Oral tradition and the emergence of fiction

George Grosz, Die Verantwortlichen (plate, folio 29), from Ecce Homo 1922–23 (original executed in 1920)


Commentary on the novels “O ermitão do Muquém” and “O Índio Afonso”, both by Bernardo Guimarães

In the second volume of Formation of Brazilian Literature, in the chapter entitled “Appearance of fiction”, Antonio Candido develops a small theory about the introduction of the novel in Brazil in the XNUMXth century, calling attention to its importance in the process of building the image of the nation.[I] Understood by the critic as a genre “more or less equidistant from lyrical research and the systematic study of reality”, the novel was used as “an instrument of discovery and interpretation” (CANDIDO, 1981, p. 109), which made it possible to map landscapes and human types that should integrate the empire: “In the Romantic period”, he says, “the imagination and observation of some fiction writers greatly expanded the vision of the land and of the Brazilian man” (Idem, p. 112).

The game between “imagination” and “observation”, between research and invention, would be at the base of the romantic novel, enabling its best achievements, but, at the same time, imposing a problem that, as we will see below, would need to be equated by the writers. Taking stock of the prose fiction produced in the period, the critic states: “our novel hungers for space and has a topographic urge to feel the whole country. Perhaps its legacy consists less of types, characters and adventures than in certain regions that have become literary, the narrative sequence inserting itself in the environment, almost enslaving itself to it. Thus, what is formed and remains in the reader's imagination is a colorful and multiform Brazil, which artistic creation superimposes on geographic and social reality”. (p. 114)

Continuing the analysis, Candido considers that the attachment to the local color, embodied in Indianism and regionalism, established in the novel a tension between, on the one hand, the romantic conception of the plot and the psychology of the characters and, on the other, the programmatic intention of incorporate data collected by observation, putting writers in front of the challenge of finding the “adequate literary expression” to each of these subgenres. Confronted by this kind of sphinx, the critic believes that the Indianist material was easier to be worked on by writers, favored by the prestigious model of Chateaubriand and by the fact that the urban public, for the most part, was simply unaware of the indigenous tribes. “In the case of regionalism, however, the language and customs described were close to those of the city, presenting a difficult problem of stylization”, which made “obtaining verisimilitude” more complex (p. 116).

This situation is thematized in the short story “Juca, o tropeiro”, by Visconde de Taunay, who makes use of the commonplace expedient of attributing the story to a source that the writer-narrator would have known throughout his wanderings, in this case, to a former - Army Sgt. Faced with the enchantment provoked by the story transmitted to him, the narrator of the story is faced with the dilemma of keeping it in its original linguistic form, riddled with errors and improprieties, or of filtering it and conforming it to the cultured norms of the public. reader to whom it is addressed: “Having nevertheless recognized the originality and strength of coloring of this language, and wishing to still preserve a touch of the naive, but picturesque expression of the narrator, something strange resulted, neither as it was told by the former sergeant, nor as it should be, from the hand of someone who throws himself into writing for the public” (p. 116).

Starting from these considerations by Antonio Candido, which highlight the difficulty of constructing the romantic novel, I would like to briefly analyze how the clash between the oral and the written, one of the elements involved in the tension between the particular data, gathered by observation, and its adaptation to the narrative model taken from the literate tradition, manifests itself in a specific writer, Bernardo Guimarães.[ii]

The hermit of Muquém

The hermit of Muquém (1869), by Bernardo Guimarães, tells the story of the pilgrimage that every year goes to the chapel of Nossa Senhora da Abadia, located in the interior of the province of Goiás, and Gonçalo, its founder. In the prologue, the “author” states that the story he will tell “rests on a royal tradition that is very well known in the province of Goiás” (GUIMARÃES, 1972, p. 133)[iii] and clarifies the configuration given to the book, which is divided into three large parts, each with its own style, suggested by the different situations faced by the protagonist. “The first part”, set in Vila Boa, “is written in the tone of a realistic novel and customs; it represents scenes from the life of the sertão men, their noisy and somewhat barbaric merriments, their licentious customs, their spirit of courage and their bloody feuds” (Idem, p. 133).

