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Willi Bolle: Guimarães Rosa – Portrait of the soul of Brazil

Eduardo CesarDeeply involved in developing the text of his project, which will provide an original view of Grande Sertão: Veredas (The Great Backcountry: Byways), by Guimarães Rosa, relating to the portraits of Brazil, professor Willi Bolle tells the Pesquisa FAPESP some of the story of his life and his studies, which have led him to hide out in the labyrinths of the works of the writer from Minas Gerais. Bolle is German and fell in love with Rosa while still in his native land. He came to Brazil when he was 22 years old and managed to arrange a meeting with the writer as soon as he arrived. Nowadays living in Brazil, he is a professor of German Literature at the Philosophy, Arts and Human Sciences Faculty of the University of São Paulo (USP).

What was your first contact with Guimarães Rosa like?
It was in 1966, in the summer term. I was a student at the Freie Universität Berlin. Professor Antonio Augusto Soares Amora, of USP, was there as a visiting professor and he gave us an introductory course on Grande Sertão: Veredas.

How did you begin to understand Grande Sertão: Veredas from the standpoint of a literate gunman?
Ah! That was much later. The first contact, in fact, was to paper the walls of my room with pages from the book, because it fascinated me, it bewildered me. I wanted to understand this labyrinth alone. I took up Grande Sertão again in 1990, methodically and with determination. Then I set out to find out about the concept of the literate gunman, set out in the debate by Walnice Galvão, in As Formas do Falso. This is a key concept. The narrator of Grande Sertão is a literate gunman. He is the bridge between the two sides, the experience of politics and the violence and the experience of the backcountry.

How is Zé Bebelo’s knowledge conveyed to Riobaldo?
There that a switch of roles. The young Riobaldo, who runs away from his godfather’s house, who is in fact his father, Selorico Mendes, meets master Lucas who offers him a job as a teacher. Riobaldo does not know who the person is that needs a teacher. Apparently it is a farmer. But the pupil is Zé Bebelo, candidate for deputy, whose political platform is do away with the gunmen in the north of Minas Gerais. Afterwards the roles are switched. It is Zé Bebelo who starts Riobaldo off as a gunman, in politics and in the art of fighting with words. The first literate gunman, in fact is Zé Bebelo. He masters the art of arms and the art of words, which is an old tradition. In Don Quixote, Cervantes discuses the question of arms and letters, which goes back to Antiquity. Julius Caesar is also a cultivated warrior. This is Riobaldo’s tradition.

There is more than one interpretation of the name Riobaldo. What is yours?
The protagonist of the novel has the word “rio” (river) in his name. There is a fine passage in which he says “I think like a river flows”. My interpretation of the name is based on a word in German – “ausbaldowern”, which has “baldo” in the middle of it, and comes from the Hebrew. It means to investigate, to research, to discover with art. For me, Riobaldo is the researcher of the flow of history and the River São Francisco is, symbolically, the river of Brazilian history. He is also the researcher of the speeches that represent strengths in Brazilian history and politics.

What about the parallels between Os Sertões (By Euclides da Cunha) and Grande Sertão: Veredas?
I traveled to the backcountry to draw this parallel, to Canudos and the north of Minas Gerais, as well as reading a great deal about the two books, including Rosa’s notes in his copy of Os Sertões. In terms of method, I was guided by the German hermeneutics, who deems it essential to understanding a given work to take account of earlier works with which the work in question dialogs. This guideline is to be found too in the works of Antônio Cândido, for whom Brazilian literature became independent when an earlier work led to a later one. His Formação da Literatura Brasileira (The Forming of Brazilian Literature) ends with such a demonstration. He goes up to Machado de Assis, who builds his work on the foundation of José de Alencar’s works. Roberto Schwarz took up this notion of Antônio Cândido’s and deepened it. I have been working along the same lines with the relationship between Grande Sertão and Os Sertões.

And Diadorim? Does the fact that the French translation uses Diadorim as the title of the novel take away from understanding the work?
This question came up very early in my life. In 1966, professor Amora suggested that I do my thesis on Diadorim. It was a request I couldn’t handle. I took more than 30 years to write about this figure. It was an article I wrote, which I dedicated to professor Amora, and will be published in the USP magazine. It is an improved version of a chapter of my essaygrandesertã . Previously, I wanted to emphasize that the French translation of Grande Sertão: Veredas as Diadorim is a certain liberty taken by the translator, which, in the end, is justified.
This directs the understanding of the novel and, even in the interpretation I am suggesting it fits with. There is no great literature without love. There is love on every page of Grande Sertão: Veredas. Hence, the French version dedicated to the symbolical figure of love is justified. Diadorim concentrates the knowledge of the people of the backcountry, of which he is very special product. Diadorim starts Riobaldo of in knowledge of the backcountry. We can consider Diadorim as Rosa’s muse and Riobaldo’s love, which creates this extraordinary sensitivity of being able to record the portrait of the people of the backcountry with art and science. This is what I am studying through Diadorim. I want to show that the character is located at strategic points where the people of the backcountry are also located.

