01 June 2013

On Diadorim

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


Two taboos permeate Riobaldo's telling of his adventures. The first is the devil, its questionable non-existence, the evil power it gives those who are willing to make a pact by selling their souls. The second is his love for his fellow jagunço Diadorim.

Diadorim loved me too. So much that his jealousy of me spilled over. After a sudden satisfaction, that other shame arose in me, a strange revulsion. [29]

It is a love that revolts him, that he cannot openly acknowledge in a society where strong men are supposed to desire only women. And so he represses it.

I was crazy about Diadorim, and at the same time, underlying this, was a dull rage at it not being possible for me to love him as I wanted to, honorably and completely. [30]

He denies expression of that love in countless ways. For Riobaldo, it is an evil thing that must not be given due course. It cannot be named, much in the same way that the devil's name cannot be freely uttered. Riobaldo is afraid that the two taboos—his attraction for a fellow man and the existence of the devil—are interlinked.

Always when we begin to love someone, in the normal run of things, love takes root and grows, because, in a way, that is what we want to happen, and so we seek it and help it along in our mind; but when it is predestined, all-embracing, we love completely and fatefully, we have to love, and we come upon one surprise after another. A love of this sort grows first and bursts forth later. I am talking a lot, I know: I am being a bore. But it can't be helped. Well, then, tell me: can love like that come from the devil? Can it possibly? Can it come from One-Who-Does-Not-Exist? Your silence indicates agreement. Please don't answer me, or my confusion will grow. [117]

The novel then appears as a mashup of a violent action adventure and a tender love story, with the restraints of the larger society and its religious/folk beliefs—the dominant arbiter of morals—impinging on individual desires and happiness. But since this is a (LGBT) novel about transformations and perpetual self-inventions carefully worked out, the revelation about Diadorim's sexuality at the end compels the reader to reassess Riobaldo's self-questioning narrative.

Though the novel is often likened to a Western, an Eastern reading gives some insights into the most radical transformation in the book. Eclipsing Riobaldo's transformation from a simple bandit to a formidable jagunço chief is Diadorim's transformation into (or impersonation as) a man. Why did she do it?

The role of Joca Ramiro, her father whom she revered so much, is significant in understanding Diadorim's taking on the duties of an obedient son. Explaining her bravery to Riobaldo when they first met, the Boy (as Diadorim was then known to Riobaldo) explains: "I am different from everyone else. My father told me that I had to be different, very different."

In "The Death of a Disciple" (1918) by the Japanese writer Akutagawa Ryūnosuke, a young girl impersonates the life of a boy (Lorenzo) in order to enter the church and serve God the father: "Whenever he was asked about his origins, Lorenzo would parry all questions with a guileless smile and offer only the vaguest of replies: his home, he said, was Paraiso, his father Deus."

The deep love for her old father is also the reason the legendary Chinese woman warrior Hua Mulan escaped her home to enlist as a soldier after her father was drafted into the army. Her heroic exploits are recorded in the poem “Ballad of Mulan”.

Last night I saw the army notice, The emperor is calling a great draft.
A dozen volumes of battle rolls, Each one with my father's name.
My father has no grown-up son, And I have no elder brother.
I'm willing to buy a horse and saddle, To go to battle in my father's place."

First transcribed in the 6th century and the basis of the popular 1998 Disney animated movie Mulan, it is said to be one of the first poems in Chinese history to support gender equality. After fighting battles for ten years, Mulan and her army visited the emperor who showered the victors with rewards. When the emperor asked Mulan what she desires, she replied that she only wanted to come back home. Her family, learning of her return, joyously welcomed her.

"I open my east chamber door, And sit on my west chamber bed.
I take off my battle cloak, And put on my old-time clothes.
I adjust my wispy hair at the window sill, And apply my bisque makeup by the mirror.
I step out to see my comrades-in-arms, They are all surprised and astounded:
'We travelled twelve years together, Yet didn't realize Mulan was a lady!'"

The male rabbit is swifter of foot, The eyes of the female are somewhat smaller.
But when the two rabbits run side by side, How can you tell the female from the male? 

Unlike in the Chinese poem, the revelatory ending of The Devil to Pay in the Backlands is a tragic affair, all the more poignant for dashing all hopes of potential future happiness between Riobaldo and Diadorim. In a kind of Buddhist sense, it may be part of Riobaldo's karma, part of the settling of accounts in the sertão, the final reckoning of his "pact".

