The Devil to Pay in the Backlands

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The Devil to Pay in the Backlands

by João Guimarães Rosa


A novel set in the interior of Brazil around the turn of the twentieth century; published in Portuguese (as Grande sertao: veredas) in 1956, in English in 1963.


In his old age, a former backlands gunman spends three days telling a stranger the story of his adventures on the road, in an attempt to understand his violent past as well as a world caught between the forces of good and evil.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

The Novel in Focus

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

For More Information

Joāo Guimarāes Rosa was born in 1908 in the rural interior of the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais, where many of his works, including The Devil to Pay in the Backlands, are set. Although his intellectual and professional pursuits took him far from his rural beginnings, he never severed his ties to his home state, particularly to its central and northern cattle-raising regions. Rosa always considered himself to be at heart a cowboy and a man of the backlands, the Brazilian hinterland known in Portuguese as the sertao. He started his literary career in 1946, after pursuing by turns medical, military, and diplomatic careers, and participating briefly in a political rebellion. Through these experiences, he enriched his understanding of human nature and therefore his writing: “As a doctor I became acquainted with the mystical value of suffering; as a rebel, the value of conscience; as a soldier, the value of the proximity of death” (Rosa in Lorenz, p. 67). But the most important force in shaping his writing were his roots in the rural back-lands of Minas Gerais, where he learned the value of storytelling, for “what else can a person do [there] with his free time besides tell stories?” (Rosa in Lorenz, p. 69). In The Devil to Pay in the Back-lands the sertao is both a concrete geographic area, where real men and women struggle to survive and make sense of their lives, and a symbolic space in which a universal drama of conscience, love, and metaphysical doubt is movingly enacted.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

The development of backlands society and the roots of violence

The main character and narrator of The Devil to Pay in the Backlands, Ri-obaldo, identifies himself early on in his story as a former jagunço. In the context of Riobaldo’s narration, a jagunço is a member of a band of gunmen hired by backlands political bosses who warred against each other and against government forces at the turn of the twentieth century. Violence was an integral part of life in the Brazilian sertao from the earliest days of colonization. When the Portuguese arrived in Brazil in 1500, they were primarily interested in its coastal regions, where they first set up trading posts and then prosperous sugar plantations. The interior of the country remained largely unexplored until the late seventeenth century, when adventurers began organizing an increasing number of inland expeditions. The march to the interior was driven by the needs of the expanding cattle industry. As the sugar economy grew, so did the internal demand for meat and other food products, as well as for draft animals and leather goods. There was an increasing population to feed and clothe, and, with coastal land being devoted to sugar, there was less land here for cattle raising. So to provide for cattle ranches, the Portuguese Crown began handing out immense land grants to those willing to endure the inevitable hardships of frontier life in the hinterland, thus laying the foundation for a system of large estates or latifundia that mirrored the system already established on the coast. In central and northeastern Brazil, the “leather civilization,” an economic and social system based on cattle-raising, followed the course of the Sao Francisco River and its tributaries.

The civilization of the Sao Francisco River valley, where The Devil to Pay in the Backlands is set, developed particular social patterns shaped by economic activity and geographic isolation. Unlike the coastal plantation economy, the cattle industry was for the most part not based on slave labor. Nonetheless society was still highly stratified in a hierarchy that made clear distinctions between landowners and the landless. The social structure was patriarchal, with the cattle baron occupying the uppermost rung of the hierarchy as the leader of a clan composed of extended family, workers, other dependents, and associates. He exercized tremendous authority, for Portugal did not have the demographic or financial means to govern the Brazilian hinterland effectively and left the government largely in the hands of local strongmen. Working for the cattle baron were cowboys, who had a right to one out of four calves born on the ranch and could therefore aspire to some social mobility, and ranch hands, itinerant wage earners who were given a small plot of land to cultivate and were less likely to climb the social ladder. A tenant class, composed of those whom the landowner allowed to live on his land and eke out an income through subsistence agriculture, made up the lowest rung of society.

