Sunday, April 9, 2017

Maria Vargas Llosa : "The War of the end of the world"

Guerra de Canudos. 7º Batalhão de Infantaria. [Fonte: Arquivo Histórico do Museu da República]

Vargas Llosa’s famous eschatological novel, "The war of the end of the world”, recounts the bloody uprising of the poor that took place in the Brazilian badlands in the northern state of Bahia at the end of the 19th century.

It would have been a barely noticed hiccup in Brazilian history had this uprising not evolved into a full scale civil war featuring a rebellious community of 30.000 souls fighting back successfully the multiple attacks of the regular Brazilian army. This two year - conflict, known as the Guerra de Canudos, came to a bloody end in October 1897 when the Brazilian soldiers, despite suffering heavy losses, finally overran the rebellion’s stronghold and exterminated the insurgents, men, women and children to the last.

It remains an intriguing story, worth telling and certainly worth reading.

In the hostile Brazilian backlands known as the Sertao, a poor region plagued by drought, violence and political corruption, an enigmatic messianic figure known as the Conseilheiro ( the counselor), attracts followers through simple actions of faith : repairing decrepit churches, weeding bad herbs in abandoned cemeteries and enduring long praying sessions.

The people who join him in the early days of the crusade are those that have nothing to lose, the very poor, the excluded, the abused. Their motivation is fueled by an Apocalyptic mood that has appeared in the wake of a great drought that has decimated man and faun alike and a period of great national turmoil caused by the abolishment of slavery and the transition from Monarchy to a young and hesitating Republic.

In the following months, more and more believers inspired by the actions and sayings of the charismatic leader join the army of the destitute. Repentant criminals, people in need of a vision and religious searchers strengthen the ever-growing army.

The expanding group moves from village to village, camping in the open, living from the land and the gifts from sympathizing villagers. But soon enough the erring tribe has grown too large and a need for a permanent settlement is urgently felt. The counselor and his flock establish their own village on top of a hill. Their community is build on their own rules and organizations. They reject property, the use of money and they decide not to pay any taxes.

This of course attracts attention and the Bahia government sends a first small army detachment to quench this kernel of insurgence…

Llosa’s book is dedicated to the Brazilian writer Euclides da Cunha, the writer of Os Sertoes, an early account of the military expeditions against the rebellious village of the Canudos.

This is more than a detail. Da Cunha was a Brazilian journalist and sociologist whose book Os Sertoes, written a few years after the war, was the main source of information of what happened in the desert available to a larger public. It was also the inspiration and contemporary source for the writing of "The war of the end of the world”. Book and the persona of the writer might partly explain the two strange characters in Vargas Llosa’s book : the revolutionary Scot and the near-sighted journalist.

I haven’t read Os Sertoes, but according to the available information, da Cunha, although sympathizing with the rebellion tried to explain the insurgents’ backwardness, their racial degeneration and their ”objectified insanity" with outdated and debunked racial and psychiatric theories.

In the “War of the end of the World”, we follow two characters, two witnesses who, they too, try to make sense of the weird pilgrims and strange development of this pauper - revolution.

The first one is a foreigner, a devilish Scottish revolutionist and phrenologist ( an outdated physiological theory too ), complete with red curly hair and a red goatee, follower of Proudhon and Bakunin who is trying to join the revolutionaries in order to present them, we assume ,his blueprint of a new communist state. He claims to understand the revolutionary movement better than anyone else but his attempt to reach Canudos is hampered by the harshness of the backlands and the people. He will disappear in the desert, murdered or not, after having transgressed all his own social, moral and ethical standards.

The second character, who comes more to the foreground in the second part of the book, when the fall of Canudos needs to be recorded and explained, is an unnamed cynic reporter, traveling with the army. But this journalist is (oh irony ) very nearsighted and prone to sneezing fits when stressed or scared. As he is constantly stressed and scared, he is at the most a very unreliable narrator. When he gets into a fighting melee, before being captured by the revolting peasants, he brakes and looses his glasses and witnesses the last stand of the revolutionary village through a blurred image and through the information he gets from others.

The undoing of both characters seem to indicate that Vargas Llosa’s conclusions are that no theory, scientific or pseudo-scientific can satisfactorily explain what has happened at Canudos and second that no one really witnessed how the peasant revolt resisted so long to an adversary so outnumbered and extremely more powerful and finally that all historical interpretation and explanations in the aftermath are spoiled by political near-sightedness, unreliable information sources and biased mental blur.

So if we cannot explain Canudos, what is it then ?

Canudos is simply a miracle.

"The war of the end of the world” is a long and demanding read. It is a complex story, following many characters with a lot of developments happening at the same moment and crisscrossed by political and religious digressions. But Vargas Llosa is a master storyteller, he holds the narrative reins firm in hand, the novel is impeccably structured and organized. This for the benefit of the leisurely reader, who needs but a shortlist of characters to help him through the 600 or so pages.

It is also a gruesome read, the pages bulk of countless horrors men inflict on fellow men. It is a feast of self flagellation, of primitive religious extremes in sync with the bleakness of the Sertao. The reader is spared nothing.

The fighting chapters in the last part of the book however, come over at times as tedious, especially since we know the outcome of the war. But again Vargas Llosa, deploying all the tricks of the trade…analepses, prolepses, anecdotes keeps the reader with his eyes on the page.

The most intriguing and fascinating chapters are ( at least for me ) those that introduce the most loyal disciples of the Conseilheiro by telling their miserable life stories. It is a series of hagiographic cameos, not unlike those written by Athanasius of Alexandria in the early days of Christianity, often containing scenes of extreme religiosity and abject suffering : Pajeu the cangaceiro with the slashed face, the most evil man of the sertao, Pedrao the enormous brute , the nameless “little blessed one” who tortures himself to express his love for the Conseilheiro, A dwarf terrified of dying, big Jaoa, a runaway slave, Maria Quadrado, devoted Maria Magdalena to the Conseilheiro, the Lion of Natuba, a creature half man half animal saved in extremis from the stake…

There is all along the reading of the War, a sense of familiarity, a strange déjà - vu.

The last centuries have seen dozen of similar insurrections of the desperate, set in movement by a charismatic religious or social leader. All of them leaving an immense trail of blood and terror in their wake. They are the histories of the poor, easily forgotten or overlooked in our history books.

I think it is not too far fetched, if we even recognize other Canudos in some elements of the Taliban, Isis and the new caliphates. Here too, a backward and violent movement fueled by the frustration and hopelessness of a whole army of poor, encourages lost individuals to sacrifice themselves for an ill-directed cause. Our fogged and damaged Tv - glasses do not always let us see things that clearly.

The War of the end of the world is basically an alternative history of the world. In the development of the War of Canudos, a model appears that has been played out numerous times in the history of our civilizations. The fact that these insurrections keep repeating themselves, also in our Modern times, is proof enough that many states have grossly failed to take care of their armies of poor and disadvantaged.

If you want to visit Canudos today, say for an innocent pilgrimage or a remembrance of those who suffered, you won’t find it. The ruins of the town are covered by a water reservoir of the Cocorobó Dam, built by the military regime in the 1960s.

What needs to be forgotten must disappear.