Friday, April 1, 2011

Book 53, Brazil: "The Devil to Pay in the Backlands" by João Guimarães Rosa

Yes! I’m finally done with this juggernaut of a novel!

And let me tell you, my friends, it is strange. It’s entirely written without chapters or section breaks, and is entirely narrated in first person by an aged jagunço, a turn-of-the-last-century outlaw soldier, describing his troop’s peregrinations across the state of Minas Gerais (which appears tiny on the map, but in the book appears to have the surface area of, say, the Moon): the eponymous backlands, the sertão, that appear in the Portuguese title, Grande Sertão: Veredas.

We go from stream-of-consciousness babblings about the nature of the devil to memories of guerrilla warfare with rival armed bands, finally coaelescing into a linear narrative which makes up the bulk of the book about fighting alongside his beloved companion-in-arms, Diadorim, and just in case you think there’s an implicitly homoerotic character arc going on I’ll have you know it is explicit, with moony longing for each other carnally (Diadorim is utterly fearless, with a slender body and gorgeous green eyes) while they’re waiting in deserted mansions for the armies to come, only they never actually jump into each other’s tents Brokeback-style: instead, constant craving has always been.

And then four fifths of the way into the book Riobaldo goes to the crossroads, promises his soul to the devil, and is thoroughly put out when the devil doesn’t arrive, but somehow gets into circumstances shortly thereafter which make him the leader of this pack of men’s men, with the confidence and charisma to back him up, with a sack of random homicidal (and equicidal, and canicidal) tendencies to boot.

[SPOILER ALERT!!!!!] And then ninety-nine hundredths of the way into the book, Riobaldo wins the war against Hermogenes, but Diadorim gets killed and guess what? He’s actually a woman. A gorgeous one too.

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Shades of Doña Bárbara: an androgynous female incarnation of the wild Brazilian landscape, not to be fucked with. WTFFFFF???? [SPOILERS END]

So yeah, this is one of those crazy precursors to magical realism, in the same experimental tradition that emerged with Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis’s The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas through Mário de Andrade’s Macunaíma and Clarice Lispector’s The Hour of the Star. Brazilians be trippin’, man.

Gawd, I miss doing capoeira.

Representative quote: We could hear loud shouts and firing: it was Fafafa and his followers destroying the enemy's vanguard. This had begun in the same instant, but even so I had had time in which to feel ashamed of myself, and to realize that Diadorim was not indispensable to me. And that by his mere presence he was not obeying me. I know: one who loves is always a slave, but he never truly obeys.

Next book: Edmundo Paz Soldán's "The Matter of Desire", from Bolivia.

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