May 31, 2013

Of God and devil, trigger and weapon

The Devil to Pay in the Backlands by João Guimarães Rosa, translated by James L. Taylor and Harriet de Onís (Knopf, 1963)

"The fact is that every writer creates his own precursors," wrote Borges in an essay on Kafka. "His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future." Borges the literary critic just defined his own exploratory style of literary criticism. For how can someone be entirely sure which particular authors and books a certain writer has read or was influenced by? A reader could know, for example, that the writings of Author A was influenced by Author B in terms of aspect X. Yet he might not be aware that Author B was influenced by Author C on that same aspect X. And there's really no way to fully know the web of influences because there are now just about infinite books written by infinite authors and containing infinite aspects. It's very likely that the anxiety of influence was felt both by readers and writers. At most, readers could only rely on gut feel and guesswork, just like Borges: "After frequenting [Kafka's] pages a bit, I came to think I could recognize his voice, or his practices, in texts from diverse literatures and periods." The text then is the thing. "If Kafka had never written a line, we would not perceive this quality [his idiosyncrasy]; in other words, it would not exist."

Because João Guimarães Rosa had written some good lines in Grande Sertão: Veredas, and because the novel was translated in various languages, then we can freely write about it. One could make, for example, an observation that Cormac McCarthy created a precursor in the Brazilian writer, he of Blood Meridian, or The Evening Redness in the West. Blood Meridian was of course that horrific ballet of blood and viscera and violence, featuring two unforgettable characters: the kid and the Judge. It was the Judge—extra-large, hairless, and enthusiastic peeler of human scalps—who cut a really nasty figure, the embodiment of the devil to pay in the wild west. The Judge was malignity itself, the author of genocides, disembowelments, and infanticides. What in Guimarães Rosa's "Matraga" story was described as "something God doesn't order and the devil doesn't do". The lawlessness and evil-doings in Guimarães Rosa could not compare to the graphic descriptions of McCarthy. But we get the idea when the narrator said, "You know, sir, the sertão is where the strong and the shrewd call the tune. God himself, when he comes here, had better come armed!"

Two characters in The Devil to Pay in the Backlands resembled the Judge in Blood Meridian. The clownish Zé Bebelo, himself formidable and talkative like the Judge, was a bandit leader who never sleeps—"Work hard to sleep well," he would say. With relish: "After I'm dead, you can rest." Then laughing: "But I'm not going to die [76]." The Judge also never slept. Right after a blood-curdling scene at the end of the book, the Judge was triumphant and hyper: "He never sleeps, the judge. He is dancing, dancing. He says that he will never die."

The figure that was closer to the Judge's temperament, however, was Hermógenes, the arch-enemy of the narrator Riobaldo's band of jagunços. Hermógenes betrayed the brave Joca Ramiro, upright chief of the jagunços. He was believed to have a pact with the devil. Luck seemed to be always on his side as it was hard to catch him. And Hermógenes's cruelty, like the Judge, knew no bounds. There was a scene where a victim was tied and left for him to torture and kill slowly while he relished the man's suffering.

The novel was a haphazard record of Riobaldo's tale of his adventures as a member of a jagunço outfit under different leaders. He was speaking to an unnamed man, a learned person, almost certainly a writer who was interviewing the retired bandit in order to write about his exploits. The tale was told out of order, following the unpredictable courses of winding rivers, branching out into various tributaries. Characters crossed and re-crossed each other. The sertão contained a world, and that world was small. The tableau of scenes made for a jumbled telling but the compositional choices—the details and images, the succession of surprises one after another, the reappearances of characters—were calibrated, perfectly timed, in a narrative that was seemingly without letup in its spontaneous flow.

The elegiac tone of the narration was a hymn to a vanishing land; that is, Brazil in the first half of nineteenth century, at a time when the government was starting to compartmentalize the region by building roads. The bandit wars in the sertão region of Brazil were being fought by private armies funded by the landed class (owners of fazendas) against government troops who were harassing them. We caught the story during during the heydays of vigilante fighting when different factions of armed militias went at cross purposes and even fought each other. Food rations, weapons, and horses were sourced out by exacting tributes from fazendeiros.

The breakdown of law led to more groups being formed to "impose justice" and bring order to the world. They had “taken up arms in the cause of justice and honest government” and to protect friends (their benefactors) who were persecuted by government soldiers. It's not really that different to some regions today which are at war or in conflict or to the most violent cities in the world. Then, as now, warlords and their armies ruled the world.

War strategies and the politics of warfare figured prominently in the novel. They were tempered by the melancholic voice of Riobaldo who was recounting his violent past, sweet loves, and disappointments. Reflecting on the several successions of leadership in his jagunço army, Riobaldo was able to examine his own peripatetic life and give a glimpse of the personal and public lives of jagunços in peace and war.

The imposition of "order and justice" in the sertão was best exemplified by a key scene in the book. It was during the trial of Zé Bebelo, who made war in the pay of government against Joca Ramiro's group, that the ideas for the dispensation of justice were explored. Parliamentary procedures were carefully observed during the trial. It made for a riveting courtroom drama, in fact. It turned out that in a world of chaos and war, jagunços could still be bound by certain codes of conduct.

The prisoner's rights were protected, along with the right to defend himself in a court of war. The "fair" trial demonstrated some ethical considerations in pursuing the rules of war. Human rights, against torture and against death, were safeguarded. In context—and here we find an important "precursor" document—the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, eight years before the publication of the novel. Being a senior member of the Brazilian diplomatic community, Guimarães Rosa must have been familiar with the discussions on human rights prior to their international adoption.

