Guimaraes Rosa

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By MIA COUTO*

What Rosa pursued in her writing was “this moving, impossible, disturbing thing, rebellious to any logic, which we call 'reality', and which is ourselves, the world, life”.

Dear friends:

I wonder what I can say about Guimarães Rosa, I come from so far away and when so much authoritative study has already been produced about the great writer from Minas Gerais. This doubt marked the preparation of this speech of mine.

You know the Brazilian writer better than I do and it would make no sense for me, a Mozambican, to come to Brazil and philosophize about a Brazilian author. Above all, since I am not a scholar of literature, neither Brazilian nor any other.

I then decided that I would not talk about a writer or his writing. Yes, I would talk about the reasons that I believe give rise to this powerful influence that João Guimarães Rosa had on some Portuguese-language African literature. I will also talk about my relationship with writing, I will talk about my attitude towards the production of stories (with a small h) and the deconstruction of History (with a capital H).

In reality, I recognize some personal reasons that made my meeting with Guimarães Rosa a kind of seismic shock in my soul. Some of these reasons I recognize today. I will list these reasons, one by one:

The importance of the writer being able to not be a writer

Guimarães Rosa was not just a writer. As a doctor and diplomat, he belatedly visited literature, but did not take up exclusive and permanent residence there. When reading Rosa you realize that, to reach that intimate relationship with writing, you need to be a writer and a lot of writer. But for a while you have to be a non-writer.

It is necessary to be free to delve into the non-writing side, it is necessary to capture the logic of orality, it is necessary to escape the rationality of writing codes as a system of thought. This is the challenge of a balancing act – having one foot in each of the worlds: that of writing and that of orality. It is not about visiting the world of orality. It’s about letting yourself be invaded and dissolved by the universe of speeches, legends, proverbs.

The example of a work that avoided the work

João Guimarães Rosa did not make literature his career. He was interested in the intensity, the almost religious experience. Most of his nine books were published posthumously. For Guimarães Rosa, it is not the books that matter, but the writing process. The moment he enters the institution that symbolized the solemnity of the work – the Brazilian Academy of Letters – this light seems to be too much and makes him succumb.

The suggestion of a language that frees itself from its regulations

I already had a taste for disobeying the rules in poetry, but it was with the author of the Third bank of the river that I experienced a taste for the relationship between language and thought, a taste for the divine power of the word.

But I decided not to talk about myself, nor about Guimarães Rosa, nor about writers. My purpose here is above all to understand why a Brazilian author influenced so many Portuguese-speaking African writers (the paradigmatic case will be Luandino Vieira, but there are others such as the Angolan Boaventura Cardoso, the Mozambicans Ascêncio de Freitas and Tomaz Vieira Mário).

There will certainly be a historical need for this influence. There are reasons that go beyond the author. There would be an organic predisposition in Mozambique and Angola to receive this influence, and this predisposition goes beyond the literature. In this meeting I will try to list some of the factors that can help to understand how Rosa became a reference on the other side of the world.

Building a fantastic place

The word “sertão” is curious. The sound suggests the verb “to be” in an exhilarated dimension. Being so, existing so much. The Portuguese took the word to Africa and tried to name the savannah landscape that way. It did not work. The word did not take root. Only in old colonial writings can the term “sertão” be found. Almost no one today, in Mozambique and Angola, recognizes its significance.

João Guimarães Rosa created this fantastic place, and made it a kind of place of all places. The backlands and paths he speaks of are not of the order of geography. The backlands are a world built on language. “The sertão”, he says, “is within us”. Guimarães Rosa does not write about the sertão. He writes as if he were the backlands.

In Mozambique we lived and still live in the epic moment of creating a space that is ours, not by taking possession, but because in it we can stage the fiction of ourselves, as creatures who bear History and make the future. That was national independence, that was the utopia of a dreamed world.

The establishment of another time

We have already seen that the sertão is the non-territory. We will see that your time is not the one lived, but the one dreamed of. The narrator of Great wilderness: Veredas says: “These things that I remember happened some time later”. And he could say it another way: important things always pass beyond time.

