The following is a student response to The Devil to Pay in the Backlands, written and submitted by Thomas Weston. Thomas was born in Caracas, Venezuela and is in his last year of study at San Diego State University. He is pursuing an undergraduate degree in cellular biology and plans to work in scientific research.
If you would like to submit a Student/Reader Response for publication consideration here at A MISSING BOOK, just email me with JGR RESPONSE in the subject line.
On The Devil to Pay in the Backlands
“The devil in the street in the middle of a whirlwind” is a phrase that Riobaldo repeats several times throughout Rosa’s novel, The Devil to Pay in the Backlands. He even says that the phrase can be used to describe much of his life. It holds meaning for Riobaldo because of an ongoing struggle that I believe he is having with himself, whether or not the devil exists. It is important, you see, for Riobaldo to know this because, in his mind, the existence of the devil would surely mean that he really did make a pact with him and therefore has sold his soul away. So, after much thought, he has condensed his ideas into one image. The following paragraphs will deconstruct this loaded sentence and provide an explanation for how it perfectly describes the way Riobaldo thinks of the devil and his existence.
First, we will tackle the matter of the whirlwind. Well, what does a whirlwind look like? From the outside, a whirlwind can be described as a mass of destruction and chaos in constant motion. This is represented in Riobaldo’s life as the mass of Jagunços which he is a part of as they make their way across the sertão. Riobaldo repeats the phrase twice when he is describing the battle scene in which his men take on Hermogenes’ men in a knife fight. His language even describes a scene chaotic as that of a whirwind: “The whole place was a howling mass of bloodthirsty men, wrestling and rolling, arms and legs flying like those of a runner”.
But what is in the middle of a whirlwind? Well, nothing really. If you’ve ever let yourself be passed by a whirlwind, (as I did many times as a child) you would notice that for a brief moment, when you are in the middle, there is calm. It is interesting that at the very heart of this mass of chaos there simply lies nothing. It is here that we learn how well this describes Riobaldo’s beliefs on the devil. See, when he goes out to the crossroads and seeks to make a pact with the devil the same thing happens as when one is in the middle of a whirlwind, nothing. So this means that, if the devil is real, it is expected for nothing to happen when he takes over your body. But it is also expected for nothing to happen if the devil is not real!
So does this mean the devil is real or not? The destruction that happens around him is real and evident but the devil himself never manifests. I think this is a question that Rosa poses to the reader while providing equal evidence for both sides. The devil could be real, as an entity which surrounds itself in chaos and destruction; or the devil could be nothing and it is just the name we have for the evil that underlies all chaos and destruction. This is why the devil can be described as being “in the street, in the middle of the whirlwind.” Riobaldo himself wants to believe that there is no devil but it is clear that he is not sure. He asks the auditor in the novel several times to reassure him that there is no devil saying, “Don’t tell me that a wise and learned person like you, sir, believes in the devil! You don’t? I thank you.” And he finishes the book, saying in what seems like an unsure manner, “It was kind of you to have listened, and to have confirmed my belief: that the devil does not exist. Isn’t that so? You are a superior, circumspect man. We are friends. It was nothing. There is no devil! What I say is, if he did . . . It is man who exists.”