On The Devil to Pay in the Backlands

The interplay between lord and bondsman, and by extension, any other oppositional relationship conveyed in The Devil to Pay in the Backlands, is one of symbiosis and mutual dependency. Jagunço is an entity inferior to the fazendeiro and the incumbent chief, by virtue of the socioeconomics of it all, yet it is through their eyes that he is able to see himself and assert his self-consciousness as the lower hand. Riobaldo, too, often expresses his admiration, at times envy, of his anonymous listener’s urban origins and cultured demeanor, and to that end, deploys a comparative grid wherein the reader, to whom this perpetual figure is never personified, is compelled to subscribe to the narrator’s a priori positive valuation of his auditor. Curiously, the learned individual from the big city is condemned to silence; it is, after all, the former jagunço who Rosa chooses to endow with the exclusive claim to orality. At the juncture between tradition and modernization lies the jagunço, that indigenous invader, simultaneously balancing recalcitrance to the coercive beckoning of civil society with unconditional loyalty to his immediate hierarchical superior. The Devil to Pay in the Backlands renders this duality emphatic and suggests that perhaps the jagunço’s synthesizing role in the novel supersedes the imposition of this-or-that categories upon it in socio-political discourse.

What Hegel describes as a “struggle for recognition” in the Lordship and Bondsman passage of his seminal Phenomenology of Spirit is thus apparent in the juxtaposition of Riobaldo’s internal turmoil prior to and after becoming chief; whereas, in the first case, the novel’s narrator was able to “claim a mind of his own” (Hegel 278) – and assurance in status – through his labor, the finalization of his dialectical transition from an antithesis to the thetical signifier, the objectifying lord (from Tatarana to Urutu-Branco), prompts the self-realization within the character that his newfound personage is accompanied by an inability to reproduce the docility that best complemented his introverted and taciturn tendencies. Riobaldo’s longing is rooted in the past, in the almost and the could-have-been. To flow ceaselessly like the Urucuia of his upbringing is arguably his most critical existential dilemma; in his own words, “I think like a flowing river – I barely discern the trees on the banks” (Rosa 283). Riobaldo rarely experiences tension in shuttling between his love for Diadorim and Otacilia, for example, and both coexist peacefully in his tumultuous memory.

If  “the master relates himself to the bondsman mediately through independent existence” (190), as Hegel has taught us, then one may perceive the relationship between Riobaldo and the devil as analogous to that between chief and jagunço. Both involve a divestiture of self-autonomy at the expense of structural hierarchy. Nevertheless, the oscillation of Riobaldo’s certainty regarding the existence of devil makes it difficult to conclude that his (faux) encounter at the Veredas-Mortas crossroads was the single cause of the malleability of the protagonist’s moral fiber during his reign as chief. In many ways, it is a superfluous consideration; Rosa consigns it to irrelevance, as is evidenced by Riobaldo’s revealing ruminations: “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…we sell our souls, only there is no buyer” (394). Here, the sublime paradox embodied in the notion of sale to a non-buyer is akin to an earlier proposition Riobaldo offers his listener -“the devil knows he doesn’t exist” – and further intensifies the clash between signifier and signified as both struggle to achieve self-consciousness within the nexus of violent thematic hierarchies.

Furthermore, the devil is in “the middle of the whirlwind” because it serves to follow that it is only in the void offered in the eye of the storm, so to speak, that one may conceive of the devil’s existence. Likewise, in moments of utter chaos, Riobaldo often makes decisions that seem, at least superficially, to be inconsistent with the extreme vacillation of his thoughts, if only for the panache with which they are undertaken– the duplicitous stammering he offers Ze Bebelo upon suspecting his motives at the Tucanos ranch, and the cinematic manner in which he seizes power, convey that much. These developments of plot appear to be at odds with the narrator’s almost serpentine method of storytelling, wherein the reader has grown accustomed to incomplete pocket narratives and abrupt shifts in tone and directionality. At the novel’s conclusion, the reader is left with the notion that the construction of meaning within a conceptual opposition is best achieved in the overlap between the contradictory entities ensconced within them – in the synthesis between thesis and antithesis. Superimposed on The Devil to Play in the Backlands are winding pathways that invite the reader to travel along as they lend themselves to a grand analytical cartography not unlike the titular sertão in its vastness. These conceptual veredas map out the ruins of the ephemeral binaries patiently offered and subsequently abolished in Rosa’s master work; from master and slave to God and devil, Riobaldo traverses these dualities in the in-between, compelling a third path from the crossroads, carving out a destination for himself, and by extension, his readers, in the “motley confusion” of man’s existence.

Bandar Alsaeed


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