The Devil to Pay in the Backlands
One of the two towering figures of post-War Brazilian fiction (the other being Clarice Lispector), João Guimarães Rosa is best known for his great novel Grande sertão: veredas (The Devil to Pay in the Backlands) (1956), in which he singlehandedly reinvented the mythical and cultural significance of the sertão or backlands — the perennial Other of Brazil’s coastal, urban civilisation. In the wake of Euclides da Cunha’s Rebellion in the Backlands (1902) and the Regionalist fiction of the 1930s, the sertão had become synonymous with grinding poverty, cultural and economic backwardness and social exclusion. With The Devil to Pay in the Backlands Guimarães Rosa added a metaphysical and psychological dimension to that world, whose inhabitants, the sertanejos, now grapple with eternal forces: love, violence, good and evil. The sertão has become boundless, coterminous only with the universe itself; as his protagonist Riobaldo says, ‘the sertão is everywhere... the sertão is moving the whole time, you just don’t see it.’
Riobaldo, now an old man and a rancher in the valley of the São Francisco river, recites his ‘caso’, an infinitely extended campside tale, to an anonymous listener who stands both inside and outside the narrative (or inside and outside the sertão), for he might be an actual character, the author himself, or us, the readers. It is the story of his life’s journey as a jagunço, a gunman on the frontiers between northern Minas Gerais and southern Bahia, culminating in his leadership of a band of men and his confrontation with a rival gang leader, Hermogenes. Hermogenes has murdered Riobaldo’s predecessor and, in order to destroy him, Riobaldo must make a pact with the Devil, to whom he offers his soul in exchange for successfully crossing the deadly hostile region of Liso do Sussuarão.
As in the story ‘The Third Bank of the River’ translated in the collection The Jaguar, the idea of the ‘travessia’ or crossing takes on a complex symbolic significance at the heart of the narrative, incorporating a whole set of ethical, metaphysical and even psychoanalytical ramifications. One of the most fascinating of these is Riobaldo’s homoerotic attraction to a fellow gunman, Reinaldo, whom he addresses with feminine overtones as Diadorim. Diadorim’s transexual ambivalence is resolved only when, in his masculine guise, he dies confronting Hermogenes on his beloved’s behalf, a sacrifice that may well be the price exacted by the Devil for his pact. If you’re already intrigued by what sound like extraordinary Latin American variations on the mysticism of the chivalresque romances or the myth of Faust, then you’re well on the way to being hooked by some of the qualities (another is the daringly experimental language) that have made this one of the most studied and written about works of Brazilian fiction.
But Guimarães Rosa’s literary universe wasn’t only confined to the epic space of the sertão, with its cowhands, ranchers and feuding gunmen. In fact, as is clear from the short stories of The Jaguar, a brand-new collection, he was the master of an astonishing variety of narrative situations, registers and voices. These could range from a child’s bittersweet discovery of life’s beauty and transience, to the schizophrenic, stream-of-consciousness monologue of a half-Indian, convinced he is a blood relation of the wildcats he used to hunt; from a would-be scientist’s obsessive and ultimately insane pursuit of his own, elusive mirror-image, to poignant, disturbing and even grotesquely comical dramas of family conflict and disintegration, whether the anonymous folk of the rural interior or the oligarchic dynasties who rule over them. At the heart of all these stories, and of the extraordinary prose-poetry in which they are written, is a fundamental, unifying principle: the frontier, the borderland, the between-place — the ‘third bank of the river’ — where destinies, relationships, identities and words all exist in an endless state of flux.