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João Ubaldo Ribeiro: Sargento Getúlio (Sergeant Getúlio)

This was Ubaldo Ribeiro’s second novel but the first to have much success. Part of its success was undoubtedly due to its direct style and language. It is narrated by Police Sergeant Getúlio and he is a rough and ready character, a man of limited education, who despises those that do have education and is not afraid to say so.

Sergeant Getúlio operates in Sergipe, the smallest state in Brazil, consisting entirely of savannah or, as we have seen, in another book, of backlands. He is a sergeant in the military militia. Sergeant Getúlio, his colleagues and his bosses are not concerned with the finer points of justice and human rights. Their job is to deal with the people they see as criminals and deal with them firmly, which usually means violently.

Sergeant Getúlio is transporting a criminal from Barra dos Coqueiros in Sergipe to Paulo Afonso, Bahia, a man whom his boss wants alive and who seems to have murdered an entire family. The book consists of a monologue by Sergeant Getúlio occasionally talking out loud to his audience in the police vehicle, namely the criminal and his driver, Amaro, a man of few words, but mainly to himself (or to us).

He gives his views on what is happening – he does not like transporting criminals like this as it means he has to stay awake and attentive. I wish I could bleed him and finish this mission, he says, and comes up with various ways he might kill him.

However, he also tells us of his life as a police officer. More particularly, he tells us how he got into this situation. He had been instructed by his boss to pick up the man and take him to Paulo Afonso but this has turned out to be more complicated than he first thought, not so much because of the individual himself, but because he seems to have a lot of support in the backlands from people who do not think he should be arrested and taken to Paulo Afonso.

We get something of a scattergun approach from the sergeant but it seems that there was a certain amount of resistance to the man’s arrest not just by the locals but by the army. Indeed, our sergeant comes up against a lieutenant, who says he is going to arrest not only the criminal but also the sergeant and Amaro. Our sergeant is not going to take orders from a mere lieutenant, even though the lieutenant pulls rank on him. The pair get into a fight with the sergeant not only winning but ending up killing and beheading the lieutenant.

It is clear that the sergeant is a very violent and brutal man. He tortures the prisoner (with the connivance of Amaro). We also learn something of his past history. He has killed at least twenty people, probably more. As he says, as with women, it is impossible to remember them all. The first one was hard but the subsequent ones have been easier. The secret is not to let them look you in the eye and not to let them get too close. He had a girlfriend who was pregnant and who, allegedly, cheated on him. He stabbed her to death.

In one incident his boss decided that he did not like the communists so the sergeant and his men burned their newspaper office down and made sure that the firemen had no water. They then blamed and arrested the fascists.

Getting the prisoner back to Paulo Afonso is proving rather difficult, even after he has killed the lieutenant, though he is confident he will do so. I am Getúlio Santos Bezerra and my equal has not yet been born. I am not afraid of werewolves, I am not afraid of darkness, I am not afraid of hell.

It is clear that the sergeant is the hero of this book and we can admire him for his determination to get his prisoner back to Paulo Afonso, whatever the price. No-one is going to stand in his way and, if they try to, they will pay the price. However, hero he may be but a very nasty hero he is, unremittingly brutal, violent and cruel. The prisoner is tortured several times and we are given full details, as we are of some of his other violent exploits. As we have seen in another book in this part of Brazil, violence and cruelty are the norm in this region. Indeed, the Canudos battle is mentioned in this book, with a priest commenting that there were so many dead, that the buzzards would only eat the corpses of the commanding officers. This book had considerable success in Brazil for its blunt and direct portrait but it may not be to everyone’s taste.

Publishing history

First published in 1971 byEditora Civilização Brasileira
First English translation in 1997 by Houghton Mifflin
Translated by the author
(See Self-translation: the case of João Ubaldo Ribeiro and his Sargento Getúlio / Sergeant Getúlio for more information)