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Get to Know a Brazilian – João Guimarães Rosa

August 5, 2012 Comments off

Since last week we looked at one of Brazil’s best and most-translatable authors in Clarice Lispector, this week focuses on João Guimarães Rosa one of Brazil’s least translatable authors and, in my opinion, the greatest writer Brazil ever produced (sorry, Machado de Assis).

João Guimarães Rosa (1908-1967), one of the most remarkable innovators of narrative and language in Portuguese and arguably Brazil’s greatest fiction writer.

Guimarães Rosa was born in the small town of Cordisburgo in the interior southeast state of Minas Gerais. From an early age, he showed a remarkable intellect, and moved to live with his grandparents in the large capital city of Belo Horizonte, where he had better access to education than in Cordisburgo. Guimarães Rosa demonstrated a particularly incredible mind for language. By the age of seven, he had already begun teaching himself French, and he claimed to know how to speak at least eight languages (including Esperanto and German, alongside other romance languages); he also said he could  read in another four (including Greek and Latin), and that studied the grammar of another ten diverse languages ranging from Tupi (an indigenous language in Brazil) to Sanskrit, from Japanese to Hebrew, among others.

Although Guimarães Rosa proved adept at languages, he went to medical school at what would eventually be known as the Federal University of Minas Gerais. Upon completing his degree in 1930, he opened a practice in the town of Itaguara, Minas Gerais, located in the sertão, a semi-arid expanse in Brazil that stretches from near the Atlantic coast toward the interior of Northeast Brazil. He also volunteered as a doctor in the Força Pública, or Public Force in São Paulo, during Brazil’s Constitutionalist Revolution of 1932. In that civil conflict, the state of São Paulo rose up against the government of Getúlio Vargas, who had been ruling by decree and outside of the Constitution since assuming the presidency in 1930. Ultimately, the fighting ended with over 900 official deaths and as many as 2,200; though the paulista forces were defeated, Vargas agreed to a new Constitution by which he would govern for another five years before establishing the Estado Novo dictatorship. For his part, Guimarães Rosa became a medical officer in the 9th Infantry Battalion in the mineiro city of Barbacena. However, the time he spent in the sertão, combined with his amazing facility with language, set the stage for the fiction that would distinguish him in the 20th century.

A not-atypical view of the sertão, a semi-arid region in Brazil’s northeastern interior.

Although he was trained as a doctor, by the mid-1930s, Guimarães Rosa began to look elsewhere, commenting on the medical profession that “I don’t think I was born to do this.” He began to prepare for the diplomatic exams through Itamaraty, Brazil’s renowned Ministry of Foreign Relations. Upon completing his work, Guimarães Rosa became an official diplomat, serving Brazil throughout Europe and Latin America. This service included a stint in Germany from 1938 to 1942, during which time Guimarães Rosa provided visas to Jewish people living in Germany in an attempt to help them flee the Nazis. Guimarães Rosa’s efforts went beyond his government’s wishes, as he provided more visas than Brazilian quotas at the time officially allowed, and for his humanitarian efforts, Holocaust survivors and the newly-formed Israeli state would later honor him.

Even while serving as a diplomat, however, Guimarães Rosa had begun writing, drawing on his experiences in Minas Gerais. In 1946, his first work, Sagarana, was officially published [he had previously written a collection of poetry in 1936, but it was not published until after his death and was notably different in style, content, and quality than the later fiction that made him a renowned author]. Sagarana gathered twelve short stories (pared down to nine stories in later editions). Some of these stories exceeded fifty pages in length, but they shared similar themes and styles; indeed, the title itself combined the words “Saga” (as in the English sense of “story”) and “rana,” a Tupi word that roughly means “showing similarities”. That the title itself had this type of wordplay and drew on both Portuguese and indigenous Brazilian words foreshadowed the very “Brazilian” nature and types of neologisms and inventiveness with language that would distinguish Guimarães Rosa’s works from his contemporaries. As for the stories in Sagarana themselves, the environment and ambiance of the sertão looms large, almost becoming a character itself, even while the stories themselves showed a remarkable degree of fable and metaphor. Sagarana also saw the use of rhetorical devices such as anacolouthon and syllepsis, demonstrating a particularly innovative method of story-telling that made Guimarães Rosa’s style almost conversational even while it relied on Portuguese words and neologisms that would make later translations of his works into other languages extremely difficult.

