Historians and Storytellers: a review of The War of the End of the World, Mario Vargas Llosa

“A story of mad men.”

“…not so much a story of madmen as a story of misunderstandings.”

In the Brazilian state of Bahia in the 1890s there was a popular uprising against the young Republic. In 1888 the Portuguese Emperor abolished slavery, and in 1889 a military coup ended the monarchy and established a Republic. Bahia had been beset by extreme drought less than a decade earlier and, combined with both new taxes and large numbers of newly displaced persons in the form of former-slaves (at least according to Wikipedia), the conditions were ripe for an itinerant preacher and mystic, Antonio Vicente Mendes Maciel a.k.a. Antonio Conselhiero, to develop a following. In 1893 he set up his permanent home at an abandoned hacienda called Canudos. Tens of thousands of outlaws and other dispossessed came to Canudos and they defeated three military expeditions sent to destroy the rebellion, before finally succumbing to the overwhelming firepower of a fourth military force in 1897.

The capture of Canudos led to atrocities, including murder, rape, desecration of the dead bodies. But to the extent that the media covered the sack of Canudos, the narrative was that the men and women of Canudos were Monarchists, backwardly religious, and supported by European powers that sought influence in the new Republic.

This is a long, roundabout way to get to reviewing a novel written by a Peruvian author and published in 1981. Yet, Llosa’s novel is a dramatic retelling of this episode in Brazilian history, presented as a historical novel rather than history. Llosa’s storytelling has two distinct advantages over a historical approach to the topic. The first is that he doesn’t need to follow a linear chronology and often skips forward and backward, particularly when moving between the events at Canudos and the events elsewhere in Bahia. The second is that Llosa embraces the confusion and uncertainty that surrounded the origin and conclusion of the rebellion.

The early portions of the story are dedicated to the mythology of Antonio Counselhiero and his band of devoted followers. Llosa narrates how a motley band of outlaws, outcasts, and sinners became intensely devoted to this mystic–and in so doing became respected and upstanding individuals. The laws and rules of the Republicare what force them to transgress, rather than the there being something deficient in their natural make-up. The followers therefore reject the Republic (which they also lump in with Protestants, Atheists, and Freemasons) as the instrument of Satan, and pray for the return of both Jesus and the emperor.

The story progresses and gradually leads the reader to the government expeditions to drive them from Canudos; the latter part of the story is dedicated to the machinations and confusion of the majority of the population who accept the rule of the Republic. The characters on this side of the conflict profess a belief in science and progress, dismissing the backward superstition of the believers at Canudos. But it quickly becomes clear that science–and newspapers, regulations, politics, and modern life–don’t provide any more certainty than does religion. In fact, the discipline of the Republic only goes so far and the soldiers are frequently revealed to be both less happy and less moral than the criminals at Canudos.

I frame this review from the perspective of telling history and telling stories. I’m sure that there is value to a history of this revolt at Canudos, but I came to appreciate Llosa’s story telling. Unlike One Hundred Years of Solitude, which the dustcover blurb invokes, The War of the end of the World tracks a huge number of characters over a series of years. On one hand this made the story a challenge to read, but it also enabled Llosa to approach the events at Canudos from a variety of angles and hammer home the misunderstandings. The story is poignant and there plenty of rising action building up to that final conflict at Canudos, but the conclusion falls flat. This is a story about the implacable advance of modernity and I suspect that the dullness of the resolution is by design, an inversion of the progressive narrative that does not shy from the problems of the earlier time but is nostalgic all the same.

The War of the End of the World was a challenging read and there were times that I found myself dragging while reading this book, though some of that was the end of the semester grind, but it was also immensely rewarding to get through.

In a distinct (and welcome) change of pace, yesterday I finished Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon, which I intend to talk about in an upcoming post about fantasy novels, but haven’t decided if I will review independently of that, and have begun Sam Lipsyte’s epistolary novel Home Land.

