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Literature / The Devil to Pay in the Backlands

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Riobaldo and Diadorim, as they appear in the mini series

“Do you know, sir, why I had gone to those places? You needn’t ask, I’ll tell you. How is it that you can like the true in the false? Friendship with the illusion of disillusionment? I had it easy, but with dreams that left me tired. The sort from which you wake up slowly. Love? A bird that lays iron eggs. It was worse when I started staying awake all night, not able to sleep. Diadorim was one of those inscrutable persons —he never revealed his inner thoughts, nor what he was surmising. I think I was that way too. Did I really want to know him? I did and I didn’t. Not even if you bury it in silence can a thing that doesn’t make sense be dealt with.”

Acclaimed as one of the most important books ever written in Portuguese language — maybe in the whole world — and compared to works like The Iliad and The Divine Comedy, The Devil To Pay In The Backlands (Grande Sertão: Veredas, or Big Backcountry: Tracks in English) had its first edition published in 1956, being the only novel written by the Brazilian author João Guimarães Rosa.

The book is best know for mixing Neologisms with orality in a non-linear narrative, making it very difficult to understand at first reading, and for its more than 600 pages. It's also studied in Brazilian schools.

The story itself consists of Riobaldo, an ex-jagunço (mercenary), telling his past to a man from the city. What follows is betrayal, war, secret identity, conflicts with religion, friendship, homosexuality, deal with the devil and journey of revenge. Everything set in the almost mystical space of the backlands.


The book had two adaptations, one to the big-screen in 1965 and another in a mineseries from 1985.

The Devil to Pay in the Backlands provides examples of:

  • Action Girl: Diadorim turns out to be one.
  • Anachronic Order: The events are not narrated in chronological order at all. But Riobaldo justifies himself saying that, to tell any memory that way, it must be a thing of little value.
  • The Annotated Edition: To explain that things like "danse" were on purpose.
  • Anti Heroes: Mostly of the jagunços. They can kill you for money or for any other reason - but mostly for money - and do your ladies, but they can also give you food, protection and — well — money.
  • Asskicking Equals Authority: All the jagunços's leaders are pretty awesome. The leader of the leaders is even compared to God.
  • Attractive Bent-Gender: Diadorim is a case of Sweet on Polly Oliver by herself, but when played by Bruna Lombardi, she's even more attractive.
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  • Author Avatar: One can believe that the man listening to Riobaldo's narrative is João Guimarães Rosa.
  • Badass Adorable: Diadorim likes birds and is lovely with children, but don't try to fight him.
  • Flower Motifs: When Riobaldo asks Otacília what a flower name means, she says "marry me". Bacause of this we know that she wants commitment, not just a one-night thing.
    • Beyond that, when Riobaldo tells her to say the same thing to Diadorim, she stays still, and Diadorim has a little jealous moment.
  • Futureshadowing: Since everything is out of chronological order, a lot.
  • Gayngst: Riobaldo, after he stops seeing himself and Diadorim as Heterosexual Life-Partners.
  • Love Triangle: Otacília loves Riobaldo, who likes her and could even love her back if he wasn't already in love with Diadorim - who seems to love him too - but he has his own reasons - besides they being both male - to stay quiet.
  • Meaningful Rename: After the Deal with the Devil, Riobaldo claims to be "The White Rattler".
  • Neologism: João Guimarães Rosa's works in a whole are well known for including a lot of neologisms, mostly of them very hard to translate, since they are all made-up to work in Portuguese.
  • No Periods, Period: How Diadorim hid it every month?.
  • Not So Different: Hermógenes was a fucking killer and made a deal with the devil, but Riobaldo was not so different.
  • Only Known by Their Nickname: It would be difficult to find characters with real names.
  • Properly Paranoid: Riobaldo and all his religious anguish, that makes him go to extremes such as pay two women to pray for him every day. It makes sense, since he belives he has sold his soul to the devil.
  • Pet the Dog: When the jagunços aren't kicking it.
  • Real Name as an Alias: Diadorim is Maria Diadorina
  • Retired Badass: Riobaldo was truly badass when young; now is just a Cool Old Guy.
  • Revenge: The goal of all the jagunços.
  • Roaring Rampage of Revenge: Diadorim can't stand living without his revenge, and will do anything to have it.
  • Romantic False Lead: Riobaldo was jealous of Joca Ramiro and Diadorim relationship for a long time. Which is quite funny, since Joca Ramiro was his father, after all.
  • Satan: A pretty important character, even if he doesn't exist.
  • Secret Identity: Reinaldo is Diadorim who is Maria Diadorina da Fé Bettancourt Marins.
  • Shoot the Dog: Riobaldo almost does it literally once. In the normal meaning, many times.
  • Straight Gay: Riobaldo, although this is subject to never-ending discussion due to the way the plot resolves.
  • Sweet on Polly Oliver: Riobaldo over Diadorim, obviously.
  • Talking to the Dead: "My love!"
  • Unusual Chapter Numbers: No chapter, or just one really big chapter.
  • Walking the Earth: Every jagunço, somehow, but Up to Eleven with Medeiro Vaz, who burned his own house before joining them, so he wouldn't have to come back.


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