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.

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