In exchange for their loyalty, those who worked for the landowner or who lived on his lands were guaranteed protection. Such bonds were necessary in a world in which violent conflict was the norm. Besides attacks from indigenous tribes and the threat from escaped black slaves, the settlers faced conflicts with their neighbors as well as within their own families. Disputes over property boundaries, conflicts over questions of honor, and battles over inheritance created a climate of instability and war. Families competing for scarce resources often resorted to violence to defend their interests, and at times entire regions became war zones, as disputes between extended families and those living on their lands expanded to the general population, creating huge factions. Such battles could last decades.

After Brazil gained its independence from Portugal in 1822, the clan wars in the sertao intensified in response to the raised political stakes. Clan leaders fought to gain control of their regions and to present themselves as legitimate political representatives. Once they achieved such political status, they could perpetuate it by getting cronies elected, thereby controlling regional and national policies. Gaining access to power was often a matter of imposing one’s will by force, and the landowners therefore frequently maintained private militias.

Such militias were usually composed of three different elements. Family members were, of course, involved, but so were jagunços and cabras. The former functioned as the landowner’s bodyguards, which was appropriate, since they were bandits. They often had a criminal past or were professional gunmen who lived under the landowner’s protection in exchange for military services. This is the case of some of the jagunços in The Devil to Pay in the Backlands, although not of Riobaldo, for as we shall see, he has other reasons for joining a jagunço band. The cabras were male tenants or ranch hands who lived and worked on the landowner’s property and who were required to take up arms to defend their boss when necessary.

Progress and instability in the Old Republic

In the second half of the nineteenth century, backlands society experienced both economic and political changes. The economy became more diversified, commerce expanded, and a small measure of progress came to the sertao, in the form of railroads and telegraph and postal services. At the beginning of his story, Riobaldo mentions a train ride he took, a sign of rapidly changing times. These economic transformations were related to significant political changes. The overthrow of the Brazilian monarchy in 1889 initiated a new political era, that of the first republican period, otherwise known as the Old Republic. Not only did the Republic accelerate economic innovations that had been introduced during the monarchy; it also inaugurated a federalist system that gave more autonomy to regional elites. Now state governors could be elected directly, and the states acquired an important source of revenue through import taxes. Increased autonomy led to the formation of state oligarchies that maintained themselves in power through the politics of corruption and favor. This, in turn, resulted in even fiercer political competition in the sertao as rural landowners fought to establish their local leadership and to make profitable alliances with the reigning oligarchy. During the period 1889-1930—that is, for the duration of the Old Republic—the backlands were plagued by constant warfare between patriarchal leaders competing for regional control. The level of conflict was exacerbated further by a development in land ownership: land had become increasingly fractionalized since the colonial period. That is, the original land grants had been divided up into smaller properties, splintering the power base and increasing the number of political players competing for local power.

The second half of the nineteenth century also saw the formation and proliferation of independent outlaw bands. While the rural elite enjoyed relative economic prosperity and the promise of greater political power, the lower classes experienced harsher living conditions. Life had never been easy for the Brazilian peasantry, but as the economy grew, land became more valuable and many tenants who had been living on the landowner’s property in exchange for small services were now forced to pay rent. In addition the backlands population had multiplied, which aggravated the problem of drought that plagued the northeastern hinterland and also led to mass migrations. In short, conditions grew more difficult and unstable. The result was dissatisfaction and social upheaval, which led to the formation of outlaw bands that for the first time were independent of the landowners’ militias.

The members of such independent bands became known as cangaceiros. The first entirely independent cangaceiro groups appeared during a great drought in the 1870s, and the last such group was destroyed in 1940. Cangaceiros resorted to banditry for a number of reasons. Most often, they became outlaws to avenge an injustice they believed they had suffered. After committing a first act of violence, they were forced to go into hiding, which led to a continuing pattern of criminal behavior. They joined bands or formed their own and wandered through the sertao, stealing and imposing their own notions of justice. In the popular imagination, cangaceiros became romantic figures, Robin Hood types who crisscrossed the backlands righting various wrongs. This image was not entirely unfounded, for certain bandits did perform occasional acts of generosity, as in the case of Jesuino Brilhante, who, during the 1870s drought, stole food to distribute among the poor.

