The Shadows of the Great Sertão: Veredas

Image: Elyeser Szturm

By Luiz Roncari*

O Great Sertão: Veredas, like any great book, was soon seen as a text full of attractions, where you had everything and for everyone. As it was explored by critics, it was also noted that it was composed of several layers of meaning that overlapped. And that's how he showed himself, generous, giving the possibility of the most different readings: linguistic, stylistic, historical, sociological, mythological, psychoanalytic, esoteric; its bibliography is immense and varied. With their decanting, needed, and once their contributions are incorporated, a less segmented and more integrative, holistic view would then be possible; this was the challenge, appreciating it as a whole, as a whole, would perhaps now be the task of criticism.

At least for the Brazilian reader, the book also showed that, in addition to the attractive aspects, it had a sandy bottom, composed of a highly uncomfortable fine flour, which dries out our tongue and throat and can suffocate us. This is because the Great Sertão it is also a specular book – although it intends to be completely contrary to that. However, in the patches of murky reflected images, he also reveals us to ourselves, as humans and in our particularity. I am thinking of the portraits of rich merchants, doges and Popes, by Giorgione, Bellini and Tiziano: despite the luxury of rich and lavish clothes, they also reflect, with their beautiful appearances, a crack and a dark depth of their souls, which is not quite the what we look for in the mirror. That's a little bit of what I'm going to talk about.

Guimarães Rosa, in addition to being a profound connoisseur of Brazilian literature, was also knowledgeable of classic and modern European literature, all of which were read in their respective original languages. So that his references were the highest and, when writing his novel, he reveals to us that his pretensions were not small, on the contrary, he proposed a book to match the best of the great literatures of his present it is past. On that plane, he did not respect temporal, spatial, or linguistic boundaries. But he also knew that everything he did would carry Brazil with it: a place from the former Portuguese colonial world, with a slave-owning past, still permeated by all the rancidities and deformities that this implied.

It was the social and spiritual experience acquired in him that would serve as the basis for his representations and, however much he wanted to, he would not be able to get rid of them, nor would it be convenient, since they were the most formative he had, even after having already lived in large advanced centers, such as Germany and France. Thus, he was also a convict, and he was fully aware of it, that the high aspirations that knowledge made possible for him would always have to drag with him the reduced world of rustic living, and, due to his personal greatness, we know that he valued it as much as the scholar. So we should also read this book from the same point of view used by Antonio Candido to talk about the Formation of Brazilian Literature, when he says, at the end of the book, referring to an essay by Machado de Assis: “combining universal values ​​with local reality in various ways and, in this way, gaining the right to express your dream, your pain, his jubilation, his modest view of things and fellow men”. [I] A little earlier, he had written, “literature follows the march of our formation as a civilized country, contributing to define its spiritual physiognomy through the description of its human reality, in a language free from linguistic prejudices”. [ii] The italics, “civilized country”, is mine, as it will be important for the development of this exhibition.

Guimarães experienced the same oscillation as the writer in the former colonial world between the universal and the particular: he looked to high literary models, but could not get rid of the harshness of life in the former slave colony. In a different way, but also like James Joyce, who, when writing his avant-garde epic, Odysseus, would not let go of his Catholic and provincial Dublin. However, our author from Minas Gerais used his experiences to give substance and concreteness to his more elevated and abstract projects. It would be the wisest course of action for him.

The underlining in the last speech by Antonio Candido, in the book published in 1959, just three years after the Great Sertão, from 56, I did it just to exemplify how the layer of educated men of that time brought with them the anguishing question that was asked about Brazil: what would our political-social process be like, in civilization ou backwoods? Men like Antonio Candido, Mário de Andrade and Sérgio Buarque de Holanda (the latter, a little later, would organize a collection that he called General history of Brazilian civilization), based on what they wrote, believed in the first hypothesis – even if it was a “solar” civilization, as Mário de Andrade said, or “dark”, as perhaps Oswald de Andrade said, and for that they fought, mainly with their works, but not only that, since they were also committed men in our political life.

