22 January 2019

Rosean maxims

In a translation considered as flawed by critics and scholars, The Devil to Pay in the Backlands was a very quotable book, abounding in surprising turns of phrases. The post below first appeared in a slightly different and shorter form (with lesser quotes) in A Missing Book as part of a contest to submit "anything concerning João Guimarães Rosa". I am reviving it here since the original post was taken down.

The Devil to Pay in the Backlands, translated by James L. Taylor and Harriet de Onís, was more than a story of bandit wars and loves. It was also a novel of ideas as the humble narrator philosophizes on various topics: love and friendship, good and evil, life and death. The book could even resemble a treatise on leadership, politics, and power, how to seize it, how to wield it. It was a reluctant hero's book of philosophy, filled with double-edged aphorisms. Everything was filtered through the consciousness of its protagonist, Riobaldo, who meditates on his cruel experiences like a failed student of Master Yoda.

As the novel's structure is confessional, the narration constantly verged on self-examination. The novel condensed a unique way of thinking, a worldview, a "jagunço code." Its humble insights were dispensed randomly, perfectly timed, in moments of deep reflection. The book was less like a manual on the art of fighting wars in the sertão than a guide to natural stoicism, a paradoxical take on living as "a dangerous business."

The following listed some of the aphorisms in the book. The majority of the quotes were taken mainly from the second half of the book, from page 300 onward, when I started paying attention to them. The double meanings of some of the aphorisms may have been lost as the context in which they are situated was not mentioned. Out of context, they were tweets from a world of infinite uncertainty.

The truth is not in the setting out nor in the arriving: it comes to us in the middle of the journey. (52)

In real life, things end less neatly, or don’t end at all. To strive for exactitude makes one blunder. One shouldn’t seek it. (70)

He lies little who tells the whole truth. (299)

The world is like a stage: one in the royal box, the others trained to keep quiet. (299)

Fear is something that grows inside a person, something planted there; at times it stirs and shakes, and we think it is for some reason, because of this or that, when these things are only holding a mirror up to ourselves. The purpose of life is to destroy these bitter dregs of fear. (301)

The sertão is not to be subdued by force; on the contrary, little by little, it does the subduing. All who ride high and handsome in the sertão hold the reins for a short time only: they find they are riding a tiger. (307)

We only know well that which we do not understand. (310)

Always fear a man who has no power and no money! I’ll say more: it is best never to mix with people too different from ourselves. Even when they have no avowed evil intentions, their lives are bounded by their habits, and being an outsider, you run subtle dangers. There are many places and many kinds of people. I learned about it from old-timers. The wise thing is to flee from everything to which we do not belong. Keep the good far from the bad, the healthy far from the sick, the living far from the dead, the cold far from the hot, the rich far from the poor. Don’t neglect this rule, and hold on to the reins with both hands. Put gold in one hand and silver in the other, then close them tight so no one will see. (318)

As long as there is one fearful soul in the world, or a frightened child, everyone is in danger—fear is contagious. No one has the right to instill fear in another, no one. My greatest right, the one I cherish most, is that no one is entitled to make me afraid! (322-323)

The sum total of life is a mingling of the lives of all, and life follows a pattern, with little variation. When anyone near you, for example is afraid, his fear reaches out to touch you; but if you stand firm and refuse to be afraid under any conditions, your courage amazingly doubles and redoubles. (327)

I am telling you everything, as I said. I don’t like to forget anything. To me, forgetting is almost like losing money. (332-333)

One does not hate a boa, for though a boa squeezes it has no poison. (339)

A crazy idea is one that doesn’t work. But you won’t know it’s crazy until you’ve tried it. (347)

The first thing a person who wants to rise in life must learn is to override the envy of others. (351)

There was only enough manioc and jerky left for three days? Nonsense. Every steer grazes daily as long as it lives. Common sense and beans can be replenished every day. Let there be no shortage of courage and there would be plenty of burití pulp and wild steer meat. (364-365)

If I were to get cautious, I would develop fear right at the start. Courage comes from other practices. You have to believe in the impossible—just that. (365)

Another can take our place, but we should never take the place of another: it’s not wise. (374)

Life is full of surprises! You start something, without knowing why, and then you lose control; life is like a stew, stirred and seasoned by everybody. (375)

The things in this world that change the quickest are the direction of the wind, the trail of the tapir in September and October, and a person’s feelings. (375)

It is only when the river is deep, or has deep holes in it, that you build a bridge across it. (376)

Ah, the advice of a friend is welcome only when it is gentle, like an afternoon breeze riffling the water. But love turns its back on all reproof. (380)

God turns His back on my prayers but He cocks an ear. (393)

Look: all that is not prayer is madness. (394)

Life is a motley confusion. Write it in your notebook, sir: seven pages. (406)

The only thing I can swear to, that I know, is that a toucan has a craw! (407)

Courage is what makes the heart beat; without it, the beat is not true. (408)

An egg is something that can be smashed. Thoroughly, too. To conquer, you must give no thought to the enemy, just do what you have to do. I was turning my back on the snake and going after its nest. (410)

Didn’t the old-timers themselves know that the day would come when you could lie in your hammock or bed, and the hoes would go out alone to chop weeds, and the scythes to reap by themselves, and the cart to fetch the harvest—that everything that is not man himself belongs to him and is subject to his will? (411)

I suffered agonies to think that one’s hand is capable of action before thought has time to intervene. (416)

A bird that flies away leaves the nest unguarded. (417)

“The sertão is neither mean nor kind, son; it takes away or gives, it pleases or embitters you, according as you treat it.” (423)

Just as in heaven there is splendor, so here there is woman’s beauty, for which we thirst. (429)

There may have been no harm in it, but to ask for advice is to have no trust in oneself; and that could be harmful. (432)

And we arrived! Where? The place you arrive at is wherever the enemy also wishes to arrive. The devil watches; what the devil wants is to see. (442)

What fights is the animal in us, not the man. (446)

The jagunços say they do not know themselves if they are afraid, but none of them thought about dying. You curse and swear but it is for the other fellow’s blood. (447)

I know: one who loves is always a slave, but he never truly obeys. (447)

To command is just that: to remain still and have greater courage. (449)

The fact is, courage is something you can always absorb more of—like air: you can take more and more of it into your lungs, no matter how full, by breathing deeper. (449)

Man exists like the tapir: he lives life. A tapir is the most stupid of animals. (452)

Hatred displaces fear, just as fear comes from hatred. (464)

Beauty—what is it? Beauty, the shape of a person’s face, a person who may be destined for another, is a matter which Fate decides. (467)

Prayer is the life of the soul. When I pray I am clean of all filth, apart from all madness. Or is it the awakening of the soul? (490)

It is the future that matters. To buy or to sell, sometimes, is almost the same thing. (492)


  1. Rise, what a great idea for a Guimarães Rosa post! I'm going to bookmark this and keep it handy. I've returned to reading GR recently, which is making me more and more enthusiastic about his work.

    1. Me, too, Scott. I've several more short stories of his to get to, both from Sagarana and The Third Bank of the River.