SERGEANT GETULIO by Joao Ubaldo Ribeiro


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The Brazilian novelist Jorge Amado calls this book by his countryman ""a great novel""; a foreigner's assent has to be more hesitant, but there's no denying, even from a translation (by the author himself), that this is a muscular, unyielding, and significant work. ""A tale of virtue,"" Ribeiro calls it; ""allegory"" might also apply. Sergeant Getùlio is a killer (""it.'s like women, impossible to remember them all"") but not a death machine of the modern style. Sent into the Brazilian backwater to escort a political prisoner to jail, Getùlio, accompanied by only a driver named Amaro, gets and brutalizes his man, beating all the while through the brush and stopping overnight at a farmer's house where troops aligned with the prisoner try, unsuccessfully, to effect a liberation. The carnage throughout is unremittingly gory--the prisoner (called variously ""the trash,"" ""the thing,"" ""the pox"") is tortured gruesomely; Getùlio cuts a lieutenant's head off--and, since the book is all Getùlio's monologue, unsentimental: ""Dead bodies are like wild squash. They cover the ground."" Chased now by opposing guns, the threesome of Getùlio, Amaro, and the prisoner become the hunted--and the book begins to have a Godot-like feel, a wasteland with morals compromised beyond horror. Despite some fantastical writing near the end a la Garcia Marquez, and some logointoxication à la Joyce, Ribeiro stays astringent pretty much constantly. Getùlio is clearly a monster and hero at the same time, and Ribeiro's large achievement is to keep us wondering how exactly this can be. How ideology can suddenly seem like biology--and Getùlio (and this book) like a strong, strange mutant.

Pub Date: Jan. 27th, 1977
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin