“Canudos,” says a character from Mario Vargas Llosa’s novel The War of the End of the World, “isn’t a story; it’s a tree of stories.” I can’t find a better description for the multiple narratives, vast cast of characters and always-changing relationships that constitute this epic novel about the War of Canudos, a civil war in the heart of Brazil that, from 1896 to 1897, pitted a religious community against the armies of the young Republic, and which Brazilian writer Euclides da Cunha, a journalist who witnessed the war, immortalised in the 1902 non-fiction account Rebellion in the Backlands.
In 1893 “a gaunt man, enveloped in a deep-purple tunic, whose hair came down to his shoulders and whose eyes looked like burning coals,” arrives in a little town called Canudos in Brazil’s sertão – the backlands, an arid, poverty-stricken stretch of land – with his followers and soon more people come to join them. This man is Antônio Conselheiro, the Counselor, a mystic and wandering preacher who had been preaching in the backlands for many years before settling in Canudos to build a church and prepare his followers for the end of the world. Notorious amongst the lower classes for his spirituality and miracles, the preacher had become a beacon of hope and wisdom to the wretched, the freaks and the freed slaves. Preachers like him were common in the region, but the Counselor, like many leaders along history, managed to hold people in thrall, almost by magic, with his seductive voice and piercing eyes:
He gave his counsel when dusk was falling, when the men had come back from the fields and the women had finished their household tasks and the children were already asleep. He gave it in those stony, treeless, open spots to be found in all the villages of the backlands at the main crossroads, which might have been called public squares if they had had benches, tree-lined walks, gardens, or had kept those that they had once had and that little by little had been destroyed by drought, pestilence, indolence. He gave it at that hour when the sky of the North of Brazil, before becoming completely dark and studded with stars, blazes amid tufted white, grey or bluish clouds and there is a sort of vast fireworks display overhead, above the vastness of the world. He gave it at that hour when fires are lighted to chase away insects and prepare the evening meal, when the steamy air grows less stifling and a breeze rises that puts people in better spirits to endure the sickness, the hunger, and the sufferings of life.
I use this excerpt to show Vargas Llosa’s masterful ability to combine action description. As he explains the Counselor’s method of preaching, he also builds an image of the squalid, bleak world his followers lived in.
Canudos prospers. Thousands congregate there to live by the moral precepts imposed by the mystic: fraternity, communal sharing, equality before God. These people don’t trust the Republic; the fall of the monarchy didn’t improve their existence. They continued poor, and their isolation from the urban centres increased their mistrust of change and progress, as this passage shows:
[S]something had changed with the advent of the Republic. To people’s misfortune and confusion: Church and State were separated, freedom of worship was established, and cemeteries were secularised, so that it was no longer parishes but towns that would be responsible for them. Whereas the vicars in their bewilderment did not know what to say in the face of these new developments that the Church hierarchy had resigned itself to accepting, the Counselor for his part knew immediately what to say: they were impious acts that to the believer were inadmissible. And when he learned that civil marriage had been instituted – as though a sacrament created by God were not enough – he for his part had the forthrightness to say aloud, at the counsel hour, what the parishioners were whispering; that this scandal was the handiwork of Protestants and Freemasons. As were, no doubt, the other strange, suspect, new provisions that the towns of the sertão – the backlands – learned of little by little: the statistical map, the census, the metric system. To the bewildered people of the hinterland, the sertanejos, who hastened to ask him what all that meant, the Counselor slowly explained: they wanted to know what color people were so as to re-establish slavery and return dark-skinned people to their masters, and their religion so as to be able to identify the Catholics when the persecution began. Without raising his voice, he exhorted them not to answer such questionnaires, and not to allow the meter and the centimetre to replace the yard and the foot.
When Brazil became a Republic in 1889, slavery was abolished, which precipitated the country into bankruptcy. Taxes were collected violently; thousands of freed slaves roamed the roads, begging. Periodical droughts assailed the backlands. These people, ignorant and neglected by the Republic, whose capital was far away, had only religion to rely on. And now even its traditions were endangered. The Republic meant secularism and civil marriage. As if someone had turned their world upside-down, the sertanejos flocked to Canudos in search of the only type of harmony they knew.
