Grande Sertão: Veredas is an epic novel
written by João Guimarães Rosa
. It is almost certainly the most important Brazilian
literary work of the 20th century.
What is it about?
The book has a very Brazilian feel to it, but it is an universal story. It is the story of a jagunço, and his account of his own life.
A jagunço is a kind of knight, and they were typical of the arid lands of the Northeast - the region called Sertão. They were the law in a lawless land, ruling by force. Some were good (in an anti-hero kind of way), some were bad. This story is about one of the good guys. Or so we want to believe.
Jagunços were nomadic. During his life, our hero dwells in an area (take a map) that covers the North of the state of Minas Gerais, South of Bahia and some of Goiás. His group is, for the most part, of about a hundred warriors or more, on horseback.
We don't know exactly when the action takes place, but it is probably more or less around 1910.
Riobaldo, our jagunço, is telling the story of his life to an unknown traveler. We don't ever hear the traveler, and the whole book is Riobaldo's voice, even with the occasional request for acknowledgment. At first having troubles putting his thoughts in order, going back and forth in time, leaving stories unended, Riobaldo soon learns as he speaks how to shape his narrative.
Riobaldo was the son of a very poor mother. The oldest event he mentions is his metaphorical baptism. Begging near a small river close to his home (the De Janeiro river), he meets a boy who is entirely unlike him. The boy walks around with authority, and talks mysteriously and surely. Riobaldo feels attached to that boy. They talk, Riobaldo ashamed by being a beggar, and the boy invites him to take a boat, follow the river and cross the (much, much larger) São Francisco river. Riobaldo accepts, but he is absolutely terrified. The boy, on the other hand, is calm as though there was nothing of particular importance happening.
"How does it feel when you are afraid?"
"Have you never been afraid?"
"I don't... my father told me I shouldn't."
Later in life, as a young adult, Riobaldo meets this boy once more. He is, Riobaldo learns, in a group of jagunços, led by Joca Ramiro. As Riobaldo had already shortly followed another group, led by Zé Bebelo - a man with political intentions, whom he had taught how to read and write - Riobaldo decides to join the group.
The boy is now a grown man known as Reinaldo, and they become very good friends. They become very attached to one another. Reinaldo even tells Riobaldo his real name: when in private, he should be called Diadorim.
As time passes, friendship becomes love. Riobaldo feels attracted to Diadorim ("my body longed for his body"), and as far as he can tell, so does Diadorim.
But his group of jagunços is in a war. They are divided in smaller groups, looking for Zé Bebelo's group. Riobaldo and Diadorim are led by Hermógenes, a man in Joca Ramiro's inner circle of trust. Hermógenes is a cold-blood killer, capable of preparing a knife for hours in front of the man that is going to be killed by it. Hermógenes, they say, has a pact with the devil.
The fight goes on, with occasional encounters, some victories and some defeats. But after a combined attack, Joca Ramiro's forces finally manage to reach Zé Bebelo. But before Zé Bebelo is killed, Riobaldo feels compassion for his former pupil and spreads a lie that Joca Ramiro wanted the man alive. And Zé Bebelo is taken prisoner.
Joca Ramiro decides to take Zé Bebelo to trial, and his men of trust become the judges. All of them but Hermógenes intend to release the prisoner and, as such, he is sent to exile.
But Hermógenes does not take it kindly. Just as the parties for the end of the war were over, he and a group of loyal friends kill Joca Ramiro. Diadorim becomes desperate as he learns Joca Ramiro was killed. Riobaldo asks whether Joca Ramiro was a member of his family - "An uncle maybe?" - Diadorim answers "Yes" unconvincingly.
A new war begins, one of revenge. Medeiro Vaz, a land owner, becomes their new leader, but after weeks of frustration, he is also killed. But then, Zé Bebelo, who had heard of Joca Ramiro's death, comes back, promises revenge and becomes the leader of the group.
As time passes, Diadorim becomes increasingly jealous of Riobaldo. Diadorim is never seen with a woman, and he deeply resents Riobaldo's women - most importantly Otacília, whom Riobaldo intended to marry.
As the fights goes on, Riobaldo learns that Zé Bebelo does not follow their code of honor, calling government troops in when they are in danger, to give them a chance of escaping. But Riobaldo is not the man to face Zé Bebelo head to head. He takes his life in great doubt, never really knowing what he is doing, and for what purpose.
But then, Riobaldo remembers what people say about Hermógenes. He, and everyone else, knew that the source of Hermógenes's strength was in his pact. And, almost unconvinced, Riobaldo leaves the group for a while and starts whispering, talking, calling the devil. He feels a chilly wind, but he is not sure what happened, or if anything happened.
Riobaldo then becomes the leader of the group, as a changed man, deposing Zé Bebelo. The doubts which were in his mind are now gone. Nobody is sure of what goes on in his mind, but his group reorganizes for war with renewed energy.
Then the group faces the final fight with Hermógenes. An extremely dangerous affair. In this fight, Riobaldo becomes suddenly ill, and he is unable to fight. But Diadorim goes on, and manages to kill Hermógenes. Unfortunately, Diadorim is also deadly wounded.
But as Diadorim is undressed, it becomes clear that he was actually a woman, Maria Deadorina, daughter of Joca Ramiro...
Riobaldo ends up marrying Otacília, and living a quiet life. Only he is troubled by his lack of will, for not talking openly about his love with Diadorim when he had the time. And then, there is that pact with the devil, which he doesn't know whether he signed or not. And that is when he starts to recount his life.
The story has two main axis: one of his Hamletian doubt about his life and his condition as a jagunço, and the other about his "forbidden" love with Diadorim. Riobaldo's biggest fault in life is his lack of decision - he has the Hamlet virus. All of his friends seem to him simple-minded and direct. Riobaldo can't be like that, and, in acting so, comes his downfall.
Also present is the reference to Doctor Faustus, and whether the pact was worth it, or even existed. Riobaldo ultimately finds that the devil does not exist, yet the devil is every man.
The most common metaphor is that of the river, and the coconut of the buriti tree floating and being taken away by it, to become a tree, at a riverside bank elsewhere. That is how Riobaldo sees his own life.
The title of the book is a reference to this. "Grande Sertão" means "Big Backlands". "Veredas" is used interchangeably as pathways and rivers.
Also of note in the greater picture of 20th century Brazilian literature: Guimarães Rosa manages to write about impoverished populations without resorting to cheap Marxist paternalism, which is the plague of Brazilian literature.
Grande Sertão: Veredas is written in a peculiar way. We can identify the elements of oral storytelling very clearly, as well as many expressions which were typical of the region and of the time. This is common in Guimarães Rosa's oeuvre.
But more importantly, in GS:V we have many archaic forms, long abandoned by Portuguese speakers, some of which never reached Brazil. There are elements which come from old Iberian Portuguese, and also many neologisms. For example, Riobaldo's name is one that adds rio (river) to something that sounds close enough to English "bound". Riobaldo is, thus, river-bound. Similarly, also loaned from English, Diadorim's eyes are described as "esmartes".
I am told no proper translation of the book exists in English though, as no attempt was made to translate the language, only the story. The only translation is called "The Devil to Pay in the Backlands", and I am told it makes Grande Sertão: Veredas sound like a cowboy story, which it isn't.
Reportedly, it is better translated to French, Italian and German at least. The French translation is called, in an excellent decision that avoids the trouble of translating the original title, "Diadorim". The letters exchanged by the author and his Italian and German translators are published, and make for an interesting (if mostly boring) read.
Go read it now, if you can find it. The only reason Guimarães Rosa didn't get a well-deserved Nobel Prize for this book was because he didn't live long enough to.