Ten years after Sagarana’s publication, another lengthy publication of two volumes made up of seven novellas titled Corpo de Baile was published. As with Sagarana, the sertão continued to loom large as a force of nature and as a pseudo-character in tales of the rural poor attempting to live in the region. At the same time, however, Guimarães Rosa avoided any directly political statement, instead continuing to rely upon metaphor and fable to provide a far more complex and personal narrative of the lives of (fictional) people in Brazil’s interior.

As impressive as Corpo de Baile was, it could not prepare Brazil for what would be not only Guimarães Rosa’s most impressive work, but one of the most incredible works published in any language in the world in the twentieth century: Grande Sertão: Veredas, a work that in some ways is to Brazilian Portuguese what Ulysses is to English. Although Grande Sertão: Veredas was translated into English in 1963 as The Devil to Pay in the Backlands, much of the originality and flavor of the book was lost in translation, and few of Guimarães Rosa’s books were ever translated. Grande Sertão was in every way an incredible and controversial work. Structurally, it is a remarkably crafted story, told in the first person across 608 pages without any chapters or even any breaks in the narrative. Linguistically, Guimarães Rosa pushed Portuguese to places it had never been, employing a highly-conversational and localized (and in many ways imagined) language that drew on both historical and contemporaneous Portuguese even while giving the language a regional dialect that makes the book difficult even to Brazilians. This inventiveness is apparent from the first word of the book, “Nonada,” which is designed to read like the written version of somebody rapidly saying “Não é nada” (“It’s nothing”). The opening not only shows Guimarães Rosa’s inventiveness with language, but also his playfulness, as made clear by the fact that he starts off a detailed, lengthy, 608-page narrative with the declaration that “it’s nothing.”

The title page of an early edition of Guimarães Rosa’s masterpiece, “Grande Sertão: Veredas,” originally published in 1956.

Grande Sertão: Veredas would be an incredible work on the structure and language alone, but it’s the story itself that gives it even more heft and adds a remarkable degree of controversy. It is the tale of the rancher Riobaldo, who is an old man looking back and relating his history as a jagunço, or bandit, to an anonymous listener/the reader. Riobaldo looks back on his time fighting with different groups allied to various ranchers, portraying the local power struggles and competition of life in the sertão. In the process, he becomes extremely close friends with Diadorim, with whom he shares a highly-emotional homoerotic bond (though nothing physical ever takes place between the two). Riobaldo also becomes the leader of a band of bandits, and at a key point of the book, he heads to a crossroads in an attempt to make a deal with the devil for his success, though it is clear through the remainder of the book that he’s not certain if the deal was completed or not. Ultimately, the book ends with a climactic battle between Riobaldo’s band and the rival band, led by Hermogenes. Although Hermogenes ultimately dies, so does Diadorim, and Riobaldo is devastated. However, in the final ten pages [spoilers ahead], as Riobaldo’s men wash Diadorim’s body for burial, Diadorim’s grand secret is finally revealed: Diadorim was a woman. However, this “reveal” could not undo the highly homeroticized relationship between Diadorim and Riobaldo throughout the preceding 600 pages of the book, and the fact that Diadorim had cross-dressed to enter the world of the jagunço only further pushed traditional understandings of gender at a time (the 1950s) when such ideas and narratives were shocking.

