The Third Bank of the River (A Terceira Margem do Rio) by João Guimarães Rosa, 1962

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THE THIRD BANK OF THE RIVER (A Terceira Margem do rio)
by João Guimarães Rosa, 1962

João Guimarães Rosa is generally agreed to be the most important writer in the development of modern Brazilian fiction. He signals a transition from the realistic regionalist tradition of the early part of the twentieth century to the modern magical realism that has characterized the work of better-known Latin American writers such as Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel García Márquez. Guimarães Rosa has been called a "universal regionalist," a "transrealist," and a "surregionalist." These terms suggest that, although his content focuses on the people and places of the Brazilian backlands, his style effects a transcendental transformation of the settings and characters into universal spiritual emblems.

Having appeared in several short story anthologies, "The Third Bank of the River" ("A Terceira Margem do rio") is one of Guimarães Rosa's best-known tales. Although the story is grounded in a real place and features realistic characters, the central event of the story makes it highly fabulistic. The tale centers on a son's efforts to understand a father who, without explanation, goes into the river near his home in a small boat and lives his life there by eddying about in one place. The father is not so much a specific person as he is an embodiment of the role he plays, which is typical of the conventions of magical realism. Because all we know of him is that he is a father, his journey on the river, combined with the fact that the central focus of the story is the son's reaction to the event, can be explained only by his paternal status. The question the story poses is, What does the father communicate to the son by wandering aimlessly on the river?

The only other significant action in the story—as the other members of the family get married, have children, and move away—is that the narrator son remains, maintaining his affection and respect for his father. Whenever someone praises him for doing something good, he says, "My father taught me to act that way." The puzzle the son cannot reconcile himself to is why, if the father does not care about his family, he does not go up or down the river but stays so close to home. The central conflict the son faces is the sense of guilt he feels, for his father is always away and his "absence" always with him. At the end of the story, when the son himself has grown old, he calls the father to come in and let him take his place. The old man, however, seems to come from another world, and the son runs away in fear. The son's final hope is that when he dies they will put his body in a small boat in the "perpetual water between the long shores" and that he will be "lost" in the river.

There is no realistic motivation for the father's behavior, nor can it be explained as a parable of a father's abandonment of his social responsibility to his family. Instead, it must be approached as an embodiment of a universal spiritual act. The critic Allan Englekirk has described the father as a "liminal" character whose apparently irrational action to define truth and reality other than the way it is usually defined sets him apart as a heroic figure. James V. Romano has said that the most basic antithesis in the story is between the transcendence of spiritual life, as represented by the father, and the nontranscendence of spiritual death that is suggested by the son.

The river is a traditional metaphor for time that continuously moves yet simultaneously remains timeless and for change that is also permanence. The father's action thus symbolizes the human need to transcend time by remaining in one place as the river flows by. Human beings at their most heroic—some would say at their most insane—are never willing to accept the fact that life is contained, as is water within the two banks of a flowing river. They insist on transcending such limitations and, instead of allowing the river to sweep them on until they die, in seeking a timeless third bank Although this is the basic responsibility that every father passes on to every son, such an effort means casting oneself off alone, and only a few are willing to attempt it.

In a fable such as this, characters do not act because of realistic or psychological motivation but because the underlying theme and structure demand that they do so. Unless readers recognize the fabulistic nature of the story and the spiritual nature of its theme, they may be tempted to dismiss the father's act as madness. As the son says, however, in his house the word "crazy" is never spoken, "for nobody is crazy. Or maybe everybody."

—Charles E. May