The word sertão is often translated as “backlands”, albeit to the Brazilians it denotes a specific region in the northeast of the country. Its area is approximately 250,000 square miles and the predominant relief is that of low uplands covered by the scrub forest caatinga. This dry hinterland with a long history of violence, survival, and social turmoil has become a mythological space thanks to the writers, poets, and, later, filmmakers who have made the sertão the central theme of their works. Nowadays, the cultural landscape of this region is unthinkable without its anti-heroes: the cangaceiros (bandits) and the messianic cult leaders. Despite the abundance of Brazilian literature, both fictional and documentary, exploring the history and culture of the sertão, it is possible to single out the three main books about it. First and foremost, it is Euclides da Cunha’s non-fiction work Os Sertões (translated as Rebellion in the Backlands), which is dedicated to the War of Canudos, waged between the Brazilian government and the inhabitants of the sertão led by the religious mystic Antonio Conselheiro. The second book is João Guimarães Rosa’s notoriously untranslatable Grande Sertão: Veredas (known in English as The Devil to Pay in the Backlands). This novel is presented as an extended monologue by a sertão outlaw whose speech flaunts idiosyncratic syntax, archaic vocabulary, and neologisms. It would be a safe bet to assume that these two books are well-known to Anglophone readers of world literature due to the simple fact that they have been translated into English and reviewed in the English-language press. The third book in this backlands trinity, usually referred to by its shortened title A Pedra do Reino (The Stone of the Kingdom), is likely to be a great unknown. Its obscurity in the English-speaking world seems to be in inverse proportion to its fame and cult status in Brazil. There have been seventeen editions of Ariano Suassuna’s novel so far; the latest one came out quite recently, in 2021, to commemorate its fiftieth anniversary. The Stone of the Kingdom has been adapted for theatre and television, and its woodcut illustrations, made by the author himself, have been shown at art exhibitions. When we speak about the Latin American counterparts of the big US postmodern novels of the 1960s and 1970s like The Sot-Weed Factor, Gravity’s Rainbow, and The Public Burning, we are more likely to mention complex and ambitious books from Spanish-speaking countries such as Hopscotch, Terra Nostra, and Palinuro of Mexico. It might seem that there is a major gap in Brazilian literature when it comes to that type of novel: long, multi-genre, erudite, satirical, surreal, metafictional, playful. Having finally read this bewildering masterwork by the Renaissance man from Pernambuco—for Suassuna also distinguished himself as a playwright, poet, visual artist and university professor—I can assure you that there is no gap. It just happens that the only novel that fills it also happens to be unavailable in English translation, which makes it all the more precious and alluring.
We cannot begin our discussion of The Stone of the Kingdom without at least a brief roundup of the Portuguese messianic myth of Sebastianism and the peculiar shape it took once transplanted into the Brazilian soil. King Sebastian disappeared during the Battle of Alcácer Quibir fought by the Portuguese and their Moroccan allies, commanded by the ousted Sultan Abu Abdallah Mohammed II, against the troops of Abd Al-Malik I, the new Sultan of Morocco. The Portuguese and their allies were routed. The young king of Portugal, who apparently had been killed on the battlefield, left no heirs. The loss in the Moroccan campaign had disastrous consequences for Portugal, perhaps the heaviest of those being its subjection to the Spanish rule for the next sixty years. That’s when the new cult was born. More and more Portuguese people started believing that King Sebastian was still alive and that someday he would return to liberate their homeland from Spain and restore it to its former glory. When this messianic faith migrated to Brazil, it took an ugly shape on more than one occasion, and the massacre at the Pedra Bonita was probably its most gruesome manifestation. The Pedra Bonita (The Beautiful Stone), which is also known as the Pedra do Reino (The Stone of the Kingdom) is, in fact, a group of two stones. This feature in Serra do Catolé, state of Pernambuco, is made up of two tall boulders (30 and 33 metres) parallel to each other. The “kingdom” that sprang up on the territory around the two stones in 1836 was an encampment of the poor sertão dwellers who followed the preaching of a certain João Antônio, the prophet of the imminent return of King Sebastian. The members of this cult believed that the two boulders were the towers of the enchanted castle in which their messiah lay hidden and that he would eventually emerge to lead them to prosperity. The situation in the community took an ominous turn when João Antônio abandoned it, leaving in his place his brother-in-law João Ferreira. The second “king” proved to be even more zealous Sebastianist than his predecessor. On May 14, 1838, he announced that in order to disenchant King Sebastian it was necessary to bathe the stones with sacrificial blood. For four days, the heads of the settlers were rolling down at the foot of the Stone of the Kingdom. Some of the victims volunteered to be decapitated, but a lot of them certainly did not. The homegrown executioners beheaded men, women, children, and also dogs, for João Ferreira promised that the sacrificed animals would return as dragons and devour the rich landowners. When the troops commanded by Major Manoel Pereira da Silva reached the encampment to put an end to the mayhem, more than fifty members of the community, including João Ferreira himself, had lost their lives. This backlands kingdom underpinned by the messianic belief imported from Portugal plays an important role in the formation of Pedro Dinis Quaderna, the protagonist of Ariano Suassuna’s novel, for he finds out one day that he is a descendant of João Ferreira the Execrable. The second monarch of the Kingdom of the Stone was his great-grandfather.
