Student Responses

The following are written responses to The Devil to Pay in the Backlands by undergraduate students at San Diego State University (Spring 2014).


A Dangerous Business
by Kayla Bond

Look; the most important and nicest thing in the world is this: that people aren’t always the same, they are not all of a piece and finished but keep on changing.

-João Guimarães Rosa

The Devil to Pay in the Backlands is really a story about people. If one reads carefully, you’ll find many hidden gems strictly about the nature of people and the nature of life. One of the main sayings throughout the novel is that ‘living is a dangerous business’. This proves very true in the short pocket narrative of Maria Mutema, even more so than all the battles and gun fights that Riobaldo finds himself in. This is mostly because a simple woman killed her husband for no good reason. She’s even more of a dangerous thought because she isn’t a soldier trained to kill or even someone we would expect to kill viciously and pointlessly. It is proving that anyone can be dangerous and in turn, no one is truly safe… living is a dangerous business.

There are three big things we can learn from this pocket narrative. Continue reading


Student Responses

The following are written responses to The Devil to Pay in the Backlands by non-literature majors at San Diego State University.

For decades now, among academics and professionals, The Devil to Pay in the Backlands has rarely been discussed beyond the pallid light of the problematic circumstances surrounding its translation.

Enough with the impossibilities.

To new perspectives.

Continue reading


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.

Continue reading


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.

Continue reading


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.

Continue reading


Despite the Repression of Emotions

The relationship between Riobaldo and Diadorim in The Devil to Pay in the Backlands dissipates any expectation for a stereotypical bond between two men of such patriarchal and societal power. Although there is an undercurrent of homoeroticism present amongst the two individuals, their relationship is irreducible to this characteristic. The cornerstone of the relationship between the two men is a blend of its strength and indefinable limits.

The emotional intimacy between Riobaldo and Diadorim, although it may appear to be due to a desire for a sexual relationship, is due to the strength of their friendship. Riobaldo discusses that what defines a friend to him is “a person with whom you like to talk, as one equal to another, unarmed; someone it gives you pleasure to be near…Or a friend is simply what you are, without needing to define the how or the why of it (Rosa, 151).” Riobaldo knew that there was something different and special about the relationship between him and Diadorim, something that he had never encountered between him and anyone else, but the naturalness of the interactions between them never left him with any reason to question the formed bond.

When it is revealed at the end of the novel that Diadorim was born a woman, it would be foolish to conclude that the relationship between him and Riobaldo was founded in an unknowingly heterosexual coupled relationship.  Although Diadorim was born a woman, the reader is left to ponder the reasons behind him carrying out his life as a man. The usage of female pronouns when discussing Diadorim upon finding out this fact would be an act of imposing personal gender expectations upon him.

Continue reading

Student Response V

Rosa’s “Paradoxical Temptation”

In Joao Guimaraes Rosa’s The Devil to Pay in the Backlands, Rosa demonstrates temptation through an unsure footing of what is right and what is wrong through the subtle manipulation of language. He does this through the main character, Riobaldo, who takes on the appearance of the Devil throughout the novel. Rosa’s and Riobaldo’s idea of temptation differs from the conventional idea of temptation, because it takes on the form of paradoxes. The reader is convinced to trust Riobaldo who blatantly displays this temptation, which leads to the unsure footing of right and wrong.

Riobaldo takes on the appearance of the Devil when talking to the hidden listener. “I speak in twisted words. I narrate my life, which I did not understand. You are a very clever man of learning and good sense… Did the Evil One exist?”[1] Riobaldo’s repeated compliments to the listener seem to lull both the listener and the reader into a state of trust. However Riobaldo is just as clever and learned as the listener, and uses this to hide his intentions. He says that he speaks in twisted words himself, showing that he tempts by paradox. Directly after this he questions the existence of the Devil, which he does on numerous occasions. Riobaldo is trying to hide the presence of the Devil and the presence of temptation to sin, that follows the story. His temptation lies within his cryptic words, and through them he also shows glimmers of the Devil. Riobaldo’s paradoxical version of temptation can be seen multiple times through his hubris and ego. He says many times that he does not want to become chief. He strips his past feelings of their validity by saying “Now I was free, relieved of my past unhappiness.”[2] Riobaldo first speaks through words of humility to hide his hubris momentarily until the moment he becomes chief. He initially comes across as being humble to put the reader into a hypnotic state of trust. This demonstrates Riobaldo’s ultimate temptation of the reader. Had Riobaldo shown his hubris immediately, the trust the reader has in Riobaldo would not have existed, which in turn would not allow the reader to fall for his temptations. Riobaldo further creates this sense of trust in the reader by complimenting the listener, playing upon the listener’s, and the reader’s, own hubris. He not only tempts the reader to trust him, but also to fall prey to their own hubris.

Continue reading