The following is an excerpt from the new translation of João Guimarães Rosa’s magnum opus, Grande Sertão: Veredas, first published in English in 1963. That translation soon fell out of print for reasons that are not entirely clear. As translator Alison Entrekin explains in her introduction to the piece on our blog, “[t]o read Grande Sertão: Veredas for the first time in Portuguese is like setting foot in a foreign country where the people speak a dialect similar to your own language, but with such a different accent and turns of phrase that you struggle to make sense of it.” Rosa’s novel is frequently compared to Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, and yet it remains unavailable to English-language readers in a good translation until now. The challenges to complete the entire book-length project are many, as Entrekin explains. We hope that funding to undertake this mammoth project may finally be found.
Nonought. Shots you heard weren’t a shootout, God be. I was training sights on trees in the backyard, at the bottom of the creek. Keeps my aim good. Do it every day, I enjoy it; have since the tendrest age. Anyhow, folks came a calling. Bout a calf: white one, strayling, eyes like no thing ever seen and a dog’s mask. They told me; I didn’t want to see. Seems it was defective from birth, lips curled back, and looked to be laughing, person-like. Human face, hound face: they decided—it was the devil. Oafenine bunch. They killed it. Nought a clue bout the owner. They came to beg my guns, I let em. I’m not superstitious. You got a way of laughing, sir . . . Look: when shots are for real, first the dogs set up barking that instant—then you go see if anyone’s dead. Don’t mind, sir, this is the sertão. Some reckon it in’t: the backlands are further off, they say, the campos-gerais inside and out, back-o-beyond, high plains, far side of the Urucúia. Lottarot. To folks in Corinto and Curvelo, in’t this here the sertão? Ah, and that’s not all! The sertão makes itself known: it’s where pastures have no fences, they say; where a man can go fifteen, twenty miles without coming to a single house; where outlaws live out their hallelujah, in the yonder beyond the law. The Urucúia comes from the highlands in the west. But nowadays, all long the riverrun, there’s everything—walloping great farms, lushlands bordering banks, the floodplains; crops that go from wood to wood, thickset trees, even some virgin forest. All round is Minas Gerais. These gerais have no bounds. Anyway, you know how it is, sir, to each his own: cows or kine, depends on your eyen . . . The backlands are everywhere.
The devil? Nought to say. Ask round, sir. Out of false propriety, folks in these parts skirt his name—they just say: the Whatsit. Heavens! No . . . The more a man fights shy, the closer he gets. So avouches a certain Aristides—in the palm thicket over on my right here, called the Gentle-Cow-of-Santa-Rita-Way—they all believe: he can’t set foot in three specific places, cause when he does there comes a weeping, behind, and a tiny voice, like a warning, “Here I come! Here I come . . .”—it’s the old goat, the Whatsit . . . And a José Simpilício—anyone here’ll tell you he keeps a demon captive in his home, a wee little Satan, forced to assist in all his greedy schemes; which is why Simpilício is well long on the road to richness. Heck, they also say it’s why his mule skitters, spooks when he tries to mount . . . Folklore. Any rate, José Simpilício and Aristides are fattening up, hearing or not-hearing. And consider this, sir: right now, in this day and age, there’s folks out there avowering that the Devil himself stopped off on his way through Andrequicé. Seems a young stranger showed up there bragging he could get here—usually a day and a half on horseback—in just twenty minutes . . . cause he rounded the headwaters of the Old Chico! Or—noffense—could it, for example, have been you, sir, who nounced yourself like that as you were passing through, just for a little larksome shenaniganry? Course, don’t grudge me, I know it wasn’t. No harm intended. It’s just that, nown then, a timely question can peace the mind. But you understand, sir, that the young man, if he exists, was just pulling legs. Cause, you see, to detour round the headwaters would be like doubling back through the interior of this state of ours, some three months in the doing . . . Whatsit? Madness. Figmentation. And as for hiding him behind fancy names, well now that’s just asking him to take form, to entify!
Don’t. I’ve all but ceased to give him credence myself, by the grace of God; that’s just between us, sir. I know he’s well stabled, and he’s rife in the Holy Scriptures. I once met a young seminarian; he looked the part, glancing in his prayer book, draped in robes, switch of maria-preta in his hand—claimed he was going to help the priest evict the Beast from the body of an old woman in Cachoeira-dos-Bois. He was going with the vicar of Campo-Redondo . . . Good Lord. Are you like me, sir? I didn’t buy a word. What it is, cording to my pal Quelemém, is inferior, disincarnated spirits, lowest of the low, running muck in the murkiest underworld, yearning for contact with the living—they latch on. My pal Quelemém comforts me a lot—Quelemém from Góis. But he has to live a long way away, in Jijujã, Brown Buriti Way . . . But hey, I’d wager that—bedevilled or with latchons—you’ve happened cross all sorts yourself, sir, men, women—no? For my part, I’ve seen so many I’ve learned. Mama-Neigh, Blood-Sucker, Lippy, Slit-Beneath, Cold-Blade, Goat-Boy, a certain Treciziano, Azinhavre . . . Hermógenes . . . Whole bunch. If only I could forget all the names . . . I’m no horse wrangler! Sides, if thoughts of outlawry a man entertains, it’s that the devil’s already wangled his way in. Wouldn’t you say?
From Grande Sertão: Veredas by João Guimarães Rosa. © Nonada Cultural Ltda. All rights reserved.