How is it possible that Brazilian writer João Guimarães Rosa’s 1956 novel Grande Sertão: Veredas (The Devil to Pay in the Backlands) has been out of print in English for half a century and remains all but unknown in the Anglophone world except to a small circle of academics and those fortunate enough to have been initiated into its cult?
Able at last to count myself among the latter, I can scarcely begin to touch on all this complex book has to offer, especially given my almost complete ignorance of Brazilian literature and the not insignificant matter of having read the book in translation.[i] Those disadvantages do not, though, stand in the way of recognizing that Grande Sertão: Veredas is neither of marginal, esoteric interest nor so dauntingly erudite as to be forbidding. On the contrary, it’s the rare kind of work that might serve as the reward for a lifetime of reading, offering potentially endless exploration in its expansive cosmos, resisting reduction along its boundless curvature, with myriad points of entry for myriad potential audiences despite qualities that could well be intimidating. Among these is a linguistic complexity that has spawned lexicons in Portuguese nearly as voluminous as the novel itself and includes word variants, neologisms, regionalisms, catalogues of flora and fauna, utterances, portmanteau names fabricated from multiple languages, slang, even animal cries. A recursive, digressive narrative jumps about in time and pursues paths as numerous as the “veredas” - the oasis-like depressions and the rivulets that connect them - that figure in the book’s title. Guimarães Rosa also draws from an unusually deep and broad aquifer of influences to irrigate his tale: from modernist peers to the ancient Greek tragedies and epics, Augustine’s Confessions to Don Quixote, Dante to the Tao-Te-Ching, the natural sciences to moral philosophy, archaic backlands superstition to contemporary global realities.
Yet Grande Sertão: Veredas comes across as a supremely engrossing work, and one that makes a great effort not to wear its deep erudition on its sleeve. Rather, not unlike Dante choosing to make his “Divine Comedy” more accessible by writing in vernacular Italian, Guimarães Rosa takes his wealth of knowledge and thoroughly emulsifies it into an ensorcelling, vital narrative in which these cultured elements seem to propagate naturally and organically from the irresistible pull of knowledge and a feverish, infectious love of language (in “Woodlands Witchery,” a revealing story from Guimarães Rosa’s earlier work, Sagarana, a character is obsessed with the sounds of words and refers to their “song and feathers”). Those who heed the narrator’s appeal will likely be amply rewarded:
…think hard about what I have been telling you, turn it over in your mind, for I have related nothing idly. I don’t waste words. Think it over, figure it out. Build your own plot around it.
But in Guimarães Rosa’s world the privilege of language and knowledge is not to be abused by constructing a wall between writer and reader, and his narrator gently concludes the advice above with a gesture of patience and good will: “In the meantime, we’ll have some more coffee, and smoke a good cigarette.” With an openness, immediacy and intimacy that invites trust and humbles one into listening, this captivating voice - rising and falling, emphasizing, warning of zones difficult to talk about and even superstitious to mention, following its own dictates in the way William James described the flow of thought as “like a bird’s life, seeming to be made of an alternation of flights and perchings” - calls upon readers to engage existential and moral questions, fundamentally and recognizably human in a “world beyond control.”
This beguiling voice belongs to Guimarães Rosa’s unusual choice of narrator, Riobaldo, “an ignorant man,” an unschooled wanderer of the great Brazilian sertão, a retired jagunço (“a member of a lawless band of armed ruffians in the hire of rival politicos, who warred against each other and against the military, at the turn of the century, in northeastern Brazil”[ii]), with a down-to-earth affability, sharp natural intelligence and tremendously inventive, poetic gift for language that invites rather than intimidates. An implicit sympathy with and respect for the practical knowledge and native intelligence possessed by people whom urbanites and academics might regard as simple pervades Grande Sertão: Veredas. Self-effacing and modest about his remarkable narrative skills, which spring directly from his experience, Riobaldo knows that storytelling can only approximate life: “To relate stories full of surprises and deeds of daring may be much more entertaining, but hell, when you are the one who is doing the everyday living, these fancy turns of events don’t work.”
