THE DEVIL TO PAY IN THE BACKLANDS BY JOAO GUIMARAES ROSA

Do you believe, sir? In him, I mean. Not God, no; not God. The other one. The dark one. Prince of Darkness? Yes, I have heard him called that. And many other things. You’re a learned man, sir; I can tell…your clothes…you have money, of course, and no one makes money in this world without either education or spilling blood. Or both, perhaps. So you tell me, what should one call him? Or is it better not to call him, for in calling one might make him appear? No, I have never met him, but talk to people around here and you will hear all kinds of stories. If you were to believe them it would seem as though he has settled in these parts, like a vulture sitting in a pindaiba tree, its beady black eyes following the slow progress of an injured animal, waiting for the right time to swoop.

Yes, you’re an educated man…the way you speak, I can tell. So you must read, sir? A silly question; of course you read. There’s a book, maybe you have heard of it: Grande Sertão. A difficult book, they say. In English it is called The Devil to Pay in the Backlands. A better title, I agree. The devil, sir, raising his scaly head again. One cannot avoid him, it seems. And what about the backlands…the backlands of Brazil…the sertão…and the poor bastards who inhabit it? There is much to say about that, certainly. The sertão it is inside you, so says Riobaldo the jagunço. You don’t inhabit it, it inhabits you. The sertão cannot be subdued, it itself subdues. Do you understand me, sir? Wait, not me, no: Riobaldo, the white rattlesnake. I am not he, just as you, sir, are not the devil. Do you understand?

“All who ride high and handsome in the sertão hold the reigns for a short time only: they find they are riding a tiger.”

What is war, sir? Please forgive my boldness, but I want to know what you think. Is it a dirty business? The worst of the worst that man is capable of? The Devil to Pay in the Backlands begins with gunshots. I am telling this wrong, in the wrong order, even though I am starting at the beginning. Grande Sertão opens with gunshots, but it is not war, only Riobaldo, Tatarana, target-shooting down by the creek. What do you make of that? It’s important, sir, I believe. It suggests both war and peace; first one, then the other. It tells you something about the book, about its themes, and about Riobaldo, also. He does this everyday, he says. He enjoys it, unloading a gun.

The sertão? I haven’t forgotten. How could I forget? Bear with me, please. The book is full of fighting and violence. In the backlands…the sertão. I fired and saw the skull fly into pieces, says Riobaldo the jagunço, the bandit. He shoots to kill, they all shoot to kill…the jagunços, as they skip along the surface of the world. Do you understand, sir? This is it: Grande Sertão. The Devil to Pay in the Backlands. War in the backlands of Brazil! Jagunço against Jagunço! It troubled me., sir, I must admit. I had expected war, but thought that it would be jagunço against politico, outlaw against authority. Only, no, it wasn’t like that at all. Backlander against backlander. Poor man against poor man. And to what purpose? For what reason?

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To the untrained eye, Grand Sertao is really just an old fashioned western; it is a vengeance play. A great man is killed, and he must be avenged. Ok. What of it? This is not the point. Justice, sir, no, that is not the point. There is some talk, in the book, of civilising the backlands, of civilising the people, as though that is the reason for the war. Ok. But, no, this is not the point either. Are you following me? There are double-crosses. Chiefs change, people change sides. There is no order, no sense to it all, to life in the backlands. Lawlessness. Instability. One moment someone is your comrade, your ally, the next they are your enemy. And do you hate them? Did you love them before? Yes or no? Or does none of that really matter? Do you just do what you do, because you must do it, because what else is there, what hope of a better life? Ah, yes, I believe that this is the point, sir.

Yes, this is the life of the jagunço; this is what it means to be of the sertão. Wretched mindlessness. Mindless wretchedness. Or perhaps that is too harsh. Riobaldo tells the story of Pedro Pindo’s young son, Valtei, who was ‘mean and cruel as all get-out.’ A ‘little monster’ who liked to kill. His parents beat him to drive out the wickedness, to drive out the devil, you might say. Yet after a time they came to enjoy it, by which I mean the beatings, beating their child. What do you say to that, sir? What does that tell you about the people of the sertão? Or people in general? I am losing my way a little, being too specific. Examples are a dead-end. The sertão, Riobaldo says, is where the strong and the shrewd call the tune. Ok. But what of the lepers? The wretched? They are there too, ‘living in hopes of not dying.’  

The backlands are cruel, sir, that much is clear. With poverty, and without hope, comes immense suffering. Yes, that much is clear. But the sertão, it is unclear. What, really, is it? It is not, I think, so literal, so that one can measure it, from here to here, from boundary to boundary. It is boundless. That is the impression Riobaldo gave me, that the sertão is as much in the mind as under one’s feet. In fact, doesn’t he say: the sertão is everywhere? It is endless. And it is cruel, yes, but beautiful too. This we learn from Diodorim. A river falling down, all eagerness, foaming and boiling; the bright fog over Serra dos Confins; hoarfrost collecting on the backs of cattle; a hot gust of wind passing through the fronds of a palm tree. I could go on, sir? The jaguars, the parrots, the croaking frogs. Wretchedness and loveliness; war and peace; devilishness and Godliness. Isn’t this life, sir?

