Read Guimarães Rosa today

George Grosz. Haifische (plate, folio 81) from Ecce Homo, 1922–23 (original executed in 1921)


A tribute to Guimarães and Brazilian literature

This article was written in May 2017 to compose a table that marked the 50th anniversary of the death of Guimarães Rosa. At that moment, the press' attention was dominated by the labor reforms, which would be approved two months later, and the social security reforms, which ended up being approved by the next government two years later. There was no doubt that the groups that carried out the impeachment they were eager to annul all the social conquests of previous years. It is in this spirit that the text pays homage to Guimarães Rosa and Brazilian literature.


We are two days away from the first anniversary of the Temer government, which began on May 12, 2016. It is possible, of course, to characterize this period in various ways, according to the point of view adopted, the degree of agreement with the process in impeachment that generated it, with the assessment made of the reforms being carried out. I'll choose a single adjective, which perhaps sounds a little lame, to describe it: enlightening.

Yes, it has been an enlightening period, at least in a rather melancholy sense, that certain illusions are hard to keep alive. A large part of the arsenal of thought that forged the notion of Brazil with which we all grew up has its eye on a future, on a future point in history when the country will have overcome the condition of a “mill that spends people”, to resume the expression of Darcy Ribeiro.

Let's talk about two reforms, so to speak, that are not exactly on the daily agenda of newspapers or opposition movements today, but that are in full swing: the redefinitions of what would be rural work (through a bill by deputy Nilson Negrão , of the PSDB of Mato Grosso) and slave labor (through a bill authored by Senator Romero Jucá, of the PMDB of Roraima, Minister of Planning for 11 days in the current government).

The first of these projects, in its third article, defines “rural worker” as follows: “Rural employee is every natural person who, in a rural property or rustic building, provides services of a non-continuous nature to a rural or agro-industrial employer, under the dependence and subordination of thereof and against wages or remuneration of any kind”.

Such a definition, in its final passage, legalizes work relations in the countryside remunerated with something other than a salary – room and board, or even room and board, for example, would be sufficient. Maybe it doesn't go that far, but certainly, “compensation of any kind” paves the way for housing to be understood as part of the salary, as the project itself admits, as it seeks to define some limits for this. Elsewhere, the project legalizes 12-hour workdays, makes the right to rest periods more flexible, whether within a workday or in the case of weekly rest – the worker can stay up to three months in a row without weekly rest, which would be compensated by twelve consecutive days of rest.

This happens when there is an imperative need, as defined in art. 7: “The extension of the daily working day for up to 4 (four) hours is permitted in the face of an imperative need or in the face of force majeure, accidental causes, or even to meet the performance or completion of services that cannot be postponed, or whose non-performance may result in obvious damage”.

§ 1 The imperative need includes adverse weather conditions such as periods of rain, cold or prolonged drought, official forecast of rain or frost, as well as the fight against pests that require urgent action, in addition to other peculiar emergency situations.

As for the project that redefines slave labor, things are more complicated. A PEC related to the subject, dated 1999, was approved in 2014 and would establish expropriation as a punishment for employers – if the term fits in this case – who exploit slave labor. It would establish – and it does not – because in the approved text, the then deputy, current Minister of Foreign Affairs, Aloysio Nunes, of the São Paulo PSDB, after recommending, in December 2013, that the amendment be rejected, included an “in the form of the law” after “slave labor” in its text so that it was finally approved. Thus, the Constitutional Amendment came to depend on legislation that regulates it in order to enter into practice. Now, the Brazilian Penal Code, in its article 149, already defines slave labor, and as follows:

“Reducing someone to a condition analogous to that of a slave, either subjecting him to forced labor or exhausting workdays, or subjecting him to degrading working conditions, or restricting, by any means, his locomotion due to a debt contracted with the employer or agent” (Wording provided by Law No. 10.803, of 11.12.2003).

In any case, Romero Jucá's bill has the function of regulating the already approved Constitutional Amendment. And, disrespecting an Amendment approved by 2/3 of the two houses of the legislature and running over the Penal Code, it takes the opportunity to change the concept of slave labor. Here is what can be read in paragraph 1 of Art. 1st:

§ 1 For the purposes of this Law, it is considered slave labor:

I – submission to forced labor, demanded under threat of punishment, with the use of coercion, or which is concluded involuntarily, or with restriction of personal freedom;

II – the restriction of the use of any means of transport by the worker, in order to retain him at the workplace;

III – the maintenance of ostensible surveillance in the workplace or the appropriation of documents or personal objects of the worker, in order to retain him in the workplace;

IV – the restriction, by any means, of the movement of the worker due to a debt contracted with the employer or agent.

