26 April 2011

Seven stories by João Guimarães Rosa

The seven stories came from the Oxford Anthology of the Brazilian Short Story (2006), edited by K David Jackson. João Guimarães Rosa (1908-64) published two short story collections in his lifetime - Sagarana (1946, English version in 1966 by Harriet de Onís) and Primeiras estórias (1962, The Third Bank of the River and Other Stories, 1968 English version by Barbara Shelby). Another two were published posthumously, both still untranslated - Tutaméia: terceiras estórias (1967) and Estas estórias (1969). The two English versions, from Knopf, were now safely out of print.

It took more than 35 years after the death of Guimarães Rosa, at the turn of the millennium, before two new anthologies of his stories in English will see print again. In 2001, The Jaguar, a collection of 8 stories, came out in a translation by David Treece, a professor of Portuguese in King's College London. The Jaguar was reprinted in 2008 to commemorate the centenary of Guimarães Rosa's birth. The stories in that collection came from Primeiras estórias (6 stories) and Estas estórias (2 stories, including the titular story).

The other substantial story anthology that brought back the Brazilian novelist in print was the Oxford Anthology, which contains 72 stories by 37 Brazilian writers. The most represented writers were Machado de Assis (10 stories, 63 pages), Clarice Lispector (9 stories, 36 pages) and Guimarães Rosa (7 stories, 56 pages).

As with The Jaguar, the bulk of Rosean stories in the Oxford edition came from Primeiras estórias (5 stories, four were from Shelby's translations in The Third Bank of the River and Other Stories) and Estas estórias (2 stories). Four of the seven stories overlapped with Treece's selection. In fact, "The Jaguar" is reprinted in the same translation by Treece.

At present, The Jaguar and Oxford Anthology constitute the only available selections of a fair number of stories by Guimarães Rosa in print. Here's a brief description of each of the stories in the Oxford anthology.

1. "The Girl from Beyond" (translated by Barbara Shelby)

Nhinhinha is a young girl in possession of a unique power. There's something in the composition and subject of the story that is akin to Juan Rulfo's stories, particularly in terms of the thematic exploration of folk religion, delusion, and hypocrisy.

2. "Much Ado" (translated by Barbara Shelby)

Immedicable, empalmed, fantastico-inauspicious, psychiataster, circumstanding - these are only some of the unusual words in this story which make one curious how the translator came up with them. It is an amusing tale of a man of high position who climbed a place of high position (a palm tree) in the nude and declared to everyone watching that "Living is impossible!" What happens next is surreal.

3. "Soroco, His Mother, His Daughter" (translated by Barbara Shelby)

Soroco accompanies the two women of his life to the railroad, for them to board the train on the way to the madhouse, apparently to stay there as mental patients. This story is quite brief and did not waste any word. It lodges in the mind, like the last song syndrome.

4. "The Third Bank of the River" (translated by William Grossman)

A man suddenly just up and went to live in a boat by the river, leaving his family behind, leaving them for good. What was wrong with him? Did he go crazy? The story is the most anthologized by Guimarães Rosa, as well as the most translated (three times). It is a succinct encapsulation of his principles, that of the dynamic interface between civilization and savagery, sanity and madness.
The story also appeared in translation in Modern Brazilian Short Stories (1967, ed. William Grossman, the version in this edition). It was anthologized at least six more times, including in The Borzoi Anthology of Latin American Literature (second volume, 1977, eds. Emir Rodríguez Monegal and Thomas Colchie) and in The Jaguar.

5. "Treetops" (translated by Barbara Shelby)

A boy was separated from his ill mother. His uncle fetched him from home and they travelled by plane to a far away place. The boy tried to cope with his loneliness and homesickness by playing with his monkey doll. Suddenly there appeared a toucan bird flying above the forest trees. Through the toucan the boy projected his temporary happiness as he searched for peace of mind, an inner peace that can only be provided for by transient animals (the stuffed toy and the bird). Guimarães Rosa's writing about a child's consciousness and longing was very sensitive and delicate, evoking the journey of a troubled spirit.

6. "Those Lopes" (translated by Richard Zenith)

"Those Lopes" is an exploration of female psychology, a short story containing the kernel of what could be a novel about a woman who suffered domination by men (by the Lopes). The words used by Richard Zenith, the translator, are very precise and controlled. They reproduce the rhythmic anguish of a woman biding her time, waiting for the opportunity to break from her shackles. One can risk assuming that the words are faithful to the original language owing to the singular and confident voice in the story. Its "fresh" rendition makes it an easy favorite in the selection.

This translation is here published for the first time in book form. It appeared earlier in 1997 in the journal Grand Street. It is to be hoped that Zenith, if not Treece, will have the chance to put out the whole Estas estórias collection.

7. "The Jaguar" (translated by David Treece)

The same story that is the centerpiece in the anthology by David Treece, "The Jaguar" is a work of high craftsmanship, possibly representative of the Rosean stream of consciousness in the watershed novel Grande Sertão: Veredas. It's an intricate tale that traced its own ruthless monologic direction and produced its own taxonomy of several wildcat species for the purpose. The story was also published in Giovanni Pontiero's version, as "My Uncle, the Jaguar," in Masterworks of Latin American Short Fiction: Eight Novellas (1997, ed. Cass Canfield Jr).

Consummate plotting and poetic language are the best qualities of a Guimarães Rosa story. His sentence constructions are founded in a polyphonic range of styles and registers. His sense of language, of what words can convey in various combinations (phonetic, linguistic), demonstrates a writer's complete freedom to experiment, invent, and craft a story. He was most certainly a savant, given his spoken command of at least seven languages (fluent in most of them) and an aptitude of reading and understanding in several more. His "neglected" status was probably due in part to his reputation as a "difficult" writer (now contradicted by the most recent translations by Treece and Zenith), and in part to the unfounded fear of major English publishers to take risk with an experimental writer, an "avant-garde," despite his already prominent status in his homeland Brazil.

Until such time that Guimarães Rosa's major works were given their due and proper recognition by the readership in English, by being translated or re-translated, or at least reprinted - by being made widely available - a large proportion of readers remains in the dark about his standing in world literature. Fortunately, his literary presence, still undimmed 65 years after the publication of his first book, was detectable in the two latest available anthologies. Those who were able to read and appreciate his works in the now-rare English editions (or in any language for that matter) are lucky for getting an exclusive glimpse of what one story called the "other-place". Those who will be acquainted with his outputs through the selections by Treece and David Jackson, in The Jaguar and in this Oxford edition, will have the same rare privilege.


  1. Rise - thanks for a great job of summarizing what's out there in English translation. I'm also excited to know that Richard Zenith has been translating Guimares Rosa; I've greatly enjoyed his translations of Pessoa. I find it frustrating but ultimately highly encouraging that the few Guimaraes Rosa books here in my university library are nearly always checked out (I've had to return "Jaguar" twice prior to finishing it due to its being recalled by another reader), so it's clear that there's strong interest in his work. Hopefully that will result in more of it soon becoming available.

  2. Thanks Rise for a fascinating post about a writer I was completely unaware of. This is what makes the blogworld interesting, the resources contained within it.

  3. Thanks, Scott. The Book of Disquiet is in my all-time favorite wish-listed books. :D

    I do hope Zenith or Treece or the once announced Fitz-Lowe collaboration will be given the chance to write JGR’s stories. They’re all wonderful for the job. Thank God for libraries. I also wouldn’t be able to be introduced to him through books now out of circulation.

  4. You're welcome, Gary. Isn't this online garden of forking paths a boon to bookworms?