In fact, the cangaceiro was an ambiguous figure, capable of terrible violence but also of acts of kindness. Other famous bandits followed Brilhante, the most notorious being Lampiao, who became renowned more for his extreme cruelty than for his generous impulses. The feats and adventures of such bandits were celebrated in a popular literature that helped to shape their legendary status among the lower classes. On the other hand, when unable to enlist these bandits in the service of their own political interests, many of the landowners viewed them as a nuisance or a threat. After the 1870s drought the rural elite pressured the government to wage war on the outlaws. Auxiliary police forces were formed for the specific purpose of fighting the independent bandit groups. Often, however, the state’s organized campaigns against banditry were, in truth, targeting the private armies of landowners who were perceived as threats to the political status quo. Thus, throughout the Old Republic period there were clashes between government forces and various armed groups, both the independent ones and those allied to particular landowning interests.

It is during this extremely turbulent period in Brazilian history that The Devil to Pay in the Back-lands is set. While Riobaldo identifies himself as a jagunço, the term is used somewhat loosely and the distinctions and motivations of the various warring parties in the novel often remain vague or unexplained. Riobaldo and the other jagunço characters are perhaps best seen as archetypes that combine elements of the jagunço and the cangaceiro to evoke a warrior figure out of Brazil’s not-so-distant past. This blurring of distinctions is part of a larger historical indetermination in the novel. Despite the indication of a general time frame—the Old Republic—the events that Riobaldo narrates are never precisely dated, nor are the characters’ actions provided with a concrete political context. This indetermination is a central component of the novel’s structure, which, while it purposefully blurs the specific historical parameters of the story, nonetheless refers to the warring sertao of the first republican period as an evocative framework for a host of psychological and philosophical considerations.

Codes of behavior in jagunço and cangaceiro bands

The private armies of powerful landowners as well as the cangaceiro groups functioned according to a particular set of values and code of behavior. Hierarchy was as important as in the rest of Brazilian patriarchal society, with the leader of a band exercising absolute authority over its members. As shown in The Devil to Pay in the Backlands, the members of any given army or band were known by the name of their leader; in the novel the jagunços identify themselves as “zebebelos” (after Ze Bebelo), “hermogenes” (after Hermogenes), and so forth, according to their chieftains. Nonetheless, bands offered a certain “democratic” path toward social ascension through individual merit, as in the case of Ri-obaldo, who rises to a position of leadership thanks to his superb marksmanship and his eloquent way with words.

In order to be respected and admired within the band, members had to display “manly” characteristics, not the least of which was courage. This bandit sociology mirrored Brazilian patriarchal society’s values as a whole, and particularly those of the sertao, where being a cabra-macho—a “real man”—was extremely important. The need to affirm individual strength within the band can also be understood in the context of a society that consistently dehumanized the lower classes. As one historian suggests, bandit groups may have developed a violent ethos of individual power and valor at least partly in order to compensate for this dehumanization (Doria, p. 86). There were many ways to display courage, from daredevil acts to fierceness in battle. The practice of the gritada, for example, required that bandits yell out their names and place of origin when fighting with the police. Since this information might later be used against them, such behavior was considered a daring act of courage. Valued as a way of spreading one’s fame, the gritada also made it more difficult for members to desert the band, for once their names were known, they were branded as criminals and could not easily return to normal life. In Rosa’s novel, the jagunços often shout out their names as they make their way into battle. Some of them also groom themselves to accentuate their fierceness, such as when the men in Hermo-genes’s band sharpen their teeth to a point. Such practices were widespread and served to set the warrior apart and to provide an outward and physical sign of courage. It is small wonder that in The Devil to Pay in the Backlands Riobaldo should be so concerned with the nature of courage and true manliness.