The ideas of “exhausting working hours” and “degrading working conditions” completely disappear, as can be seen. In the project, the author of the senator clarifies why this happens, in the following terms: “There is practically a consensus that this measure is fair insofar as it cannot be reconciled with the existence, still, of pockets of exploitation of the human being , in which the worker is subjected to unworthy conditions, with total restriction of freedom and without offering any perspective for the future. The degree of inhumanity present in these work environments is shocking and, as a rule, noticeable at first contact with the conditions in which the work is carried out”.

But, in the field of concepts, certainties are not so clear and there is a charge of subjectivity in the facts. What is extremely revolting for some may not be for others, mainly because working conditions in general are not so wonderful in distant fields, mines, forests and backyard factories.

The reading of this last paragraph is a complete illustration of what has been called enlightening in relation to the present moment. There is no possible margin of doubt. As it is absolutely natural, normal, that Brazilians have working conditions that “are not that wonderful”, it is also natural that the conditions that define slave labor are elastic. After all, what some consider degrading, others consider normal conditions; after all, “exhausting hours” also seems, in the field of concepts, something too subjective, so that a continuous twelve-hour journey under adverse weather conditions may not be a big deal, as foreseen in the project on rural work, since it is I need to avoid damage. And, if these shifts are normal, who can say what the limit of an exhausting workday is?

It remains to be seen why concepts such as “force majeure”, “services that cannot be postponed”, “manifest damages” and, above all, “peculiar emergency situations”, among others, are not subjective and can easily form part of the letter of the law.


At this point, I've already spent half the time I had and you might be wondering what the hell this whole conversation has to do with Guimarães Rosa. And the answer to that can only be unclear: it has everything to do and nothing to do.

I'm not going to explain "nothing to do" because I'm sure that's obvious to everyone. I'm just going to deal with the "everything to see" part. And for this I go back to the beginning, to the idea that classical thinking about Brazil – which includes different intellectuals such as Giberto Freyre and Caio Prado Júnior, Sérgio Buarque de Holanda and Oliveira Lima, Caetano Veloso and Antonio Candido – has its eye on a becoming. Hence the insistence on the idea of ​​“training”. There is always a colonial past to be overcome and, as soon as it is, what is potency will finally become an act.

In an enlightening moment like the one we are experiencing, it is difficult to continue postponing the moment when we will be formed, and it is necessary to admit that the society we created, that is, which is already formed and is really the mill of spending people - and it is in the name of It is from this society that preposterous bills of law are still on the agenda. Or, to put it another way, continuing to believe in the old dream of José Bonifácio de Andrada e Silva that it would be possible to build a nation – a united and solidary group of people – in this vast territory whose population only cohabits. If even slavery, which in José Bonifácio's time was an obvious obstacle to this, still resists, it is difficult to get around the idea that we are indeed a nation, but according to a strange concept, which assumes division as natural, to the point of not seeing it. her more. To the point that the opposition between “coxinhas” and “mortadelas” was seen as a threat to their unity by the press about a year ago. As if that was indeed what divided us.

Brazilian literature, however, went its own way on this point. And since we're talking about reading Guimarães Rosa right now, right now, it doesn't hurt to mention the newest work published on the Grande Sertão: paths, the book by Silviano Santiago Genealogy of Ferocity (CEPE publisher). In it, Rosa's novel emerges as a unique thing, an unforeseen and unpredictable monster in Brazilian literature, an object that "like a rock falls from the top of the mountain due to the erosion caused in the terrain by the torrential rains and destroys once and for all with the narrow gauge of the rails along which the country train of Brazilian literature had been quietly bouncing” (p. 24).

What appears as a new proposal in the critic's words is the old idea that Rosa's novel comes out of nowhere, with no ties to the literary tradition that preceded it. Without discussing the unique character of the big hinterland, this isolation frankly did not exist. Santiago says that the book goes against the grain of developmentalism in the 50s, opposing a hegemonic idea of ​​modernization and challenging a critical tradition that, not knowing quite what to do with the book, described as something wild, tames it to the reading it from the perspective of Brazilian history and, with that, removing it from the timeless parameters to which it would belong. As if all the criticism, including that of Silviano Santiago, were not a domestication that, when successful, reveals something barely visible in the wild animal running free – like, as Mário de Andrade would say, the stuffed bird.

Now, about twenty years ago, what defied the status quo of such sociological criticism, for Silviano Santiago, was the work of Clarice Lispector. Now, his eighties lyre, according to the publisher's publicity material, elects Machado and Rosa as “what matters” in Brazilian literature. Poor Clarice was left behind, it doesn't matter anymore.

But, back to what matters: not even Brazilian literature has been the automatic reproduction of a status quo modernizer – Machado de Assis, Inglês de Sousa, Júlio Ribeiro, José Lins do Rego, Augusto dos Anjos are living proof of this – nor does the historical ground of a work kidnap it from such timeless parameters to which it may very well continue to belong.

