On The Devil to Pay in the Backlands

The Sertao is the devil, the backlands, the sanctuary, the paradise, the hell, the unknown. It is harsh and beautiful, necrophilic and biophilic.  Perception of the Sertao changes in the people’s minds as much as the people change themselves.  Grande Sertao: Veredas  by Joao Guimaraes Rosa is a complex novel with a wide range of prevalent themes.  The duality between good and evil, the questionable existence of the devil, the importance in our names, and the continuous change in people and places are among the many themes exhibited in this novel. The theme of continuous change, however, is one that was most influential to me.  Azar Nafisi, in her memoir, “Reading Lolita in Tehran,” tells her readers that what we search for in fiction is “not so much reality but the epiphany of truth” (Nafisi 335).  The theme of change in Grande Sertao blends in with other themes in the novel and shows a truth in reality where events are constantly shifting perception, and self identification.

Our narrator, Riobaldo, is the focal point of this novel.  His perception of others and more importantly himself, is probably one of the more interesting struggles in the novel.  Always inside his head, he questions his every move making him a relatable and charismatic character and narrator.  He begins as Riobaldo the Jagunco, then he is given the nickname Tatarana (Fire Caterpillar), and finally at the height of his power he is Urutu-Branco (White Rattler).  The change in name coincides with his struggle with his own self identification.  In his early years as Riobaldo the Jagunco, he is always constantly aware of the other paths that he could be on in his life.  His education and good common sense allow him to see behind closed doors.  His good judgment in people also contributes to the inner turmoil and shifting of alliances.  In the beginning of his employment under Ze Bebelo, Riobaldo is swayed by the overzealous chief’s remarks about modernizing the country, and wiping out the Jaguncos.  When learning of Ze Bebelo’s alliance with politicos and government forces, Riobaldo makes the remark that “if he made the least move of treachery… I would kill him outright.” (Rosa 276)  This change in his perception of the jagunco chief seems to alter Riobaldo’s perception of himself.  When thinking of how he would end the chief’s treachery, Riobaldo becomes powerful and thinks “I am Riobaldo, Riobaldo, Riobaldo!” (Rosa 277).  In this instant the reader can see a slight change in Riobaldo’s character as he seems to be completely sick with the lifestyle he is leading himself on.  When he confronts his chief about the decisions being made, Riobaldo changes his tone due to the realized danger and says, “I am nobody, nobody, nobody.” (Rosa 288)  Though his words seem to mirror a change in his self identification, the reality is that Riobaldo is giving Ze Bebelo the answer he wants to hear.  The affirmation of Riobaldo’s name to himself is the important part of this employer-employee verbal exchange and is followed by his desertion of the Bebelos.  This particular part in the novel is profound because of the power that seems to consume Riobaldo.  It shows how we can be pushed to become more than we think we are capable.  The strong sense of being, the strong sense of acknowledging himself as something greater than just a grunt in a gang allows Riobaldo to forge his own path regardless of his employer.  His belief in what is just and in being able to choose his own destiny paves the way to his leadership role.  When Riobaldo becomes the White Rattler, he is given power that of a Jagunco chief.  His attempts to escape from the bandit life only lead him deeper.  The inner turmoil at every decision he makes is still the same, but interestingly, his relationship with Diadorim changes.  Now that he is chief, he finds every excuse to dismiss Diadorim.  Diadorim is quick to call out Riobaldo’s change in character, though not unjustly.   Riobaldo’s desire for blood and how he interacts with people who are now below him concern Diadorim, which seems to annoy Riobaldo.  Riobaldo’s shortness with Diadorim arises with the change in how Riobaldo perceives the devil.  Upon assuming leadership, Riobaldo changes from denying the existence of the devil, to seeing the devil on the side lines to every decision he makes.  One of the most interesting thoughts he has about the devil after assuming leadership is before the battle with Ricardao’s forces, “The devil watches; what the devil wants is to see” (Rosa  442).  Rosa puts this great mystery in his novel as to how and if the devil influences our lives.  His narrator denies the existence of the devil for most of the novel, but then realizes that the devil does not influence our decisions because he does not need to.  Riobaldo realizes that misfortunes arise from decisions that we make ourselves, the devil only needs to enjoy the show.  The devil only wants to see because the devil is the Sertao and the Sertao is always watching.

Diadorim’s death marks a change in Riobaldo’s perception of his best friend and that of the jagunco life.  The reality of Diadorim’s gender is the all mighty twist of the novel which brings Riobaldo to the truth that Diadorim was in love with him.  In his grief over the discovery, he renounces the jagunco life, throwing his weapons and cartridges to the side, vowing to return to Otacillia.  In the Portuguese original, the book ends with an infinity sign which I believe symbolizes the theme of continuous change.  Riobaldo’s name, his relationships, his desires, his struggle with philosophical and ideological beliefs; they all change throughout the novel.

  Ethan Shakoori


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