This community worried the authorities: for one thing it called itself monarchist because it regarded the Crown as the defender of the Church; furthermore it was becoming an independent power within the Republic. The local government decided to send a military expeditionary to disband it. They believed that the expeditionary force would frighten away the jagunços, the Counselor’s followers, but instead they marched to war like Crusaders marching to the Holy Land:
The rare travellers who met them on the road were amazed to learn that they were marching to war. They looked like a crowd heading for a fiesta; a number of them were dressed in their fanciest clothes. They were carrying weapons and shouted, ‘Death to the Devil and to the Republic,’ but even at such moments the joyous expression on their faces softened the effect of the hatred in their voices.
Little do the authorities realise that they are about to start a war with people who consider the coming of the Republican Army the beginning of the war of the end of the world, the Biblical war between good and evil which will decide the fate of the Earth and prepare for Heaven the martyrs who fight against the forces of the Devil:
The war that they were waging was only apparently that of the outside world, that of men in uniform against men in rags, that of the seacoast against the interior, that of the new Brazil against traditional Brazil. All the jagunços were aware that they were merely puppets of a profound, timeless, eternal war, that of good and evil, which had been going on since the beginning of time.
The first expedition is repelled. Three more, consisting of dozens of thousands of soldiers, carrying hundreds of thousands of rounds, and artillery, will have to come to finally crush Canudos, because the jagunços literally fight to the last man.
I wouldn’t hesitate to call this novel, were it not for its sophisticated use of non-linear storytelling, a modern 19th century novel: it’s a massive tome, running over seven hundred pages in my edition, containing hundreds of characters from several social classes and professions and with enough action to fill a trilogy. Canudos becomes an obsession to the Republic and Vargas Llosa analyses it from as many angles as possible to give a panoramic view of its effect on Brazil.
Vargas Llosa seems at ease when writing about politics and power struggles. In The Feast of the Goat he crafted an intricate narrative about the regime of Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo, and his first novel, The Time of the Hero, shows the corruption in a military school. Here he weaves together the social unbalance within Brazil with a story of Machiavellian politics. At the time of the war Brazil was divided in two major centres: the capital, Rio de Janeiro, a rich, industrialised urban centre; and Bahia, poorer and predominantly agrarian, where the rich landowners, mostly monarchists, campaigned for the region’s autonomy. In the novel these Autonomists are represented by the Baron of Canabrava, a landowner who wants to maintain the timeless social order of Bahia. In opposition Epaminondas Gonçalves, the editor of a Republican newspaper, sees in Canudos an opportunity to wrest these remaining monarchists from their seats of power:
“Bahia,” says the editor, “is a bulwark of retrograde landowners, whose hearts still lie with the monarchy, despite the fact that we’ve been a republic for eight years. If it is necessary to aid the bandits and the Sebastianists in the interior in order to put an end to the Baron of Canabravas’s dictatorial rule over Bahia, I shall do so. We’re falling farther and farther behind and becoming poorer and poorer. These people must be removed from power, at whatever cost, before it’s too late. If that business in Canudos continues, Luiz Viana’s government will be plunged into crisis and sooner or later the federal forces will step in. and the moment Rio de Janeiro intervenes, Bahia will cease to be the fief of the Autonomists.”
The editor’s plan is to make it look like the Baron and his cronies are in fact aiding Canudos. This is not hard to prove. The jagunços, when the war begins, have no option but to pillage the haciendas and force the landowners into aiding them with the threat of reprisals. This is one of the many misunderstandings in the novel. Two groups call themselves monarchists: one comprises the landowners, who served the last King and fear losing their social privileges. The people of Canudos, also called Sebastianists, aren’t really monarchists; they just oppose the Republich, which they consider as the work of the Devil.
Dom Sebastião, by the way, was a Portuguese king who died in Morocco in 1578. A Christian fanatic who dreamed of a Crusade that would spread the Catholic faith throughout North Africa, he travelled there, with almost the country’s entire nobility, and got slaughtered. This precipitated the crowning of the Spanish Filipe II as the new King of Portugal, since D. Sebastião hadn’t left an heir. And so Portugal endured Spanish kings for eighty years. D. Sebastião is like a King Arthur figure: after his death prophecies were made that one day he’d return to save Portugal from a great evil. This messianic myth became known as Sebastianism and aptly describes the belief the people of Canudos had that the world was coming to an end and that the monarchy, as the pillar of the Church, played a role in its salvation.
As if this confusion between monarchists weren’t enough, the editor conspires to make it look like the British are also aiding Canudos to overthrow the Republic. For that reason he enlists a Scottish revolutionary with the task of sending British rifles to the jagunços. This revolutionary, Galileo Gall, doesn’t realise he’s just a pawn in a scheme to have the authorities intercept him to give substance to the foreign conspiracy.