What Rosa pursued in her writing was (I'm quoting) “this moving, impossible, disturbing thing, rebellious to any logic, which we call 'reality', and which is ourselves, the world, life”. Poetic transgression is the only way to escape the dictatorship of reality. Knowing that reality is a kind of closed prison with the key to reason and the door to common sense.

The construction of the centralizing State and the refusal of homogeneity

It is important to situate in which historical context João Guimarães Rosa writes. Much of Rosiana's work was written when Brazilians created a capital out of “nothing” in the interior of this hinterland (Brasília had just been built). What was taking place was the consummation of centralized control of a multiple and fleeting reality.

In reality, the hinterland of Guimarães Rosa is built into myth to counter a certain standardizing and modernizing idea of ​​a Brazil on the rise. The distant and marginal place, which is the interior plateau of Brazil, becomes an artificially disordered and disorganizing labyrinth.

Mozambique also lives the logic of a centralizing State, of linguistic and cultural standardization processes. The denial of this domestic globalization is often done through the sacralization of what is called tradition. Traditional Africa, deep Africa and other folklorized entities emerge as a privileged space of tradition, a place frozen in time, a kind of nation that only lives by being dead.

What Guimarães Rosa's writing suggested was a kind of inversion of this process of refusal. It was not about building a mystified nation, but about building the myth as a nation.

The impossibility of a portrait of the nation

Mozambique and Brazil are countries that contain deep contrasts within themselves. It is not just a matter of distancing levels of wealth, but of cultures, universes, and discourses so diverse that they do not seem to fit into the same national identity. João Guimarães Rosa's writing is a kind of journey along this line of sewing. What is he looking for in writing: a portrait of Brazil? No. What he offers is a way of inventing Brazil.

Along with Mário de Andrade, João Guimarães Rosa is one of the founders of the territorial and cultural identity of the Brazilian nation. By going against a certain idea of ​​modernization, Rosa ended up creating the pillars of another stylistic modernity in Brazil. He did this at a time when Brazilian literature was a prisoner of provincial models, too close to the standards of Portuguese, Spanish and French literature. From a similar prison we too longed to be freed.

What Guimarães Rosa establishes is the narrator as a mediator of worlds. Riobaldo is a kind of smuggler between urban, literate culture and country, oral culture. This is the challenge facing not only Brazil, but also Mozambique. More than a pivot point, today we need a medium, someone who uses powers that do not come from science or technique to put these universes in connection. There is a need for connection with what João Guimarães Rosa calls “those on the other side”. This side is within each of us. This side there is, in a word, orality.

The need to counter the excesses of realism

In Mozambique and Angola, we experienced the effortful application of the aesthetic and literary model of socialist realism. We ourselves were militant authors, our soul took sides and all of this seemed historically necessary to us. But we understood that there was another logic that escaped us and that literature had reasons that escaped political reason.

Guimarães Rosa's reading suggested that it was necessary to go beyond reason in order to look inside the soul of Brazilians. As if to touch reality a certain hallucination was necessary, a certain madness capable of rescuing the invisible. Writing is not a vehicle to reach an essence, a truth. Writing is the never-ending journey. Writing is the discovery of other dimensions, the unveiling of mysteries that are beyond appearances. It is Guimarães Rosa who writes: “When nothing happens, there is a miracle that we are not seeing”.

There is a political position here that has never been stated but is inscribed in the treatment of language. It is in the recreation of language that he suggests a utopia, an idea of ​​the future that goes beyond what he denounces as an attempt at “improved poverty”. This language mediated between educated classes and country people almost did not exist in Brazil. Through a reinvented language with the participation of African cultural components, we in Angola and Mozambique were also looking for an art in which the excluded could participate in the invention of their History.

The urgency of a culturally remodeled Portuguese

We experience in Angola and Mozambique a certain saturation of a functional literary discourse. More than functional: employee.

In an interview with Günter Lorenz, Rosa rebelled against the pamphleteer and utilitarian writing of literature, even if this was done in the name of the good intention of changing the world. “Only by renewing the language can we renew the world. What we call current language today is a dead monster. Language serves to express ideas, but current language only expresses clichés and not ideas; That’s why it’s dead, and what’s dead cannot generate ideas.”