Religion in the backlands—reign of the supernatural

Brazil is well-known for its eclectic range of religious practices. Although officially a Roman Catholic country, other traditions, including other European, African, and Amerindian practices, have enriched and complicated the Brazilian religious scene. In nineteenth-century backlands society, Catholicism, sprinkled liberally with ancient European and Amerindian beliefs, formed the core of a religious system in which the supernatural was ever-present and in intimate contact with the natural world. Dealings with the supernatural were possible, at times advisable, and often unavoidable, since its forces were perceived to permeate and control the rhythms of the visible world. As one historian has put it, backlands Catholicism’s major premise was “the appeasement or manipulation of supernatural forces … for one’s protection and enhancement” (Chandler, p. 206).

Some examples of this belief system can be found in the practices of famous backlands bandits. Lampiao, the brutal cangaceiro who roamed the northeastern countryside in the early twentieth century, wore small bags around his neck in which were kept prayers thought to have magical powers. Among other things, he believed they had the power to shield his body from harm, that is, to make it invulnerable to bullets or any weapon. Before one of his many battles, Riobaldo is given such an amulet by another jagunço to protect him from harm.

In the novel, the main villain, Hermogenes, is also believed to have a shielded body. His apparent invulnerability, however, is attributed to his having made a pact with the devil. The devil, as is clear from the book’s title, features prominently in Rosa’s novel. Riobaldo himself is obsessed with the question of whether he made such a pact. Beliefs in the devil fit into the general framework of backlands belief in the supernatural, and their origins reach far back into European history. Likewise the idea of a pact with the devil has a very long tradition, both in popular belief and in erudite literature. There are documented cases of such pacts in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Riobaldo’s own attempt at making a contract with the devil contains many features of the European tradition, such as the crossroads, the hour of midnight, the presence of a tree and of wind. In accordance with popular tradition, he calls out to the devil at the crossroads, expecting him to appear in some animal form. The novel departs from tradition, however, in the absence of the visible evil entity and the anguished doubt this generates in Riobaldo’s mind, doubt about the devil’s existence and about whether or not he has allied himself with such evil.

The Novel in Focus

Plot summary

The Devil to Pay in the Backlands is constructed as a conversation between two men: the retired jagunço Riobaldo and an unknown interlocutor, whom we are given to understand is an outsider—an educated city man who is travelling through the backlands taking notes on what he sees and hears. It is a one-sided conversation, almost a monologue, in which for three days Riobaldo narrates momentous events in his life as a gunman. His listener occasionally makes comments that are recorded only indirectly, through the reactions they elicit in the narrator.

It becomes clear early in the novel that there is an urgency to Riobaldo’s story, a need to understand the meaning of his past actions and make sense of certain pivotal events and emotions. As he moves deeper into the past, two central preoccupations constitute the obsessive shaping forces of his narrative: the existence or nonexistence of the devil and the nature of his relationship with a fellow jagunço named Diadorim. The events are not told in strict chronological order, for Riobaldo moves through his tale by association, weaving back and forth in time according to the processes of his memory and the rhythm of his personal search for understanding. “You can only relate things straight through… when they are things of minor import,” he explains to his listener (Rosa, The Devil to Pay in the Backlands, p. 81).

Rearranged chronologically, the story begins when Riobaldo is a youth of 14 and carries him through to his present old age. At 14 he meets a mysterious boy to whom he is strangely and disturbingly attracted, and goes through a transformative experience during a river crossing in which the boy’s extraordinary lack of fear causes him to lose his own. The boy disapppears but will turn up years later as a decisive force in Riobaldo’s life. After the death of his mother, Riobaldo is taken in by his godfather, a wealthy landowner who loves telling jagunço stories. At his godfather’s house, he gets his first glimpse of a real bandit, Joca Ramiro, whose band he will later join.

A new phase in Riobaldo’s life begins when he finds out that his godfather is in fact his father. Shamed and angered, he runs away and takes up a teaching job at a distant ranch. His pupil is Ze Bebelo, a politically ambitious man who wants to bring progress to the backlands by ridding it of banditry. In order to do so, he forms his own army and invites Riobaldo to come along as his secretary. Ribaldo is initially stimulated by the freedom and excitement of constant travel but becomes disturbed by the violence he witnesses. Seeing little sense in the brutality of war, and riddled with feelings of doubt and compassion, he flees once again, only to run into members of the enemy camp. Among the men, he recognizes the boy from the river crossing, now a handsome young jagunço and, overwhelmed by emotion, feels that he can never again be separated from the boy. Reinaldo (who also has a secret name, Diadorim, revealed only to Riobaldo) is just as moved to see Riobaldo, and welcomes him unhesitatingly into Joca Ramiro’s band.