But the novel was not just a platform for philosophical meditation on human rights. It also explored ideas about the individual as a free agency of good and evil, equipped with human feelings and human reason. The individual has seemingly unlimited capacity to change, to reform his ways, from one station in life to another, from one type of person to another. This individual political will to change was closely tied to Riobaldo’s metaphysical discussions on God and the devil, on saints, reincarnation, and the afterlife. Does the devil exist or not? Does God exist to thwart the devil's plans? How free are we to make a choice between good and evil? What is a "just" war? What compels a man to transform himself from good to bad and the other way round?

It was significant that Riobaldo had a special ability. He was an expert marksman. He held the life of his target enemy on his trigger finger. The latter's hearbeat depended on Riobaldo's error, but Riobaldo never made any. Choosing whom to mark out for death and whom to spare—was not that the same as playing God? How easily are we swayed by our own appetite for murder and destruction?

Those fellows there were really a gang of kind friends who helped each other at every turn, and who did not balk at sacrifices to that end. But the fact remained that, in support of some political feud, they would not hesitate to shoot up a village of helpless people, people like ourselves, with mothers and godmothers. And they found it quite natural to go out and do the same thing for the sake of health and exercise. I was horror-stricken—you know what I mean? I was afraid of the race of men. [332]

In several instances in the novel, Riobaldo was faced with a decision to choose between what he perceived as right and what he knew to be wrong. A single word from him could decide the fate of an innocent young woman. A single bullet could pass judgement on the life of a man or a horse or a dog. Every day, in battle or outside them, a jagunço may have to decide, one way or another, on things whose outcome may haunt him forever. "Living is a dangerous business", our apologetic narrator repeated many times, too many for one's comfort. When Riobaldo pulled the plug on someone, he knew his entire being decided it, not just his hand: "I tell you, this right hand of mine had fired almost by itself. What I know is, it returned Adam to dust. That's just my way of talking. [452]"

It didn’t help that Riobaldo often courted unreliability. In many instances he denied the existence of the devil, in others he subscribed wholly to the concept and was even willing to make a pact with the "dark side". The power to do good and evil resides in any one of us, but it is regulated not only by the societal rules and legal frameworks governing our actions, but by the God of our chosen religion. But in the sertão, where God has to come armed, the situation was not simple. "It is man who exists," Riobaldo reflected at one point. Are devil and God then mere labels for acts of men?

God exists, yes, slowly or suddenly. He acts, all right—but almost wholly through the medium of persons, good and bad. The awesome things of this world! The backlands are a powerful weapon. Is God a trigger? [283]

In Riobaldo's puzzlement we see the same conflict faced by Augusto Matraga. But the question was probably beyond good and evil, or their relativism.

If I wanted to make another pact, with God himself—I wonder if I can?—would this not wipe out everything that went before? ... What is needed is for God to have greater reality for people, and for the devil to amuse us with his own non-existence. One thing is sure, one alone, even though it differs for every person, and that is: God waits for each of us to act. In this world, there are all degrees of bad and good persons. But suppose everybody were bad; would not then everybody be good? Ah, it is only for the sake of pleasure and happiness that we seek to know everything, to develop a soul, to have a conscience. To suffer, none of this is needed. Animals suffer pain, and they suffer without knowing the reason. I tell you, sir: everything is a pact. Every road is slippery. [259]

Everything in the book could be seen as a setup for one final revelation. Rereading it revealed that hints were carefully dropped along the way. My next post is a look into Diadorim's character and more precursors of the novel—eastern, as opposed to western, writers.



  1. Zé Bebelo's trial was the one big chunk in the book I wanted to comment on and left out of my own post, so I'm glad to see you wrote about it here. What a piece of writing! Interesting point you make about JGR and his diplomatic activities possibly playing a role in the human rights type discussions in the book. I don't think I would have made that connection myself. Anyway, great book--thanks for helping set up the group read!

  2. JGR practically invaded the John Grisham genre in that trial. I wouldn't have made the connection too if I was not concurrently reading Human Rights: A Very Short Introduction. Still a great group read for me, despite the limited readership due to the book's out of print status.

  3. Rise - There are so many ways into GS:V, but for me one of the more interesting ones is the one you take here, its examination of justice and morality. I still have hopes of writing up something about this, and your mention of JGR's diplomatic roles - what tiny bit I know of them is already a lot - would certainly have to figure in. It's so interesting how his diplomatic life - including his being posted in Germany before and into the first years of WWII - never became topics for his stories, at least of the two collections I've read plus the novel. But I'd argue that, like most everything else that seemed to be in JGR's head - they've been cleverly submerged into these tales of the backlands.

    I'd like to re-read GS:V looking more closely at Riobaldo's evolving, devolving, evolving attitudes about the capital punishment, for instance.

  4. One gap in the study of JGR (at least in English) is probably the lack of a biography. But from his work we can deduce he's an advocate of human rights and peace. I think I'm done reading the novel for now. Unless they come up with another translation.

    1. P.S. There are some biographical material in the recent JGR study in English that you mentioned in the email. But even that book may be hard to access.

    2. I can confirm that it is an incredibly difficult book to access. As if $400 copies of GS:V weren't bad enough, this collection of essays seems to be going for no less than $150. Forget gold and petroleum company stocks - I should start investing in JGR!