An end of semester thought

Another semester come and gone, or almost. I have a student primed to come in an collect his final exam tomorrow and I am expecting a grade complaint to ensue, but the other context of this post is that I had a student email me last night or early this morning thanking me for being “stricter TA than the others” because it helped her mold her study habits, her reading, and her writing. The student who sent me that message was a delight to have in class (I actually enjoyed that entire section quite a bit, even if the classroom itself made me sometimes feel like Yuri Petrova while I taught), and I did appreciate the way that she phrased her statement that I was a hard-ass, suggesting that I had expectations about what the students should have prepared before class and what we needed to talk about in class rather than that I was a malicious grader.

In a sense this is another “grade inflation” piece following after “confessions” of grade inflators, a piece about grade compression” instead of inflation, this response to the slate Confessions piece, and this from the Harvard Crimson, dated June 5, 1997 that cites a controversy from four years earlier when a professor at Harvard said in the Harvard Magazine that the causes of grade inflation stem from affirmative action in 1969. The way this latest bout of frustration has swirled across social media† has seemed to strike a nerve with academics. People have stumped for their cause of choice, whether that they are not paid well enough to “waste” time arguing grades, standardized tests (and the ensuing results-based education), customer-model of higher education, the desperate need for good teaching evaluations to keep a tenuous employment,‡ etc. Each also has his or her own response…and no one has a feasible solution. What I have been thinking about, rather, is the aura of mystery that surrounds grades.⚔

I can only echo the frustration expressed elsewhere about the student demand for making the grades and what exactly the grades mean. I really don’t care about grades, even though I dutifully assign them throughout the semester, but, like most teachers, it is a dreaded activity. But I am musing about the perception of grades versus reality. In most of my sections my average test score ranges from about a 77 to an 82 simply based on the class makeup and parameters of the exam and caveats about small sample sizes apply–outlier sections will sometimes skew a little bit lower or a little bit higher than that general range and 81 or 82 is probably the most common average I have seen. Mind you that I am talking just about the tests, and there is usually between 10 and 40 percent of the grades that rely on written responses, attendance, etc, for which a student gets full credit simply for completing the task.± The result of these extra points are that students who follow through with the course work have a final grade somewhat higher than their test grades. Even when the students have read the syllabus, many assume that their grade is exactly as it reads on the tests (an observation, nothing more).

I also don’t particularly like to talk about overall course averages because there is a non-negligible chunk of the students who don’t come to class, miss tests, miss in-class quizzes, and don’t complete response papers…these are most of the students who fail the class. With those students in the equation, the course average may dip below that of the exams, but often pulls it back to even with them. Students who do the work are rewarded for it, those who don’t can sometimes float by on exams alone, but if their exams are borderline, slip below into failing range.

I TA for an intro American history class and have been an adjunct,¥ and rarely have full authority over my own course design and final grades, but my students usually walk away from my classes believing that I am a hard grader, and this is something I worry about. I am fine being known as a somewhat demanding instructor so long as it is coupled with the knowledge that I will reciprocate whatever effort the students put in and work with them to master the material. I would also like to be known as a fair grader, though I know that it is impossible to please everyone all the time. My fear boils down not to fairness, though, nor that I am some kind of boogieman set on the earth to terrorize students, but that my expectations are punishing my students. I do not believe this to be the case, but the recent talk of how other professors and other TAs grade makes me wonder–and in a system that prioritizes results over process, is it simply a cop-out to hide behind the syllabus outlining student responsibilities when they cry foul at the end of the semester because missing work has harmed their grade?

I tell myself that I am about average in terms of actual difficulty; I try to challenge my students every week knowing, but often not revealing until the very end of the course, that the students are doing “fine”§ in my class–hey, the grading parameters are in the syllabus. My students may believe me to be some sort of Devourer-of-GPAs, but in the final calculation doesn’t bear that out, even if I made them work to receive the desired grade.