The seventy-five chapters of The Stone of the Kingdom are called chapbooks (folhetos) as a tribute to cordel literature, which profoundly influenced the making of the novel. The term literatura de cordel (literally: “string literature”) originates from the canonical form in which it is disseminated: as inexpensive booklets attached with clothespins to a string. A typical cordel chapbook contains a folk tale or a popular historical account written in rhymed verse. The length of the booklet varies from 8 to 64 pages, and, as a rule, there is a woodblock print on the cover. Suassuna evokes the cordel tradition in his novel with a bang by packing it with the characteristic poems, ballads, and songs as well as with woodcut illustrations unmistakably styled after the cover art of folhetos. What is more, the protagonist of the novel works part-time as an editor at the office of the local newspaper Gazeta Taperoá and uses its printing shop to produce cordel chapbooks, which are sold at open-air fairs. The covers of these booklets are illustrated by the woodcut prints made by his bastard brother Taparica Pajeú-Quaderna, who is also the “author” of all the illustrations embellishing Suassuna’s novel.
So, who is Pedro Dinis Quaderna? The main character, partly modelled on the author himself, is a man of many guises. He is a librarian, a public notary, a journalist, an astrologist, a puzzle-maker and decipherer, a poet, a writer, a historian, a heraldist, a vexillologist, and the aspiring Genius of the Brazilian Nation. If that weren’t enough, he is also Dom Pedro IV the Decipherer, the King of the Fifth Empire, and the Prophet of the Catholic Church of the Sertão. This denizen of the small town of Taperoá in the state of Paraíba prefers not to reveal his royal status, which has been conferred to him as the direct male descendant of King Dom João II the Execrable. His cautiousness is dictated by the harsh lessons of history, which saw so many kings meet a premature and violent end. He decides to rule in the literary kingdom rather than in the earthly one, harnessing his encyclopaedic knowledge of cordel romances and folktales to produce what Brazil has been direly lacking—the definitive work of Brazilian literature capturing the spirit of the nation. He metaphorically refers to this artistic creation as his “backlands Castle” (Castelo sertanejo). Is Quaderna patently insane or just a fantasticating eccentric? This is one of many questions the reader will have to figure out while disentangling the narrative clew of The Stone of the Kingdom
The novel begins on October 9, 1938. Dinis Quaderna is in prison accused of unspecified crimes and political subversion. He offers to the readers, whom he addresses as “gentlemen and soft-bosomed ladies”, a non-linear and highly digressive account of how he has ended up there. There are two pivotal events, to which he will keep returning throughout the narrative, each time showing them from a slightly different angle, Rashomon-style. The first of them is the mysterious murder of his uncle and godfather Pedro Sebastian Garcia-Barretto. On August 24, 1930, the body of the rich landowner was found in the locked chamber in the tower adjacent to the villa on his farm called “Jaguar” (Onça Malhada). Quaderna lived on this farm during his formative years and owes his relative financial security to the protectionism and generosity of his late uncle. The second event took place on June 1, 1935, when a bizarre cavalcade of some forty leather-garbed riders led by the Youth on the White Horse and accompanied by what seemed like a travelling animal circus arrived in the town of Taperoá and caused pandemonium by letting loose deer, peacocks, herons, cobras, jaguars, and cougars from the cages. It was believed that the youth was the miraculously resurrected Sinésio, Pedro Sebastian’s youngest son and Quaderna’s cousin, who had disappeared from the Jaguar farm on the day of his father’s murder and was found dead two years later in Paraíba, not far from the cross in front of the Church of San Francisco.
