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João Guimarães Rosa: Grande sertão: veredas (The Devil to Pay in the Backlands)

If there is a classic Brazilian novel, this is it. If you have ever seen the films of Glauber Rocha, the great Brazilian director, you will be begin to appreciate the enormous power of the sertão on the Brazilian imagination. In many respects, it is comparable to the American Wild West, with its fiercely independent inhabitants, its rugged landscape and its exotic fauna and flora, but the sertão has a Brazilian ingredient not found in the USA – the strange mix of religions, including Christian, African and native Brazilian that gives this novel its flavour.

The novel is a sort of confessional by one Riobaldo, now an old man. When he was young, Riobaldo made – or thinks he made – a pact with the devil to defeat a rival. He is now agonising over this pact. But most of all Riobaldo is telling us about his past and how he – and others like him – became what he was. In short, this novel has two key themes. Firstly, it is about the quest for identity and how men are shaped by their landscape. Riobaldo and the other jagunçoes (outlaws) are as wild and independent and violent as the country they are in. Secondly, it is about doubt – the Faustian doubt of good versus evil and right versus wrong and the devil in all his forms versus God in all his. Guimarães Rosa paints a superb picture of the sertão with vivid imagery, full use of the myths and legends that colour the area and wonderful portraits of the denizens of this place. If you only read one Brazilian novel, this should be the one.

Publishing history

First published 1956 by Livraria José Olympio
First published in English 1963 by Alfred A. Knopf
Translated by James L. Taylor and Harriet de Onís