriana, por el surrealismo americano de Huidobro o el desgarramiento existencial de César Vallejo.  Ahora nos hablaban al oído de un libro mucho más hondo y misterioso, que se servía de la lengua con gran originalidad e inventiva, pero que era mucho más veraz que un simple juego de palabras al estilo joyceano.  Y así fue como leí por primera vez el Gran sertón: veredas en la versión de Ángel Crespo. 

[This was also the first impression that I had of this book that they were talking to me about when I was studying at the Universidad del Deusto in Bilbao.  We were mesmerized back then by the linguistic and lexical innovations of Joyce and his ex-secretary Beckett, by the so-called nouveau roman, by the Faulknerian magic of the South, by Huidobro's Latin American surrealism, by César Vallejo's crushing existentialism.  Now they were whispering in our ears of a much deeper and much more mysterious book, one that made use of language with great originality and inventiveness but which was much more truthful than a simple Joycean play on words.  And so that was how I read Ángel Crespo's version of Gran sertón: veredas for the first time.]

From this wonderful personal anecdote about his student days and a winning follow-up about how he later rediscovered the novel during a sojourn in Brazil, Maura returns to the topic of GS:V's "propio destino editorial" ["own publishing fate"] in Spain (118).  There's talk about a Galician scholar who wrote a book on the "galleguidad" in JGR's work, including all the Galician "nombres" ["names"], "dichos" ["sayings"], "cantos" ["songs"], and "danzas y costumbres de origen popular" ["popular dances and customs"] said to abound in the Rosian body of work (119).  There's talk about Uruguayan author Cristina Peri Rossi's complaint in a Barcelona journal that, as late as 1982, the Spanish public manifested "una ignorancia salvaje" ["a savage ignorance"] about Brazilian literature.  One of the problems?  "Los editores, por su parte, no se han preocupado por editar a los autores brasileños de una manera sistemática y a la vez selectiva; los pocos que han sido traducidos, lo fueron en virtud de la tarea fantástica de algún traductor que los impuso: tal es el caso de Guimarães Rosa y de Graciliano Ramos" ["The publishers, for their part, haven't bothered to publish the Brazilian authors in a systematic and at the same time a selective way; the few that have been translated were translated by dint of the fantastic piece of work of some translator who demanded them: such is the case with Guimarães Rosa and Graciliano Ramos"] (120).  In siding with Peri Rossi in regard to the accuracy of the complaint about the Spanish "provincianismo cultural" ["cultural provincialism"] of the times, Maura takes pains to clarify that both a few Brazilian classics in general and GS:V in particular eventually found some hardcore fans in Spain against all odds.  José María Guelbenzu, for example, is on record reminding us that "la parte geológica (del libro de Euclides) inspiraría a Juan Benet el memorable comienzo de su Volverás a Región" ["the geological part (of Da Cunha's book) would inspire the memorable beginning of Juan Benet's Return to Región"] (122).  And it's to María Guelbenzu, "uno de los escritores españoles de mayor conocimiento e interés por las grandes narraciones de todos los tiempos" ["one of the Spanish writers with the most profound knowledge of and interest in the great narratives of all time"], that Maura turns to in the end because, "al referirse a los dos sertones, el de Euclides y el de Rosa, concluye que mientras el primero sería comparable con la Ilíada, el segundo sólo podría serlo con la Odisea" ["on referring to the two sertones (i.e. the plural of sertão) of Da Cunha and Rosa, he concludes that while the first one would be comparable to the Iliad, the second of the two could only be comparable to the Odyssey"] (124).  I'd like to give José María Guelbenzu the last word here; the anecdote that follows appears on pages 124-125:

Durante una estancia en São Paulo, un amigo escritor me sugirió la idea de considerar dos libros cumbres de la literature brasileña, Os Sertões, de Euclides da Cunha, y Gran serton: veredas, de João Guimarães Rosa, en paralelo con los dos relatos señeros de la literature clásica griega, la Ilíada y la Odisea.  La comparación es tentadora porque, en realidad, Los sertones es la historia del asedio y destrucción de Canudos ("La Troya de estuco de los jagunzos") y Gran sertón: veredas es un viaje lleno de episodios aventureros por el sertón hasta alcanzar el hogar de retirada.  Otra relación procede: hay entre ambas una diferencia semejante a la que distingue la Ilíada  --en tanto que expresión y representación del cambio que se origina en la religió y la sociedad griega, de lo dionisaco a lo apolíneo--  de la Odisea, que es una auténtica novela de personaje en un espacio mitopoético.

