Sergeant Getúlio by João Ubaldo Ribeiro takes place in the late 1940’s in the backlands of northeastern Brazil, a region barely coming into contact with the technological advances and social change of the twentieth century. But because of the primitive state of the Brazilian backlands, the novel gives the appearance of being set in the middle of the nineteenth century, despite the presence of an automobile. This primitive setting is essential to Ribeiro’s theme, which involves the conflict between the security of traditional ways and the meaninglessness perpetrated by a constantly expanding modern world.
Sergeant Getúlio Santos Bezerra, the central character of the novel, embodies some of the most barbarous ways of the Brazilian backlands. Though officially a member of the Sergipe state militia, he is actually a gunman in the employ of a politician at the state capital. In that capacity he goes on a mission into the interior to capture a political enemy and return him to the boss. On the return trip, Sergeant Getúlio treats his prisoner brutally and in other ways reveals that cruelty is an integral part of his personality. Despite this, as the novel progresses, Sergeant Getúlio becomes a paradoxically tragic figure, a man totally committed to his traditional moral code in the face of attack and betrayal emanating from the modern world.
Ribeiro funnels the entire novel through the mind of Sergeant Getúlio. In point of view the work resembles a dramatic monologue, except that Getúlio’s words and thoughts are intermingled in such a way that we are often unsure whether he is actually speaking, or only thinking. At times we know he clearly speaks to the prisoner or to Amaro, his driver and companion; at other times he speaks with other people along the road, including a lover named Luzinete; but usually he reminisces or daydreams about his life. As a result we come to know Getúlio intimately, from the inside, on his own terms; this is Ribeiro’s major accomplishment. On the other hand, Ribeiro’s narrative technique keeps us from knowing the other characters to any great extent because we only see them through Getúlio’s eyes, and he only sees them in terms of his own moral code. Another problem with Ribeiro’s technique is that descriptions of events as they happen to Getúlio are frequently confusing since they mesh with memories and fantasies. Despite these problems, the end justifies the means. Because of Getúlio’s “monologue,” we understand how this ostensibly heinous character can achieve heroic stature.
In the first two of the novel’s eight chapters, Getúlio talks about his past with Amaro and the prisoner, as the three drive to Aracaju, the state capital. Having engaged in the frequently bloody politics of Brazil, especially in the backlands, Getúlio’s conversation is replete with references to shootings, murders, and even pitched battles. In the wars between political factions, he has fought over truckloads of bribed voters, burned newspaper offices, participated in riots, and, worst of all, carried out assassinations: Getúlio has killed twenty men, and even massacred a family.
How does Getúlio justify these acts? As an uneducated shoeshine boy facing a future of poverty, he decided to join the militia, where he came into the personal service of a state legislator. Following an old tradition especially strong in the backlands, Getúlio pledged his loyalty to the boss in return for economic, political, and other support. That pledge matters more than loyalty to party, ideology, state, or even religion because it is a concrete, personal bond between men. As a result, whatever Getúlio does in the service of the boss’s organization is justified by that pledge. Furthermore, since the boss commands the loyalty of his men through the power of his personality (as well as his resources), his subordinates must earn respect for the organization by also being forceful. Hence the machismo and consequent brutality that characterize Getúlio. Of course, being a gunman, he carries these qualities to the extreme, even in his personal life. At the end of the second chapter, Getúlio reveals that he shot to death his pregnant wife because she was unfaithful.
Since that time, except for his attachment to the boss’s organization, Getúlio has been alone. His loneliness is the condition that makes him appear most human to us. Despite his brutal exterior and his repression of that loneliness, occasionally the sadness comes through, as when he speaks of the tenderness he once felt for his wife. But Getúlio transforms his loneliness, turns it into a fierce individualism that becomes stronger as the novel develops. In the third and fourth chapters, his obsession with self becomes more apparent in further acts of brutality designed to prove he is more powerful, more masculine than others. He wrenches four teeth from his prisoner’s mouth when the latter is caught seducing a young girl desired by Getúlio himself. But the seduction is only one reason for this brutal act, for the prisoner threatens Getúlio in more serious ways. The prisoner is educated and knowledgeable in the modern, impersonal ways of the capital, where he has...
(The entire section is 2132 words.)