Readalong – Grande Sertão:Veredas – The Devil to Pay in the Backlands by João Guimarães Rosa


Last year Richard (Caravana de recuerdos) mentioned João Guimarães Rosa’s novel Grande Sertão (1956) on his blog and since I wasn’t familiar with the book but saw it was called a Brazilian Ulysses, I had to get it. I bought what seems to have been one of the last copies available in German. Sure, I could have bought it in French or English but for some reasons, I thought German might be just as good. After having read the first ten pages I think I might have been wrong. Grande Sertão is a groundbreaking work of Brazilian literature and much of that comes from the fact that it uses oral traditions to create something new. It’s what is called “Oralisierung” in German. (I couldn’t find the quivalent in English.Would it be “Oralization”?) Obvioulsy it is meant to sound like a long monologue of someone using a not very sophisticated but colorful spoken language. And that’s where I have a problem. The spoken German rendered in the translation doesn’t sound like spoken German but it seems to mimic the Brazilian. I hope I’ll get used to it.

Despite my reservations regarding the German translation, I think this is a very interesting book and when I saw that Richard (Caravana de recuerdos), Rise (in lieu of a field guide), Miguel (St. Orberose) and Scott (seraillon) co-host a readalong of the book in May I signed up immediately. At the moment there are still more hosts than participants, so you might want to consider rebalancing that a bit and sign up as well. It might not be easy to find a copy but maybe the one or the other already has one somewhere and was just waiting for the right moment. And there are libraries who might have it too.

Here’s the synopsis on wikipedia

If you’d like to sign up. Here are the intros of the hosts:





The discussion takes place during the last week of May 2013.

Do you know the novel? Will you join?

46 thoughts on “Readalong – Grande Sertão:Veredas – The Devil to Pay in the Backlands by João Guimarães Rosa

  1. I think it is such an interesting problem of how a book like Ulysses or a like-Ulysses book would get translated. Or really any book that evinces a felicity with prose and a preponderance of puns and cultural references and the like. It’s kind of a shame too. I even wonder though, how, even if one is *studying* another language, one might get a feel for all these things that can’t be translated. It so makes me wish that when I was younger I had learned more languages – I believe (with Chomsky and Pinker) the whole process is facilitated before one is twelve or so. Unfortunately, I am past that.

    • Spoken language is so hard to translate. I read an article by Isabel Allende in which she gives advice to young authors. One advice is to stay clear from too much dialogue as it doesn’t translate well and since you should think big – being translated in 30+ languages, at least – you should take it into consideration. It made me shudder a bit.
      I don’t know how learning languages works later. Maybe it depnds whether you already learned a lot. I don’t want to boast but I thinks I spoke 5 languages before 12. I still acquire them easily.

      • “Stay clear from too much dialogue” + “think big–being translated in 30+ languages, at least”? Yet two more reasons to think Isabel Allende is a complete idiot without even ever having read her mass market driven pop magical realism.

        • It’s a bit of a shokcer, right?
          The thing is that people are going to follow that advice.
          It was a very interesting article and described how she chnaged a lot of her writing with the Us market in mind.
          It seems that her first books are different though. At least that is what she says.

      • Dear, is she for real? She should read what Maugham says about being a writer and writing for yourself and not to be translated in 30+ languages.
        I tried her once and she put me off Latin American lit for a while.

        • Don’t tell me. She said she only applied that rule later and feels that her earlier books are more Latin American. I’ve read an early one but it was a long time go. I liked it but compared to the other Latin American authors it was pale.
          Interpreting what she wrote actually meansshe writes American books written in Spanish. Funny.

  2. This looks like quite a fascinating book, Caroline! I didn’t know that there was a Brazilian ‘Ulysses’! It is also interesting that you are reading the German translation and not the English or the French one. It is interesting that the book is one long monologue with no chapter or paragraph breaks. What is it with these Portuguese writers? 🙂 I glanced at the plot at the Wikipedia link that you have given. I didn’t want to read it in its entirety because it might spoil the story for me. The story looks quite interesting and makes me want to read it. I just checked in Amazon and discovered that it is quite difficult to get the English translation of this book. It is sad. I hope the publishers decide to reissue the translation or someone decides to translate it again. It is sad when a great classic is lost to posterity because the translation is not available and is out of print. I have an anthology of Latin American short stories which I just took out and checked. I found Rosa’s ‘The Third Bank of the River’ in it. I was quite thrilled to find that there. I will try reading that soon.

