These are the recollections of Alexandre—of his life, his death-in-life, and his ultimate death, as they are played out against the mobile tapestry of the valley where he was born. The valley itself, in the backlands of the state of Bahia, Brazil, alternates at different stages in Alexandre’s consciousness between reality and symbol. It swings from a harsh regional specificity to become the panorama of all human life, its endless, eroding wind the devouring hostility of all environments and its pain the pain of every human being in the face of his own brutality and that of others.
Throughout the novel Alexandre’s mind ranges from sharp awareness, through hallucination, to oblivion (“a man dies while alive,” says Jeronimo, his mentor), and back again as he experiences the violent, obtuse phenomena of life in the valley—his universe and ours. This latter-day Lazarus leaves the resisting hills and black sky once only, hounded by the valley dwellers who believe he has murdered his wife, her father, and her brother. Yet despite his awareness of the horror of the valley and his intuition of something beyond it, it is precisely his contact with the gentler existence to which he escapes that forces Alexandre to recognize his nature for what it is. Turning his back on a greater and more varied range of feeling and experience, he chooses the narrow ferocity of the valley, to which he returns to die the final death for which the earlier deaths have prepared him.