[During a stay in São Paulo, a writer friend suggested to me the idea of considering the two most important works of Brazilian literature, Euclides da Cunha's Os Sertões and João Guimarães Rosa's Grande Sertão: Veredas, in parallel with the two unequalled tales of classic Greek literature, the Iliad and the Odyssey.  The comparison is tempting because, in reality, Os Sertões is the story of the siege and destruction of Canudos ("The mud hut Troy of the jagunços") and Grande sertão: veredas is a journey through the sertão full of adventurous episodes until reaching the hearth that is home.  Another relationship is fitting: there is between both works a difference similar to that which distinguishes the Iliad--an expression and representation of the change that originates in Greek religion and society from the Dionysian to the Apollonian--from the Odyssey, which is an authentic character-driven novel in a mythopoetic space.]

Maura, Antonio.  "Recepción en España de Gran sertón: veredas."
Revista de Cultura Brasileña, 2007, 108-125.

sábado, 8 de junio de 2013

"Prólogo" to "Gran Sertón: Veredas"

"Prólogo" to Gran Sertón: Veredas
by Antonio Maura
Spain, 1999

To help situate João Guimarães Rosa's GS:V in its national and international (or at least transatlantic) contexts, I thought it might be useful to turn to Spanish academic/critic/fellow of the Brazilian Academy of Literature Antonio Maura, whose 1999 prologue to the Spanish translation of the novel and whose 2006 study "Recepción en España de Gran serton: veredas" ["Reception of Grande Sertão: Veredas in Spain"] have both been quite eye-opening for me.  In any event, tonight I'll begin with a quick rundown of his short but action-packed seven-page "Prólogo" to GS:V before possibly moving on to his slightly longer "Reception" article later.  Maura begins by noting that Brazilian writers of Guimarães Rosa's generation were heir to two competing traditions or what he calls two "tendencias literario-ideológicas" ["ideological/literary tendencies"]: Brazilian modernism on the one hand, which was interested in reflecting on language and the identity of the nation, and the regionalist novel on the other hand, which was interested in the denunciation of social problems through literature.  According to Maura,  GS:V is a synthesis of and improvement upon the two models although the impact of forerunners like Mário de Andrades' Macunaíma (modernist) and Graciliano Ramos' Vidas secas (regionalist) helps explain why JGR's readers find themselves in the presence of "una novela de características regionalistas y ante la obra de un autor que indaga en las raíces y en la estructura del portugués de forma semejante a como Joyce o Faulkner hicieron en la lengua inglesa" ["a novel of regionalist characteristics and before the work of an author who investigates the roots and the structure of Portuguese in a similar way to what Joyce or Faulkner did in the English language"] (7-8).  So far so good.  What really differentiates Guimarães Rosa from his Brazilian predecessors, though?  One thing is his insistence on the primacy of language, as evidenced from this tellingly wonky interview quote from the novelist: "El bienestar del hombre depende del descubrimiento del suero contra la varicela o la mordedura de la serpiente venonosa, pero también de que devuelva a la palabra su sentido original: meditando sobre la palabra, el hombre se descubre a sí mismo" ["Man's well-being depends on the discovery of the chickenpox vaccine or the anti-venom for poisonous snakebites but also on restoring to the word its original meaning: meditating on the word, man discovers himself"] (9).  Depending on how kindly disposed you are to this sort of thing,  the one-time traveling country doctor Guimarães Rosa's pronouncement may seem odd, philosophical, pretentious, or all of the above.  Yet the critic Maura goes on to show how JGR's apparently authentic uneasiness about the double-edged sword that is the word manifests itself in the very names of the characters of his novel.  The jagunço villain Hermógenes, for example, "llevaría en su nombre el haber sido generado por Hermes y, al igual que Autólico, Mirtilo, Pan o Hermafrodita, hijos de este dios, mostraría una ambigüedad entre lo animal y lo humano, lo masculino y lo femenino, lo moral y lo inmoral.  Hermógenes sería, en consecuencia, la representación de la astucia, de la traición y, por tanto, del mal" ["would bear in his name that of having been engendered by Hermes and, just like Autolycus, Myrtilus, Pan or Hermaphroditus, the children of this god, would demonstrate an ambiguity between the animal and the human, the masculine and the feminine, morality and immorality.  Hermógenes would be, accordingly, the representation of cunning, of betrayal, and, therefore, of evil"] (10).  All interesting enough, you say, but so what?  Maura's two-part reply is ingenious.  First he declares that "estos juegos de palabras, de significados, de polisemias invitan a una interpretación simbólica del libro que, además de como un relato de las banderías sertaneras o como la confesión de un ser humano, puede leerse como un discurso hermético --volvemos a Hermes-- semejante a los textos cabalísticos medievales" ["these plays on words, on meanings, on polysemes invite a symbolic interpretation of the book which, in addition to being a tale about the sertão factions or being the confession of a human being, can be read as a hermetic discourse--Hermes yet again--similar to medieval kabbalistic texts"].  Then he boldly submits that, in this respect, "el largo monólogo de Riobaldo podría dividirse, como una sínfonia, en siete movimientos temáticos de aproximadamente ochenta páginas cada uno, a excepción del cuarto, que actúa como paréntesis narrativo entre los dos bloques que suponen los tres primeros y los tres últimos tiempos" ["Riobaldo's long monologue could be divided, like a symphony, into seven thematic movements of approximately eighty pages each, with the exception of the fourth one, which acts as a narrative parenthesis in between the two blocks comprising the first three and the last three time frames"] (10).  Although I'd probably have to read GS:V another time or two before being able to put Maura's seven division breaks to the test (he provides descriptions which I'm choosing to leave out here for reasons of space), suffice it to say that this first-time reader of the novel was tickled with where the Spaniard went next.  I hope you'll pardon the extended paragraph, but it's just too juicy for me to chop up or otherwise abbreviate (11-12):