In his literary mega-project of 1956, Guimarães Rosa did the corps de ballet precede the Grande Sertão: paths, the first released in January, the second in May. Concentrating so much novelty on the second is, at the very least, ignoring the impact of the first. One is not an introduction to the other; one is not simply the short story that got too big and had to come out separately from the other. Both are part of the same project, an enormous creative effort that, among other things, makes a reading of this thing so often considered insignificant that is Brazilian history.

In this project, the vectors are radically mixed and, to get straight to the point, the utopia that our social and historical torments can aspire to a natural resolution whose time has not yet come is simply discarded. First, because these two books are of an almost unbearable and unresolved violence, on all levels, which begins with a father beating his son in such a way that the boy is comforted and laughs with the idea that he will grow up and kill his father ( in “Campo Geral”), to the jagunço chief who beheads a comrade at random just to solidify his position as chief (to linger on just one detail of the big hinterland).

Then because division is the hallmark of the social life enacted there.

The encounters are fortuitous. By chance, the doctor arrives at the distant place where the boy lives, who is then taken to the city – and that is not even what saves him from killing his father, since the latter had killed his brother and himself before.

Power is concentrated. See how Manuelzão, who is not the owner, just represents him, meddles in all spheres of life, not even admitting the belated love between two helpless creatures that is born in the limits of the property.

Hope is present, but it is fragile as if in eternal suspension, embodying itself in the veterinarian who, after a year, goes looking for the girl “who hasn't started yet” to get married, to start a family and a world in ways other than that. of traditional patriarchy, but the girl, although he doesn't know it, “has already started”. But he hasn't arrived yet, the narrative is over and everything, even hope, remains to be defined.

Tradition, not the living one, which is always renewed, but the one that is mere repetition, reigns. That's how Riobaldo spends his whole life screwed into those two years he was a jagunço, they are all that matters, to the point that, like a Bentinho who before getting old already recreates the possible form of his great moment, establishes the former comrades jagunços around him, sheltering on his property, in a clear reproduction of the gang's structure, compatible with the property model.

And after the 1956 megaproject, the disagreements remain in a book like first stories, who deceive the reader with their apparently so beautiful tales, but which hide the most terrifying disappointment in their guts. As in “Sorôco, sua Mãe, Sua Filha”, in which the misfortune, followed by a beautiful demonstration of solidarity, the whole city singing in chorus, along with poor Sorôco, the meaningless song sung by his mother and daughter who , taken to the asylum, are stolen from him, moves the reader to tears, without him realizing, unless he dives deeper into the text, that it is a matter of easy, useless, solidarity post factum, sentimental, compensating for the absence of true solidarity, the kind that requires commitment and that would allow Sorôco's family to remain united, since the crazy women were calm, they just didn't work and they were troublesome.

Or as in “Famigerado”, the quintessential story of the disagreement that constitutes the relations between the classes in Brazil, personified in that doctor who, when approached by the jagunço, at the time shits himself with fear but later tells everything as if it were a joke in which he he had deceived the poor man, with the use of his high intellectual faculties, in contrast to the jagunço's ignorance. This led a critic, with the air of someone who takes a writer who is neither poor nor a jagunço, to say that the result is that the other that one wants to represent is detracted. What escapes the critic is that there is another joke, that of the jagunço who, manipulating what is at hand, tricks the doctor into saying exactly what he needed to say.[1]

One deceiving the other, solving the immediate problem and keeping everything just as it has always been – this is the way in which Guimarães Rosa represents Brazilian history, but also represents the human adventure, insofar as he doubts the effectiveness of the implementation – and in this Silviano Santiago is right – of a modernization that is, in itself, in the places of its origin, itself imperfect and promoter of the radical division between the classes.

Today, more precisely this year, it makes special sense to read Guimarães Rosa, just as it makes sense to read Graciliano Ramos, Augusto dos Anjos, Júlio Ribeiro, Inglês de Sousa, José Lins do Rego, Machado de Assis and so many other writers who saw in the mismatch not a stage to be overcome “one day”, but a problem that constitutes us and whose resolution depends, first of all, on our facing it as a problem. After all, today, more precisely this year, as the various ongoing reforms make clear, those who promote development with their work and then are discarded are again blamed for all our problems. That is, the caipira, like the weevil in “O recado do morro”, who digs the ditches that delimit the property and is later exiled from the same property. Or the caboclo, like Tonho Trigueiro from “Meu tio o iauaretê”, who leaves the bushes making room for farms and then really needs to die. And die.

* Luis Bueno Professor of Literature at the Federal University of Paraná (UFPR). Author, among others, books of A story from the romance of 30 (Edusp/Unicamp).


[1] A more developed reading of this tale can be found at:


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