HAVE YOU SEEN THIS MODERNIST?: JOÃO GUIMARÃES ROSA
Don’t let the cats fool you, João Guimarães Rosa is the man. The man like Mann or Proust or Melville or Faulkner or Borges or Calvino or Joyce…Only, you may have never been made aware of the fact. Don’t feel bad, you’re not alone. As a matter of fact: you’re right at home in the United States of America if you’ve never heard of João Guimarães Rosa.
This is the story: in 1956, in Brazil, a forty-eight year old Brazilian diplomat published a singular novel entitled Grande Sertão: Veredas, a 500-page monologue, set in the North-Eastern Backlands of Brazil (a stark contrast to the stereotypical and often sought after clear-watered beaches of Rio de Janeiro, home to Carnival). The novel follows the exploits of a bandit for hire, Riobaldo, as he questions the existence of the devil and his love for a fellow bandit. Deemed one of the most important works of modernist literature in Brazil shortly after being published there, Guimarães Rosa was elevated to stand beside Clarice Lispector as one of the two most important Brazilian writers since Machado de Assis. With the onset of the Latin American Boom in the U.S. in the early 1960s, and with the success of another Brazilian writer, Jorge Amado, in translation in the U.S., publisher Alfred A. Knopf set its sights on Guimarães Rosa and Grande Sertão: Veredas. In 1963 an English translation of Grande Sertão: Veredas was published in the U.S. It’s English title: The Devil to Pay in the Backlands. The translator: Harriet de Onís, a very reputable translator of Spanish and Portuguese, but no match for Guimarães Rosa. The Devil to Pay in the Backlands was deemed a sham for its strategic attempt to achieve readability over anything else—which meant eliminating Guimarães Rosa’s linguistic innovations, one of the most significant marks of the novel. You see, Guimarães Rosa had a working knowledge of something like twelve languages, and was as erudite as Jorge Luis Borges. He spun the Portuguese language like Joyce did English, and incorporated everything from the archaic to the invented… So, in the beginning-end, The Devil to Pay in the Backlands didn’t sell well. And since the point of literature for big publishers is the translation of literature into dollars, The Devil to Pay in the Backlands was never reprinted as such. What happened after that? It’s hard to say. The short of it: Guimarães Rosa and his work was relegated to American universities and rarely mentioned outside again. Now, in Brazil, for the last fifty years, Guimarães Rosa has been a pillar of modernist literature. In other parts of the world too, they know it. But in the U.S., us, we’re just now learning…this isn’t the whole story of course. Just pieces of it. Real stories don’t come clean.
João Guimarães Rosa. João Guimarães Rosa. Few people today know the name João Guimarães Rosa, because few people today speak or read or write the name João Guimarães Rosa. I’d like to change that.
I found The Devil to Pay in the Backlands the way any reader finds any book: by pure chance. For years, I puzzled over why the work of a writer who is not just a great Brazilian writer, but a great world writer, is so long out of print. In the spring of 2010, I established AMISSINGBOOK.COM, an online literary project aimed at investigating the nearly fifty-year absence of João Guimarães Rosa from English literary discourse. For the last two years, I’ve plumbed the depths of the internet, searching for clues as to Guimarães Rosa’s disappearance. The search has lead me to speak with Rosean scholars at several of the world’s leading universities: Brown, Yale, Vanderbuilt, King’s College, and the University of São Paulo. Most recently, I created a Google translation of the original Portuguese novel in its entirety—excerpts of which can be read in Out of Nothing’s fifth issue. I invite you to visit AMISSINGBOOK.COM to acquaint yourself with an author counted as one of the most significant modernists of the twentieth century.
Felipe W.Martinez studied Literature & Writing at UC San Diego. He writes fiction and is also the creator of AMISSINGBOOK.COM. He lives in San Diego, California, where he works in public education.