Since the beginning of my studies on Guimarães Rosa, in the 60s, when an idyllic view of the hinterland and cangaço was still shared in the country with the academy, I agreed with other scholars who claimed that the Great Sertão spoke of a civilization crossing, which, in a way, was for the author the very history of Brazil. For him, the country was transitioning from a Hobbesian, violent world, where the struggle of everyone against everyone dominated, according to the law of the strongest, the astute and the betrayal, backwoods, for a world more ordered by Justice and institutionalized life. The model to which the hero Riobaldo aspired, and for that reason he can also be considered a civilizing hero, was that of the city of Januária, as it appears in the book, with all its symbolic force, of a life with urban comforts, as clean towels in the hotels, walks in the square, “the parade of the pretty dark girls, so socially […], smelling of umbuzeiro oil”, and the tasty cachacinha. Or else, so as not to leave the novel, the peaceful and feminine Veredas Alas, the Barbaranha farm, of Seo Ornelas and Dona Brasilina, the place where, at the end of the book, the appeasement of the great rural landowner with the man of capital, Seo Habao, and the hero's marriage and family integration sponsored by him. But, now that the chemical bath of the present time dissolves the political, legal and cultural institutions of the country, with the militias of the new jagunços in the basements of the Planalto and a military corps of generals tutoring and moderating the civil power, braver than he, the perspectives seem to be inverted and fit more than ever to the prophetic truth of the song by the bando de Riobaldo:

Olerereee, bai-

ana ...

I would go and

I'm not going anymore:

I do-

I'm going inside, oh baiana,

and back

the middle one

backwards... [iii]

It is important, when reading, to respect the caesuras and cuts of the verses, as they duplicate and reinforce the meaning of the lyrics, where the “backwards...” is isolated in the final verse and thus accentuates it, “ backwards...”. Everything indicates that we are moving towards a situation of incivility, in the sense of reducing the character civil, urban and pacified of our relations and a return to the aggressive and rustic armed life of the hinterland. This would be the theme of the book that our present updates, an extemporaneous fact that awakens and activates in the text the possibility of new readings. If I have time, I'll come back to it. Now, it's from crafts What I want to talk about, let's get back to fiction.

The White Face – After the Judgment of Zé Bebelo and the passage of the gang through the pastoral area of ​​Guraravacã do Guaicui, with the announcement of the death of Joca Ramiro, when the men loyal to the dead chief leave in search of Medeiro Vaz to replace him, a moment begins laden with references to being in the middle of something; on two pages, the hero-narrator says: “Crossing, God in the middle”; “This is Minas; is it Bahia already?”; “Did my life have a middle way?”; “São Francisco split my life into two parts”. Earlier, he had stated, in a passage much observed and commented on by critics: “Here I could put a stop. To get the ending out of the way, to know what's left, what's enough for you, that less is more, is to pay attention to what I've told you, to go over what I've been saying. Because I didn't narrate anything at random: just a main point, as far as I can believe. I don't waste words”. [iv] What I would like to add is that you were also in the physical medium of the book. at 3a. edition, which accompanies the second, given as the definitive one by the author, in a volume of 572 pages, this passage occurs on page 292, just six after the juste-milieu. And she asks us to revisit what has already been said, “pay attention to what I have told, go over what I have been saying alive”, to know what will come, “to know the rest that is missing”, and this “rest” is nothing more. less than half the book, though some of it has already been advanced to us, but he will retell it.

What the reader will realize is that he was at a turning point, a sharp bend in the narrative, a kind of elbow, the dimension of which he had already been alerted to a little earlier, when the hero-narrator said: “We left, we went on. But we went down the straw of misfortunes” [v]; much further on, he will confirm, saying that they have “descended into hell”. [vi] What actually changed on the narrative plane? For those who imagined the book as the elocution of the hero-narrator in a homogeneous and continuous flow, if you take into account what was said by him and take his warning seriously, you will see that the change from one part to the other is profound, both in form as well as in content.

What seemed to be a story in a spontaneous disposition within the same norms, for some, labyrinthine or abysmal, following the hero's impulse and the trotting of the knight's entourage, you will be able to see that it followed a design, not to say a previously thought out and established project, for the profound meaning it held. This can only be perceived from the reduction of the narrative to its most defining lines, in the two planes, those of the background and the form, which cannot be dismembered, as they merge in the dimension of meaning, to the extent that one confirms and is confuse with the other.

