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.

Assorted Links

  1. Which Country Has the Best Government?An article that lays down some of the issues and guidelines for a revised series of articles in Spiegel. In 2008 there was a series of articles about what countries have the best governance, particularly in light of the global financial crisis and domestic conflicts taking place in western style governments. The series looked at four countries (Brazil, United States, Netherlands, and China) as case studies for these types of government. Four years later, Spiegel is returning to the countries first examined to see how they are performing.
  2. How Brazil Became a Model Nation-The revisited profile in the Spiegel series above, Brazil is having its fair share of problems, but in large part due to government involvement, stamping out corruption, and policing, Brazil has undergone a transformation and is rapidly becoming an economic power. According to at least one expert on “good governance,” Brazil is the best governed country in the world, with criteria such as being responsive to constituencies, limiting corruption, transparency to media, political freedoms, increasing equality, and a high economic growth rate.
  3. Before Air-Conditioning– Published June of 1998 in the New Yorker, Arthur Miller recalls the summer in America (particularly New York) before the advent of air conditioning.
  4. Why Capitalism Wants Us to Stay Single-A blog post in the Guardian that points out that people who live alone are less efficient consumers (meaning that they spend more money on various goods and services), so the capitalist, consumer system would prefer for people to remain single.
  5. The Boredom of Boozeless Business-an article in the Economist lamenting the end of the three martini lunch.
  6. Liberal Brainwashing/Brainwashing Liberally– An article at Inside Higher Ed that takes a look at the claims that the liberal academics are brainwashing children. The conclusion is that while many are liberal, they are more interested in actual teaching and that the students come out of the courses with their mental facilities intact.
  7. The Talented Mr. Ryan: Understanding the Ryan Plan– An op-ed in the Washington Post argues that attacking Paul Ryan’s budget plan over the Medicare and Social Security cuts mostly misses the point, when the actual problem is that Ryan is not actually a fiscal conservative since his plans would not balance the budget for decades. He makes the case that Ryan’s budget plan should be attacked from the right, rather than the left. Related to this, German papers seem to be having none of this stuff about Paul Ryan being a fiscally conservative, intellectual choice, calling him polarizing, a radical idealogue, and the chief ideologist of the Republican party.
  8. The Path to Tyranny-An article in SPIEGEL about the PUssy Riot trials in Russia (something I am amazed does not get as much press in the US…I have mostly seen it in SPIEGEL) and Vladimir Putin, arguing that Putin has a long tradition of totalitarianism that has only gotten more extreme in recent years. Interestingly, Mikhail Gorbachev, former Soviet Premier, is a critic of Putin’s and is a part owner of the Novaya Gazeta.
  9. As always, comments encouraged. What else is out there?