Dialogue with Guimarães Rosa

“Dialogue with Guimarães Rosa
Excerpts from an interview with Günter Lorenz in Genoa, 1965”

As Published in Princípios magazine
Issue 86, Aug / Sept, 2006, Pages 48, 49, 50, 51
Translated by Felipe Martinez & Daniel Werneck


Lorenz: (…) I would like to talk to you about the writer Guimarães Rosa, the novelist, the magician of language, drawing upon his books that are a part, I think, of the theme “the man from Sertão.”

Guimarães Rosa: Yes, I think if we wanted to say everything we have to say about these three or four points, one year from now we would still be talking. And neither you nor I have that much time. I suppose this list of things about me that interest you don’t have a strict sequence…

Lorenz: Only an improvised, interchangeable sequence.

Guimarães Rosa: Exactly. And because of that, I would like to begin with the last thing you mentioned. You called me “the man from Sertão.” I have nothing against it, because I am a Sertanejo/frontiersman, and I think it’s wonderful that you deduced that from reading my books, because it means that you understand them. If you call me “the man from Sertão” (and I really consider myself as such), and we want to talk about this man, then the other points are already mentioned. It’s because I am, first and foremost, this “man from Sertão”; and this isn’t merely a biographical statement, but also—and in this, at least, I believe as firmly as you do—that he, this “man from Sertão”, is present as a point of departure more than anything.

Lorenz: Let’s fix ourselves on this point of departure; and to direct our conversation, I would like to propose a conventional start: biographical, although it is not so conventional anymore, if my conclusions about what you just said are right. You were born in the Sertão, that almost mystical steppe in the interior of your country, embodied as a myth of Brazilian consciousness …

Guimarães Rosa: Yes, but to be exact, I must tell you I was born in Cordisburgo, a town that’s not very interesting, but for me, it is indeed very important. Moreover, in Minas Gerais. I am a mineiro. And that, indeed, is important, because when I write, I always feel transported to that world. Cordisburgo. Don’t you think that sounds like something very far away? Did you also know that part of my family is, by the surname, of Portuguese origin, but in reality it is a Swedish surname that during a time of migration was Guimaranes1, a name which is also designated as the capital of a state in the Swabian Lusitania? So, because of my origins, I am returning to the remote, the strange. You certainly know the story of the Swabians. They were a people who, like the Celts, immigrated everywhere without being able to ground their roots anywhere. This fate, which was so intensely transmitted to Portugal, may have been the reason why my ancestors were so desperately attached to that piece of land called the Sertão. And I, too, am attached to it…

Lorenz: Are you referring to your “literary character” that includes you in the important group of writers called the Brazilian Regionalists?

Guimarães Rosa: Yes and no. It should be noted that, at least among us, “regionalism” has a different meaning from the European definition, and therefore the reference you made about this in your review of Grande Sertão is very important. Of course, I wouldn’t want to be considered a Heimatschriftsteller in Germany. It would be horrible, since it is, for you, what would be considered a “regionalist.” Ah, the duality of words! Of course, one should not assume that all Brazilian literature is oriented towards “regionalism”, be it about the Sertão or about Bahia. Therefore, I fully agree when you describe me as a representative of regionalist literature; and here begins what I’ve said before: it is impossible to separate my biography from my work. See, I’m a regionalist because of the little world of the backlands…

Lorenz: Little perhaps to Brazil, not to Europeans …

Guimarães Rosa: To Europe it is undoubtedly a very big world, but for us, it is just a small world measured by our geographical concepts. And this small world of the sertão, this original world full of contrasts, is, to me, the symbol, or even the model of my universe. Hence, the German Cordisburgo, founded by Germans, is the heart of my Swabian-Latin empire. I believe this genealogy will please you.

Lorenz: What’s important is that, moreover, it is accurate. But back to your biography …

Guimarães Rosa: I believe my biography is not very rich in events. A completely normal life.

Lorenz: I don’t think that’s the case. In your life you’ve gone through a series of very interesting stages, even educational ones. You studied medicine and were a physician, you participated in a civil war, even became an officer, then a diplomat. There must be other facts, because I’m only quoting from memory.

Guimarães Rosa: We come again to the point that indicates the moment in which the man and his biography result in something completely new. Yes, I was a doctor, a rebel, a soldier. Those were important steps in my life, and strictly, this sequence constitutes a paradox. As a doctor I met the mystic value of suffering; as a rebel, the value of conscience; as a soldier, the value of the proximity of death…

Lorenz: Should we consider this as a scale of values?

Guimarães Rosa: Exactly, it is a scale of values.

Lorenz: And don’t these values constitute, in essence, the backbone of your novel Grande Sertão?

Guimarães Rosa: They do. But we must add a few others about which we have yet to speak. But these three experiences, so far, have formed my inner world; and so that this doesn’t seem too simple, I would like to add that my world is also one of diplomacy, handling horses, cows, religions and languages.

Lorenz: It seems like a succession and a somewhat curious combination of motifs.

Guimarães Rosa: Well, this is all curious, but what isn’t peculiar in life? We should not look at life the same way a collector of insects contemplates his scarabs.


Lorenz: I would venture to wager that most of your German readers, before reading your book, didn’t even know the Sertão existed. They probably even thought it was one of your inventions.