In this context, and also from the standpoint of parallelism, is Rosa more consistent and profound than Euclides da Cunha?
Much more. In two ways: Euclides conveys a view of the backcountryman based on pathos, on the heroic Nature of the backcountryman, above all a warrior backcountryman. Rosa establishes this knowledge through passion, which is much broader and covers men, women, and children. People as a whole. There is another essential difference; in Os Sertões, in the part dealing with the Fight, I counted 17 quotations of backcountry speech; in Grande Sertão: Veredas there are 1,300. While Euclides wrote about the backcountry as an author, an author’s anthropology, Guimarães Rosa’s anthropology and ethnography is based on listening to backcountry people speak and on letting them speak. With Rosa the raw material is the speech of the backcountry people. This leads to a radical difference between the two authors.

How do you “photograph” the portrait of Brazil depicted in Grande Sertão: Veredas?
This concept was coined in Paulo Prado’s book, in 1928, Retrato do Brasil (Portrait of Brazil). But there are precedents. The first great portrait of Brazil in the 20th century is Os Sertões, Euclides da Cunha’s masterpiece, with essential passages on the formation – as Euclides puts it – of the backcountry sub-races, which he considers the core of Brazilian nationality. As from the 30’s, an impressive crop of portraits of Brazil emerges; classics in the understanding of our circumstances.
A basic work is Gilberto Freire’s Casa Grande e Senzala (Big House and Slaves’ Quarters), which establishes a dialog between these two works; the two great books by Sérgio Buarque, Raízes do Brasil (Roots of Brazil) in the 30’s andVisão do Paraíso (View of Paradise) in the 50’s, and in the middle of this period, Caio Prado Júnior’s Formação do Brasil Contemporâneo (Formation of Contemporary Brazil), Celso Furtado’s Formação Econômica do Brasil (Economic Formation of Brazil), and Antônio Cândido’s Formação da Literatura Brasileira (Formation of Brazilian Literature). These works in the 40’s and 50’s are the backdrop against which Grande Sertão: Veredas was written.

How does criticism of Os Sertões arise in Grande Sertão: Veredas ?
It is worthwhile criticizing Euclides da Cunha’s work because it is a great work. Without Os Sertões it is likely that Grande Sertão would never have been written. Both authors build their own universal portraits of Brazil as a way of overcoming the colonial legacy. One of Euclides’s great merits is that he discovered the backcountryman as a historical and political figure. This is an advance over the earlier naturalists and romantic writers who saw the backcountryman just as an element in the landscape, with picturesque and folkloric features. Guimarães Rosa builds his work and his portrait of Brazil on this base, but with a different approach and refinement.
In short, I would say that Grande Sertão: Veredas is a refined, fictional form of structural history. In the novel, we have a depiction of all the forms and types of speech that are forces acting on the Brazilian landscape. We have the speech of the big landowners, who did not exert their influence at that time alone. They still do so. Rosa shows the speech of a candidate for deputy: Zé Bebelo. And, we have the speech of the people. Riobaldo moves between these different speech worlds. It is this cross fertilization of language that feeds Rosa’s critical view.

Who conveys “professor” Riobaldo’s lessons nowadays?
He has trained teachers in schools all over Brazil, such as the Miguelins group, the story tellers of Cordisburgo (where Rosa was born in Minas Gerais). This is a project of great vision, because at the same time as the proposal to reinvent Portuguese in Brazil, there is the project to teach Brazil to read and write again through Guimarães Rosa’s work. There is also a tendency connected with the new information highways, and that is why I called my essay grandesertã or The Invention of Brazil.
In Grande Sertão: Veredas, the author puts forward a program for reeducating Brazil. Grande Sertão is the grandiloquent speech of the eternal holders of power and the Veredas are the place where the common people speak. Rosa’s great achievement is that, instead of writing about the backcountryman, he lets the backcountryman speak for himself and he incorporates his speech into the construction of the language. If this potential of the work were to be activated on a large-scale, as is indeed already happening, this country will become unshackled. Because it will speak for the first time in non-colonial language.

How can this be possible?
Riobaldo says that backcountry in inside us. It is a mental landscape. It is thinking about Brazil. The backcountry is that wild region where our ideas are formed; from where our language develops. The most radical experience that Rosa undergoes in this context is in the tale Meu Tio O Iauaretê (My Uncle the Iauaretê), where he is present at the birth of the language from its wild state. Wild in the sense that that is where creation is taking place. The thought process that is being looked for. It is this that Guimarães Rosa shows. These archaic regions of thought and language can be researched using the most modern of tools; with information technology, artificial intelligence, and virtual space.

The project
The portrait of Brazil in Guimarães Rosa
Foreign research grant
Willi Bolle – FFLCH/USP
US$ 16,800