    Happy reading! I will look forward to hearing your thoughts on Grande Sertão’.

    • I wonder how much like Ulysses this really is. I have some doubts. I think it’s much more unified. Ulysses is very composite and contains every possible genre. That doesn’t eamn this one will not be good, just, I guess, different.
      I don’t understand why there are no English editions out. It’s on the Guradian’s Top 100 and on the 1001 books before you die and many other lists. It’s seems to be importnat and groundbreaking.
      It’s very odd. Maybe we will motivate some publisher.
      I’m looking forward to your review of one of his other books.

      • I thought that because the book is out-of-print, and so from a moral perspective, it is not wrong to look for alternate versions of the book – and so I did some search on the internet to see whether I can find an e-copy 🙂 I normally don’t do this, because I love buying the books I want to read. Well, for once fortune smiled. I found a PDF copy of ‘Grande Sertão’ here. Maybe this might help more people to join the readalong 🙂 I am thinking maybe I should join too 🙂

  3. This looks to be so very good. I am really tempted to join in but I am a little bogged down at the moment. I will see over the next couple of days if I can squeeze it in. Either way I look forward to everyone’s commentary.

    • It would be great. If you could find a copy. In a library maybe. I’m sure it would be a book for you.
      Just for the planning – it’s quite long. 600pages.

  4. Thanks for posting on this, Caroline, and thanks for eliciting an uneasy, self-conscious laugh from me by noting that there are more co-hosts than other participants on board for the group read so far. I might as well confess that I at one time feared that, due to a variety of factors inc. the difficulty in obtaining an English translation, we might have only one non-co-host joining us for the group read. We’re actually doing two better at this point! Thanks as well for providing some early feedback on the German translation; the Spanish translation I have reads well (i.e. naturally) so far, but I can tell I’ll have to spend way more time than normal with it because it’s loaded with antiquated or otherwise new to me vocabulary. Anyway, really glad you’re joining us as I’ve mentioned elsewhere. Cheers!

    • I knew that would make you laugh. But there really ae a lot of co-hosts.
      I’m afraid that the nonavailability factors in. I think Parris and Vishy would have joined. Brian thinks about it but whether he will find a copy…
      I actually wanted it in French, I remember now but it wasn’t available. And so I ended up with a German book. It’s very antiquated German as well. Not exactly a quick read. Italian copies are available as I have seen.
      I’ll start as early as possible and will hopefully, for once, make it to the end.

      • Here’s the story of how the two horsemen of the Brazilian apocalypse suddenly became four. I asked Rise to co-host with me first because he’d the read the book before and was a big part of my initial interest in the author. However, he and I knew Scott and Miguel were both super interested in the novel as well so they quickly became co-hosts too. It’s kind of a silly number of co-hosts, I know, but it’s also a way for us all to collaborate with other bloggers we all like on a group project thing. I’m sure I speak for the group by noting that we’re happy to have as many other people as possible join us and be unofficial co-hosts! 😀 P.S. Rise had previously warned me about the probable difficulties many people would have in finding an English translation of GR’s novel, which is one reason–the size of the novel being another–that we made the group read announcement so early. I’m glad that some other possibilities have come to light since then as well. Stu from Winstonsdad’s Blog even got a hold of a loaner copy of the OOP book via Twitter if I’m not mistaken.

        • It’s more funny than silly. It actually cheered me up until I was writing the post and realised that there were quite a lot of links to add. 🙂
          I hope others see the option Vishy has found. Not sure whether such a long book is easy to read in PDF format.
          I’m sure there will be more people reading along in the end.

      • Caroline – I laughed too at that co-host line, since my fear is that even if only the co-hosts start the book, there may still be more co-hosts than participants in the end…

        I’m very sorry to have taken what appears to have been the last copy of the French translation.