Contrasting with this opening, the second part portrays the hero's life among the Indians, whose unknown customs would prevent the adoption of a realistic perspective and would force the novel to take on certain “poemlike airs” (p. 133): “The realism of his living escapes us, and we are only left with idealism, and that very vague, and perhaps largely fictitious, idealism. So much the better for the poet and the novelist; there are ample spaces to develop the resources of your imagination. The lyricism, therefore, that reigns in this second part, […] is very excusable; this slightly more elevated and ideal style was the only one that suited the subjects I had to deal with, and the circumstances of my hero.” (p. 133-4)

Finally, the third part of the novel, dealing with the founding of the abbey, deals with “Christianity”, a theme of “ideal sublimity”, which demands a higher style, a “more serious and solemn tone, a language like that which Chateaubriand and Lamartine know how to speak when dealing with such an elevated subject” (p. 134).

As the hero moves from the village of Vila Boa to the indigenous tribes and from there to the deep sertão, where he erects a chapel in honor of Nossa Senhora da Abadia, the narrator is faced with the problem analyzed by Antonio Candido in the chapter on Basic commented earlier, namely, the formulation of the appropriate style for each genre. In case of The hermit of Muquém, the search for decorum is equated as a path of stylistic ascension: while the first part of the novel is composed in a medium style, able to represent, from a “realistic” perspective, “the rough and coarse society of the sertanejo” (p. 133) , the second takes on a “slightly more elevated style”, adopting a poetic language suited to the idealization of indigenous life, until, finally, the third part takes on a “more serious and solemn tone”, a style accustomed to the “ideal sublimity of the subject”, “Christian mysticism” (p. 134).

O hermit of Muquém is structured as a fitting narrative. There is a frame, in which a first narrator recounts the trip he made from Goiás to Rio de Janeiro, when, while crossing the province of Minas Gerais, he happens to meet a pilgrim from Muquém, who joins the caravan and, in the four nights in which they stop to rest, tells the story of the founding of the chapel of Nossa Senhora da Abadia.[iv] To ensure the veracity of the report, this pilgrim is described as a frank and polite man; he possessed “a lively imagination, a clear intelligence, and his language and manners revealed a cultivated spirit and fine education. In his eyes and mouth he had a remarkable expression of kindness and frankness; his voice had a clear, sonorous timbre. Our narrator lacked nothing to capture all attention” (p. 141).

At the end of the story, the pilgrim-narrator confirms the veracity of the facts reported and ensures the reliability of the source through which he learned about the story: “If you want to know where I went to have such small knowledge of the events of this true narration, you know that I heard it from an old pilgrim, who had heard it from the mouth of Master Mateus himself, and who had heard it near the ruins of the hut of the holy hermit, sitting on the same stump where he had once told it to the old blacksmith of Goiás and to his family of pilgrims”. (p. 273)

The first narrator, responsible for the frame outlined in the “Introduction”, claims to have known the story through the pilgrim, who in turn heard it from another believer, to whom it had been told by master Mateus, who partly witnessed it and in part part was informed of its episodes through Gonçalo's account. In this way, an attempt is made to link the novel to an orally transmitted tradition, finally collected and fixed by the writer, who seeks to mimic some marks of orality in the book, particularly the division into Pousos, which would correspond to the nights in which the story was narrated by the pilgrim. Hence the appearance of a “story”, perceptible in several novels by Bernardo Guimarães, which, in the words of Antonio Candido, “seem like good country prose, [...] , the fruit of a picturesque human and artistic experience” (CANDIDO, op. cit., p. 236).

The mix between the oral and the written makes the problem of incorporating, on the part of the modern novel, elements taken from the legend more acute, an archaic form that, in the case of The hermit of Muquém, would preserve in popular memory the history of the foundation of the abbey erected in the confines of Goiás. For Erich Auerbach, unlike the historical mode, which works with different planes and seeks to account for the contradictions and complexity of each lived moment, when a plethora of possibilities presents itself to a vacillating and uncertain subject, the legend presents a linear and univocal, tending to flatten the conflicts and to advance without hesitation towards the outcome (AUERBACH, 1976, p. 15-6).

