27 May 2013

Matraga is not Matraga

"Augusto Matraga's Hour and Turn" by João Guimarães Rosa, in Sagarana, translated by Harriet de Onís (Knopf, 1966)

Sagarana was João Guimarães Rosa's first book, a nine-story cycle published in 1946, a decade before the appearance of his back-to-back masterpieces: the novel Grande Sertão: Veredas and the seven interlinked novellas in the two-volume Corpo de Baile. The title, as noted by Franklin de Oliveira in the introduction to the translation, is an amalgam of "Saga, an Old Norse root, a verbal creation at the service of the epic, and the Tupi suffix rana (in the manner of)." In the manner of a saga, the stories explored the poignant, comic, and earthy territory of the backlands of Minas Gerais, Brazil.

The last story in the cycle—"Augusto Matraga's Hour and Turn"—was significant for anticipating the concerns of Grande Sertão: Veredas. After an almost fatal and life-changing experience, the titular character underwent a radical self-invention after making a pact with—who would have guessed it—no less than God. This was an almost anti-Faustian tale, a fine complement to the novel that succeeded it.

But "Matraga is not Matraga, or anything", announced the first sentence of the story.

Matraga is Estêves. Augusto Estêves, the son of Colonel Afonsão Estêves, of Pindaíbas and Saco-da-Embira. Or Mr. Augusto, Nhô Augusto—the man—on that evening of a novena, at an auction behind the church in the village of Our-Lady-of-Sorrows-of-the-Creek-of-Muricí.

In the rest of the story, the name "Matraga" was no longer mentioned, a conspicuous absence that says something about the validity of names as determinant of a person's identity. Aren't the various salutations and configurations of the names (as Estêves, as Nhô Augusto, as Augusto Matraga) preconditions for one's changing status in life?

Nhô Augusto was a rich, patrician and cruel hacendado about to fall on hard times due to his wanton lifestyle and mismanagement of assets. He was as evil as he was impulsive: he treated people like animals and was himself described like an animal—"hard, rough, and unbridled, like a huge beast of the forest"—so evil he was "worse than a poison snake, which whoever sees it is duty-bound to kill." We are squarely in the middle of Guimarães Rosa's territory, in the mêlée of maelstrom, the middle of the whirlwind. It is the territory of "permanent crisis" wherein the dichotomy of good and evil was ever shifting, playing out its many erratic manifestations.

When Augusto's wealth diminished, he was left by those close to him. It was but the beginning of his downfall: "with crushing debts, on the losing side politically, his credit gone, his lands neglected, his ranches mortgaged, and the outlook hopeless, all doors closed, like a blank wall". Dona Dionóra, his wife whom he had estranged with his unfaithfulness and plain badness, ran off with another man. His men, whom he had neglected, deserted him for better pay as henchmen of Major Consilva. The latter was the instrument to his destruction. He was left for dead by his own men at the behest of Major Consilva who later appropriated all his properties and consolidated the power he once enjoyed.

"Matraga" was also a close study of revenge, a feeling associated with savagery and inhumanity. Despite the biblical undertones and apparent seriousness, the story was told like a brooding musical, with characters suddenly breaking into singing solo or in chorus. The prose was epigrammatic and onomatopoeic—"In the distance a dog spelled out one single, meaningless name"—and with its self-questioning tone parodied its own artifice: "This is a made-up story and not something that happened, no indeed"; "And everything happened just like this because it had to, inasmuch as it did." The third person narrator was pedantic, just like Riobaldo, the indefatigable narrator of Grande Sertão.

Crushed and destroyed, Augusto was taken in by a black couple who revived him not only through traditional medicines and procedures but with unceasing prayers and religiosity. Consulting and confessing to a priest, the man was comforted by a single certainty that will dictate the rhythm of his revenge. The priest had given him a powerful code, what for him was a mantra or spell to be whispered in times of trials and temptations, akin to an amulet: words to deal with the blows of fate: "Everyone has his hour and his turn; and yours will come."

With the underlying themes of the use of religion to temper the inherent ugliness in man and the use of violence to enforce the idea of goodness and decency, "Matraga" was a classic case of human conversion and transformation, the spectacular metamorphosis of a sinner's worldview into that of someone "half mad and half saint". This renewal of life, the curbing of animal temper and invocation of goodness in daily life transactions, was sealed under ritual oath.

Nhô Augusto knelt in the middle of the road, opened his arms wide, and swore: "I am going to heaven, I really am, by fair means or foul. And my turn will come. To Heaven I am going, even if I have to use a club."

Nhô Augusto and his adoptive parents went away to live a new life, in a new place. He became true to his promise.

He lived trying to help others. He hoed for himself and for his neighbors out of the warmth of his heart, wishing to share, giving out of love what he possessed.

Even so, the animal instinct was branded in him. He was constantly gnawed by thoughts of consummating his vengeance, tempted every which way to go back to his old evil ways, to secure the power lost to him. Time passed and the charitable life and work he demonstrated did not give him peace of mind. What is the price of penance and penitence? What is the cost of atonement for sins if salvation and liberation call for an itching beyond human comprehension and control?