“Genius” is a word that is often carelessly thrown about; however, Grande Sertão: Veredas is one of those works where the term is entirely apt narratively, linguistically, and structurally, and the book made Guimarães Rosa a renowned and celebrated figure in Brazil specifically and the Lusophone world more generally. Indeed, Brazil even created a national park in the region where the book is thought to have perhaps fictionally taken place. In the wake of its critical success, Guimarães Rosa was unanimously elected to the Brazilian Academy of Letters in 1963, one year after another collection of short stories, Primeiras estórias, was released, although he did not personally accept the position until 1967, the same year Noites do sertão, another collection of two novellas, was released. In his acceptance speech into the Academy, he commented that “a person dies to prove that he lived;” three days later, on 19 November 1967, Guimarães Rosa himself suddenly passed away from a heart attack at the age of 59.

In one way, that Guimarães Rosa died so young was a tragedy; yet the work he left behind is some of the most incredible fiction put to paper, in Portuguese or any other language, and the quality of that work dulls the loss somewhat. His inventiveness in multiple areas makes him one of those “should have won the Nobel Prize in Literature” figures, alongside Leo Tolstoy, Jorge Luis Borges, James Joyce, Marcel Proust, Philip Roth, and others (though it’s hard to see how his work could have been effectively translated for the prize). To this date, his work is among the most challenging and rewarding of all Portuguese writing. While many rightly celebrate the originality and style of Machado de Assis, Guimarães Rosa’s work is on par if not more remarkable than the man Susan Sontag called “the greatest writer ever produced in Latin America.” Opinions vary on matters like this, but to me, that title belongs and will likely always belong to Guimarães Rosa, not just for Grande Sertão, but for his other works as well.

An enlarged copy of a page from the original manuscript of “Grande Sertão: Veredas.” An interactive exhibit on the book, including historical background and examples of the manuscript, toured Brazil from at least 2007 to 2008.

Around Latin America

July 4, 2012 Comments off

-There have been anti-mining protests in Peru for the past several months, but yesterday, one of the protests turned violent, with at least three people dead and 21 wounded in a confrontation between police and residents protesting a massive mining project in Cajamarca. The protests took place even as a new report suggests efforts towards transparency are failing to meet local populations’ expectations, perhaps adding to the protesters’ causes for mobilization. Meanwhile, President Ollanta Humala shook up the military forces yesterday by relieving 22 generals  of command in an administrative shuffle designed to revitalize the armed forces.

-In yet another example of humans doing all they can to destroy oceans and marine life, overfishing of hatcheries in South America has left Chile at “critically low levels” of fish available.

-The League of United Latin American Citizens, or LULAC, officially supported equal marriage rights for gays and lesbians yesterday, becoming the second Hispanic organization to support gay marriage. LULAC joins the National Council of La Raza, which supported marriage equality last month.

-Mexico’s elections may have ended, but the news and controversy has not. In the wake of reports of the PRI buying votes even as the Elections Agency plans to recount 1/3 of the ballots, all of which adds to runner-up Andrés López Obrador’s refusal to concede defeat amidst allegations of electoral fraud. López Obrador also objected to the 2006 elections which he lost by fewer than 250,000 votes (or just over 0.5% of the total vote count).

-Colombian ex-general Mauricio Santoyo, who was the commander of the military police under president Álvaro Uribe and who has been tied to paramilitary groups and the drug trade, turned himself into Drug Enforcement Agency officials today to face trial in the United States. Santoyo is just the latest in a long line of officials who were top-level politicians and advisors with ties to both the Uribe government and to paramilitary groups during the president’s time in office from 2002 to 2010.

-The constitutional turmoil in El Salvador intensified yesterday, as there are now two different groups of judges both claiming to represent the Supreme Court. Tim’s analysis is excellent (and his blog is one of the only places to find more about what’s going on in El Salvador regarding the constitutional crisis specifically and El Salvador more generally).

-Honduran President Porfírio Lobo has suggested a constitutional reform to give the military the power of a police force . However, human rights group The Committee of Families of the Disappeared and Detainees in Honduras (COFADEH) has appealed the reform to the supreme court in an attempt to prevent an increase in the military’s power in what opponents see as a clear constitutional violation of the separation of military and police. (And of course, (the last time a constitutional reform was proposed in Honduras, it did not work out well for the previous democratically-elected president.)