No es necesario recordar la importancia y el significado que tiene el número siete en el judaísmo primitivo y en la cábala medieval.  En Gran Serton: Veredas el número siete viene asociado al tres o número de la Trinidad.  En esta misma línea de razonamiento vemos que el vocablo nonada, con el que comienza la novela, puede expresar tanto una nadería, una bagatela, como ser el término del que el Maestro Eckhart se sirve en sus sermones para expresar el ámbito sagrado en el que el alma humana pierde su raíz de criatura para hacerse uno con la realidad de Dios.  Si a esto añadimos el signo del infinito con el que concluye la obra, podremos hacernos una idea del propósito del autor.  Pero no sólo encontramos en Gran Sertón: Veredas ideas y conceptos del dominico alemán o de la cábala medieval, sino también de la Divina Comedia.  Son numerosas las referencias al infierno o al paraíso en esta novela que pretende servir también de iniciación a una sabiduría más alta, a un conocimiento del ser humano en todos sus órdenes significativos.  ¿No es acaso Riobaldo, como Dante en la Comedia, un alterego de su autor, convertido en personaje literario, y el libro, el relato de un viaje por los paisajes del infierno y del paraíso a la búsqueda de una razón universal?  Y por lo que se refiere a la crónica de un viaje, tampoco podemos dejar de mencionar el primer gran relato de viajes de la historia literaria occidental: La Odisea, poema que describe la travesía maritima de Ulises, quien, al igual que Riobaldo  --como advertirá el lector--, es protegido por Atenea, la diosa guerrera y virgen nacida de la cabeza de su padre.  También Riobaldo, como Fausto, hará un pacto con el diablo y, como Don Quijote, cabalgará por los espacios desérticos en la confusión de su locura, iluminado tenuemente por un ideal femenino que no logrará encarnar en ninguna mujer viva.

[It's unnecessary to evoke the importance and the significance that the number seven has in early Judaism and in the medieval Kabbalah.  In Gran Sertón: Veredas, the number seven comes associated with the number three or the number of the Trinity.  In this same line of reasoning we see that the word nonada, with which the novel commences, can signify a small thing, a mere trifle, just as much as being the term which Meister Eckhart makes use of in his sermons to express the sacred space in which the human soul loses its root being in order to become one with the reality of God.  If to this we add the infinity sign with which the work closes, we'll be able to give ourselves an idea of the author's aims.  But we don't only find ideas and concepts from the German Dominican or the medieval Kabbalah in Gran Sertón: Veredas but also ideas and concepts from the Divine Comedy.  The references to heaven and hell are numerous in this novel, which also tries to serve as an initiation to a higher plane of wisdom, an understanding of the human being in all his significant orders.  Isn't Riobaldo perhaps, like Dante in the Comedy, an alter ego of his author converted into a literary character, and the book an account of the journey through the landscapes of hell and paradise in search of a universal reason?  And as regards the chronicle of a voyage, neither can we forget to mention the first great travel account in western literary history: the Odyssey, a poem which describes the maritime voyage of Ulysses, who, just like Riobaldo--as the reader will notice--is protected by Athena, the war goddess and virgin born from out of her father's head.  Also, Riobaldo like Faust will make a pact with the devil and like Don Quixote will ride through the desert spaces in the confusion of his madness, tenuously illuminated by a feminine ideal that won't successfully be embodied by any living woman.]

