It’s always so gratifying when I read an old novel that illuminates a point about or reveals a new nuance of a modern novel. On page 979 of War and Peace I suddenly realized how Leo Tolstoy had clearly influenced Mario Vargas Llosa’s The War of the End of the World. There’s nothing particular or remarkable about that page or anything that connects the two, it was just the moment where a flash in my brain occurred and I thought to myself, “Now wait a minute!” So I quickly wrote Mario Vargas Llosa on the top margin of the page.
The two novels obviously have many similarities. They’re both historical fiction regarding famous military campaigns: Tolstoy wrote of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia; Vargas Llosa of a Brazilian civil war, the War of Canudos. They dramatize real-life people: Tolstoy turns Napoleon into one of its most fascinating characters; Vargas Llosa brings the prophet Antonio Conselheiro to terrifying life. They shift between an omniscient vision of the events and an intimate portrayal of the characters. But what really struck me is that they’re both commentaries on historical methodology, on the philosophy of history.
Beginning with Book Three, Tolstoy starts writing about history as a field of study, about how history should be done, and how impossible it is for men to make long-term plans, why military planning never works, and how much of the meaning and causes of historical events only make sense in hindsight, after a certain narrative has been created and the facts cherry-picked and edited to fit the narrative, how too many imponderables exist and how easily million other facts and decisions that contradict the grand narrative are ignored because they don’t fit anywhere in the narrative.
Regarding the causes of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, Tolstoy asks:
What produced this extraordinary occurrence? What were its causes? The historians tell us with naïve assurance that its causes were the wrongs inflicted on Duke of Oldenburg, the non-observance of the Continental System, the ambition of Napoleon, the firmness of Alexander, the mistakes of diplomats, and so on.
Consequently it would have only have been necessary for Metternich, Rumyantsev, or Talleyrand, between a levee and an evening party, to have taken proper pains and written a more adroit note, or for Napoleon to have written to Alexander: ‘Monsieur, mon frère, je consens à rendre le duché au duc d’Oldenburg’ – and there would have been no war.
We can understand that the matter seemed that way to contemporaries. It naturally seemed to Napoleon that the war was caused by England’s intrigues (as in fact he said on the island of St Helena). It naturally seemed to members of the English Parliament that the cause of the war was Napoleon’s ambition; to the Duke of Oldenburg that cause of the war was the violence done to him; to businessmen that the cause of the war was the Continental System which was ruining Europe; to the generals and old soldiers that the chief reason for the war was the necessity of giving them employment; to the legitimists of that day that it was the need of re-establishing les bons principles, and to the diplomatists of that time that it all resulted from the fact that the alliance between Russia and Austria in 1809 had not been sufficiently well concealed Napoleon, and from the awkward wording of Memorandum No. 178. It is natural that these and a countless and infinite quantity of other reasons, the number depending on the endless diversity of points of view, presented themselves to the men of that day; but to us, to posterity who view the thing that happened in all its magnitude and perceive its plain and terrible meaning, these causes seem insufficient.
Tolstoy sees history not as a series of events, of causes and effects, of great men who exert their willpower on life, but as a system, an impersonal process without a teleological end. “History, that is, the unconscious, general, swarm-life of mankind, uses every moment of the life of rulers as a tool for its own purposes.” To him even the Tsar, and Napoleon, especially Napoleon, is “history’s slave.” His essaystic passages are some of the finest I’ve ever read on free will and determinism.
Mario Vargas Llosa does not resort to essayism to think about the events of Canudos but uses a series of conversations between the Baron de Canabrava and the near-sighted journalist (homage to Euclides da Cunha, a correspondent who witnessed and immortalized Canudos in his non-fiction classic Backlands: The Canudos Campaign). The War of Canudos started in the final years of the 19th century, in the arid backlands of Brazil, when a mystic preaching the end of the world called Antonio Conselheiro and his followers, the jagunços, crashed head on against the government which thought he was preparing a monarchist uprising, secretly plotted by the British. Conselheiro and his dozens of thousands of followers settled on a place called Canudos to prepare themselves for the end of the world; they did not recognize the authority of the state, which the mystic considered the minions of the Antichrist. After priests and local businessmen issued complaints against them, a military excursion was sent to kick them out. But the followers, convinced by their spiritual guide that the final war between good and evil was coming, and declaring Canudos a holy place, repelled the first incursion, and it took three more, over several years, and only the annihilation of every jagunço put an end to the settlement. Although not as magnificent as the Napoleonic Wars, it’s an event that left deep marks in the Brazilian psyche and provoked much hysteria and misunderstanding over the causes and motives that led to the war. The conversation between the Baron de Canabrava, a wealthy landlord ruined by the war, and the near-sighted journalist occurs in the last section of the novel (curiously, it has four parts like War and Peace) after his return from the siege. Living with the jagunços for months, he gained a clearer picture of the events and so starts questioning the official narrative of the events. He tells the Baron that after returning he “started going to the Reading Room of the Academy of History.”
“To look through the papers, all the news items about Canudos. The Jornal da Notícias, the Diário de Bahia, O Republicano. I’ve read everything written about it, everything I wrote. It’s something… difficult to put into words. Too unreal, do you follow me? It seems like a conspiracy in which everyone played a role, a total misunderstanding on the part of all concerned, from beginning to end.”
He no longer believes the things he wrote. In the words above we can see echoes of Tolstoy’s views of history as an impersonal, meaningless process where everyone involuntary plays a role, even those who believe they’re in control of it, like Napoleon.
There’s a difference, of course: Tolstoy was defending the impossibility of ascertaining the true causes of any historical event, given the infinite chain of events stretching back and time and the million coeval factors that condition each era. Vargas Llosa, through the journalist, is specifically talking about the much more modern topic of the power of the media to create narratives, although Tolstoy already also warns of the journalists who ‘lead the masses.’
“They could see and yet they didn’t see,” the near-sighted journalist says of the press correspondents, of which he was one, sent to cover the news in Canudos. “All they saw was what they’d come to see. Even if there was no such thing there. It wasn’t just one or two of them. They all found glaring proof of a British-monarchist conspiracy. How to explain that?”
There was no real British conspiracy, of course. In the novel this is concocted by a newspaper editor who wants to turn the war into a pretext to eradicate the final monarchists in the Bahia region, of which the Baron de Canabrava was one. Even though this is artistic license by Vargas Llosa, Brazil was a young Republic and the memory of the monarchy was still present. The fear of a monarchist uprising much contributed to blowing the events out of proportion and to obfuscating the real causes. Rumors, misunderstandings, backstage politics and paranoia replaced objectivity. Euclides da Cunha first attempted a new interpretation of the events, touching on the socio-economical inequalities between each side, but one wonders what Tolstoy would have thought of that.
“Canudos isn’t a story; it’s a tree of stories,” the journalist says, reminiscent of what Tolstoy calls the “endless diversity of points of view“ that constitutes so much of history. Since the Enlightenment the social sciences, of which history is a field, have tried to attain the respect of the natural sciences, objective and verifiable. Although history doesn’t work like that, many have tried to attribute laws to it, to turn it into a scientific instrument. Although this makes Tolstoy look like a voice of the Counter-Enlightenment, I think Tolstoy was rather a Romantic in outlook, subjective in nature, in one word a novelist, suspicious of great narratives that simplify the complexity of human existence, more interested in the bustle of ordinary life than in the will of great men, and I like to think his spirit lives on in Mario Vargas Llosa.