Joao Guimaraes Rosa’s 1956 novel Grande Sertao: Veradas (Translated in English by James L. Taylor and Harriet De Onis as The Devil to Pay in the Backlands) brought me back to my The Devil is a Woman series, from which I have taken a small break.
The Devil to Pay is the first Brazilian novel that I’ve ever read and it is one of the most explicit and beautiful explorations of gender and sexuality in literature: particularly of masculinity and male love. (It’s a shame that it’s out of print.)
In short, the narrator is Riobaldo who, like Scheherazade from One Thousand and One Nights, seems to be storytelling as away to save his life. The narrative is winding, out of order, repetitive and somewhat unreliable but it functions as a way to learn about Riobaldo’s two true passions: brutal war in the backlands and violent love for his fellow soldier Diadorim.
And who is the calm and speechless listener to whom Riobaldo narrates his tale? It must be the devil to whom Riobaldo fears that he accidentally sold his soul in order to become leader of a large group of jacuncos when, one night when he can’t stand his burning passion for Diadorim’s body, he walks out to the crossroad and beseeches the devil to erase his fears so that he can be the hero to lead his men to avenge the death of Diadorim’s father, Joca Ramiro.
Riobaldo loves to be in love, but the first time he falls in love it is with a nameless boy — later, we learn that this boy was Diadorim — whom he spies across the way at market. The boy is beautiful with glowing green eyes and the softness/hardness that always puzzles Riobaldo later. The boy invites Riobaldo out on a boat with him and Riobaldo is very scared because he can’t swim. He is intoxicated by the boy’s blunt courage on the boat as it rocks violently. He asks, “Aren’t you ever scared?,” to which the boy says that he never is, even though he, too, can’t swim. They arrive on a bank where they hide in the grass to enjoy each other’s company. The boy teaches Riobaldo about birds, particularly the long-, red-legged birds that come to symbolize the men’s deep love for each other as they grow older.
Later, Riobaldo’s mother dies and he is sent to live with his “godfather” who is really his dead-beat dad. When he finds out he abandons his rich father and takes refuge in the dangerous sertao (backlands) where life is hard. He falls in with a band of jacuncos headed by the intellectual Ze Bebelo but he leaves them due to his distaste for their violence. He ends up in the cottage of a group of supporters of Ze Bebelo’s enemy where he sees Diadorim again. His burning passion for Diadorim prompts him to join these jacuncos and travel with them until he grows old, so that he can be close to his friend.
In some of the most beautiful phrases I have ever read about love, Riobaldo tells his listener (the devil?) about the difficult time that he had coming to terms with his love for Diadorim.
Diadorim and Riobaldo are two of the bravest and most violent fighters among the jacuncos. They live and breathe war. Riobaldo is a sharp-shooter. He never misses and is the team’s prize player. Diadorim is the bravest hand-to-hand fighter with courage like a lion. These two men are probably the most “manly” characters next to Hemingway’s figures. Diadorim observes of Riobaldo: “You’re a man’s man” (122). There is no doubt in the text, ever, about their manhood. Literature never knew more “masculine” characters.
At the same time, their romantic love for each other is unparalleled. They yearn, independently, for what they believe that they can never have. No matter how bad the yearning, neither Diadorim nor Riobaldo give in to their feelings with physical action. Only once, before their last battle in which Diadorim dies, does Riobaldo shyly call his lover “My loved-one,” to which Diadorim feigns anger. They play with each other like this, repelling that which they desire most.
Literature has never known more beautiful a love than that which Riobaldo and Diadorim share. What is most lovely about it is their futile resistance to it: “I loved Diadorim in a way that I frowned upon; I no longer thought about loving him, I just knew that I would love him always” (77).
Of all the affective experiences that describe the two love-birds, fear and shame are paramount for Riobaldo. In this way, his love — and Diadorim himself — are demonized to a certain extent, suggesting that the real devil to whom Riobaldo has sold his soul is Diadorim: the perpetual tempter. Riobaldo constantly asks, “could love be sent by the Devil?” (118).
Nevertheless, their love blossoms with time rather than diminishes. What persists, also, is Riobaldo’s debate about the justness of his love:
“It was a kind of spell. Let him be near me and I lacked for nothing. Let him frown or look sad, and I would lose my peace of mind. Let him be far from me, and I thought only of him. And did I myself, then, no understand what this was? I know that I did. But no. I didn’t really want to understand it. […] That rough tenderness which he concealed most of the time. And in me a desire to get as close to him as I could, a craving almost to inhale the odor of his body, of his arms, which at times I madly imagined. This temptation made me feel weak, and I upbraided myself severely” (124).
What Riobaldo feels for Diadorim is like nothing else due, in part, to Diadorim’s nature as truly “different from everyone else” (91). Indeed, when his corpse is laid on the table Riobaldo sees that he is actually a woman.
Riobaldo says that “every girl is gentle, white, and dainty” (159), yet the bravest and most violent of all men is actually a woman, Maria Diadora.
Gender-shifting is a familiar theme in much literature, from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night to Tahar Ben Jelloun’s The Sand Child. In The Devil to Pay, however, Diadorim’s gender is not really of much concern. Riobaldo, for example, reveals Diadorim’s gender at the end. That’s it. He continues to call her “him” and doesn’t make the kind of observations that one might expect — such as surprise or a rethinking of gender roles.
Rather, the truth of Diadorim’s body reveals only one truth to Riobaldo: that sometimes “selling” the soul is actually “buying” it back.