Of course I could be the one bearing the brunt of the punishment from this perception since if I make it seem that I am not handing out top grades across the board–whether or not any possible “deficiency” (that which I call grading) is buttressed elsewhere in the grade–then the perception is that I am punishing students, keeping them from the sterling GPA that they want. Here perception, not reality, is what matters and a perceived lack of inflation/ease/compression/whatever is a sign of curmudgeonly vindictiveness and a signal that that instructor is the GPA-Devourer at fault for whatever bureaucratic issues the student faces. More directly, unless the student has been engaged with me throughout the semester they probably don’t know that they are doing better than the tests might indicate before they fill out their course evaluations.

† I love most things about Twitter, but its ability to enable internet pitch-fork mobs, ardent Jacobins, and devout Crusaders in defense of their perceived (and sometimes correct) injustices is terrifying.

‡ Of course, those evaluations come in before the final grade, so perception is everything. More below.

⚔ Many students say that they prefer multiple-choice, but the grades are actually lower on them, from which many levels of interpretation may be read.

± There may also be prompt-based papers the students have to complete, but they typically are in the same range as the exams and don’t change the calculation about amount of attendance/response/etc points.

¥ Not every student attended every class, but everyone did all the assignments, so I didn’t quite have this problem in that class.

§ Fine can mean that I don’t care about the grade, but in this context it really means that the student is doing much better than they think they are in terms of the overall grade.

They just don’t make heroes like they used to

I watched GI Joe Retaliation…and feel the need to justify myself…it was background while I did odds and ends at home. The point is that I watched GI Joe Retaliation. It is a bad movie, but the impressive part is how much of the absurdness of the first movie they trimmed out and still managed to make a movie just as bad or worse. the lesson here is don’t skimp on writers, I guess.

For the uninitiated, GIJ I ends with Cobra having captured and replaced the president without anyone knowing. In GIJ II, the faux-president frames the Joes as traitors and has his Cobra allies wipe them out.♠ Of course, three survive and trek back from Pakistan♣ to find out why the President betrayed them and to stop Cobra when they find out the President is not hte President. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the world, the US military/Cobra have built a series of satellites that drop rods from space.♥ The not-President then brings all the nuclear powers, including North Korea (it is unclear whether Iran attended) to a disarmament summit at Fort Sumter, prompts them to launch their nukes (all of which are on missiles) by launching the US nukes at their countries and then coerces disarmament by himself volunteering to destroy the US nukes.♦ Voila! The threat of a nuclear holocaust is over! The president then demands their surrender, revealing the rods-from-space weapon and destroys London, just to prove his point. Cobra then threatens to destroy the rest of the countries in attendance, but the ‘Joes show up just in time to stop them and destroy the satellites remotely. Naturally, the bad guy escapes.♠♠ The ‘Joes, finally, are treated as heroes. Fine.

My big problem with GIJ I was the excessive destruction caused by the good guys as they rushed to prevent Cobra from destroying the Eiffel Tower.♠♣ This time was more of an old-school action flick where the good-guys are limited in their ability to cause collateral damage, but there was still a damage quota to fulfill♠♥….so they leveled London. Don’t worry, though, the ‘Joes saved Tel Aviv, so they can still call themselves heroes. But suspending disbelief about everything else, what about the fallout from this event? Let’s recap: the Not-President used the US military, presumably, to build a series of super-advanced satellites and then after a push of a single button launched the entire nuclear arsenal, used his sole authority to get the US military to launch an unprovoked attack on the close US ally.♠♦ That’s alright, though, because the bad guys did it and the ‘Joes stopped (most of) the destruction.

At the end of the movie, I quipped on Twitter that someone should make a mockumentary detailing reconstruction of the world post-action movies. The same could be said of the US position in the world. The ‘Joes might have won, but that does not change the fact that the United States military wiped out London and the resolution amounted to “oops.”

