In Brazil’s northeast territories there’s a semi-arid region, stretching across states like Bahia, Pernambuco, and Minas Gerais, where rain falls three to four months during the year, but droughts can also last from three to seven years. Its isolated populations are chronically afflicted with famine, poverty and unemployment. This inhospitable region is called the sertão, etymologically derived from the Portuguese word desertão, big desert, and in English it’s frequently translated as backlands. In Brazilian literature and imagination this place has achieve mythical qualities. I’m going to try to explain why.
There’s nothing sillier and more irresponsible than making sweeping generalizations about something one knows very little about. It happens, however, that I’ve read in a very short time a handful of Brazilian novels that, without my intention, seem to constitute a subgenre within Brazilian literature. To keep it simple, I’ve dubbed this subgenre the literature of the sertão. This subgenre is written by writers who hail from Bahia, Minas Gerais and the other states that contain the sprawling sertão. Its main features include gunfights and violence; the main setting is the sertão, although it can be metaphorically transplanted to other spaces; the main character is the jagunço, a word for the armed bandit who terrorizes the byways of the sertão, but also the bodyguard of the coronéis, the rich land-owners who use these tough, taciturn men of action as private armies in political conflicts. Main themes include loyalty, honour, bravery, for the jagunço is old-fashioned and romantic in his moral values, like most thugs and ruffians tend to be; but also themes like the clash of civilization and primitivism, city and countryside, law and anarchy, plus utopianism, modernization and political corruption.
I first started putting this notion together when I began comparing some novels written by Jorge Amado, João Ubaldo Ribeiro and João Guimarães Rosa and found recurrent themes in them. To the novels we could also add some poems by João Cabral de Melo Neto and Carlos Drummond, who have sung of the sertão’s flora and fauna and its inhabitant, the grave sertanejo. Now if my premise has any substance behind it, I think we can trace this subgenre’s foundation to a book by journalist Euclides da Cunha – Os Sertões: Campanha de Canudos. Ironically Euclides had been born far away from the sertão. In English this book is known as Rebellion in the Backlands and, in a more recent translation from Penguin, as Backlands: The Canudos Campaign.
Euclides’ book is mainly concerned with the War of Canudos, a civil war that occurred from 1896 to 1897 in a part of the sertão within the state of Bahia. This catastrophic event, we could argue, forms the basis of the literature of the sertão and reappears in it, transformed, under different guises. As a war correspondent for the newspaper O Estado de S. Paulo, in 1897 Euclides travelled into the sertão, to the front where thousands of soldiers had been holding a small town under siege for months, and he stayed there almost until the tragic conclusion. Returning to Rio de Janeiro, he laboured on his book for five years before it came out to extraordinary reviews, making him into one of Brazil’s most important men of letters overnight. But Os Sertões was more than reportage. It is a totalising book, one of those rare books that contains all the sciences and areas of human knowledge, a broad-ranging tome that discusses geography, geology, botany, politics, history, sociology, biology, anthropology, economics, war, theology, even mythopoeism. It’s also literature in the grand tradition of Homer and Tolstoy, narrating past history and heroic feats of war. It’s considered Brazil’s national epic and a treatise on Brazilian identity, for the attention Euclides gave to the sertanejo. It’s also a dark, apocalyptic narrative. Published in 1902, the same year Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness came out, I believe without hesitation that the Brazilian classic shows a more chilling descent into total horror, barbarism, carnage, and paints a more urgent warning against the dangers of idolatry.
Now before I try to argue for the influence of the Os Sertões on a subset of 20th century Brazilian literature, some facts about the War of Canudos are in order. In the 1870s a preacher emerged in the sertão. Official documents of the time already knew him by the name history would remember him: António Conselheiro. The Counsellor had long hair and beard, wore a dark wool tunic, and was a gaunt, mummy-like figure who ate very little and always travelled accompanied by followers, praying with him in their wanderings. Although the sertão was no stranger to prophets, mystics, and seers, the Counsellor managed to exert a strange, powerful influence on the sertanejos: they gathered around him to hear him speak, and many abandoned their ordinary lives to follow him. The local clergy disliked him and was his first opponent. As early as 1882 the Archbishop of Bahia had taken notice of him and of his “excessively rigid moral,” and had made efforts to warn the authorities of this preacher’s danger to authority. António Conselheiro barely avoided being committed to a madhouse in Rio de Janeiro; lack of room dissuaded authorities from acting.
The Counsellor started his messianic career during a period of transition in Brazilian history. In 1822 Brazil had declared independence from Portugal but remained an empire until 1889, the year in which it finally became a republic, although the first governments were military dictatorships. António Conselheiro opposed the republic and hurled invectives at its new laws and on the matter of laicism and censuses. Since the end of the 1880s he had also been prophesying the end of the world, the republic being a sign that the end was nigh. The Counsellor’s strange brand of mysticism predicted the return of D. Sebastião, a Portuguese king who in 1578 disappeared in a Moroccan city called Ksar el Kebir, putting an end to his ill-fated crusade to convert North Africa to Christian faith. D. Sebastião’s death marked Portugal’s decline, leaving the country in a crisis of heirs – only 24 years old, and allegedly homosexual, he didn’t leave the Queen pregnant before sailing to Africa – and that resulted in the kingdom being ruled by the Spanish Philips (the Filipes from Carlos Fuentes’ Terra Nostra). In popular culture, D. Sebastião became a mystical figure, ironically the saviour who would one day return to steer Portugal in the direction of glory once more. Centuries later the Counsellor latched onto this myth and told his followers that the ancient king would come back to lead them in the final war against the Antichrist, personified by the republic.
