To Be Brave

            “They say that anyone will turn brave and fearless if he can eat the raw heart of a jaguar.  Yes, but the person must kill the jaguar himself, must kill it by hand, with a knife! (130)”  Joao Guimaraes Rosa’s novel The Devil To Pay In The Backlands, originally titled Grande Sertão: Veredas, deals heavily with the narrator, Riobaldo, trying to discern if the Devil exists or not through his story.  Riobaldo is a jagunco leader in the backlands of Brazil, and another theme that comes along with the idea of the devil, is how to become brave, be brave, and display bravery, mostly related to combat.  Riobaldo recalls a story he heard about killing a jaguar with a knife, and eating its heart, to be a sure way to become fearless and brave.  Eating the heart is a form of witchcraft, an idea the novel also plays around with, to make one brave.  But, it is also excessive, because facing a jaguar with nothing but a knife, and killing it, is brave.  Though the novel ties in wonderful supernatural ideas, characters in the novel show real bravery with the act of confronting an enemy head on through close combat with a knife.

Killing a jaguar and eating its heart is not the only sort of witchcraft that is supposed to make someone brave.  In this story, Riobaldo becomes enlisted in Hermógenes’s band of jaguncos, and Riobaldo hates him from the start.  After Hermógenes betrays and kills the head jagunco chief, Jaco Ramiro, many jaguncos, including Riobaldo, go after his band of traitors, and Riobaldo seeks to out due Hermógenes.  Riobaldo hears from Lacrau, a jagunco who left Hermógenes’s band, that Hermógenes did make a pact with the devil (333).  When Riobaldo discovers this, he is convinced that he too must make a pact with the devil or confront the devil at a crossroad, so he can overcome Hermógenes when they encounter.   However, when Riobaldo goes to the crossroads, Veredas Mortas, and calls out the devil he does not appear, which confirms to Riobaldo that the devil does not exist (342-345).  Riobaldo going to confront the devil, expecting to fight or make a deal, was the equivalent of killing a jaguar.  It gave Riobaldo greater confidence and authority, despite not actually making the pact.  Because before his journey to Veredas Mortas, he claims that, “I am not naturally brave” (36), and states to Ze Bebelo, a jagunco leader, “I am nobody” (288), however, after the crossroads, he is recognized as great, given gifts meant only for chiefs and eventually takes over as head chief (350, 354-356).  Going out to face the devil head on gave him the courage and confidence to become the chief jagunco.

Facing an opponent head on with a knife can reveal bravery, authority and honor in the characters of this novel as well.  Ze Bebelo once tested Joca Ramiro’s forces, and Riobaldo recalls, “In one hand, he had his dagger; in the other, a large, center-fire pistol.  He unloaded the pistol by shooting it into the ground near his own feet” (211).  Ze Bebelo was so willing to prove his bravery, even though he was the last man standing, that he unloaded all of his ammo before attempting to attack with his dagger.  Facing opponents with a knife can also reveal authority or power, as Diadorim exemplifies when another jagunco insults him, calling him weak and womanly, and Diadorim challenges him to a knife fight to prove his strength (135).  Riobaldo also tells a part of his story where, while crossing the desert, it appeared that one of his men turned into the figure of the devil and attacked him.   Riobaldo stabbed the man under the chin and he states, “Everyone showered compliments and words of praise on me because my victory had been won hand-to-hand.  If it had been by shooting, they would not have admired me as much” (416).  Riobaldo admits that defeating an opponent by hand is more honorable than killing one by a gun.  Furthermore, Riobaldo encounters a leper, and he is about to shoot the diseased man, but an hallucination of Diadorim says, “Kill the poor fellow if you must, but at least…kill him with your own hand…You will see that under the rotten flesh, the blood that spurts from his heart is healthy and warm” (402).  What is being communicated is that killing an opponent up close by hand, rather than with a gun at a distance, reveals much about an opponent and their shared humanity, as well as displaying courage, authority and honor in the wielder.

Though Riobaldo becomes the head jagunco chief and compares himself with Ze Bebelo and Joca Ramiro constantly, he is a sort of contrast to Diadorim in that Riobaldo prefers to use his gun and Diadorim prefers to attack directly with a knife.  Diadorim, when he first encounters Riobaldo and called himself Reinaldo, even asks, “What does it feel like to be afraid?” and he proves he is not afraid to fight shortly after he stabs a man in the thigh for insinuating insulting gestures between Riobaldo and Diadorim (88, 90).  Riobaldo on the other hand, prefers to use guns, stating, “The best thing to do with a treacherous enemy is to get rid of him quickly, with a well-aimed shot, before he can carry out his plan” (136).  When Diadorim faced off with a knife against the jagunco that insulted him, Riobaldo pulled out his gun, ready to kill anyone that might also attack (135).  Also, when Riobaldo makes himself chief, he kills two men who were about to attack him with knives using his pistol (355).  Towards the last encounters with the Judases, Ricardão was the last man standing amongst his men, and Diadorim was rushing in to kill him with his knife, but Riobaldo quickly fired his pistol instead of allowing a brave fight (452).  In the very final conflict between Riobaldo’s band and Hermógenes’s, Riobaldo decides to snipe from the top story of a house, while the majority of his troops are on the ground (472).  Then, Riobaldo witnesses Diadorim and more of his men taking up knives and daggers to go against Hermógenes and his men who do the same.  Riobaldo is overcome with a sort of paralysis, and is unable to join his men who all attack, “furiously, bravely.  All except me” (481).  And so Riobaldo was stuck unable to display his courage, while Diadorim conquered Hermógenes.

Despite any rituals or pacts Riobaldo may have used, he was not as a brave as Diadorim who faced all of his major opponents up close with a knife.  The jaguncos traveled around the Grand Sertão, trying to display their courage in combat, and their courage was shown to be strongest, and most admired, in close combat (pg. 416).  To be brave a jagunco only needed to fight their opponent in hand to hand combat.  Witchcraft, like eating the heart of a jaguar, or making a pact with devil was not the true test, but the direct confrontation was.  Riobaldo, even though he was known as a brave jagunco chief, in the end did not live up to the bravery set by Ze Bebelo or especially Diadorim.

Barrett Stowers


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