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The coin always has two faces. The Devil to Pay in the Backlands is a story of war and brutality on one side, and love on the other. Ah, Diodorim! Otacilia too, but let’s forget her, sir. Diodorim…Reinaldo…that man ‘like a soft haze’ who Riobaldo, Urutu-Branco, loves ‘more than is fitting for a friend.’ Have you ever felt that way for another man, sir? Riobaldo, a jagunço, a bandit, an outlaw, the most manliest of occupations…and he, what, a homosexual? No, bisexual, for he also loves Otacilia and sleeps with numerous whores. And what of Diodorim? He too? Both men, and both jagunços. Well, sir, I found that most surprising. Let’s be honest, in the hands of a lesser writer it might have been ridiculous…too hard to swallow. To pull it off requires skill.

But let me tell you, you believe it, sir. You believe in it. In their love, a love never consummated. Moreover, it adds further depth, to Riobaldo. Diodorim, no, he is fairly one dimensional throughout, but Riobaldo…what a character. A man wracked with doubts, not only about his sexuality, but about his courage, his abilities too. A man who is engaged in the constant questioning of himself, his life, his actions and his place in the world. The coin with two faces; a man has two faces….this man. The intelligent bandit, the fearless coward, the womanising homosexual. But one thing troubled me, sir, for there is a lot of talk in the book about God and about the devil, about how certain inclinations, certain actions, are the responsibility of one or the other. Two faces. So was João Guimarães Rosa suggesting that homosexual desires are the work of Satan? I hope not, sir, but that did cross my mind. More likely the point is that this is how Riobaldo would see it, would understand his desires, for he too, in spite of all his intelligence, is part of the sertão. Reason and superstition. Two faces.

“Doesn’t everyone sell his soul? I tell you, sir: the devil does not exist, there is no devil, yet I sold him my soul. That is what I am afraid of. To whom did I sell it? That is what I am afraid of, my dear sir: we sell our souls, only there is no buyer.”

What does it mean to be a good man? I keep asking you questions, sir. I apologise, but I must continue in this way. A man cannot always answer himself, his own questions. Riobaldo’s narration takes place after these events, of course, after the war, and how does he feel about it all? About all the killing and wretchedness? What does he feel? Not regret, no, but guilt. He is a man with a guilty conscience. In that he is different from the other jagunços. Maybe that is progress, sir? Intellectual, emotional progress. Is that how the sertão will change and prosper, when each man suffers at the hands of his conscience for the evil that he commits? Perhaps. So all that talk about the devil and about God, it makes sense. Who is your master, who is driving the cart? God…or the other one?

Riobaldo is in turmoil, for he doesn’t know who has his hands on the reigns. He is, as I said, for all his intelligence, still of the sertão, he has only dragged himself halfway out of the swamp…and so he sees signs in everything, sees the devil’s work in the world. The big question, the book’s ultimate question, is this: does he exist. Does the devil exist, sir? That is what Riobaldo, Tatarana, repeats, over and over. Does he exist? And, more importantly, can he take responsibility for some of my actions? Ah. Yes, that is it. Can I blame him! Isn’t that what Riobaldo wants? He wants to save his soul, he wants to not go to Hell, of course, but, really, truly, what he wants is for someone to shoulder the blame for the deaths, the blood that flowed.

To his credit João Guimarães Rosa leaves the question unanswered. The question, sir, of whether he exists, the devil, I mean. There is a point in the narrative, when Riobaldo ascends to power and takes on the name: Urutu-Branco. The white rattlesnake. That is surely a symbol, sir, of….for him. The Cursed One. And there are other hints and suggestions, that…Has Riobaldo sold his soul? Did he, that night at the crossroads….ah, once again, so brilliantly Joao handles this scene, for there is no sulphur, no goat-legs, no contract…there is nothing but one man, Riobaldo, alone. Isn’t that the truth, sir? Tell me, please. Isn’t that the truth of the world? That he doesn’t exist, that really it is just you, alone? You, miserable human, with all your flaws. Who is responsible, sir? That is my final question, that is the reason I came to these crossroads tonight myself, to ask you this, and once and for all hear the answer: who is driving the cart?

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4 comments

  1. Damn you! (And I say that with all due respect, sir.) Terrific review and timely (sadly so). I just encountered this title in proofing a section of the forthcoming Lispector issue of The Scofield. A mini review of the book caught my attention and I instantly looked it up (as I am inclined to do being somewhat impulsive that way). I could not find a copy for less than $300! Not even your brilliant tribute can justify that expenditure. Hopefully this book will be resurrected some time soon.

  2. Cheers, J. No, no book is worth that kind of money. You can find PDFs of it online if you really wanted to read it. You will find a lot of people question the translation, but it’s fine. Apparently there have been a few attempts to retranslate it but none have been completed. Maybe publishers are waiting for that or another rise in interest in Latin American literature.

    1. Thanks for the info Jeff. I am generally suspicious of new translations; I don’t have much faith in them. Hopefully this one proves to be worth the wait though.

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