A series of battles between Ze Bebelo and Joca Ramiro and his lieutenants ensue. Riobaldo fights under one of Joca Ramiro’s lieutenants, Hermo-genes, a cruel man whom he finds both repulsive and oddly fascinating. During the fighting, Riobaldo experiences a renewed conflict of conscience. He is also tormented by his feelings for Diadorim, an intense love that clashes with accepted ideas of manhood. Nonetheless he garners respect as an excellent sharpshooter and is given the nickname of Tatarana, or “Fire Caterpillar.” Eventually Ze Bebelo is beaten and, in an unusual move, calls for a trial. During the trial, Joca Ramiro and his lieutenants disagree on the verdict. Hermogenes and the lieutenant Ricardao demand Ze Bebelo’s execution, but the other lieutenants, and Riobaldo himself, who gives an eloquent speech, argue that he should be allowed to live. Ramiro finally decides on banishment.

The band disperses into smaller groups, preparing to fight against government forces that have been pursuing them all along. While resting at an idyllic spot, however, Riobaldo, Diadorim, and others are informed that Joca Ramiro has been killed, betrayed by Hermogenes and Ricardao. The leader must be avenged, and they go off to fight a new war, but are cursed with bad luck, as one thing after another goes wrong. Feeling indebted to the murdered Ramiro for the earlier decision not to execute him, Ze Bebelo returns and takes up leadership of the band, but things only get worse. In what might be described as a descent into hell, they get lost in an unknown, unmapped backlands region where they find an archaic, destitute people near a village decimated by the plague. Stopping at a place called the “Dead Paths,” Ze Bebelo seems to have all but given up, and Riobaldo grows increasingly frustrated. It is rumored that Hermogenes’s success is due to his having made a pact with the devil, which has shielded his body and made him invulnerable. Driven by a complex set of desires and fears, among which are ambition, and a need to affirm his manhood and repress his love for Diadorim, Riobaldo decides he too will make a pact. At the “Dead Paths,” he goes to the crossroads at midnight and calls out to the devil. Although the devil does not make an appearance and he is unsure of whether or not he has really entered a pact, Riobaldo feels himself transformed. He becomes self-assured to the point of arrogance and soon wrests control from Ze Bebelo. As a leader, now known as White Rattlesnake, he is capricious, as though drunk on power. At the same time, he is tortured by his compassionate conscience and his passion for Diadorim. Meanwhile, Diadorim has revealed that he is Joca Ramiro’s son and is obsessed with avenging his father. After a series of bizarre actions, Riobaldo decides on a daring tactic to defeat Hermogenes: he leads his band with amazing ease across a terrible desert that had defeated them before, and in a surprise attack destroys Hermogenes’s ranch and kidnaps his wife.

In an escalating string of battles, Riobaldo beats back Hermogenes and kills Ricardao. But Hermogenes is not defeated so easily and, in a final apocalyptic scene, he traps Riobaldo and his men in a hamlet. After hours of fighting, Riobaldo watches helplessly from the second floor of a building as the two opposing forces agree to hand-to-hand combat. Diadorim and Hermogenes charge each other and Hermogenes is killed. Diadorim disappears, whereupon Riobaldo loses consciousness. Riobaldo wakens to learn that Diadorim is dead. When the body is being prepared for burial, Riobaldo discovers what had been hinted at throughout the narrative: Diadorim was a beautiful woman in disguise. In utter despair, Riobaldo abandons the bandit life. After a deathly illness, he inherits his father’s properties, marries his second love, Otacilia, and settles down to a farmer’s life.