But Gall has his own story. A freedom fighter and phrenologist, as his surname attests (his father studied with Franz Joseph Gall), he finds himself in Brazil because he’s on the run from European authorities due to revolutionary crimes. Upon discovering the existence of Canudos, he decides to join their cause, which he considers just. For Gall is an idealist desirous of playing a role in a great revolution that will bring to life the ideals of anarchists like Proudhon and Bakunin:
As other children grow up listening to fairy stories, he had grown up hearing that property is the origin of all social evils and that the poor will succeed in shattering the chains of exploitation and obscurantism only through the use of violence.
Following his father’s footsteps as a revolutionary, Gall lives only to free Man from the chains created by the rich and the powerful. And in Brazil, amidst the social inequality and the lack of progress, he finds a country badly in need of a revolution:
He spent so many hours, by day and by night, wandering about the labyrinthine streets of Salvador that he might well have been taken for someone in love with the city. But what Galileo Gall was interested in was not the beauties of Bahia; it was, rather, the spectacle that had never ceased to rouse him to rebellion: injustice. Here, unlike Europe, he explained in his letters to Lyons, there were no segregated residential districts. ‘The mean huts of the wretched lie side by side with the tiled palaces of the owners of sugar plantations and mills, and ever since the drought of fifteen years ago that drove thousands of refugees here from the highlands, the streets teem with children who look like oldsters and oldsters who look like children, and women who are broomsticks, and among this multitude the scientist can easily identify all manner of physical afflictions, from those that are relatively harmless to those that are terrifying severe: bilious fever, beriberi, dropsy, dysentery, smallpox.’ ‘Any revolutionary whose convictions as to the necessity of a major revolution are wavering’ – he wrote in one of his letters – ‘ought to take a lake at what I am seeing in Salvador: it would put an end to all his doubts.’
Canudos is the revolution he’s been waiting for. But it isn’t the first he’s participated in:
One of the things he prided himself on was the fact that he had fought, from March to May of 1871, with the communards of Paris for the freedom of humanity and had personally witnessed the genocide of thirty thousand men, women, and children at the hands of Theirs’s forces.
Ignoring that the massacre of the Paris Commune will soon repeat itself in Canudos, he accepts the editor’s mission to take the guns there. As he explains in an article he sends to a revolutionary magazine in France, L’Etincelle de la révolte, Canudos represents everything he’s been searching for:
Is there not something in all of this that sounds familiar to you? Is it not as though certain fundamental ideas of our revolution were being put into practice in Canudos? Free love, free paternity, the disappearance of the infamous line that is drawn between legitimate and illegitimate offspring, the conviction that man inherits neither dignity nor ignominy.
The solemn Gall, however, can’t imagine that the lofty life he pursues will run into collision with a threat taken from a soap opera: a vengeful husband trying to restore his lost honour. Practising sexual abstinence all his life to store up energy for his revolutionary efforts, Gall, by reasons he later can’t explain, rapes Jurema, the wife of Rufino, his guide. With her honour lost, Jurema follows Gall in tow as he rides to Canudos, knowing that Rufino won’t stop pursuing them until he’s killed both and restored his honour. In Rufino’s code of machismo the fact that she was raped means nothing.
Gall, for his part, doesn’t spend much time caring about her feelings either and can barely bring himself to find remorse. He regrets breaking his vow of chastity, of course, of losing his control when the revolution needs all his concentration, but in regards to the act itself he rationalises it thus:
He thought of Jurema. Was she a thinking being? A little domestic animal, rather. Diligent, submissive, capable of believing that statues of St. Anthony escape from churches and return to the grottoes where they were carved; trained like the baron’s other female servants to care for chickens and sheep, to prepare her husband’s food, to wash his clothes, and to open her legs only for him. He thought: ‘Perhaps she’ll be roused from her lethargy now and discover injustice.’ He thought: ‘I’m your injustice.’ He thought: ‘Perhaps you’ve done her a service.’
Gall’s subplot is one of my favourites in because it shows how the important and mundane depend on perspective and how the most idealistic, the most romantic, can also be the most callous of people. For Gall Jurema is unimportant, what matters is to get to Canudos, to fight and die for Mankind. Rufino thinks the opposite. His revenge blinds him to the revolution. Vargas Llosa shows, with understated irony, two ways of looking at life: we can look at the trees or at the forest. Gall sees the big picture but ignores the ordinary aspects of life. Rufino, who lived all his life as a hired hand for rich landowners, who, for his loyal service to the Baron of Canabrava, received Jurema as a reward, as if she were an object, fails to see the forces, social, political and religious, that have shaped his life and that have contributed to the creation of Canudos.
