Backlands. A novel by Victoria Shorr

Norton. 2015

Gordon Walmsley

The terrible thing about exciting stories is that you want to rush over everything that is not the resolution. You have to temper your impatience, slow down and read every single word, every sentence, allowing the story to unfold at its own pace. The idea of reading a good book is to savour it. This might be useful advice when reading Victoria Shorr's splendid tale of the Brazilian bandit Lampião (the lantern) and of his Maria Bonita, fellow bandit and wife.

His given name was Virgulino Ferreira da Silva but no one ever called him that. Well, Maria Bonita called him Virgulino. He is no mere bandit, but a figure of mythical proportions.

In an age that is confounded by easy dualities, black and white, good and evil, rich and poor, Backlands is refreshing, in that Lampião is permitted his own complexities. We don't judge him and neither does Victoria Shorr. For this is a saga and who are we to say that the protagonist's life should be other than it was? That there should always be a certain ending, perhaps a happy one. What is a saga if not a tale redolent with forboding?

The book begins with a commodious description of Brazil, the Sertão, ”this vast land of wild rocks and thorns and tangle brush.” The story then seems to flow like the river that is central to the region and to the world of Lampião, sometimes dipping into to unseen regions to appear later:

”Looking up the river, she [Maria Bonita] knew it would be silver. Down, towards the sea, gold. A few days ago, when they came in, it was that green that you never saw anywhere but here. The São Francisco River, the Nile of Brazil, always running, always true, even when the drought had burnt the rest of the place black.”

Lampião's life of banditry begins when his own father is murdered. What justice there is, merely shrugs its shoulders. His killer is allowed to go free with no reprimand. Intent on avenging his father's death, injustice is what sets Lampião on his path. He takes up the gun and joins a group of bandits. Then he masters the art of banditry to become the greatest bandit of them all, a complicated man of diverse intensities, a master strategist no one can catch, a ruthless enforcer of his own form of justice, when he is betrayed. He is a lover too, though wary of the vulnerability the lover permits when he allows himself the danger of softening, albeit for one flash of the moment.

Victoria Shorr writes beautifully and truly. She takes her own sweet time and the story unfolds with charged restraint, while every part of you wants to leaf forward to the end. Backlands is a tale of many things, not simply the life of Lampião, master strategist, supreme foiler of nervous attempts to bring him down, bring him in.

In telling her story, Victoria Shorr assumes the role of huntress. We follow the breathy pursuit of Lampaio, he who is entangled in the legends of the Sertão, ”seperated from the rest [of Brazil] by climate, by culture, by inclination even.” The Sertão and Lampião seem strangely wedded; it is a world within a sticky fabric of cacti and desert and lovely trees and of corruption and intrigue, a place where the dutiful citizen becomes, of necessity, an accomplice in the cultivation of an existing culture of corruption and power. With one man emerging from this strange mixture, his own alloy, as a hero who defies the law: Lampião. He who steals from the corrupt rich and who gives to the poor. Even to the church. One is tempted to call him a Robin Hood figure, yet Robin Hood was an innocent when compared to Lampião.

Ruthless. ”The return of Lampião is cruel. He would burn your house, kill your father before your eyes.”

And kind. Coming across a group of terrified musicians who were attempting to cross the same river as himself, he makes them play for him:

”He thanked the musicians, gave them some gold, told them he'd kill them badly if they went to the police.” Kill them badly. The sentence resonanates in its Portuguese English.

For twenty years, Lampião reigns over an area of some 440,000 square kilometres, a terrain of cactus and shrubs and of sometime trees, a ”garden” with rivers that expand when the rains come and shrink when they go.

Shorr did extensive research for this novel, interviewing those who still remembered. Lampião died in 1938 and in the 1970's and 1980's, when background for the book was being assembled. There were still those who remembered the bandits and their god. They remembered the man who required that his followers be as ”agile as a cat, clever as a fox, [able to] track like a snake, and disappear like the wind.”

We feel the pursuit of the law and love it when Lampião eludes it, yet another time, by sheer wit (walking backwards, erasing trails, assuming nocturnal disguises, sometimes in the form of clinking cowbells so that the band is mistaken for wandering cattle, moving softly through the night, just pass their pursuers). Declared dead at least twice (you can even read this in back issues of The New York Times), he escapes, eludes, and frustrates, time after time.

As this tale of the hunt progresses, we experience flashbacks of Lampião's life, while sensing the darkening presence of a falling shadow.

Backlands is a marvelous read and merits translation into other languages. It is a good story, well told. Having read it, it haunts you. You return to it and read it again. You wish to travel again in Lampião's world of danger, love and reverence.

Copyright © the author.