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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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A conversation with Dr. Leopoldo Bernucci

Dr. Leopoldo Bernucci is Professor of Spanish and Portuguese, and The Russell F. and Jean H. Fiddyment Chair in Latin American Studies at the University of California at Davis. His research interests span Colonial and Modern Latin American Literature from Brazil and Spanish America. He is the editor of the annotated edition of Euclides da Cunha’s Os Sertões in Brazil. Last month we sat to down to discuss his experience teaching the work of João Guimarães Rosa at both Yale University and UC Davis.

Felipe Martinez: Professor, thank you for speaking with me.

Leopoldo Bernucci: It’s my pleasure. I think the A Missing Book project is very interesting and important, and I am happy to contribute in whatever way I can. What is it you would like to discuss?

Felipe Martinez: To begin, I would like to know about your own personal experience with the work of Guimarães Rosa, how you came to be interested in his work, and what your particular areas of research have been.

Leopoldo Bernucci: Yes, well, as a student of literature I completed my B.A. in Brazil, and that was the first time I was exposed to the work of Guimarães Rosa. The way I was exposed was not by reading his works chronologically—I wish I had in those years—but by going straight to Grande Sertão: Veredas. Because, that was the book everyone was talking about. As you know, Brazilians count Grande Sertão: Veredas as the Irish do Ulysses—the greatest book of the twentieth century. Of course I knew Grande Sertão: Veredas was not a very accessible book, though I did not think I was missing too many things when I read the book. However, today, with a different reading knowledge, after so many years of dealing with literature, and teaching literature, I read it in a different way, obviously, and I notice there is a huge gap between my first reading and my reading now. What I’m trying to say is that I don’t think I missed a lot in terms of enjoying the book, grasping the main issues that Guimarães Rosa addresses. The whole of the work he does, on the level of language per se, is what I think I missed in those early years, in my first reading, because obviously I wasn’t doing a very meticulous or very systematic reading of his grammar, of his style, of the way he composes the book. I was mainly focused on the narrative as a story—which is not rare for a young reader—and as a story, I think you can read it, and, true, most people would read it with difficulties, but ultimately end up enjoying it. So that was in the early 70s in Brazil. (I received my B.A. from the University of São Paulo, and there I studied under great people who had written extensively about Guimarães Rosa: Antonio Candido and João Alexandre Barbosa—just to mention two, well known critics and scholars. Candido was one of the first scholars to really produce a first-class critique of Guimarães Rosa’s work.) So the first time I read Grande Sertão: Veredas, I didn’t read with the preoccupation of understanding Guimarães Rosa in his totality. I just read the book, period. I didn’t touch anything else by Guimarães Rosa until I came to the United States in 1978, when I began to pursue my master’s and Ph.D. It was then that I started reading more of Guimarães Rosa’s work. My Ph.D. was not directed to Brazilian Literature, it had more to do with Spanish American Literature. I wrote my dissertation on La Guerra del Fin del Mundo by Mario Vargas Llosa, who was inspired by Os Sertões (The Backlands), by Euclides da Cunha, the sertão, the entire culture of the backlands—which also inspired Guimarães Rosa. So naturally, Guimarães Rosa had to be a point of return for me. I was very pleased when I read Sagarana for the first time, here, in the United States. I read it in Portuguese first, and then in English later. When I left the University of Michigan where I was trained and got my two degrees, I went to teach at Yale, and there I felt that I had to, somehow, teach Guimarães Rosa; I had to expose my students to Guimarães Rosa because, in those years, we’re still talking about the Boom Generation: Rulfo, Vargas Llosa, Fuentes, Donoso…and Guimarães Rosa was very much revered by his Spanish American counterparts. Critics considered him a major part of the group. But right away I noticed that if I was going to teach Guimarães Rosa at the undergraduate level, I was going to face some problems—even with earlier volumes like Sagarana. Just because there’s so much culture stuff there that needs to be contextualized and Guimarães Rosa is so subtle in the way in which he uses the Brazilian Portuguese language—if you do not contextualize, minimally, what’s happening around the story, there will be students who understand, but that understanding would be left only on the surface—which is not a bad reading, but as a teacher, you sometimes feel frustrated and find the need to deepen the level of understanding for your students. And given that it was Yale, I thought it a level that could do well with Guimarães Rosa. So, I grabbed Harriet De Onís’ translation of Sagarana, I selected three to four stories, and I taught them to my students. Then one year I attempted to teach Grande Sertão: Veredas, but I don’t think it was very successful. In large part due to the difficulty and length of the work. It wasn’t the only novel I was teaching. It wasn’t a seminar on Grande Sertão: Veredas alone. The students thought it was great, but I wasn’t so sure the course had produced as successful results as the previous courses in which I’d taught Sagarana.

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