(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The Devil to Pay in the Backlands is narrated by the protagonist in an attempt to resolve a psychological torment caused by the possibility that he sold his soul to the devil. Guimarães Rosa’s novel merges the psychological journey of the protagonist as a narrator with the adventure of the hero, Riobaldo, in the lawless backlands of northeastern Brazil around the turn of the last century.

The action of the novel is narrated to a fictional interlocutor during a three-day period. The reader is aware that there is an interactive listener to the narration because the narrator appears to react to the listener’s comments even though the comments themselves are not communicated to the reader. The goal of the narration is to discover whether the devil exists and whether one can sell one’s soul to this entity if he does exist. This challenging question, one associated with the notion of good and evil, remains unresolved at the end of the novel.

Chronologically, the story begins with Riobaldo as a fourteen-year-old who frequents a landing on the Janeiro River to beg for money to pay for a vow his mother made for his recovery from an illness. There he meets Diadorim, a girl who passes for a boy named Reinaldo. She invites him for a boat ride down the Janeiro and across the Sao Francisco River. With Diadorim’s encouragement, Riobaldo is able to overcome his own fear of the churning and treacherous waters of the Sao Francisco and reach the other side. On the other side, Riobaldo forges a special relationship with Diadorim that lasts until her death in a climactic battle with Heremógenes.

After the death of his mother, Riobaldo goes to live with his...

(The entire section is 693 words.)

The Devil to Pay in the Backlands Bibliography

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Coutinho, Eduardo de Faria. The “Synthesis” Novel in Latin America: A Study on João Guimarães Rosa’s “Grande Sertão: Veredas.” Studies in Romance Languages and Literatures Number 237. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Department of Romance Languages, 1991. Coutinho sees the novel as transcending the opposing trends of regionalism and universalism to create a new synthesis.

Martin, Gerald. Journeys Through the Labyrinth: Latin American Fiction in the Twentieth Century. New York: Verso, 1989. Of particular interest is Martin’s discussion of the sertão as an entity of magical proportions, with a body and personality of its own.

Payne, Judith A., and Earl E. Fitz. Ambiguity and Gender in the New Novel of Brazil and Spanish America. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1993. The authors focus on language and ambiguity caused by gender considerations.

Perrone, Charles A. “João Guimarães Rosa: An Endless Passage.” In On Modern Latin American Fiction, edited by John King. New York: Hill and Wang, 1987. Perrone discusses the personality of the sertão as a reality that creates ambiguity.

Vincent, Jon S. “Chapter 3: Grande Sertão: Veredas: The Critical Imperative.” In João Guimarães Rosa, edited by Luis Davila. Boston: Twayne, 1978. Focuses on language as the major challenge for the reader.