One other interesting character in the book who seems to refract everything Riobaldo is narrating to his silent interviewer is his compadre Quelemém, an absentee commentator to the proceedings. Quelemém is a sort of guru to Riobaldo, "a person of such rare quality, that just being near him, everyone becomes calm, smiling, kind. [491]" Riobaldo derives several religious notions from him—karma, meditation, penance, self-denial—although he cautions against accepting them wholesale.

In this world or the next, each Jazevedão, when he has finished what he has to do, stumbles into his time of penance until he has paid in full what he owes—my compadre Quelemém will bear me out. [13]

He answered me that as we near Heaven, we become cleansed and all our ugly past fades into nothingness, like the misbehaviour of childhood, the naughtiness. Like there is no need to feel remorse for what we may have divulged during the turmoil of a nightmare. So—we become clean and bright! Maybe that is why they say getting to Heaven is so slow. I check these matters, you understand, with my compadre Quelemém, because of the belief he holds: that one day we pay to the last penny for every evil deed we have committed. A fellow who believes that would rather get up before daybreak three days in a row than make the slightest misstep. Compadre Quelemém never talks for the sake of talking, he means what he says. Only, I’m not going to tell him this: one must never swallow whole others tell us—that is an unbreakable rule! [16-17]

In his retrospective telling of his violent past, Riobaldo is all the more concerned about the afterlife and the salvation of his soul, repeatedly invoking God, Heaven, and Our Lady of Abadia. Here we find the abiding presence of religion that was the backdrop of Akutagawa's short story (and also, notably, of Endo Shusaku's novel Silence). For another reading of Grande Sertão's ending, I'm quoting from translator Charles De Wolf's notes to "The Death of a Disciple".

The surprise ending points to a mélange of traditions. In the minds of the story's first readers, Lorenzo would surely have evoked a non-Christian figure with a nonetheless specifically Christian association: Kannon [Guanyin]. A well-known subterfuge of the "hidden Christians" [Kakure Kirishitan] during the centuries of persecution was to use images of this enormously popular bodhisattva ... to represent the Virgin Mary. Kannon, as it happens, was originally male, becoming female along the journey to Japan from India via China. In a story that was surely known to Akutagawa, she is born Miào-Shàn, the daughter of a rich king in Sumatra, who seeks to thwart her in her desire to become a Buddhist nun, even to the point of setting fire to the temple in which she resides. She miraculously puts out the flames but in the end is put to death.

If this precursor sounds too esoteric, try a very modern variation of the story, in the 2007 Korean hit TV series Coffee Prince, which has a remake in the Philippines last year.


  1. The crossdressing/gender confusion aspects of the Diadorín/Diadorim portrayal are something I'll have to keep a closer eye on next time, but it's also fairly common in older Western lit from tales of the saints up through D.Q. and in Western history (Joan of Arc in France, who only dressed like a man, to Catalina de Erauso in the Spanish New World). Still, quite the surprise to find it here! Belated thanks for sharing the Eastern perspective, by the way--it was largely unknown to me.

  2. And Brazil has its own Maria Quitéria and Anita Garibaldi. So it would appear that this aspect of the novel is part of a multicultural literary/militant/religious tradition. The woman warrior is a universal thing. But I'm thinking of a subset of these references that is comparable to what's in the novel in terms of the character's motivation, elaborate concealment, and the circumstances of the final revelation at the end. I forgot to add that it is also an integral part of human rights aspect I mentioned in previous post (i.e., equality and entitlement of rights without distinction of gender).

    1. Got it! Still, I forgot to mention Shakespeare's frequent use of this ruse as far as the gender switching goes--wonder if any of his plays speak to the specific motivation you're concerned with, but I'm afraid it's been too long since I read any to say for sure.

    2. I was actually planning to read Twelfth Night, in Filipino translation. Should be very interesting.

  3. Rise - Just after finishing GS:V I'd envisioned devoting a whole post to Diadorim, but it could never begin to get at what you've illuminated here, so I'm not even going to try. And I love the attention you've given to Quelemém, a character JGR brings up now again and who you just know is important but is offstage in the wings - and it takes a special kind of audience member to care about what's happening in the wings. I also love that you've brought the east into the book; JGR is just too curious a writer to have let a word like "sertao" go by without seeing what he could do with the "tao" part of it. I was struck by how there's such a taoist, monistic conception of the world in GSV, not to mention these corresponding yin and yang forces all over the place.

    If it's of any interest, JGR apparently spoke, among a number of languages, Japanese.

    1. Thanks, Scott. The book strikes me too as like a melting pot of belief systems (Christian tradition, eastern philosophy and religion, old tales and superstitions, etc), possibly indicating the writer's respect for the right to freedom of thought/religion.