Dinis Quaderna owes his long-standing interest in folk literature and culture to his aunt Filipa, who recited to him the adventure stories from folhetos when he was a child. Later, his intellectual nourishment was provided by two mentors who were allowed by Pedro Sebastian to stay at the Jaguar farm and teach Dinis and his cousin Arésio. As a grown-up, Quaderna still keeps company of these totally different learned men and lets them live rent-free in two of the houses he has inherited after Aunt Filipa’s death. Although Quaderna’s mentors constantly bicker both among themselves and with their pupil, there is some invisible force that holds this comical trio together. One day they even reach enough mutual agreement to found the first Academy of Letters in Paraíba consisting of three members (themselves), each of whom fulfils the duties of the vice-president. These mentors reflect two radically opposed political and cultural aspects of the country. Philosopher and historian Clemente Hará de Ravasco Anvérsio is half-black and half-Tapuian, atheist, communist, and a champion of socially engaged prose based on the history of oppressed people and rooted in indigenous mythology. Poet and lawyer Samuel Wandernes is a white, right-wing catholic and a proponent of aristocratic poetry extolling the virtues of the Empire and the exploits of the conquistadors. Despite the irreconcilable differences, they both often unite in their derision towards Quaderna, who does not have a clear-cut political agenda and whose enthusiasm for cordel literature is laughable to them. During one of the sessions of the Academy that takes the form of a horseback ride across the sertão, the three vice-presidents discuss the hypothetical Genius of the Brazilian Nation and the great National Work he is supposed to write. Predictably, Clemente suggests that this genius should be of black and indigenous descent and that this definitive work should be written in prose and express the revolutionary worldview promoting the abolition of private property. Samuel, on the contrary, believes that it should be a poem penned by a hereditary noble and sugarcane mill proprietor and dedicated to the Mediterranean and Catholic culture brought to Brazil by the conquistadors, “the race of Iberian giants”. Quaderna has his own opinion on this count, but he chooses to share with the co-founders of the Academy the bare minimum, namely that the most appropriate genre for the National Work should a romance inspired by chivalric literature of Europe and the sertão lore of the popular chapbooks. What he doesn’t say out loud is that it his ambition now to write this romance and thus to become the much-discussed genius. As to the form of the work, he doesn’t see the necessity in choosing between either prose or verse, intending to use both: “the Romance reconciled everything! To make things even more certain, I decided to intermingle my prose narrative with my own verse and that of eminent Brazilian Poets: thus, besides condensing in my book the entirety of Brazilian Literature, I would make my backlands Castle a unique Work written both in prose and poetry, a complete, first-rate and exemplary Work!” Little does he know at the time that the creation of this exemplary romance will be closely linked with his interrogation at the prison.