No Hermit, the legendary structure manifests itself on several levels, whether in the incorporation of traditional motifs, such as the love triangle, the dangerous mission, conceived as a test of valor, and the fight to the death, or in the perspective adopted by the narrator, who tends to resolve the internal conflicts, giving rise to flat characters, more often than not divided between good and evil, or oscillating between these two poles, in a movement that can eventually tear the personality apart, as happens with Gonçalo. In this way, the univocal and univocal aspect of the characters does not need to be evaluated as a defect in the narrative or as an ineptitude of the writer, and can be understood as a result of the incorporation of a structural element of the legend, which collaborated to achieve the effects sought by the novel of the XNUMXth century. XIX, notably for the edification of the reading public. Alongside these traditional elements and possible oral transmission, the story also appropriates erudite sources, from the choice of the novel genre and the explicit dialogue with Chateaubriand and other XNUMXth century writers, especially Byron, to the construction of the hero as a character. split.

The Indian Afonso

The problem of obtaining the appropriate style for incorporating the oral story into the novel — which refers to the discussion of “Juca, o tropeiro” made by Antonio Candido — appears not only in the Hermit, but also in “The dance of the bones”, published by Bernardo Guimarães in legends and novels (1871). In this short story, the cultured and urban narrator claims that the story was told to him by a rustic boatman and regrets that the written account was not able to preserve the vivacity and color of his speech: “The old boatman counted this tremendous story in a cruder way, but much more alive than I have just write it, and accompanied the narration by a savage and expressive gesticulation of imitative sounds that cannot be represented by written signs”.[v]

In addition to this tension between the oral and the written, between the expressiveness of the voice and the gesture, on the one hand, and the coldness of the printed letter, on the other, Bernardo Guimarães was aware of another problem: that of the reception of the rustic universe of the hinterland, that he strove to constitute as narrative material, in the polished world of the city, where his books were consumed. The problem is explained in The Indian Afonso (1873), published four years after the Hermit. In the first chapter of the book, by highlighting the dual nature of the “deep and tangled jungles of the sertões of our land”, which, while harboring “natural riches and curiosities”, are the stage for adventures marked by horror and mystery, observes that these stories were not accessible to the urban public, who ignored them not only due to the distance that separated them, but mainly due to the cultural differences that existed between them (GUIMARÃES, 1944, p. 363).

The narrator, who claims to have a “sertaneja” muse (Idem, p. 364)[vi], presents himself as a kind of translator, an intermediary between two distant and distinct universes, the sertanejo, of wonders and horrors, the sublime and the grotesque, and the urban, of literate culture. When referring to the stupendous stories buried deep in the forests, he observes: “But the secret of such stories the animals keep within themselves and if they tell each other there, it is in a language that no one can understand. I, however, who sometimes converse with the great spirit of the forests, [...] am somewhat qualified to interpret, albeit imperfectly, this language, and I will be able to tell you, kind readers, some of these tremendous stories”. (p. 363)

The difficulty, then, is finding the right way to tell “tremendous stories” for “amiable readers”, accustomed to the comfort of the court and the charms of salon novels. How to overcome this barrier? By the comments made by the narrator of The Indian Afonso, it can be inferred that he envisaged two paths. First, he states that, in order to comfortably take his readers to the sertão, he will take the carriage of the “goddess Fantasy”: “Inside these carriages, the beautiful and delicate ladies will be able to accompany me to the depths of my remote and wild sertões, without any danger and without fatigue, which is what I most desire” (p. 365). As the book's prologue blurs the lines between fact and story, and after sustaining that the protagonist was a real character, whom the author had the opportunity to meet, he ends with the statement that "the Índio Afonso of my novel is not the criminal from Goiás; it is pure creation of my fantasy” (p. 362), it seems possible to assume that, for him, the observation data should be worked by the imagination in order to adapt them to the literary conventions that made up the public’s repertoire, enabling the contact of the public. urban reader with the sertanejo universe.