-Argentine workers have defied a court order to end their protest and continue to blockade a major site of oil and gas production. The workers, who are temporary workers, are demanding a salary level similar to that of permanent workers at the Cerro Dragon energy compound. Meanwhile, the Argentine Supreme Court dealt a blow Canadian mining corporation Barrick Gold’s plans in Argentina after the court temporarily reversed a lower court’s decision to block a federal glacier protection law.

-Ten months after Brazilian judge Patrícia Acioli was gunned down in front of her home after sentencing police officers tied to militias a new report finds that the number of judges under threat has actually increased in the past year in what is certainly a threat to judicial independence and to efforts to curb paramilitary violence in Brazil.

-Less than two months after famed Mexican author Carlos Fuentes passed away, the Mexican government announced plans to create a literary prize named after the writer. Fuentes was renowned the world over for his style, garnering the praise of respected authors (including Philip Roth) and the general public alike.

-Finally, some Brazilian air force pilots may be in trouble after a planned flyby in Brasília flew so close to the ground it shattered the windows on government buildings, including the Brazilian Supreme Court.

Around Latin America

May 16, 2012 1 comment

-Carlos Fuentes, the world-renowned Mexican author and intellectual, passed away yesterday at the age of 83. If you haven’t read  The Death of Artemio CruzTerra Nostra, or Where the Air is Clear, do yourself a favor and go do it now.

-Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff used Mother’s Day to announce new programs to help low-income families who have children. The programs will aid 18 million people via the Bolsa Familia program.

-Spanish company Repsol has announced its intentions to sue Argentina in US courts and to go before the World Bank to contest the recent appropriation of YPF, which Argentina nationalized in late-April.

-In an issue that affects the Americas and the rest of the world, a new report suggests that humans are consuming at a pace faster than the earth can sustain, with biodiversity decreasing by 30% throughout the world and by 60% in some parts of the world.

-In what appears to have been an assassination attempt, a bomb attack in Bogota left at least two people dead and another 39 wounded, including former Minister of the Interior Fernando Londono, the apparent target of the attack.

-A Guatemalan mother who says her child was stolen from her and given up for adoption to a US couple plans to sue  in order to have her child returned to her after the State Department refused to help the woman.

-Argentina’s Vice President Amado Boudou is facing charges of embezzlement and corruption in an investigation that could see the presumed heir to Cristina Kirchner banned from politics for life.

-Tensions between Argentina and Uruguay have increased recently over the dredging of the Rio de la Plata, with allegations of meddling and concerns over competition fueling the disagreement.

-Finally, the Guatemalan version of food trucks in the US sounds delicious.

Revisiting Pablo Neruda’s Death [Murder?]

January 16, 2012 1 comment

The AP recently ran a fascinating story on the return of allegations that the Pinochet regime murdered Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda:

Pablo Neruda, Chile’s Nobel Prize-winning poet, would have been a powerful voice in exile against the dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet. But that all changed just 24 hours before Neruda was to flee the country in the chaos following the 1973 military coup.

He was 69 years old and suffering from prostate cancer when he died, exactly 12 days after the brutal coup that ended the life of his close friend, socialist President Salvador Allende.

The official version was that he died of natural causes brought on by the trauma of witnessing the coup and the lethal persecution of many of his friends. But doubts remained, even after Pinochet relinquished power in 1990 and Chile became one of Latin America’s most stable democracies.

Chilean Communist Party lawyer Eduardo Contreras said he believes the poet was murdered, and he is supported by Manuel Araya, who was Neruda’s driver, bodyguard and assistant in the year leading up to his death.

In December, Chile’s Communist Party asked that Neruda’s body be exhumed for testing. The judge investigating his death has not ruled but could do so at any moment.

While Neruda’s widow and his own foundation have rejected the theory, its resurgence nearly 40 years later reflects the suspicions haunting this nation of 17 million that the full story behind the coup and the dictatorship remains untold.