As his retrospective narrative reveals, Riobaldo is still tormented by the past and wracked with guilt. What is the nature of good, the nature of evil? What makes up courage and fear? Is the courage to love more valuable than the courage to hate? These are some of the questions that fuel Riobaldo’s need to tell and retell his story.

Women in nineteenth-century Brazil

Diadorim, whose real name Riobaldo discovers is Maria Deodorina, disguises herself as a boy at a young age at her father’s bidding—“My father told me that I had to be different, very different” (Devil to Pay in the Backlands, p. 91)—presumably so that at some future time she might avenge his death. The need for the disguise might be explained in terms of women’s status in nineteenth-century Brazil. Women, and particularly upper-class women, led sheltered lives, guarded by protective fathers and husbands. Seldom allowed out of the house unaccompanied, they had little freedom of movement and little control over their own lives. Diadorim herself obliquely comments on women’s subjugated condition when she laments: “Women are such poor wretches” (Devil to Pay in the Backlands, p. 145). Widows of rural landowners, some of whom took over their husbands’ roles and became formidable matriarchs, were the exception to the rule. In the course of his story, Riobaldo mentions some of these matriarchs. Frequently lower-class women also moved more freely between house and street, for they had to go where their work took them. Making a living could be very difficult, however. As the novel illustrates, some poor women, such as young Nhorinha whom Riobaldo encounters in his travels, were forced into occasional or long-term prostitution due to the lack of other employment opportunities.

In the early twentieth century a number of women joined the band of the notorious bandit Lampiao. Maria Bonita, Lampiao’s famous partner, started the trend, allegedly asking to join the band because she was attracted by the bandit’s legendary fame. Other women followed. However, such women did not join as warriors but fulfilled stereotypical female tasks like cooking, cleaning, and darning clothes. They carried only small weapons for self-defense, and their male companions were expected to defend them.

Therefore Diadorim’s disguise is probably not historically inspired but is rather a literary device. The theme of the warrior maiden is present in folk tales all over the world, from China to the Celtic isles. Rosa modifies the theme, however, for in the traditional story the maiden takes up the warrior disguise only for a limited period of time, in order to perform a specific task, and then returns to her former female condition. By contrast, Diadorim is made to disguise herself as a boy when very young and is trapped in her male role, so much so that when Riobaldo makes inquiries in her home town he can find no trace of her former female self except for a baptismal certificate.

Sources and literary context

Despite his many travels and years of residence abroad, Rosa never lost touch with the sertao of his childhood. Summarizing its significance for his writing, he once described it as “the symbol, I would even say the model of my universe” (Rosa in Lorenz, p. 66). He returned to it multiple times for renewal and research, replenishing his contact with the life and ways of the backlands and gathering concrete material for his texts. One of these many trips was made in 1952, when he travelled on horseback with a group of cowboys and their herd for ten days across Minas Gerais, covering a distance of 150 miles. During the trip he took copious notes in booklets he wore tied to his neck while he rode. This journey is believed to have provided much of the concrete geographic and linguistic material reworked in The Devil to Pay in the Backlands. According to one of the cowboys with whom he travelled, Rosa requested to meet an old woman storyteller, traditional musicians, and other elders acquainted with the old ways, with “what was real and in the beginning” (Manuelzao in Granato, p. 14).


The man who listens to Riobaldo’s story in The Devil to Pay in the Backlands is identified as an urban intellectual type who takes abundant notes as the gunman spins his tale. Rosa uses this narrative device in several other texts, making his narrators tell their stories to a silent, educated interlocutor. Could this unnamed listener be a stand-in for the writer himself? In his many trips to the sertao, Rosa, like his silent characters, took notes that were used as raw material for his fiction. He considered his travels so central to his writing that when he entered his first book of short stories, Sagarana, in a literary contest, he used the pseudonym “Viator”. Latin for “traveller.” While the urban listener in The Devil to Pay in the Backlands and other stories should not be seen as literally representing the writer, the presence of this character suggests something about Rosa’s conception of his own work. Rather than presenting it as a direct picture of rural life, he conceives of it as a dialogue between urban perception and rural experience.

