Authors: João Guimarães Rosa

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Brazilian short-story writer and novelist

Author Works

Short Fiction:

Sagarana, 1946, 1966

Corpo de Baile, 1956 (subsequent editions in 3 volumes: Manuelzão e Miguilim, No Urubùquaquá, no Pinhém, and Noites do Sertão)

Primeiras Estórias, 1962, 1968 (The Third Bank of the River, and Other Stories, 1968)

Tutaméia, 1967

Estas Estórias, 1969

Ave, Palavra, 1970

The Jaguar, and Other Stories, 2001

Long Fiction:

Grande Sertão: Veredas, 1956 (The Devil to Pay in the Backlands, 1963)


João Guimarães Rosa (gee-ma-RAYNS ROH-sa) is generally regarded as the most important writer of fiction in twentieth century Brazil. The eldest of six children of a well-to-do businessman, he was born in the small town of Cordisburgo in central Brazil. He attended school in the state capital of Belo Horizonte and later completed medical school in the same city. He practiced medicine in the interior for some years, first as a private physician and later with the Brazilian National Guard. In 1934 he passed the Foreign Service examination, entered the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and enjoyed a distinguished career in the Brazilian diplomatic service, attaining the rank of ambassador in 1958. Twice married, he had two daughters by his first wife.{$I[AN]9810001161}{$I[A]Guimar{atilde}es Rosa, Jo{atilde}o[Guimaraes Rosa, Joao]}{$S[A]Rosa, Jo{atilde}o Guimar{atilde}es[Rosa, Joao Guimaraes];Guimar{atilde}es Rosa, Jo{atilde}o}{$I[geo]BRAZIL;Guimar{atilde}es Rosa, Jo{atilde}o[Guimaraes Rosa, Joao]}{$I[tim]1908;Guimar{atilde}es Rosa, Jo{atilde}o[Guimaraes Rosa, Joao]}

Although the bulk of his work was short fiction, Guimarães Rosa is probably best known for his single novel, The Devil to Pay in the Backlands, the monologue of a former bandit about the meaning of life, particularly the significance of evil and love. The chapterless text runs to more than five hundred pages in length and is characterized not only by the thematic breadth and suggestive resonance of the narrative but also by the daunting complexity and novelty of the language in which it is told. In fact, all Guimarães Rosa’s fiction is marked by linguistic experimentation, a feature that accounts for the unevenness of the quality of the translations and also helps to explain why so few of such an important author’s works are available in any of the major European languages.

Even though the density and intricacy of language is a constant, many of Guimarães Rosa’s works have a fairly conventional narrative structure. Sagarana, his first work, for example, contains nine tales that resemble very traditional forms such as the trickster tale, the fable, and the saint’s tale. Guimarães Rosa wrote the first draft of this book in the late 1930’s. When it garnered only second place in a national contest, he left it in a drawer and was not persuaded to edit and publish it until almost a decade later.

Yet another decade passed before his second book appeared, and many had begun to think Guimarães Rosa had exhausted his imagination on the first book. In 1956, however, he published not one but two books. The first, Corpo de Baile (corps de ballet), contained tales of such length that the book first appeared in two volumes, and later editions appeared in three. There are only seven stories in the book, which naturally piqued interest in the question of genre, since the tales were impossibly long to be considered short stories yet not quite long enough to qualify as novels. The second book to appear in 1956 was The Devil to Pay in the Backlands, a massive narrative; again critics called this work a novel only for lack of an alternative term. In both works, the stories proceed with an almost unnerving leisureliness; in both, a philosophical inquiry lurks behind every rustic; and in both the diction is aggressively experimental.

One year after publishing these two books, Guimarães Rosa stood as a candidate for membership in the Brazilian Academy of Letters. He was not elected. Four years later, in 1961, the academy unexpectedly presented Guimarães Rosa with an award for the excellence of his collected works.

The author’s diplomatic career was somewhat smoother. In 1958, he was promoted to Minister First Class with the rank of ambassador, and in 1962 he was named Chief of the Borders Division of the Brazilian State Department. In the same year, he published The Third Bank of the River, and Other Stories. This book offered some surprises, being the shortest yet to appear. It contains twenty-one narratives, which seemed to be a clear denial of the trend toward ever longer and more inclusive fictions. Although there are rural characters and scenes, it is also the first of his books in which locale is, even on a superficial level, of not much import. Critical reaction to the volume was mixed, because although the prose is unmistakably Guimarães Rosa’s–some considered it almost self-parodic–the tales are, in comparison with his other works, terse almost to the point of abruptness. Yet many gave the work high praise, and the Academy of Letters unanimously elected Guimarães Rosa to its ranks the following year.

In 1967, Guimarães Rosa published Tutameia (trifle), which contained not only forty stories but no less than four prefaces as well. That same year, the author finally scheduled his long-delayed formal seating in the Academy of Letters. Three days after the ceremony, he died of a brain hemorrhage. In 1969, Estas Estórias (these stories), which the author had been organizing shortly before his death, appeared, and in 1970 the miscellanea of four decades of writing appeared as Ave, Palavra (hail, word).