Guimarães Rosa: I think so too. Recently, during my trip to Germany, I became convinced of that. A critic who was introduced to me as a famous man – I’d rather not say his name – congratulated me for having “invented a new literary landscape,” so “magnificent”, like that, between quotes. Similar things happened to me in Italy, France, and even Spain. But we must accept these things, they can’t be avoided. When I write, I can’t constantly add footnotes to indicate that this is reality.


Lorenz: How about your Riobaldo? I think you haven’t yet finished his characterization.

Guimarães Rosa: I know. I would add that Riobaldo is something like Raskolnikov, but a Raskolnikov without guilt, who must, however, atone for it. But I believe Riobaldo is not that too. Better, he’s just Brasil.


Lorenz: Again a wonderful paradox: “I try the impossible.” However, we should be even more concrete. We have this issue of commitment, maybe we could use this. How would you define, for example, your conception of the duty of an author, distinguishing it from Asturias or, of course, from Jorge Amado?

Guimarães Rosa: I like Asturias because he’s so little like me. The man is a volcano of genius, an exception, who follows his own rules. We understand and admire each other because we are so different from one another. But he lives in a way that creates danger: he thinks ideologically.

Lorenz: How about Jorge Amado? Don’t you think this great fabulist and friend of men also thinks ideologically?

Guimarães Rosa: Without a doubt, he too is an ideologue, but his ideology is more sympathetic than my own or that of Asturias. Asturias has something of the incorruptible detachment of a high priest, always setting forth the new Ten Commandments. This is admirable, but not charming. The words of Asturias are the words of a father, a patriarch issuing rulings in the same manner as the Old Testament. Amado is a dreamer, and certainly an ideologue, but he adopts the ideology of the fairy tale with its standards of justice and atonement. Amado is a boy who still believes in the Good, the victory of Good, and advocates the less ideological, the most lovely ideology I have ever known. Asturias is the powerful voice of doomsday. Amado gives brushstroke after brushstroke until his limit, and certainly wants many things to just go to hell, but he does it so charmingly he convinces us with greater reasoning. Asturias expresses himself with words of iron.


Lorenz: I still have one last question, whose answer I give much importance. Don’t laugh, I won’t ask you what are you working at now. I know this wouldn’t lead to anything. But I’d like you to tell me what do you think about the future of Latin America.

Guimarães Rosa: Actually, I thought you wanted to put me in a difficult position now, and then every year from now you would ask me when the announced book would be done. I am glad it wasn’t the case. I am a man who has seen many things in the world, who knows a lot about World Literature. I don’t want to commit the sin of being presumptuous, but quantitatively comparing what is written, for instance, in Europe, with what is written among ourselves [in Latin America], I feel somewhat proud. Of course, there is a lot of mediocre things being printed among us that has nothing to do with literature. But this also happens everywhere. Among us, not only in Brazil and not only between the old writers and the people of my generation, there are many who justify the highest hopes and allow us to face the future with tranquility. Latin America became, in the literary and artistic field, let’s say that in German, Weltfähig (“fit for the world”). The world will have to tell. Look, Lorenz, it wouldn’t be so wrong to reduce all of the sciences to one basic law, as did the medieval scholars and scientists. No, I did not mention theology. But I want to paint a portrait with the basic outlines of all the intellectual problems of today. Look, the future of Europe and of all humanity is like an equation with several unknowns. Europe is small, but its inhabitants are active and, moreover, have in their favor a great tradition. And yet, Europeans don’t have any kind of influence on these unknowns that determine the future of their continent. The “x” and “y” of this equation will decide tomorrow, so much so that it can be said today. Latin America may not be the main question, the “x”, but it will probably be the “y”, a very important, even if secondary, unknown. Mathematically, an equation cannot be solved if a second unknown factor isn’t determined. Suppose now that Latin America is such an unknown “y”. With this, Europe’s future is at a tipping point. And I’m not just talking about the needs and the economic potential of my continent. You know that we Latin Americans, we feel a very strong tie to Europe. For me Europe has always been a miniature Cordisburgo.  We love Europe, for example, the way you love a grandmother. So I hope that Europe recognizes the equation and takes into account the “y”. That wouldn’t do any harm. For us and with us, perhaps Europe has a future not only in the economic field, not only in the political arenas, but also as a factor of spiritual power. Ultimately, we are spiritual relatives: grandmother and grandchildren. Europe is a piece of us; we are its adult granddaughter, concerned about its fate, and with the illness of our grandmother. If Europe was to die, a piece of us would die with her. It would be sad if, instead of living together, we had to say a funeral prayer for Europe. I am firmly convinced, and that’s why I’m here talking to you, that in [the year] 2000, world literature will be geared towards Latin America; the role that was once played by Berlin, Paris, Madrid or Rome, or Petersburg or Vienna, will be carried out by Rio, Bahia, Buenos Aires and Mexico. The century of colonialism has ended definitely. Latin America is now entering its future. I believe it will be a very interesting future, and hopefully a humane future.


You can read the Portuguese text here.

1 This city in northern Portugal is presently called Guimarães. It is located in the province of Minho, near Braga, the old royal city and the site of the pilgrimage.


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