Backlands: A Novel, by Victoria Shorr
This book seems custom-made to make into a movie. I do not consider that a bad thing, even if this story is not precisely the sort of story I am most fond of. There is an air of the Greek tragedy about this book, as it takes a real-life outlaw hero in Brazilian history who fought with police and ruled over a large and semi-arid section of Northeastern Brazil that spread over the inland parts of several states in the region. The story is not one that would be unfamiliar to any similar society with harsh divides between a corrupt elite and a large group of exploited rural workers and small town dwellers whose austere lives are punctuated by various acts of violence that are exploited by outlaw antiheroes. The broad outlines of this story are the sort that one finds in the American West in the stories of Jesse James and his gang, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, or in the stories of Bonnie and Clyde that were roughly contemporaneous with his particular novel’s timeline from 1922 to 1940 or so. One could easily imagine a Brazilian filmmaker taking this story and making a successful film out of it given its resonance with the rural history of Brazil and many other places.
This particular book is about 300 pages long and covers the period between 1922 and 1940, focusing on the period between 1932 and 1938. We are introduced to a group of people that centers around the conflict between a bandit chief named Lampião, his doll Maria, his fellow bandits and the people they interact with and engage in various protection rackets with, and the police forces they alternatively bargain with and fight with. The two narratives, one of them in the “present day” of 1938 and one of them a retrospective, both move towards a dramatic showdown where the bandit chief and his woman will be killed in a bloody shootout in the middle of the night that attempts to bring order to rural Brazil that had been lacking before when the central government did not consider it a critical matter to end the bandit disorders that had been associated with overly powerful rural grandees whose oppression encouraged lawlessness from the exploited and dispossessed. The false dilemma between anarchy and tyranny is never one that I have particularly appreciated, but the novel itself follows a well-worn path of stories going back to Robin Hood and many others like it.
Again, I must emphasize that while I respected the craft of this book, particularly the skillful way that the author managed to cut between different timelines as the plot progresses to its inevitable ending, this book was not written for me. And that’s okay. There are many people this book was written for, including those who have a taste for outlaw antiheroes that is greater than my own. The author clearly has a great deal of sympathy for the outlaw chief Lampião and his beloved Maria Bonita, who ran away from her abusive husband to be with him. The novel does a great job at showing how it is that popular outlaw chiefs are defeated through central governments that feel the need to use violent coercion to destroy outlaw forces that threaten the public reputation of the regime as well as snitches who are able to provide information about where the outlaws are operating. There is a lot of ambivalence to be found here, as pressure is placed from on high upon corrupt officers who reluctantly follow up on the hunches of turncoats who have their own reasons to wish to betray the bandit chiefs and who have the luck of surprising the bandits and destroying them in a massive shootout that the author clearly feels reluctant to celebrate. I’m generally a supporter of the forces of order, preferring even imperfect orders to the disorder of bandit chieftains. But not everyone feels the same way, obviously.