While some (including Neruda’s driver) insist that he was murdered, the Pablo Neruda foundation has requested that the author be left in peace. While Neruda’s fame certainly makes him exceptional among those who died/were murdered during the seventeen-year dictatorship, the battle over narrating his death gets at the heart of the myriad and complex ways that Chile continues to struggle with the events and legacies of the Pinochet regime nearly forty years after it overthrew democratically-elected president Salvador Allende, and the whole article is worth checking out.

Around Latin America

January 10, 2012 1 comment

-Over the weekend, Simon Romero had an interesting article up on Haitians moving to Brazil (on which I’ll have more to say later). The UN has declared that the recent migration of Haitians to Brazil is not a humanitarian crisis. While many Haitians who have fled to Brazil have claimed they are refugees, the UN has ruled that Brazil’s willingness to grant humanitarian visas was a generous act for Haitians to improve their lives.

-A Salvadoran judge has ruled that it is too late to seek prosecution in the murder of famed leftist poet Roque Dalton Garcia. Roque Dalton had been a member of leftist organizations that had become divided over tactics and strategy, and in 1975, his opponents in a small cell ordered his execution for betraying revolutionary ideals. He died on May 10 of that year, but his poetry, which beautifully blends themes of love, politics, and death, continues to resonate with readers today.

-The ongoing war between loggers and elites on the one hand and indigenous groups and environmentalists on the other has claimed another victim, as loggers burned an indigenous child to death while trying to illegally buy wood on an indigenous reservation.

-Arizona’s infamous SB 1070 is facing another legal challenge, as the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund and the ACLU asked a federal court to block the parts of the law that prohibit day laborers from looking for work on the streets, arguing the prohibitions discriminate against the right of some to work in the U.S. Other groups have already challenged the law on other grounds, and the Supreme Court will rule on whether or not the law is constitutional after a lower court suspended portions of the bill that required police to ask for documentation from people stopped on suspicion of criminal activity.

-Panama has pledged aid to those who participated in the 1964 protests in the Canal Zone, during which 23 Panamanians (and 4 U.S. soldiers) died.

-Argentine footballer Lionel Messi won FIFA’s Ballon d’Or, making him the fourth player to win the award for best player three times.

-Finally, from the world of science, researchers believe they have found a carnivorous plant that eats underground worms. The Philcoxia minensis lives in the cerrado, or savanna, of Brazil, the second-largest natural habitat in the country (after the Amazonian basin), home to 5% of the world’s biodiversity, and a region under increasing environmental threat.

Get to Know a Brazilian – Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis

December 11, 2011 10 comments

This is a second in my weekly series on important Brazilian individuals throughout history. The first entry is here.

Many consider Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, generally known simply as “Machado de Assis,” to be Brazil’s greatest writer, and he is the first titan in the Brazilian literary pantheon. He is the standard to which all other Brazilian authors are compared in one way or another, and his cultural influence in Brazil has only grown since his death 100 years ago this September.

Born to a mulatto descendant of slaves and a Portuguese woman in 1839 in Rio de Janeiro, Machado de Assis had humble origins. Little is known about his early years besides a few skeletal facts; he lost both his mother and sister at a young age (a fact which may have influenced the pessimistic tone of his later works). Many believe he was self-educated, even in his mastery of both French and English. He first started professionally writing for newspapers, but upon gaining a public position at the Ministry of Agriculture, Commerce, and Public Works in Rio de Janeiro in 1873, he was able to devote his time to writing fiction.