While his roots in rural Minas and his research expeditions to the region provide the most immediate and palpable sources for the setting of The Devil to Pay in the Backlands, the novel also culls from many literary traditions. Readers have found parallels between its plot and traditions such as the Greek epic, medieval chivalric romance, the French chanson de geste, courtly literature, and the quest of the Holy Grail, among others (Vincent, p. 77).

Within Brazilian literature, The Devil to Pay in the Backlands is clearly affiliated with a regionalist fiction that begins in the nineteenth century, reaches a high point in the 1930s, and continues into the 1950s and beyond. Unlike most of this fiction, however, Rosa’s work is not based on documenting the “typical” way of life of a specific region through realist pictorial reproductions. It introduces daring stylistic and linguistic innovations and explores philosophical questions in a way that has prompted more than one critic to identify his writing as a kind of globalizing regionalism. His wording is unique in that he takes idiosyncrasies of the Portuguese spoken in rural areas and transforms them into his own invented, literary language. Philosophically, the plot raises questions about the nature of good and evil, courage and fear, and death and desire. In short, the novel’s focus on a concrete geographic and human landscape—Minas Gerais—achieves a broad universal resonance.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

Democracy and development

The period 1945-64 was characterized by experiments in democracy and a significant amount of economic growth in Brazil. The Old Republic had been brought to a close with the Revolution of 1930, which put the strongman Getulio Vargas in power. United by their dissatisfaction with the corrupt politics of the Old Republic and the political dominance of the rural oligarchies, particularly the powerful southeastern coffee planters, a coalition of different interest groups joined forces to topple the government and institute change. A significant fraction of these groups was driven by a modernizing impetus, viewing the abolition of an archaic and rigid political system as the first step in bringing the nation fully into the twentieth century. Vargas governed from 1930 to 1945, instituting some of the changes that the revolutionary forces had clamored for, trimming the power of the rural oligarchies and strengthening the position of urban groups, modernizing and industrializing. But these transformations were felt mostly in the South and Southeast, and had little impact on the rest of Brazil. Ultimately Vargas developed into a dictator.

In 1945, as many Brazilians pressed for a return to democracy, Vargas was removed from power. The country had not seen the last of him, however, for in 1951 he returned, this time as a constitutional president elected by the people. His government (1951-54), as well as the one that followed it (Juscelino Kubitschek, 1956-61), continued to foster economic growth, but this did not necessarily lead to real development. Although the pace of industrialization quickened, the government failed to reform Brazil’s institutions. The result was an exacerbation of social inequality and injustice, with the dominant groups benefitting from economic growth at the expense of the poor. Kubitschek’s government promised “fifty years of development in five” and indeed during this period Brazil saw unparalleled economic and industrial growth. As part of this developmentalist vision, Kubitschek decided to move the capital from Rio de Janeiro, on the coast, to Brasilia, located in the central-western state of Goias. Vargas had often spoken of plans to develop the immense potential of the Brazilian interior, what he dubbed the “March to the West.” The construction and inauguration of Brasilia in 1961 was meant to be the first momentous step in uniting coast and interior and tapping the resources of the neglected hinterlands.

Nonetheless the sertao remained at the margins of change in the 1950s. Although their power was diminished, the rural bosses still retained a significant hold on local political processes. By the 1950s the level of violence in the sertao had diminished considerably and clan and family wars were increasingly rare. Rural landowners continued to exert their influence through political means, by regimenting the local vote in favor of their preferred candidates. While electoral reforms were implemented to ensure freedom at the polls and accurate vote count, in more remote rural areas charges of fraud were not infrequent. A study of life in the sertao of the Sao Francisco River valley in the ‘50s sums up the socio-political structures of the region well:

Ambushes, armed conflicts and pillages are now almost entirely a thing of the past, although the relation between “protector” and “protected” continues. . . . [T]he old obligations of the “protected” were partially or entirely replaced by the invariable obligation to accompany the landowner in his political convictions and action, and in particular, to vote with him in elections. Currently [1950] this situation still prevails in a number of places.