Gall never arrives in Canudos and Vargas Llosa leaves to the reader the task of imagining if he would have been disillusioned or not. After all, Gall wanted the liberation of Man from all shackles, including religion. Canudos was a religious community. Would he have adjusted? I anxiously waited for the arrival of the moment of irony when Gall would realise his inability to adjust to Canudos, and even though this moment never came I think he would have found that community a disappointment and not another Paris Commune.
But others disagree. “It was the realm of obscurantism, and at the same time a world of brotherhood, of a very special sort of freedom,” says a journalist who witnesses the war of Canudos and who speaks these words to the Baron of Canabrava in a conversation about Gall. “Perhaps he wouldn’t have been all that disappointed.”
This journalist, who remains nameless, is another piece in the puzzle called Canudos. A homage to and a parody of Euclides da Cunha, the journalist, a nearsighted, cowardly, drug-taking, whore-mongering man initially working for Epaminondas Gonçalves’ newspaper, travels with the expeditionary force, thinking, like everyone else, that a monarchist conspiracy exists. It’s only when he returns from the frontline, after having spent months in Canudos in the company of the jagunços, after getting separated from the soldiers, that he sets about to write the truth about Canudos. “It seems like a conspiracy in which everyone played a role, (…) a total misunderstanding on the part of all concerned, from beginning to end.”
In Canudos the journalist fins no foreign conspiracy to restore the monarchy in Brazil; no British guns; no foreigners giving orders, like some believed or invented. He meets the wretched and the poor, the freed slaves, freaks, priests, bandits and murderers turned into saints, and prostitutes turned into reputable women, all living in brotherhood. People driven by squalor, poverty, misery and disease into a community where everyone is equal, everyone works but everyone is happy because everyone shares and everyone has the same cause. Miserable people who prefer to fight rather than run for their lives. “It requires total conviction,” the journalist says about their armed resistance. “Profound, complete certainty...”
How then does this little town scare the Republic into eradicating it? Being himself a piece of the puzzle he can’t see the finished picture, but he intuits the strangeness of the situation. Frenzied masses of people become barbaric and violent with the idea of a monarchist revolt. People connoted as monarchists are haunted and murdered, their houses burned, their property stolen.
“Logical and rational that the mob should pour out into the streets to destroy newspaper offices,” he asks, “to attack private houses, to murder people unable to point out on a map where Canudos is located, because a handful of fanatics thousands of kilometres away defeated an expeditionary force? That’s logical and rational?”
He nevertheless fails to realise just how certain individuals use Canudos for political purposes, how propaganda created an atmosphere of fear and how journalists like him helped create it. Such insight is left only for the Baron and his private circle; they realise not only that their power is fading away but also that the Republic’s threat is not Canudos but the atmosphere of fear which empowers the army, especially Colonel Moreira César, a fanatical Republican:
“It’s as plain as day what their plan is,” says a monarchist to the Baron. “Canudos is the pretext for their man to earn even more glory and prestige. Moreira César crushes a monarchist conspiracy. Moreira César saves the Republic! Isn’t that the best possible proof that only the army can guarantee the safety of the nation? So the army is swept into power, and it’s the Dictatorial Republic.”
The editor’s conspiracy, however, has undesired effects. The arrival of the army in Bahia becomes disatrous: first of all, the war lasts longer than expected, which cripples the region’s economy. Secondly the army, to maintain itself, resorts to pillaging haciendas. In short Bahia endures a military reign of terror. Readers of J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians will recall a similar situation in which the army is called to defend the distant outpost from the barbarians and ends up abusing the citizens with impunity and arrogance in the name of freedom and security. If there’s one theme from Vargas Llosa’ novel that is more relevant than ever, this is it.
The War of the End of the World is a novelisation of real events, with a healthy dose of invention, whose outcome anyone can learn about on the internet. It tries to explain a complex event using the tools of the novel form, and the result is a panoramic look at a country on the verge of a major social upheaval. Vargas Llosa is a great stylist as the intertwined narratives moving intricately back and forth in time, manipulating the story’s suspense, can attest to; he’s also a psychologist whose understanding of human behaviour allows him to create complex individuals. His characters, animated by political, social, religious and personal forces, live dramas that, like a 19th century novel, contain the whole of the human condition: the majestic, the ordinary and the absurd. If we read novels in order to understand, reading Vargas Llosa gets one closer to understanding the world, others and perhaps even ourselves.