Guimarães Rosa had no rival as the most important and original prose writer in Brazil in the twentieth century. He is widely regarded as a watershed figure, much as Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis is regarded for the nineteenth century. He is also considered by many to be Brazil’s principal figure in the Latin American fiction “boom” of the second half of the twentieth century. His name is known to virtually all literate Brazilians, although it may be that his name is better known than his works because of the difficulties they present to readers. Because he is so demanding of his readers, his most enthusiastic following abroad is composed mainly of writers, critics, and translators. In Brazil, his works attained best-seller status at least briefly.

Guimarães Rosa’s works are demanding above all because the variety of linguistic novelties affects everything, starting with the title page. Many of the titles contain invented or deformed words, and the prose is hyperexpressive; in his variety of Portuguese, nothing is impossible. Guimarães Rosa spoke six languages and read fourteen others, and many of these languages crept into his prose in subtle and at times confounding ways. Diction in his works is further complicated by his willingness to use Latinate or Tupi forms, ungrammatical constructions, and neologisms.

The style is also complicated by the fact that Guimarães Rosa was a medical doctor, an amateur naturalist, a student of Eastern mysticism, and a prodigious and omnivorous reader. The sources of names, motifs, and entire tales may be found in anything from Danish myth to the Brothers Grimm to Zen Buddhism, possibly all in the same story. It is not always necessary or even particularly enlightening to discover such sources, but the fact that such eclectic roots have been proved to exist in his fiction is a measure of their perverse originality.

Yet, although these stories are not always accessible on first reading, all of them are sufficiently enchanting to make a second reading worthwhile, and further study often provides unexpected discoveries and delights. Guimarães Rosa’s literary career was an astonishment not only because he produced his fiction in his spare time but also because of the inventiveness of language, the range of theme, and the attention he paid to every detail.

BibliographyCoutinho, Eduardo F. “João Guimarães Rosa.” In Latin American Writers, edited by Carlos A. Solé and Maria Isabel Abreu. 3 vols. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1989. An excellent introduction to the complete works, including remarks on language, causality, regionalism and universality, the use of myth, the importance of emotion, and the unusual position in Guimarães Rosa’s works of madmen, poets, and children.Coutinho, Eduardo de Faria. The Synthesis Novel in Latin America: A Study on João Guimarães Rosa’s “Grande Sertão: Veredas.” Chapel Hill: North Carolina University Press, 1991. A critical study.Daniel, Mary L. “João Guimarães Rosa.” Studies in Short Fiction 8 (Winter, 1971): 209-216. This essay provides a useful discussion of the oral nature of the narrative and linguistic novelty.Foster, David William, and Virginia Ramos Foster, eds. Modern Latin American Literature. 2 vols. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1975. Contains translations and reproductions of sixteen critical studies, some translated from Portuguese, French, or German, some in the original English, which give a feel for the reception of the works at or near the time of publication.Hamilton, Russell G., Jr. “The Contemporary Brazilian Short Story.” In To Find Something New: Studies in Contemporary Literature, edited by Henry Grosshans. Pullman: Washington State University Press, 1969. An overview of the importance of the short-story genre in Brazil, useful for contextualizing Guimarães Rosa’s work. The only work studied in detail is Tutaméia.Harss, Luis, and Barbara Dohmann. Into the Mainstream: Conversations with Latin-American Writers. New York: Harper and Row, 1967. A fascinating and sometimes illuminating interview with Guimarães Rosa.Martins, Wilson. “Structural Perspectivism in Guimarães Rosa.” In The Brazilian Novel, edited by Heitor Martins. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1976. Though focusing largely on The Devil to Pay in the Backlands, this study is relevant to the short fiction for its discussion of Guimarães Rosa as both a radical innovator of style and a “classic” writer in the traditions of Brazilian regionalism.Perrone, Charles A. “Guimarães Rosa Through the Prism of Magic Realism.” In Tropical Paths: Essays on Modern Brazilian Literature. New York: Garland, 1993. Discusses some of Guimarães Rosa’s short stories from the perspective of their magical realism; analyzes their relationship to modernity.Valente, Luiz Fernando. “Against Silence: Fabulation and Mediation in João Guimarães Rosa and Italo Calvino.” Modern Language Studies 19 (Fall, 1989): 82-92. Compares Guimarães Rosa’s treatment of the fable generic form with that of Italo Calvino.Vessels, Gary M. “The Search for Motives: Carnivalized Heroes and Paternal Abandonment in Some Recent Brazilian Fiction.” Luso-Brazilian Review 31 (Summer, 1994): 57-65. Discusses the carnivalisque element in the heroes of such Brazilian writers as Jorge Amado and Guimarães Rosa; also discusses the mystery of motivation in Guimarães Rosa’s theme of the abandonment by the father.Vincent, Jon S. João Guimarães Rosa. Boston: Twayne, 1978. The first study of the complete works in any language. This critical study contains a brief summary of Guimarães Rosa’s life and is divided into seven chapters, one on each of the short fiction books and one on the novel. The bibliography is, however, dated.
Categories: Authors