“It is clear that a country’s reading public do not appreciate a translation made in the style of their own language. For this they have more than enough native authors. What is appreciated is the inverse: carrying the possibilities of their language to the extreme of the intelligible so that the ways of speaking appropriate to the translated author seem to cross into theirs.”

–Ortega y Gasset


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