(Pierson, p. 254)

The violent conflagrations at the center of The Devil to Pay in the Backlands were thus receding into the past when Rosa wrote his novel, but in other ways the backlands had not changed markedly in the 50 or 60 years between the novel’s setting and its writing. Social inequality, grinding poverty, ignorance, and superstition continued to characterize backlands existence.


In The Devil to Pay in the Backlands as well as in his other works, Rosa creates a startlingly new literary language. Working with forms and processes already existent in Portuguese, he generates an unfamiliar language that exists nowhere but in his writing. Rosa believed that language lost its power to express meaning fully as it became familiar and automatic, and so he was continually on the lookout for ways of defamiliarizing common usage. The English translation of The Devil to Pay in the Backlands does not, for the most part, attempt to imitate Rosa’s linguistic play. An example from the text, placing a translation that attempts to capture some of the strangeness of the original below the published one, illustrates this difference:

I saw many a man knocked off his horse. We let riderless horses escape, but we picked off the men on the ground, one by one.

(Devil to Pay in the Backlands, p. 209)

I saw men fallen too much [or too many], the horses hoofing it hoovesback. Given the disorder. Only horses alone could escape, but the men on the ground, in the picking off, picking off.

(Rosa, Grande sertao: veredas, p. 218; trans.
S. Karpa-Wilson)


When the novel came out in 1956 it was greeted with an ecstatic rush of critical praise. Rosa’s earlier work had already received significant acclaim for its startling stylistic and linguistic innovations, but nothing could compare to the reception given The Devil to Pay in the Backlands. The words of one respected Brazilian critic may be taken as representative of the general sentiment: “In a literature of little imagination… this navigation of the high seas, this outpouring of creative imagination in language, composition, plot, psychology is dazzling” (Can-dido, p. 294; trans. S. Karpa-Wilson).

A few critics voiced reservations, largely in regard to the difficulty of the work. The English translation of Grande sertao: veredas has mostly eliminated the linguistic density of the original, but one of the major characteristics of the text in Portuguese is its daring experimental use of the language. Some felt the novel was simply unintelligible; others, while acknowledging the value of Rosa’s experiment, worried that it might be detrimental to Brazilian letters, “tying up traffic” in a manner akin to James Joyce’s Ulysses (Casais Monteiro in Vincent, p. 64).

In the long run, such reservations have not prevailed or interfered with the book’s receiving a number of prizes, including the prestigious Machado de Assis Prize, comparable to the U.S. National Book Award (Vincent, p. 65). Critics at the Brazilian National Book Institute showed an almost unprecedented degree of consensus when they unanimously voted to award Grande sertao: veredas this coveted prize.

—Sabrina Karpa-Wilson

For More Information

Burns, E. Bradford. ΛHistory of Brazil New York: Columbia University Press, 1980.

Candido, Antonio. “O Homem dos Avessos.” In JoaoGuimaraes Rosa. Rio de Janeiro: Civilizaçao Brasileira, 1983.

Chandler, Billy Jaynes. The Bandit King: Lampiao of Brazil College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1978.

Dória, Carlos Alberto. O Cangaço. Sao Paulo: Brasiliense, 1981.

Granato, Fernando. Nas Trilhas do Rosa: Uma Viagem pelos Caminhos de Grande Sertao: Veredas. Sao Paulo: Scritta, 1996.

Hahner, June E. Emancipating the Female Sex: The Struggle for Women’s Rights in Brazil, 1850-1940. Durham, N. C: Duke University Press, 1990.

Lorenz, Günter. “Dialogo com Guimaraes Rosa.” In Joao Guimaraes Rosa. Rio de Janeiro: Civilizaçao Brasileira, 1983.

Pierson, Donald. O Homem no Vale do Rio Sao Francisco. Vol. 3. Rio de Janeiro: SU VALE, 1972.

Rosa, Joāo Guimaraes. The Devil to Pay in the Backlands. Trans. James L. Taylor and Harriet de Onis. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1963.

_____. Grande sertao: veredas.26th ed. Rio de Janeiro: Nova Fronteira, 1988.

Vincent, Jon S. Joao Guimaraes Rosa. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1978.

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The Devil to Pay in the Backlands

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