Although known best for his short stories and novels, Machado de Assis’s first published book, Crisálidas, was a collection of poems, released in 1864. After his marriage in 1869, he began publishing his first novels, including Helena and Contos Fluminenses (Fluminense Stories – “Fluminense” is the term for people from the state of Rio de Janeiro). His writing style in the 1870s was marked by romanticist tones, and his early works do not necessarily stick out or show all of the qualities that would make his later works so powerful and famous. However, with the publication of one of his most famous books, Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas (The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas), in 1881, his style shifted heavily. Writing in a realistic style, Machado de Assis’s books increasingly employed humor that dulled what was a growing pessimism towards human beings. His most famous works came from this phase of his writing, including Brás CubasQuincas BorbaDom Casmurro. Memorial de Aires, a book that reflected on death (driven in part by the death of his wife in 1904), was published in 1908, the year of his own death. While his works do not portray any ill-will towards individual humans in his works, it is clear that he held out little hope for the overall quality of human beings more generally. In this regard, he pre-dated the style of many of the most famous American and European writers of the twentieth-century, who would only reflect a similar pessimism in the pointless slaughter of life on the battlefields of World War I.  For this reason, scholars increasingly consider him to be the first “20th-century” author, and his stature in literary circles has only grown in the last fifty years.

Nor was his pessimism an early harbinger of a narrative tone that would come to define much of 20th-century literature. Stylistically, Machado de Assis also frequently used the narration to talk directly to the reader, and literary scholars consider him one of the first authors not just in Brazil, but in the entire world, to take this approach, creating a narrative technique that would come to have a major role in the development of the “stream-of-consciousness” narrative that exploded in the twentieth century. Machado Assis’s poems are not as famous as his novels and short stories, and indeed, are surprisingly different. Where the latter were concise, eloquent, and moving, the former were based more on vernacular, often bordering on the vulgar. (For example, the dedication to Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas famously opens, “Ao verme que primeiro roeu as frias carnes do meu cadáver dedico com saudosa lembrança estas Memórias Póstumas,” or, “To the worm who first gnawed on the cold flesh of my corpse, I dedicate with fond rememberance these Posthumous Memoirs.”) While respected, Machado de Assis’s poetry hasn’t received the same level of admiration and attention as his fiction.

Machado de Assis’s cultural contributions do not stop with his own literary output. Being fluent in English, he translated many of Shakespeare’s works to Portuguese. Additionally, he was one of the founding members of the Academia Brasileira de Letras, and was its president from its founding in 1897 to 1908. The Academia, still existent today, honors 40 Brazilian writers, selected by the Academy and Brazil’s population itself, with a new member being elected when an old member dies. The existence of the Academia has helped to keep Brazil’s literary tradition and development in the forefront of national culture in South America’s largest country.

Upon his death in 1908, his works hadn’t gained much in the way of international renown, or even international familiarity. Today, however, Machado de Assis is widely recognized in Brazil and around the world as one of the greatest authors ever. Harold Bloom included him on his list of 100 geniuses of literature and even called him the “supreme black literary artist to date” in his book Genius.

However, while he is equally admired in Brazil (all Brazilians know at least some of his work, as he is required reading in schools and his works have been turned into movies, and the area of Rio de Janeiro where he lived is now called “Largo do Machado” in his honor), the race issue is far murkier in Brazil. Despite being an obvious Afro-descendant (even the sepia-toned photos of his time demonstrate this), his race is almost never mentioned in Brazil, and oftentimes the photos of him are even “lightened”. When his race is brought up, he is referred to as “pardo,” or brown, a phrase which is based as much in financial and cultural terms as race (though it is worth mentioning that he would never be considered “black” in Brazil, where such a term is reserved only for the poorest and darkest people, in contrast to the “one-drop” culture of the United States that makes him black to Bloom and all who are familiar with him).

Despite this glossing over of the race issue, Machado de Assis is widely respected throughout the world, with figures as diverse as Woody Allen and Carlos Fuentes openly acknowledging his influence on their works. His literary output is well worth of its canonization, and for any interested in reading his works, they are easy to find, and many of them have been translated into English, including Brás Cubas, Memórias de Aires, Quincas Borba (in English, Philosopher or Dog?), Dom Casmurro, and numerous collections of short stories, which are some of the finest of any era and from any country, and which provide a great introduction to his work and his style.

(I originally wrote this post at my previous blogging home.)

Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis (1839-1908), whom many consider to be the "founder" of Brazilian literature and whose figure still looms tall in Brazilian culture over 100 years after his death.

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