I do not hold with the doomsayers who claim a causal relationship between the violent movies and video games and violence in society, but there is an escalation of movie violence that bothers me. First, I dislike the wanton damage and tendency to shrug aside collateral damage by the people the audience is supposed to relate to. Second, blowing things up substitutes for dialogue and plot, which degrades the quality of the movie. When that happens, it is insufficient for those heroes to stop the first cataclysmic event because that would stop some of the “cool” CGI that is really the only reason people are watching. So bring back clever dialogue and, barring an actual narrative contingency, let the heroes stop entire cities from being destroyed. Please.

♠ Or at least the ones on the team we care about. There were surely more and with secret bases in GIJ I… *waves hand* these are not the details you are looking for.

♣ National borders matter not to super famous-yet-secret US commandos *waves han…you get the idea.

A real thing, actually.

♦ All nukes in this world are controlled by wireless/satellite capable briefcases carried around by world leaders.

♠♠ How else would there be a GIJ III?

♠♣ They failed there, too.

♠♥ Lives, sq km flattened, value of property damage…it is unclear what unit of measure Hollywood uses.

♠♦ A certain defense from Nuremberg comes to mind

Albert Cossery, Proud Beggars

Everyone has their foibles, their obsessions and their needs. Peace and happiness only emerge from abstaining from the reality of civilization, but what happens when the needs come calling?

Proud Beggars is the second Cossery novel I’ve read and I went into it with high expectations based on how much I loved The Jokers. The Jokers was a story about subversives who use practical jokes to overthrow the government and arouse the ire of both the revolutionaries and the police and officials. Proud Beggars has a more complex cast of characters than The Jokers, particularly in that while the Jokers were to a man detached, the Beggars profess to the same ideology, but can never actually follow through. The result is a darker story and one that is more profoundly troubling.

The chief Beggar is Gohar, a former professor, current brothel accountant, who has renounced the world of the intelligentsia in favor of “really living,” but is also a hashish addict. The others, the clerk-cum-revolutionary and man with a hero-complex El Kordi, and poet-cum-drug-dealer and mooch from his mother Yeghen, look up to Gohar and wish to help him with his material needs and desires because the former professor has reached a point of transcendence that he is all-but incapable of taking care of himself. But Gohar doesn’t have a problem with anyone and no one has a problem with Gohar. These are the intelligentsia of the slums.

The idyllic state of poverty established for the reader is shattered when there is a brutal and, to outsiders, inexplicable murder of a young prostitute. The policemen Nour El Dine steps in to solve the murder, but in his investigation, he finds himself finding something admirable about the happiness the beggars have in their detachment–as he says at one point, the government and all its power is not something to be feared, not because they turn defiantly from its authority, but because they simply don’t recognize it. Gohar’s repeated phrase (which may invoke Camus, who Cossery knew) is that the universe isn’t absurd, it is just ruled by bastards. Nour El Dine envies the Beggars and is increasingly frustrated with his station because he is forced to hide his own “dark” secret.

Several ideological elements stand out in this novel. First, the Beggars reject the hustle-bustle society entirely, each in his own way. El Kordi works from within, Yeghen sells drugs and begs, and Gohar abandoned his lucrative post and now rhapsodizes about how the government is corrupt and he was a failure as a teacher because he taught things such as national borders that defy nature. Second, consternation is the by-product of caring too much. These are common themes in both Cossery novels I’ve read. The third, though, is the profound unimportance of life–and thus the importance of living. This is where the story took a turn toward darkness.

In my reading of The Stranger, Albert Camus made it clear that the murder of the Arab was not per-se a pardonable offense, and half the story is about Meursault’s trial and punishment. Here, where there is an even more sudden murder, much of the story is dedicated to Nour El Dine’s investigation and (spoiler) there is no resolution, because any sort of punishment would be to acknowledge the power of the state. My problem with this is that there is a sense that the death of this young woman and the pain it causes the people in her life is only problematic inasmuch as people cared for her (and for the authorities who are paid to do so). I don’t necessarily disagree with the position from a philosophical standpoint, but this is more extreme than I am willing to stand for. There is a brutality and extreme lack of empathy that is entirely paradoxical with how these Beggars try to present themselves and present those worker-bees too busy to connect with people.

