João Guimarães Rosa

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João Guimarães Rosa
3rd Academic of the 2nd chair of the Brazilian Academy of Letters
In office
16 November 1967 – 19 November 1967
Preceded by João Neves da Fontoura
Succeeded by Mário Palmério
Personal details
Born (1908-06-27)27 June 1908
Cordisburgo, Minas Gerais, Brazil
Died 19 November 1967(1967-11-19) (aged 59)
Rio de Janeiro, Guanabara, Brazil
Nationality Brazilian
Alma mater Federal University of Minas Gerais
Occupation Author, novelist, short story writer
Profession Diplomat

João Guimarães Rosa (Portuguese: [ˈʒwɐ̃w ɡimaˈɾɐ̃js ˈʁɔzɐ]; 27 June 1908 – 19 November 1967) was a Brazilian novelist, short story writer and diplomat, widely regarded as one of the greatest writers of Brazilian literature.

Rosa published four books of short story in his lifetime, all of them revolving about life in the sertão, but addressing themes of universal literature and of existential nature. Rosa only wrote one novel, Grande Sertão: Veredas (known in English as The Devil to Pay in the Backlands), a revolutionary text for its blend of archaic and colloquial prose and frequent use of neologisms, taking inspiration from the spoken language of the Brazilian backlands. For its profoundly philosophical themes, the critic Antonio Candido described the books as a "metaphysical novel". It is often considered to be the Brazilian equivalent of James Joyce's Ulysses.[1][2][3] In a 2002 poll by the Bokklubben World Library, "Grande Sertão: Veredas" was named among the best 100 books of all time.[4]


Guimarães Rosa was born in Cordisburgo in the state of Minas Gerais, the first of six children of Florduardo Pinto Rosa (nicknamed "seu Fulô") and Francisca Guimarães Rosa ("Chiquitinha"). He was self-taught in many areas and studied several languages from childhood, starting with French before he was seven years old.[5][6] He later recalled,

"I speak: Portuguese, German, French, English, Spanish, Italian, Esperanto, some Russian; I read: Swedish, Dutch, Latin and Greek (but with the dictionary right next to me); I understand some German dialects; I studied the grammar of: Hungarian, Arabic, Sanskrit, Lithuanian, Polish, Tupi, Hebrew, Japanese, Czech, Finnish, Danish; I dabbled in others. But all at a very basic level. And I think that studying the spirit and the mechanism of other languages helps greatly to more deeply understand the national language [of Brazil]. In general, however, I studied for pleasure, desire, distraction".

Still a child, he moved to his grandparents' house in Belo Horizonte, where he finished primary school. He began his secondary schooling at the Santo Antônio School in São João del Rei, but soon returned to Belo Horizonte, where he graduated. In 1925, at only 16, he enrolled in the College of Medicine of Federal University of Minas Gerais.

On June 27, 1930, he married Lígia Cabral Penna, a sixteen years old girl, with whom he was to have two daughters, Vilma and Agnes. In that same year, he graduated and began his medical practice in Itaguara, where he stayed for nearly two years. In this town, Rosa had his first contact with elements from the sertão. With the break of the Constitutionalist Revolution of 1932, Guimarães Rosa served as a volunteer doctor of the Public Force (Força Pública) heading to the so-called Tunel sector in Passa-Quatro, Minas Gerais, where he came into contact with the future president Juscelino Kubitschek, at that time the chief doctor of the Blood Hospital (Hospital de Sangue). Later on, he became a civil servant through examination. In 1933, he went to Barbacena in the position of Doctor of the 9th Infantry Battalion. Rosa later recalled this endeavours as significant for his formation as a writer.[7]

In the following year, Rosa entered diplomatic career. In 1938, he served as assistant-Consul in Hamburg, Germany, where he met his future second wife, the Righteous Among the Nations Aracy de Carvalho Guimarães Rosa, where both cooperated to assist Jews escaping the Third Reich.[7]

In 1963, he was chosen by unanimous vote to enter the Brazilian Academy of Letters (Academia Brasileira de Letras) in his second candidacy. After postponing his acceptance for four years, he finally assumed his position in 1967, just three days before passing away in the city of Rio de Janeiro, victim of a heart attack, at the summit of his diplomatic and literary career.


His masterpiece, The Devil to Pay in the Backlands, tells the story of Riobaldo, a jagunço who is torn between two loves: Diadorim, another jagunço, and Otacília, an ordinary beauty from the backlands. Following his own existential quest, he contemplates making a deal with Lucifer in order to eliminate Hermógenes, his nemesis. One could say that the Sertão in fact represents the very Universe and that the mission of Riobaldo is to pursue its travessia, or crossing, seeking answers for the metaphysical questions faced by mankind. In this sense he is an incarnation of the classical hero in the Brazilian backlands.

Selected bibliography[edit]

  • Caçador de camurças, Chronos Kai Anagke, O mistério de Highmore Hall e Makiné (1929)
  • Magma (1936)
  • Sagarana (1946)
  • Com o Vaqueiro Mariano (With the cowboy Mariano, 1947)
  • Corpo de Baile (1956)
  • Grande Sertão: Veredas (The Devil to Pay in the Backlands) (1956)
  • Primeiras Estórias (First Stories) (1962) (The story A Terceira Margem do Rio was later made into a movie of the same name)
  • Tutaméia – Terceiras Estórias (1967)
  • Em Memória de João Guimarães Rosa (1968, posthumous)
  • Estas Estórias (1969, posthumous)
  • Ave, Palavra (1970, posthumous)