In April 1938, Magistrate Joaquim Navarro Bandeira aka the Pig Head summons Dinis Quaderna to his office in the prison building to ask him some questions related to his investigation of the two already mentioned events: the murder of Quaderna’s uncle in the tower at the Jaguar farm in 1930 and the arrival of the Youth on the White Horse in Taperoá in 1935. When the protagonist sits down before the magistrate and his secretary Margarida, who is to take written notes of the deposition, we expect it to be another amusing episode in the life of Quaderna, after which he will go about his business, having other interesting encounters and running into more weird situations. When the interrogation episode exceeds a hundred pages with still no end in sight, we start getting impatient. When it’s already two hundred pages, we realise that the encounter with the magistrate is not supposed to be just another scene in the novel, that not only it is the most important part of The Stone of the Kingdom but also that it takes up more space than the rest of the novel. Quaderna’s answers are erratic, to say the least. He keeps interlarding his deposition with poetry recitals, anecdotal and fantastic digressions, and ecstatic pseudo-religious babble. To illustrate some of his stories, he shows the magistrate woodcut prints made by his brother Taparica—he brought them along in a briefcase. His register fluctuates from colloquial to highly literary, with antiquated flourishes of the Baroque style. His deposition becomes that epic romance that is supposed to make Quaderna the Genius of the Brazilian Nation. Not unlike Don Quixote, Dinis exaggerates, distorts, embellishes, and utterly transmogrifies real events to make them worthy material of his great literary work. At the centre of this epic is the story of his murdered uncle Dom Pedro and his three sons: Arésio, Silvestre, and Sinésio, which becomes a romance about the King with the Slit Throat and the three princes: the Outlaw Prince, the Bastard Prince, and the Radiant Prince. He does not represent the factual events entirely as a sertão version of the chivalric romance, however; what he narrates boils down to a straightforward story about the mysterious murder of the rich landowner, the disappearance of one of his sons, and the following dispute over the inheritance of the fazendeiro’s fortune with the political and social unrest in Northeastern Brazil as the background. It’s just that Quaderna keeps interpreting these events in his own way, adding fantastic and mystical elements that stem from his voracious reading and, undoubtedly, from the occasional use of the sacred “wine” made from a mixture of two natural hallucinogens: jurema and manacá. The epic romance that comes into existence thanks to the interrogation is an unwieldy, eclectic affair, not only because it mixes prose and poetry, but also due to the variety of its aesthetic and discursive approaches to the depiction of the events.
Bared to its essentials, the story of the late uncle’s inheritance represents the mystery and adventure aspect of Quaderna’s romance. When the supposed Sinésio (for we never get the confirmation of the youth’s identity) returns to Taperoá in June 1935, the country is engulfed by political turmoil and is on the verge of the Communist Uprising that is going to break out six months later. The landed gentry and urban bourgeoisie, who side with Dom Pedro’s eldest son Arésio as the only rightful inheritor of the fortune, gawk in horror at the rag-tag cavalcade and their caged animals, believing that the dreaded revolt of the poor masses has already begun. Sinésio’s right to the inheritance is supported by mule drivers, cowherds, peasants, and other common folks of the sertão. Then there is a third force represented by the gang of cangaceiros who plot Sinésio’s assassination, and it is not entirely clear if there is a secret paymaster directing their hand. Quaderna is a major suspect in all the events related to Dom Pedro’s disputed fortune. He was at the Jaguar farm when his uncle had his throat cut in the tower, and he witnessed the arrival of the cavalcade while having a ritual lunch at the top of the lajedo (a rocky outcrop) from which, supposedly, the would-be assassin of Sinésio was shot down. It was also Quaderna who, together with Sinésio, organised a pretend travelling circus so they could roam the sertão in search of Dom Pedro’s treasures that had been supposedly hidden in a cave. According to the anonymous letter denouncing Quaderna, they were going to use the fabulous gold, silver, and precious stones to sponsor a popular revolution in the region. While Quaderna does not deny the factual side of the allegations and admits being in all the places at the indicated time, he rejects point blank all the accusations of having malicious intent and committing anything punishable by law.
Then there is the visionary aspect of Quaderna’s deposition. His epic romance is not only about what happens in the sertão but also about what he and his fellow denizens of the region see and experience in revelations, deliria, and hallucinations. For Dinis, the sertão is not just a geographic area but also a mystical religious space in which Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise co-exist. The infernal and diabolic features of the sertão are manifested in the hermaphrodite monster Bruzacã, which emerges from the sea once a year and brings to the region scorching heat and drought. The appearance of this seven-horned monster somewhat resembling the Beast from the Book of Revelation was witnessed by the cowherd named Manuel Inácio. The man climbed a mount overlooking the sea to enjoy the view and saw, to his terror, an enormous sulphur-snorting winged bull with female breasts and a mane of writhing snakes coming onto the shore and proceeding inland, burning everything in its wake. Quaderna asserts that all the while the cavalcade led by the Youth on the White Horse was travelling towards Taperoá, Bruzacã was also present in the form of invisible bat-like demons thronging the road together with the likewise invisible sword-wielding archangels.