And it was only then that he realized how he was lashed to his penitence and understood that this business of signing up with religion and trying to snatch his soul from the mouth of the devil was the same as entering a swamp where going forward or backward or to the sides is always hard and always drags you deeper into the mire.

The idyll was broken when a band of jagunços passed the village. Its leader exuded power and violence his old life knew too well.

And the leader—the strongest and tallest of all, with a blue handkerchief rolled around his leather hat, his white teeth filed to sharp points, of commanding gaze and a hoarse voice, but with a pretty, gentle face of a maiden—was the most famous man in the two backlands of the river ... the stump-puller, the earth-shaker, the fire-eater, the boast-stopper, the measure-taker, the question-settler, the no-obstacle-brooker: Mr. Joãozinho Bem-Bem.

The charisma of the jagunço chief certainly contained shades of gallantry that only exemplary individuals possessed (and also shades of characters in his future novel). Joãozinho Bem-Bem was in fact so famous and mythical he was mentioned at least four times in the first half of The Devil to Pay in the Backlands. (Riobaldo called him the fiercest among all jagunços of old. Zé Bebelo wanted to follow his example. He considered the late chief as the only man-jagunço he could respect. Diadorim also made example of the "iron-clad rule of Joãozinho Bem-Bem, who never took a woman but was as brave as they come.")

At first sight, the two men—the repentant convert Nhô Augusto and the famous chieftain Joãozinho Bem-Bem—showed instant liking for each other. For Augusto, Bem-Bem's friendship represented a resurrection of a life of constant violence that once pumped in his lungs with unadulterated oxygen blood. The arrival of the bandits "equipped with an extravagance of arms—carbines, almost new; muzzle-loading pistols of one or two barrels; revolvers of good make; knives, daggers, pigstickers with carved handle, clubs and machetes—and wearing an excess of scapularies around their necks" was enough for him to once again smell the intoxicating blood in the air. He did not hesitate to offer hospitality to the leader and his troop. Joãozinho Bem-Bem awakened the possibility of finally avenging the death sentence pronounced on him by Major Consilva, along with the betrayal of his men and the treachery of his wife.

Joãozinho Bem-Bem saw through Augusto's old instincts, detecting the stain of his past. He liked the hospitable and friendly man so much he even offered him a job in his group, to be part of a band of warriors who will bring order to the whole sertão. What more, he offered him a favor he could exploit to his advantage: "If you need anything, if you have an unpleasant message to send to somebody ... If you have some frisky enemy anywhere, just you give me his name and address."

Both proposals Augusto refused, going against a part of his nature that cried for full-bloodied vengeance. He refused because the time is not yet ripe. Augusto was always, always waiting for the right time, the apocalyptic moment of his hour and his turn.

Harriet de Onís, the co-translator of Grande Sertão, translated the story with a sure touch although she confessed in the book's preface that the task "has not been easy".

I have been in constant communication with the author, and at times I have felt like a sick-bay steward delivering a baby by radioed instructions from a doctor on land. The author, incidentally, is a doctor, though at present attached to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Brazil with the rank of Minister. ... It is abundantly clear that he is aware of all the literary trends and ferments in the world today and employs them in his own way, yet nobody could be more Brazilian.

In spite of the difficulties de Onís encountered, the stories in her rendering (I have read two from the cycle so far, the first and the last) exuded mysticism and grandeur that must be a part of the sense of place that gave birth to them. The odd registers and diction and unusual sentence constructions lent an authority to the text. For her work in Sagarana, she received the PEN Translation Prize in 1967.

"Matraga" had been twice adapted to the big screen, in 1965 and 2011. The more recent adaptation directed by Vinicius Coimbra was awarded Best Fiction Feature by both jury and audience in the Rio International Film Festival (here's the trailer).


  1. I'm sorry I put off reading Guimarães Rosa for so long, but this short story sounds almost just as appealing as Grande Sertão in terms of its complexity and concerns. Guess I have a lot of GR to look forward to--but first, on to the last 40 pages of his novel! P.S. Psyched to learn that some of Grande Sertão's characters appear in other GR writings.

  2. I've just finished rereading, Richard. I need a drink of cachaça after it. "Matraga" is like a streamlined version, a tributary. The themes in both bounce off each other.

  3. Rise - I saw your title and realized - two stories away from finishing Sagarana - that I'd need to wait until I was done to read your post. Now that I am done, 15 minutes ago, It's been great to go straight from finishing this story to reading your post about it, in which you so nicely lay out the ways in which it anticipates Grande Sertão: Veredas. I found reading these stories after GSV to be revelatory, not only in the way that they all lead up and point towards the novel to come (talk about a book being the "Big Bang" from which an author's subsequent work emerges!), but also in the way the novel seems to make a gigantic leap from the already formidable talent on display here. A wonderful book, Sagarana - one full of clues for approaching GSV, but also one that on its own is something quite singular and special.

  4. Scott, I'm reading the rest of the stories in Sagarana for rainy days. The story as a sort of prologue to the novel was indeed a revelation, already displaying in concentrated form the writer's river of ideas. His novella "The Jaguar" was a good variation too, of the metamorphosis theme and the unebbing narrative flow.