The first part of the novel, in my 2004 book, Rose's Brazil, I described it as an ascending, slow, subjective and digressive line, composed of many instances and intercalations. I said, “the episodes are linked dispersively, in a slow and truncated development, through the diversions of the parallel stories, the escapes from the main action and the delaying circumlocutions, always returning, however, to its thematic fulcrum: the formation and life of adventures of jagunço Riobaldo. The narrative, developing in this way, created the impression of a steep climb full of turns in its upward movement, as if it were the first face of the trapeze, which goes from left to right and from bottom to top”. [vii] This was reminiscent of the way of composition of Italian Renaissance painting, of which he was a great admirer, as we see in his travel diaries, which departed from a internal design structuring element, such as the triangle and the circle, to compose his figures on top of it. It is up to the reader to make this reduction of the tumult of facts to their essential traces of geometry. 

In fact, in the first part, the story closely followed the modes of modern narrative, following the verbal and subjective flow of the hero-narrator, who selected the episodes to be told according to his own, underlying motivations, in a disorderly and jumbled way. And this was done to tell a very new fact: the acquisition by the hinterland of what was most modern, the institution of the court and the experience of conquest of justice. This fact was the apex of the modern in the modern way of narrating. This would be the white face of the trapeze, the formation of the hero and the civilizing gains made by the hinterland.

The judgment was the landmark of the founding of a new institutional order, which would coexist with that of the sertão, the violence that dominated their world, where aggressive and military relations prevailed, the law of the strongest, closest to nature, the of cunning and betrayal. It was all very Brazilian. Joca Ramiro's acceptance of the court confirms one of the traits of his uniqueness vis-à-vis the other jagunços chiefs. he was a figure part, who knew how to combine in his hands the three heights of power: military strength, political astuteness and the greatest of all, the sense of justice, the same as Zeus/Jupiter.

With that, he made the sertão incorporate the modern institutions of justice, without denying, however, the sertaneja order, the traditional manorial order, since it was the only one in force at the time and, without it, there would be anomie, the emptiness of no authority. This was the thinking of enlightened conservatism, very similar to that of the author's friend, Afonso Arinos de Melo Franco. Thus, it is no coincidence that Zé Bebelo's trial takes place in a courtyard under the patronage of the manor house, owned by Doctor Mirabô de Melo, where he remained, despite his body "although absent" [viii], in present spirit.

Joca Ramiro's greatness lay in seeking the impossible, adapting the civilizing element to the wildness of the sertão, where the private power of the lords of command and the jagunça militias dominated par excellence. However, he was betrayed by part of his own men, that of Hermógenes and Ricardão, and he paid with his life. Guimarães, who, in the years when the Great Sertão, served at Itamaraty, as Chief of Staff for João Neves de Fontoura, a politician from Rio Grande do Sul and a minister very close to Getúlio Vargas, and whom the author held in high regard when he published the book, in 56, had just watched the episodes of his tragic suicide, in 54, when pressured by the liberal forces of the elites, the same as in the 2016 coup: military, judiciary, press, employers with whom he had always insisted on pact and conciliation.

The author, who had accompanied his governments from Minas Gerais and not from São Paulo, the focus of the reaction in 32, had already witnessed other coups and attempted coups against Getúlio, as in 32, 35, 37, 45 and 50 , crowned in 54. [1] But this could have been a simple coincidence, the author, who had high literary intentions, could not let the downgraded and minor facts of the story spill so deeply into his text. Would it be so? This is not about establishing a direct cause and effect relationship between history and literature, but about bringing another complicating factor to its reading complexity, which also needs to be taken into account and not clouded, for the understanding of the text in the its integrity, if we accept the initial hypothesis that the book tells us about an attempt at a civilizing crossing.

The little attention given to the facts of history and the world when reading the book can be attested by the relevance given to the Pact in relation to the little given to the alliance signed between the hero and his Habão, military power and capital. But this one, despite being simple, actually took place and was sealed and confirmed with the gift of the horse Siruiz, which made the hero a debtor of the second. As for the Pact, we remain in doubt, we don't know if it happened or not, but the mystery of the forces of the universal divine is always more wonderful.