The second resource used in The Indian Afonso The way to make sertaneja stories acceptable to the educated reader is to narrate their horrors directly but concisely. Thus, despite saying that “my fingers tremble convulsively and my pen shivers with horror creaks over the paper, as I begin the narration of the hideous scene that will follow” (p. 378), he tells without mincing words the brutal revenge imposed by Afonso a Turuna, the man who tried to rape his sister, but does not go into detailed descriptions: “

I confess that I don't know what expressions I should use to tell the readers, and especially the delicate and sensitive readers, these scenes of cannibalism and horror, and I find myself in such embarrassment that I already regret having started the story as it is so sinister and revolting drama. As calm and impassive as someone who is tearing apart a dead pig, Afonso took the knife to the poor Turuna's flesh. After having castrated him in one blow, he cut off his lips, nose and ears. I run over these words like someone walking over the embers of a fire, even though Afonso practiced all those barbaric amputations with all his leisure and with the most horrible phlegm and cold blood”. (p. 379)

It should be noted that the horror is not omitted, but, when “running over these words”, the narrator adopts a concise style, which seems to him the most convenient for his “delicate and sensitive readers”, whose discomfort would be deepened by meticulous descriptions and for a diffusion of the discourse. In addition, direct focusing puts the scene in the foreground and leaves nothing in shadow, probably because it considered that the unknown could appear more threatening than the horror itself seen and clearly delimited.

The bias provided by fantasy, made explicit in The Indian Afonso, already manifested itself in The hermit of Muquém, not only in the part of the story dedicated to the storytelling of indigenous life, as suggested in the book's prologue, but also in the scenes in which Gonçalo appears in Vila Boa and in the hermitage in the forest. However, contrary to the raw and direct focus, noticeable in the scene of Afonso's revenge against Turuna, what characterizes O ermitão do Muquém is an allusive and indirect way used by the narrator to talk about the most shocking aspects of the story without hurting the sensitivity and morality of urban readers, especially the much-loved and faithful female audience, a large consumer of books and serials. As well as adapting the style to the situation experienced by the hero in each part of the novel, referred to in the prologue of the Hermit, there is in this, so to speak, “discreet” way of narrating (which it is not possible to characterize in the brief space of this article), a concern with decorum, understood now as an observation of the conveniences due to the public for which the book is intended. The different ways of working with country material and presenting it to the urban reader hint at Bernardo Guimarães's confrontation with the difficulty of obtaining the most adequate style for establishing the customs of communities in the interior of the country, a problem discussed by Candido in the chapter of Basic which served as a starting point.

*Eduardo Vieira Martins (1965-2020) was a professor at the Department of Literary Theory and Comparative Literature at the University of São Paulo. He is the author of the book The underground source — José de Alencar and nineteenth-century rhetoric (Edusp).

Originally published in the magazine Literature and Society no. 30, jul~dez 2019. [http://dx.doi.org/10.11606/issn.2237-1184.v0i30p163-171]


AUERBACH, E. mimesis. São Paulo: Perspective, 1976.

CANDIDO, A. Formation of Brazilian Literature. Belo Horizonte: Itatiaia, 1981, v. two.

GUIMARÃES, B. The hermit of Muquém. Ed. critique by Antônio José Chediak. Brasília: INL, 1972.

GUIMARÃES, B. The Afonso Indian. In: four novels. Sao Paulo: Livraria Martins, 1944.


[I] I use the concept of nation as an “imagined community”, formulated by Benedict Anderson in the 1980s, after, therefore, the publication of Candido's book. See ANDERSON, B. Nation and national consciousness. Sao Paulo: Attica, 1989.

[ii] The analysis briefly reproduced here is found in my Habilitation thesis, entitled “Os Lugares do Sertão e outros Estudos”, defended at the Department of Literary Theory and Comparative Literature at FFLCH-USP in September 2017. A more developed version of the analysis summarized in this communication was presented at the XIV Abralic International Congress (UFPA, 2015), with the title “The sertaneja muse: Bernardo Guimarães and the romance of the sertão”.

[iii] All quotes from the novel are from this edition.

[iv] The three parts of the novel referred to in the prologue are distributed as follows: the first part corresponds to Pouso Primeiro; the second, to the Second and Third Landings; the third, to Pouso Quarto.

[v] GUIMARÃES, B. “The bone dance”. In: legends and novels. Ed. cit., p. 214. Emphasis mine.

[vi] “My muse is essentially a country girl; sertaneja by birth, sertaneja by habit, sertaneja by inclination”.

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