One final note before I conclude, one of the things that readers of Cossery’s novels could find off putting is that while the Beggars strive for minimalism and rant about the government and what it does, they have a blind spot that they nevertheless need money for things. They want money to be a thing between people, themselves and the shopkeepers, say, but they cut out the role government play in regulating money. Or in regulating trade–they live in cities and it is unlikely that their food is brought in by farmers on a daily basis. Since Cossery wrote Proud Beggars, urban life, particularly, has only grown more complex and for all the problems of government, it plays a role facilitating that life. The underlying point that the world is run by bastards–whether capitalist, totalitarian, or other–is well taken, but what is the alternative? It is solipsistic for the characters have their detachment valorized without recognizing that their ideal is an impossibility because in every societal set-up someone will be taking it too seriously for their taste. Yes, people need to connect with one another more, but false nostalgia is insidious.

I liked Proud Beggars for all that. It is a darker and more troublesome novel than was The Jokers, but it still had its moments and Cossery is an elegant writer capable of reflection rich enough that it sometimes slips over into decadence.

I am looking forward to reading more Cossery when I get the chance, but last night I started reading Mario Vargas Llosa’s War at the End of the World, not that I really have time to read right now anyway.

A few thoughts about Late Hellenistic Egypt

A few weeks ago I was in a bar with a friend of mine, a diplomatic/US and the World historian. In the course of our conversation, we stumbled onto late-Hellenistic Egypt and Cleopatra, a topic I was to give a lecture on to my advisor’s class. I mentioned Egypt’s relative weakness and, in my opinion, unimportance in the first century BCE. He was taken aback by the way I dismissed Egypt, noting the glamor, the wealth, the prestige, and the grain. I shrugged and alluded to Augustan propaganda and the work of another diplomatic historian slated to take up a post here at the university in the fall.

Before I expand on these thoughts, I should lay my biases on the table. I don’t like Ptolemy (#teamSeleucus) and Egypt itself holds minimal allure for me. Certain issues do, certainly, but I have limited interest in the poetry, the technology and bureaucratic apparatus of the state, or even the dynastic intrigue and incest. Some of this disinterest is my dislike of Ptolemy, some of it is my contrarian streak in that Ptolemaic Egypt gets a ton of attention because there is evidence for it, not necessarily because it is inherently interesting. Yes, it has its place and I am grudgingly grateful for their diligence in appropriating literary works. But Egypt, with all its potential is not “all that,” so to speak.

The potential is the key here. Egypt is comparatively defensible as an entity compared to the other Hellenistic kingdoms, the Nile is potentially prosperous in agricultural products, and Alexandria is well situated for trade in the Mediterranean. But by the first century BCE, the Ptolemies were not capitalizing on this potential. There were problems collecting taxes, as well as droughts (despite the Nile’s reputation, this did happen at times–the story of Joseph comes to mind). There were also local rebellions with a variety of causes and Egypt lacked a native military infrastructure, so the kingdom relied on mercenaries. Add in dynastic intrigue–exiles, assassinations, and children aspiring to rule in the place of their parents– and this is not a situation conducive to exploiting the potential.

