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 and diplomat, considered by many as the greatest author of Brazilian literature, along with Machado de Assis. His best-known work is the novel Grande Sertão: Veredas (translated as The Devil to Pay in the Backlands), a revolutionary text for its archaic and colloquial prose, rooted in the spoken language of the Brazilian backlands, and profound philosophical themes and ponderings. Some consider this to be the Brazilian equivalent of Ulysses.[1][2][3] In a 2002 poll by the Bokklubben World Library, The Devil to Pay in the Backlands was named among the top 100 books of all time.


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 from childhood studied many languages, starting with French before he was seven years old, as can be seen in an interview he gave a cousin of his later in life:[4][5]

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 a great deal in the deeper understanding of 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 applied for what was then called the College of Medicine of Minas Gerais University.

On June 27, 1930, he married Lígia Cabral Penna, a girl of only 16, with whom he had two daughters, Vilma and Agnes. Vilma had a son, João Emílio, who had a daughter, Alice (the only granddaughter of the author). In that same year he graduated and began his medical practice in Itaguara, then in the municipality of Itaúna, in Minas Gerais, where he stayed about two years. It is in this town that he had his first contact with elements from the sertão (semi-arid Brazilian outback), which would serve as reference and inspiration in many of his works.

Back in Itaguara, Guimarães Rosa served as a volunteer doctor of the Public Force (Força Pública) in the Constitutionalist Revolution of 1932, 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. Later he became a civil servant through examination. In 1933, he went to Barbacena in the position of Doctor of the 9th Infantry Battalion (Oficial Médico do 9º Batalhão de Infantaria). Most of his life was spent as a Brazilian diplomat in Europe and Latin America. 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.

In 1963, he was chosen by unanimous vote to enter the Academia Brasileira de Letras (Brazilian Academy of Letters) in his second candidacy. After postponing for 4 years, he finally assumed his position only in 1967: just three days before passing away in the city of Rio de Janeiro, victim of a heart attack. His masterpiece is The Devil to Pay in the Backlands. In this novel, Riobaldo, a jagunço 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 Sertão (the backlands) represents the whole Universe and 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.

Guimarães Rosa died at the summit of his diplomatic and literary career, aged 59.

Selected bibliography

  • Caçador de camurças, Chronos Kai Anagke, O mistério de Highmore Hall e Makiné (1929)
  • Magma (1936)
  • Sagarana (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, made into a movie called The Third Bank of the River)
  • Tutaméia ? Terceiras Estórias (1967)
  • Em Memória de João Guimarães Rosa (1968, posthumous)
  • Estas Estórias (1969, posthumous)
  • Ave, Palavra (1970, posthumous)
  • Buriti (short story in "Corpo de Baile")