The most important revelation in the romance, however, is Quaderna’s discovery of the metaphysical cougar that embodies the whole world and serves as an antithesis to the godly jaguar. It is crucial to note that both creatures in the book are referred to by the same word—onça. The meaning of this word in English depends on the adjective following it. Onça pintada or onça malhada (that is, spotted onça) should be translated as “jaguar”, whereas onça parda (brown onça)—as “cougar”. It would be definitely wrong to call them both “jaguars”, as the cougar belongs to a totally different genus. Quaderna’s uncanny vision takes place back in the days when he studies at the Seminary of Paraíba. On his way to school, he takes a break in the shade of an imburana tree, and, while sharpening his shaving knife, accidentally glances into the mirror he has taken out from his bag with the other utensils. What he sees there is the reflection of a cougar that is not physically present in front of the mirror. This animal is a metaphysical being, and this encounter is going to radically change Quaderna’s life because after this visionary experience he is going to drop out of the seminary and eventually establish his own church, the Catholic Church of the Sertão.
It was an enormous and ill-defined feline beast—leprous, toothless, mangy and scornful, a malevolent Entity that, at the same time as it was enveloping and swallowing me, was also being swallowed, little by little, by a perilous gaping Hole filled with ash. While the Hole was devouring it, the animal raised its blind and wicked face against the face of Time, which was scorching it stronger each moment, withering what still remained of its demented and petty life and turning it into Dust, ash, and mange! I couldn’t see yet but knew with certainty that in the fur and mangy sores of that Cougar the louse-infested humans were crawling; they were also mangy and petty, scratching themselves like a bunch of monkeys in the face of the scorching Storm, waiting for Death to which they had been condemned the day before!
Years later, already in the capacity of the Pontiff and Prophet of his own church, Quaderna starts frequenting the above-mentioned rocky outcrop to perform a complex ritual that ends with the prayer wishing that the mangy cougar of the human world get transformed into the golden jaguar of the divine realm. As a matter of fact, that is exactly what he is doing, if we are to believe his words, when the Youth on the White Horse enters the town. While being a real event, this arrival also assumes visionary undertones when seen through the mystical prism of Sebastianism. Some people believe that the youth is just the youngest son of Dom Pedro Sebastian Garcia-Barretto, returning to his hometown in order to reclaim the inheritance. There are others, however, that view Sinésio as a reincarnation of King Sebastian finally arriving to install his just kingdom in the sertão that will end the misery of its poor residents and establish universal happiness and harmony.
The chivalric elements in Quaderna’s narrative are primarily linked with the legend of the Twelve Peers at Charlemagne’s court and the stories of the quest for the Holy Grail from the Arthurian cycle. As befitting a king, Quaderna has his own guard of honour, made up of his twelve bastard brothers. They take part in jousts and battles, but not in real ones, of course. To act out his medieval fantasies, Quaderna organises in his town Cavalhadas, which are staged horse shows whose participants play the roles of twelve Christian knights and twelve Moors, dressed, respectively, in blue and red. Since Quaderna’s political stance is that of a left-wing monarchist, he does not prefer one side to the other. During the Cavalhadas, six of his brothers wear the blue outfits of Charlemagne’s Paladins, and the other six sport the red garbs of the Moorish knights. By conducting this pageant, Quaderna reinforces his fabulistic vision of the sertão, where farms are small kingdoms, farmers are kings, counts, and barons, and cangaceiros are knights-errant. His friend and colleague Lino Pedra-Verde goes even further in this transformative zeal, creating a very complicated and equally absurd mythological version of the sertão to accommodate his belief in the successive reincarnations of King Sebastian. This is a headache-inducing hodgepodge freely mixing the historical and political events in Northeastern Brazil with Greek myths, biblical stories, hagiographies of Christian saints, Arthurian legends, and, of course, the tales from folhetos. He recites a fictious cordel romance in which a version of Sebastian appears as one of the knights roaming the tablelands of the sertão in search of the Holy Grail. This knight, whose name is either Sebastian or Sinésio or Galarraz or Persival, defeats his archenemy Dom Galvão, and, as a result, obtains dual nature: by day, he rides his white horse Tremedal and at night— Dom Galvão’s black steed Punhal. Two kinds of blood, good and evil, run in his veins, and only after his body is cleansed from the bad blood, he succeeds in finding the Grail. The obsession with King Sebastian, stoked by the return of Sinésio on the one hand, and the unbridled mythological concoctions of the likes of Lino Pedra-Verde on the other, is further reinforced when the Archbishop of Paraíba decrees the establishment of the Venerable Order of the Temple of Saint Sebastian. Dinis Quaderna and both his mentors receive prestigious positions in this new organisation, and not only that—they are also granted noble titles and allocated the corresponding coats of arms. This leads us to the heraldic aspect of the romance, which is the final distinctive feature of Quaderna’s bizarre story that I was going to mention.