But what about the scene of Antony cutting off Rome’s grain supply? Rome did get grain from Egypt–one figure gives ⅓ of the total imports came from the Nile. “Rome” used more Egyptian grain than that, too, but the Urbs Roma usually imported most of its grain from North Africa and Sicily. Without looking into it too deeply, I would more equate Egyptian grain to Middle Eastern oil. The US doesn’t get much oil from the Middle East, but it needs oil from the region for two things: military use and price regulation. The US needs x amount of oil in the system or else the price will rise prohibitively and the US needs to supply troops in the Middle East and Europe where it is more cost-effective to purchase it locally. Rome did locally supply troops as best it was able, including legions along the northern frontier raising cattle for meat and leather and republican armies requisitioned supplies (or accepted gifts, same thing) from client kingdoms, including Egypt. By the same token, Rome needed to keep grain prices to remain stable in the Mediterranean, particularly since Urbs Roma was not the only large city that needed to import grain, so the halt of the Egyptian supply could cause a catastrophic economic ripple effect, but not necessarily because people in Rome were starving from the outset.

The last piece of this puzzle is Octavian. the master manipulator portrayed his war against Antony as a war of salvation against a powerful, extravagant other that could threaten rome. Sicily and Africa had also both suffered during the decades of civil war, so the grain supply was not as abundant in the 30s as it was at other times. Of course, Octavian had every reason to exaggerate the wealth and threat of Egypt, its corrupting influence on Antony, and the dire consequences of the grain supply in order to justify his war against Antony. Actium and the rest of the campaign were only as close as they were because they predominantly pitted Octavian’s Roman legions against Antony’s Roman legions. Egypt provided troops, sure, but Roman forces had defeated the Egyptian mercenaries in at least two invasions in the past decades and Egypt’s territory had only approached the boundaries of the early Ptolemies because Antony had given territory back to Cleopatra (and usually left the Roman tax farmers in place). Antony may have intended this to be a permanent restoration and to create a series of client kingdoms ruled by his and Cleopatra’s children, but the power still flowed from Rome. Egypt had enough potential that Octavian was prudent to take it for himself, but in the first century BCE the myth of Ptolemaic Egypt created by the early Ptolemies and encouraged by Octavian far outpaced Egypt’s actual position in the Mediterranean system.

April Reading Recap

I finished two books in April, but didn’t write a review of either of them.

Alberto Moravia, Boredom
Dino is a wealthy Italian man who lives in an artist’s flat, an artist who doesn’t paint. He loathes his mother’s society, but relies on her money for survival. He has also fallen for his model, the model and mistress of his late neighbor, a middle class man estranged from his family. He craves possession of this model, but her disinterest in money and class intrigues him and makes her impossible for him to actually get. To make matters worse, the tighter he clings to her, the more she slips away.

Moravia’s themes, boredom, desire, etc, are ones that I have enjoyed in other books, but this one didn’t do it for me. The protagonist, Dino, is a pompous, spoiled brat who rejects his mother’s villa ostensibly because he finds the money distasteful, but more because his mother’s sole obsession is the cost rather than the thing. He chafes when reminded that he lives on her donations, which she uses to control him much as he tries to control his mistress. He is more hipster than are hipsters and utterly unaware of his surroundings, petulant and obsessive as a child. There is a good chance that this is exactly what Moravia was going for, but I couldn’t stand Dino and therefore didn’t love the book.

Ernest Hemingway, Farewell to Arms

Hemingway’s novel about World War One on the Italian front sticks to the Hemingway schtick–war, courage, brave, bear-liquor, war-wound, jaundice, death, etc. It was a good both, but after other, later, novels, Farewell came across shallow, with none of the characters as fleshed out as they do in other books. I was less persuaded by the romance, less intrigued by the terse-yet-friendly masculinity. I enjoyed the story and was glad to have read the book for completion’s sake, but it was just not on par with the Sun Also Rises, For Whom the Bell Tolls, or To Have and Have Not. Farewell, for me, was more on par with The Garden of Eden, but for v. different reasons since the latter passed in spades where former fell short.

It is a challenging point of the semester as things come due and exams to mark are pile up. I am also neck-deep in dissertation writing. I am doing my best to write and read a little bit beyond that, though, since I believe it makes me a more rounded reading and person and it helps keep me sane. To that end, I am enjoying Albert Cossery’s Proud Beggars, but it is not as good as The Jokers.