Man, that's some good stuff there from Maura.  Maybe I should save his reception article for some other time and end this GS:V cycle on a contextual high note that would be tough for me to replicate anyway.  Or maybe I could share a little about that Guimarães Rosa-centric piece on the contemporary Brazilian novel written by an Uruguayan character from Borges' El aleph.  That might provide some conceptual Lat Am fun in the sun, too. 

Antonio Maura's "Prólogo" to JGR's novel can be found on pages 7 (lucky) through 13 (unlucky) of the Ángel Crespo-translated Gran Sertón: Veredas (Madrid: Alianza Editorial, 1999).  The Antonio Maura photo above, attributed to EFE, accompanies this 2011 write-up on Maura from El Mundo.

miércoles, 5 de junio de 2013

Gran Sertón: Veredas #2

Gran Sertón: Veredas [Grande Sertão: Veredas] (Alianza Editorial, 1999)
by João Guimarães Rosa [translated from the Portuguese by Ángel Crespo]
Brazil, 1956

If I were ever going to rewrite my first post on Gran Sertón: Veredas, I'd definitely want to find a way to talk about the great Thucydides-like setpiece having to do with Zé Bebelo's judgement that takes place about halfway through the novel: a riveting sequence where the captured jacunço captain receives a battlefield trial by jury by his enemy peers while his life hangs in the balance waiting for the verdict to be arrived at by the succession of impassioned speeches that follows.  What do you think: does he deserve some sort of clemency or should he swing for the crime?  I'd also like to take a look at the strange company of Canudos-esque end times castoffs and smallpox survivors (often featuring a black child on his left and an elderly blind beggar on his right) that Riobaldo, the so-called "Víbora-Blanca" or "White Viper," rides into (pre)destiny with at the end of the novel like some kind of a fucked-up messiah.  Surely there must be some kind of elaborate backlands good vs. evil symbolism to tease out there.  And hell, let's face it, a few more colorful quotes about God and the Malignant One and even some non-metaphysical stuff probably wouldn't hurt either: Riobaldo's lament, "Joven: toda añoranza es una especie de vejez" ["Young man: all nostalgia is a form of old age"] (55), is a priceless pearl of wisdom that has absolutely nothing to do with the conception of the novel as some sort of satanism handbook--arresting as that may be--and even drawing attention to the use of three fatalistic but somewhat pedestrian backlands proverbs in a row ("Si mañana fuese mi día, pasado mañana no me vería"; "Antes de niño nacer, la hora de tu muerte marcada es"; "Si de tu destino es la fecha, a la medianoche no llegas..." ["If tomorrow were my day (i.e. to die), the day after tomorrow you wouldn't see me"; "Before being born as a babe, the hour of your death is marked"; "If it's your date with destiny, you won't make it till midnight"] (507) might be an effective way to spotlight the oracular flora and fauna scattered throughout Guimarães Rosa's text like pages ripped out of the book of life.  And so, although I won't be rewriting that first post as difficult as it was for me to try to say all that I wanted to about GS:V at the time (remember: "el sertón es del tamaño del mundo" ["the sertão is the same size as the world"]) (87), I'd like to take this opportunity to shill for the next one--something that will assume the form of a desperate striving to provide just some sort of unsolicited but sorely-needed context for a work that at least one critic has referred to as The Odyssey to The Iliad that is Euclides da Cunha's stupendous Os Sertões [Backlands: The Canudos Campaign, which you can read about in three mostly previously ignored installments here: #1, #2, and #3].

lunes, 3 de junio de 2013

¿Epopeya del sertón, Torre de Babel o manual de satanismo?

"¿Epopeya del sertón, Torre de Babel o manual de satanismo?"
by Mario Vargas Llosa
Peru, 1967

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.