        • 4 co-hosts was really asking for a comment.
          I might have been lucky. I found a usd copy on amazon fr marketplace. I tried again this morning and the German is a bit like swallowing medicinal clay. I’m sure the French will be better. I’ll still compare some passages with the German and provide input. Hopefully that is.

  5. Thanks for spreading the word on this, Caroline. It’ll be great if Vishy, Brian, and others can join us.

    (Btw, here‘s a link about the upcoming German retranslation of the book.)

    • My pleasure. I hope a few more will join but if not, there are already quite a few.
      Thanks for the link. From what I see a new translation is badly needed. I compared the English and the German first two pages and beleive it or not I hardly understood the German.

  6. I have it on the shelf (the French title is Diadorim, published by 10:18) I bought it on a whim and discovered afterwards it’s compared to Ulysses. It went directly on the daunting pile and hasn’t been touched since.
    I’ll try it. It’s probably easier to translate in French than in German.

  7. Would love to participate but can’t scrape together enough to buy the $800 copy on Amazon. Is there a moderately priced edition available (in English) somewhere or is this a book for the lucky few who serendipitously found a copy at a neighbor’s yard sale?

    • It looks a bit like it’s for the lucky few. Unless you would try the link Vishy added below and read it as a PDF.
      If you read either Italian or French you could find copies. If it wasn’t so hard to find I wouldn’t try to read it in German it’s far from ideal.
      Emma’s suggestion to send the PDF to your kindl may be a more practical way to do it.
      I hope you find a way.

  8. Haven’t heard of the novel, but I’m curious about. Unfortunately I’ll be out of town in May so I can’t sign up. I’m looking forward to your review and I hope you get used to translation.

    • It doesn’t work in the German book because Brazilian and German are really far from each other. I hope to get the French soon and that that will be better.
      One of the main elemenst of the novel is the work on language. I suppose it’s almost impossible to translate.

  9. This sounds really interesting-I might be intimidated to read something compared to Ulysses (since Ulysses intimidates me), but I do like the idea of reading something that was based on a story taken from oral literature. I don’t think I have ever read anything by a Brazilian writer now that I think of it. It might be too much for me to take on at the moment but I look forward to hearing what you make of it!

    • A few poeple commenetd it’s far more accessible that Ulysses. I read Ulysses a long time ago, I didn’t think it was all that difficult just very different and exciting. I loved it.
      This is a very long book but I found it so interesting, and even though the German translation is heavy handed you feel the wonderful energy of the original.

  10. You are so right that the oral-based, or stream-of-consciousness novels, are among the hardest, surely, to translate. I admire you all for getting stuck into this one, but I’m working my way through a glut of review copies (which is lovely, and I’m pleased to have them, but they all arrived at once), so won’t be taking part. I’ll watch how you get on with interest, though!

    • I would have loved to hear your thoughts on this. I ordered a Frecnh copy meanwhile, the German translation felt so heavy handed. Ok in places.
      It would be a terrific audio book but since there are not even any books anymore I doubt we0ll see an audio book any day soon.
      It seesm you got some nice review copies.

  11. I’ll sign up for this. I’ve got it in both English & Portuguese. As noted earlier, the reviews on the English translation aren’t encouraging. I read lots of Spanish, but not Portuguese. But since the written languages are close, in a pinch I can read it, so will use it as a cross-reference to the English, hoping to get a clearer sense of the dialog than with just the English.

    How will this take place? Everyone is just to read it in its entirety by the middle of May & then comment on any of the 4 blogs that are sponsoring it during the last week of May? Sounds a tad chaotic.

    • It’s wonderful that you will join. I think comparing one version with the Portuguese will be the way to get the best feeling for this book.
      It does sound a bit chaotic. If you have a blog you post a review and everyone will the visit and comment mutually. Usually people focus on diffrent aspects and there is room for reactions.
      If you have no blog you just comment wherever you like. Since I know the host fairly well, I suppose the main discussion will take place on Richard’s blog.

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