For João Guimarães Rosa, language needed to “escape the sclerosis of commonplaces, escape viscosity, drowsiness”. It was not a simple aesthetic issue, but it was, for him, the meaning of writing itself. Explore the potential of the language, challenging the conventional processes of narration, allowing writing to be penetrated by mythology and orality.

Guimarães Rosa, like Manoel de Barros, works outside of common sense (he creates an unusual sense), elaborates on the dense mystery of simple things, gives us the transcendence of the banal thing.

The affirmation of orality and magical thinking

The author rebels against the hegemony of rationalist logic as the only and exclusive way of appropriating reality. Reality is so multiple and dynamic that it requires the collaboration of countless visions. In response to to be or not to be from Hamlet, the Brazilian advances another posture: “Everything is and is not”. What he suggests is the acceptance of the possibility of all possibilities: the unfolding of the many petals, each one being the whole of the flower.

Dear friends,

I explored possible reasons for this magical bridge created between the author from Minas Gerais and our African authors. Possibly none of this makes sense. These reasons apply to me, with my story and my experience.

My country has different countries within it, deeply divided between varied cultural and social universes. I myself am proof of this crossing of worlds and times. I am Mozambican, the son of Portuguese parents, I lived through the colonial system, I fought for independence, I experienced radical changes from socialism to capitalism, from revolution to civil war. I was born in a pivotal time, between a world that was being born and another that was dying. Between a homeland that never existed and another that is still being born. This condition of a border being marked me forever. Both parts of me required a medium, a translator. Poetry came to my rescue to create this bridge between two seemingly distant worlds.

And I grew up in this mixed race environment, listening to old storytellers. They brought me the enchantment of a sacred moment. That was my mass. I wanted to know who the authors of those stories were and the answer was always the same: nobody. The ancestors had created those tales, and the stories remained a divine inheritance. The elders were buried on that same floor, giving history and religiosity to that relationship. In this house, ancestors become gods.

For that reason, that moment acted on me in a contradictory way: on the one hand, it comforted me, on the other, it excluded me. I could not fully share in that conversation between gods and men. Because I was already loaded with Europe, my soul had already drunk on one thought. And my dead lived on another ground, far away and inaccessible.

When I ask myself why I write, I answer: to familiarize myself with the gods I don't have. My ancestors are buried in another distant place, somewhere in the north of Portugal. I don't share their intimacy and, even worse, they don't know me completely. What I do today, whenever I write, is invent these ancestors of mine. This reinvention requires artifices that only childhood can preserve. Such profound relearning implies a radical loss of judgment. That is, it implies poetry.

And it was poetry that the prose writer João Guimarães Rosa gave me. When I read it for the first time I felt a feeling that I had already felt when listening to storytellers from my childhood. In front of the text, I didn't simply read: I heard voices from childhood. João Guimarães Rosa's books threw me out of writing as if, suddenly, I had become a selective illiterate. To enter those texts I had to use another act that is not “reading”, but that requires a verb that does not yet have a name.

More than the invention of words, what touched me was the emergence of a poetry that took me out of the world. That was a language in a trance state, which went into a trance like mediums in magical and religious ceremonies. There was something like a deep intoxication that allowed other languages ​​to take possession of that language. Exactly like the dancer from my hometown who doesn't just dance. He prepares possession by the spirits. He creates the religious moment in which he emigrates from his own body.

Storytellers in my country have to perform a ritual when they finish telling. They have to “close” the story. “Closing” the story is a ritual in which the narrator speaks to the story itself. The stories are thought to be taken from a box left by Guambe and Dzavane, the first man and woman. At the end, the narrator turns to the story — as if the story were a character — and says: “Go back to Guambe and Dzavane’s house.” This is how the story ends again in this primordial chest.

What happens when the story is not “closed”? The crowd that watches becomes sick, infected by an illness called dreaming disease. João Guimarães Rosa is an accountant who did not close the story. We get sick, we who listen to him. And we love this illness, this enchantment, this aptitude for fantasy. Because it’s not enough for everyone to have a dream. We want more, we want to be a dream.

Thank you very much for helping me become this dream.

*Mia Couto is a writer. Author, among other books, of Sleepwalking Earth (Company of Letters).

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