The Dark Face – From the death of Joca Ramiro to betrayal, the theme of the book becomes the pursuit of revenge and no longer that of justice, which makes its sense revert from the modern to the most archaic, even in literature. : death to betrayal and the pursuit of revenge. Nothing more traditional. This whole second part of the book, which I called “face negra”, because it is about fights, losses and deaths, focuses on the episodes with a view to this: the search for revenge by Joca Ramiro, killed by betrayal. This was the main rule of the sertão, which returned again as a norm, and in which not even traitors slept peacefully. I don't need to look for examples in Shakespeare or in the European and distant courts of our present, when treason became the rule. And, in terms of form, the narrative is no longer just subjective, dispersive and scrambled, to focus on the objective sequence of episodes that will lead to the realization of these designs. And I worked that into my last book, Struggles and Dawns – the opposites of Grande Sertão Veredas, of which I will quote here, to conclude, a small excerpt:

“As for the narrative order, from now on there will also be a rearticulation, apparently in the opposite direction to the events. If in these, 'the world at the joints was out of control', [as the hero-narrator says] now, in that, it will be better ordered, as if it demanded a readaptation of the form to its new content, predominantly epic, as if a world in convulsion demanded order and meaning. What we appreciate [...] is the need to unscramble the narration. That is, to undo the imbroglio that mixed episodes from different times, and, for that, comes the need to recover some events already reported.

There is a movement of substitution of the perspective of simultaneity by the succession". [ix] What amounted to a return to the old order, from synchrony to diachrony, both in the narrative plan and in its content, “Because now the meaning of the fight became regressive too and it was inverted. While the previous narrative order made the modernizing theme of the search for justice in the sertão enter into the formally modern, now it realigns itself and will go from the modern to the thematically archaic: it will no longer be the search for justice [...] to be the exclusive search for justice. Vengeance in its episodic sequence. In this way, both in form and content, we move from the modern to the archaic. It would be as if the [mythical] forces of the eternal return come back and impose themselves on the [history] of crossing. " [X]

With that, the prophecy of the song came true, we returned “from the middle / to the back…”. This second part takes place before the mournful end of the book, also laden with Auroras, that of the settled hero, “almost a ravine”, still enveloped by the melancholy veil of the loss of Diadorim’s wild love, as if it were necessary for death to fertilize the other. future, that of family integration with domestic worker Otacília. But it is always important to remember the ghost of Soropita, that bully who settled down with his former prostitute, Doralda, in the village of Ão, but like a sleeping ember, which could rekindle and explode at any moment and on any cue. Riobaldo, farsighted, was also careful about that, as he had established former henchmen in his vicinity, with their weapons tucked under the bed, since everything could come back “from the middle/backwards…”, as it did today.

* Luiz Roncari in a lecture given at a table with professors Willi Bolle, Yudith Rosembaum and Sandra Guardini Vasconcelos, at the event infinitely may, at IEB/USP, on 16/05/2019.

[1] On the subject, I refer the reader to, from my point of view, one of the most important and interesting epistolary exchanges in our political life, the correspondence between Getúlio Vargas and his daughter Alzira. In particular, the short chronicle by Antonio Candido, “Pros and cons”, used as a presentation. In it, he makes a reconsideration of Getúlio and Getulismo, where he says: “The genius of Getúlio Vargas consisted in part in the discernment that his political destiny was linked to modernization, which he confusedly felt and did not see as a rupture with tradition, but as a compromise between two historical periods, one descending, the other emerging.” back to power. 2 vols. Rio de Janeiro: FGVEditora/Ouro sobre Azul, 218, 1st. v., p. 10

[I] Antonio Candido. Formation of Brazilian Literature. 2nd vol. 1a. ed. São Paulo: Livraria Martins Editora, 1959, p. 368

[ii] Idem ibidem, p. 367

[iii] Joao Guimaraes Rosa. Great Sertão: Veredas. 3a. ed.. Rio de Janeiro: Livraria José Olympio Editora, 1963, pp168 and 169 (

[iv] Op. cit., pp. 292 and 293.

[v] Idem ibidem, p. 285

[vi] Ibidem, p. 335

[vii] Luiz Roncari, Pink Brazil: love and power. 2a. reprint, 2018, p. 263 (

[viii] Joao Guimaraes Rosa. Ibid., p. 244

[ix] Luiz Roncari. Fights and Auroras – the opposite sides of the Grande Sertão: Veredas. São Paulo: Editora UNESP, 2018, pp 40 and 41 (

[X] Idem ibidem, p. 41, this same theme, of the oscillation between the mythical and the historical in the literature of Guimarães Rosa, I worked on in my book Buriti from Brazil and Greece. São Paulo: Editora 34, 2013 (

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