Riobaldo’s account (an oral, even oracular, tale perhaps best read aloud) is a kind of apostrophe to a vaguely sketched listener, an educated visitor from the urban coast who has come to explore the sertão. Having in his old age “invented this hobby, of speculating about ideas,” Riobaldo finds in this newcomer the sounding board that enables his discourse (that a story depends upon both teller and audience, or writer and reader, is a given in Grande Sertão: Veredas): “To talk like this with a stranger, who listens well and soon goes far away, has a second advantage: it is as though I were talking to myself.” And in finding his auditor to be a learnèd outsider, Riobaldo expresses a simple faith in education as a tool for better managing life’s vicissitudes:
How many really fine ideas occur to a well-educated person! In that way they can fill this world with other things, without the mistakes and twistings and turnings of life in its stupid bungling….In real life, things end less neatly, or don’t end at all.
Riobaldo’s recitation of the “real life” he has led - “like a live fish on a griddle” – begins with the intonation of a single word – “Nonada” (“It’s nothing”) - an alpha that will find its omega in another single word and an infinity symbol some 500 pages of uninterrupted monologue later. He seeks to reassure his visitor that the gunshots he’s just heard were not the notorious violence of the backlands, but just Riobaldo himself, practicing to keep up his finest skill, marksmanship. This division between violence and innocence, expectation and reality, will hang like a shimmering curtain throughout Grande Sertão: Veredas. Insisting with magnanimous hospitality, and perhaps a desperate need to unburden himself, that his guest stay - “A visit here, in my house, with me, lasts three days!” - Riobaldo weaves an intricate account of his jagunço life in the sertão: his adventures and trials under various jagunço chiefs; the brutal battles he and his comrades have fought; episodes of violence alternating with moments of great tenderness; dreams of revenge and power vying with a desire to escape the violent hand that life has dealt him; doubts and struggles, both particular and universal, in trying to make sense of a life in which, as Riobaldo repeatedly asserts, “the whole world is crazy.” Two other repeated phrases punctuate his speech: an acknowledgement that “to live is a dangerous thing” and reluctant references, sometimes briefly trailing into reflective silence, to “the devil in the whirlwind, in the middle of the street,” hinting at critical moments of confusion, “memories of things worse than bad,” that still weigh so heavily on Riobaldo that in the first moments of his tale he gets to the point that obsesses him most: Does the devil exist?
Far from being a matter of idle curiosity, Riobaldo’s appeal is the central existential question that plagues him, a need to understand his responsibility regarding the two great entwined forces that have shaped his life: the pact with the devil that Riobaldo may - or may not - have made one cold night alone in the haunting Veredas Mortas in hopes of extinguishing “an irrational evil,” the murderous jagunço Hermogènes; and Riobaldo’s profound love for Reinaldo, or Diadorim, the “different” jagunço companion he has known since a transformative moment of Riobaldo’s youth. These forces come together almost exactly halfway through the novel (the elegant structure of Grande Sertão: Veredas probably merits a dissertation) when two events occur almost simultaneously: the murder by the mutinous “Judases,” Hermogènes and Ricardão, of jagunço hero Joca Ramiro, revealed now to be Diadorim’s father; and immediately preceding this shock, Riobaldo’s first acknowledgment to himself that what he has felt for Diadorim – a desire “to place my fingers lightly, so lightly, over his soft eyes, hiding them, to keep from having to endure their fascination. How much their green beauty was hurting me; so impossible” - goes beyond fraternity and friendship, and is in fact genuine love, a feeling that “had been dormant, unperceived by me, in our everyday living. But now it was springing to life, like day breaking, bursting. I lay still a moment, my eyes closed, thrilled and glowing in my new-found joy” (another dissertation topic: Grande Sertão: Veredas as one of the great depictions of male love in modern literature).
“Am I telling things badly? I’ll start again.”