To a certain extent, Ariano Suassuna makes the protagonist of The Stone of the Kingdom a spokesman of his own artistic and cultural initiative known as the Armorial Movement (Movimento Armorial). This vast cultural enterprise, spearheaded by Suassuna upon the completion of his novel in 1970, attracted more than a hundred participants and involved a rich variety of art forms: literature, painting, sculpture, engraving, music, dance, theatre, cinema, and architecture. The main idea was to create a new syncretic Brazilian art on the basis of the rich folk tradition manifested in woodcuts, the ballads of cordel chapbooks, and the music of the viola or rabeca that accompanied the public singing of those ballads. The “armorial” aesthetics of this new art stem from its founder’s fascination with coats of arms in general as well as with the heraldic elements present in Brazilian popular culture. As Suassuna himself explains:
[This term] is related to the pure and bright tinctures of heraldic insignia, either painted on metal or sculpted in stone, depicting fabulous animals surrounded by foliage, suns, moons, and stars. That’s when, half-seriously and half in jest, I began to say that a certain poem or a certain Cavalhada banner was “armorial”, that is, it gleamed like pure, festive, bright, metallic, and colourful tinctures, like a flag, a coat of arms, or a clarion call. […] The Brazilian national unity comes from the people, and the Brazilian popular heraldry is to be found among them, from the cattle branding irons and the Guerreiros performances in the Sertão to the flags of Cavalhadas and the blue and red colours of the pastorils in Zona da Mata. From the flags of Maracatu and Caboclinhos to Samba schools and the jerseys and flags of the football clubs in Recife or Rio.
It doesn’t come as a surprise then that Dinis Quaderna is also obsessed with heraldry and adorns his romance with all kinds of emblems, flags, and armorial bearings. Thanks to the woodcuts of Taparica, not only do we get the visual representation of the banners carried by some of the riders in the cavalcade entering Taperoá but also of the banner held by the invisible angel who accompanies them. The Jaguar is obviously the most popular heraldic animal; we can find it on flags, escutcheons, and even on a treasure map. Besides this esteemed animal, Quaderna’s newly-bestowed coat of arms is emblazoned with Pegasus and a stag with conspicuously protruding genitals. The heraldic aspect of the narrative is by no means limited to the woodcut illustrations. Quaderna’s language itself becomes armorial when he meticulously describes, for instance, the appearance of the horse riders on the road to Taperoá or the participants of the Cavalhadas. Every single detail of the clothing, headgear, harnesses, and accoutrements is presented as a shiny heraldic element that deserves admiration in its own right.
The magistrate indulges Quaderna in all his wild ramblings, and it seems that even if his initial goal was to let the garrulous suspect accidentally give himself away, the servant of the law became genuinely fascinated by this weird romance in the making, something that we would call today a postmodern tour de force. The status of Quaderna as a genius can be contested, but there is no doubt that he has succeeded in creating a work that captured the essence of Northeastern Brazil, drawing inspiration from its turbulent history and popular cultural heritage. The same holds true, of course, for Ariano Suassuna’s novel itself. The Stone of the Kingdom was supposed to be just the first volume of a massive trilogy with the abridged title Quaderna, the Decipherer (Quaderna, O Decifrador). The second volume was to be called The King with the Slit Throat (O Rei Degolado) and the third one —Sinésio the Radiant (Sinésio, o Alumioso). Both parts were conceived to be as sprawling and complex as The Stone of the Kingdom, so the mind staggers at the mere thought of what monumental work of art we would have now if that ambitious project had come to fruition. The novel has a fair number of loose ends and unexplained events, which perhaps would have been dealt with in the follow-up volumes. But even the way things stand, this work is a great achievement, which has rightly become a classic and one of the cornerstones of twentieth-century Brazilian literature. The Stone of the Kingdom, with all its protean and hybrid brilliance, demonstrates what is possible when a rich folk tradition meets a sophisticated and imaginative mind.