That it has taken half the book to get to this point is in part due to Riobaldo’s revision and reorganization of his thoughts, occasionally moving backwards or sideways to render important points or informative anecdotes. About a sixth of the way into his narrative, he abruptly halts his story, which has so far focused on his hunt for the Judases with the band of jagunços led by Medeiro Vaz up until the group falls under the leadership of the reform-minded jagunço chief, Zé Bébelo, intent on ridding the sertão of lawlessness. Riobaldo then begins re-telling it starting from his childhood and not returning to where he left off until some 200 pages later. Such temporal recursions find a parallel in the spatial dimensions of the novel as Riobaldo wanders about the great sertão, at times retracing paths he has taken before.
A coherence to the narrative is nonetheless sustained by the unswerving attention Riobaldo concentrates on his listener (in one sense, we remain in a fixed place and time: at Riobaldo’s ranch, enraptured by the spell he casts with his tale) as well as by the constant swarm of questions and ruminations he expresses about his place in the world, his relationship to violence and love, obligation and responsibility, even his own identity and existence:
“Where does my guilt come from?”
“Isn’t nearly everything one does or doesn’t do, treachery in the end?
“Who knows for sure what a person really is?”
“When did my fault begin?”
“Do you suppose there is a fixed point, beyond which there is no turning back?”
“Was I thinking?”
Questions that might in isolation sound ponderous instead become, enveloped in Riobaldo’s earnest inquiry and voluptuous discourse, matters of importance to ourselves because of Riobaldo’s having involved us fully in his life, enlisting our help in seeking answers to questions that resonate universally. Through the words of this complex, simple man of the backlands of Brazil, a mercenary warrior so ostensibly different from ourselves, who has done “deplorable” things but has “come there, to the sertão of the North, as everyone does sooner of later…almost without noticing that I was doing so, compelled by the need to find a better way of life,” we’re unable to turn away our gaze, or escape our essential, human commonality.
Guimarães Rosa’s concentration on the essential renders aspects of fiction such as plot and dénouement almost entirely subordinate to the pointedness of the book’s existential inquiries and the ebullient freshness and newness of the language with which they are delivered. Whether one knows ahead of time the “surprise” revelation of the end of the novel is much beside the point (especially in a book that ends with an infinity mark). In terms of plot, Riobaldo’s story in the novel’s second half winds along the tension between growing acceptance of a love he fears to admit and the burning, hateful vengeance he feels compelled to pursue and justify. These entangled but competing forces, this “devil in the whirlwind, in the middle of the street,” literalized at the end in an almost cartoonish fusion, but also forming a kind of quantum spin-liquid state in which Riobaldo’s ability to make sense of his life’s choices attains a pitch of constant instability - leave him closer to an answer but still asking the question that has dogged him from the beginning. Does the devil exist? This may seem the simple question of an uneducated person, and it is far from being the only question the novel asks. But if we heed Riobaldo’s advice, to “…listen beyond what I am telling you, and listen with an open mind,” it reveals itself as a question of great importance and enduring relevance, however sophisticated or unsophisticated the manner in which we may phrase it. Is not the world that offers beauty, goodness and love filled with jagunços and all who must deal with them, with persons born to or entrapped in violence and conflict, whose struggles to seek a better life involve us in their existence, whose stories demand that we question our own complicity and responsibility?
“The sertão,” as Riobaldo says, “is everywhere.”
I am immensely grateful to my co-hosts for this group reading of Grande Sertão: Veredas: Richard, Rise and Miguel.
[i] Having read about 90 pages of the French translation, I switched, without prejudice, to the English translation when it suddenly became available. These translations approach the novel quite differently, with the English translators electing to emphasize clarity over an attempt to recreate fully, as does the French translation, Guimarães Rosa’s linguistic inventiveness.
[ii] Glossary to The Devil to Pay in the Backlands, by João Guimarães Rosa, James L. Taylor and Harriet de Onís, translators, Alfred A. Knopf, New York 1963.