The Counsellor and his sectarians started making preparations to gain entrance in paradise. In 1893 they settled in Canudos, a muddy, desolate valley next to a river deep in the hinterlands. There they started building houses and a church. The settlement grew quickly in size. The Counsellor’s words attracted people from every corner of sertão. The republic had finally abolished slavery in Brazil and the sertão’s byways and roads were teeming with freed slaves and unemployed workers. To them the preacher’s messages offered guidance and comfort. Families sold their houses and belongings and travelled in droves to join this new community. There they lived under a form of communism, without private property and sharing everything, and also practised free love. Canudos also attracted many jagunços, who became the Counsellor’s personal guard and the enforcers of authority. These jagunços also directed raids on local farms and towns, which made the surrounding authorities wary of Canudos.
The final cause that provoked the war, however, was absurd in its smallness. Around October 1896, the Counsellor had ordered a quantity of timber from the town of Juazeiro for repairing the church. But the business was conducted with a local judge who had past grievances to settle with António Conselheiro: once he had been scared out of a town by his followers. So to get even he withheld the shipment of timber to Canudos, and then started spreading rumours that the jagunços were going to attack Juazeiro to reclaim it by force. The government replied to his appeals by sending soldiers to disband the settlement. Overly confident but badly equipped to travel 200 kilometres through the sertão, the military expedition was attacked halfway through by Canudos men, who had been warned in advanced of their coming. Instead of disbanding in terror, these fanatics, their heads filled with stories about the end of the world and the final war between Good and Evil, marched into battle like crusaders in a holy war, singing, praying and shouting the name of Jesus Christ. The soldiers were not ready for the fierce resistance they put up, and were violently repelled. Although only ten men died on the regiment’s side, against some 150 casualties on Canudos’, the officer in charge called the retreat. And when they returned to Juazeiro four days later, covered in blood, wearing rags, maimed and famished, “the telegraph lines transmitted to the whole country the prelude of the war in the backlands…”
At the time many Brazilian believed Canudos was part of a royalist conspiracy to overthrow the young republic and restore the monarchy. According to popular belief, Canudos was preparing a rebellion with the help of foreign powers. Perhaps these fanciful rumours were just orchestrated to justify the existence of the military dictatorship. Maybe these concerns were heartfelt. Be as it may, the threat Canudos represented was greatly exaggerated in the press and the popular imagination, resulting in national hysteria and panic.
For the young republic, Canudos posed a challenge that threatened to revert its social progress. In fact most failed to understand what motivated the Counsellor and his acolytes. They tried to find modern reasons for the rebellion, but, as Euclides defended, Canudos was a break with the modern world, and its mentality unintelligible to the politicians who feared a monarchist plot. Thinking they were dealing with ordinary rebels or criminals, and not religious fanatics, they never realized the spiritual value Canudos had to these people – for them it was holy ground, New Jerusalem. Threatened, instead of running away, the acolytes entrenched themselves and literally fought to the last man, prolonging the war for more than a year and nearly bankrupting Brazil, which had to finance and organize three more expeditionary forces before Canudos was completely exterminated in October 1897. On the final day of the war, the fanatics were reduced to four men, firing away with rudimentary muskets at five thousand soldiers equipped with the most advanced firearms and artillery at the time.
The War of Canudos was a calamity that claimed some 30,000 lives. What it did to the Brazilian psyche can never be fully ascertained, but it can’t be denied that it left an indelible mark on the imagination of the Baianos. From then on the sertão would remain a place of violence and thwarted utopian aspirations, ideas that literature has appropriated ever since. Novels in line with this tendency include Jorge Amado’s Showdown (1984) and João Ubaldo Ribeiro’s O Feitiço da Ilha do Pavão (The Peacock Island Spell, 1997). Amado’s novel narrates the birth and destruction of a town called Tocaia Grande. Tocaia Grande begins as a settlement founded by a jagunço called Natário Fonseca, on lands he receives as reward for his loyalty to a local coronel (in Brazilian Portuguese, the word coronel means both the military rank and owner of large farming estates) during a war for control of the sertão. Tocaia Grande begins as a stop for plantation workers and prostitutes. But in time it attracts businessmen, respectable families, artisans, until it becomes a real community based on cooperation and freedom, a corner of peace and civilization inside the violent sertão. Then a jealous coronel accuses the people of Tocaia Grande of trespassing private property and uses his political influence to get the army to expel them, resulting in a final massacre. The similarities with the fate of Canudos are more than obvious.
Peacock Island is no less utopian than Tocaia Grande. The novel does not take place in the sertão, but on a magical island off the coast of Bahia (a key state), a remote, secluded place where prostitutes, Indians, freed slaves, Europeans and Brazilians work together to create a new society that does not have the vices of Europe and the rest of Brazil in terms of slavery, class difference and authoritarianism. Like Canudos and Tocaia Grande, Peacock Island is in danger from the forces of authoritarianism and conservatism. Peacock Island also reserves for itself a sense of exceptionalism, more progressive, more open-minded, than the rest of Brazil behind the high cliffs that hide the island from the world. Another theme in these novels is the wide gap between the rich and the poor, especially of the sertão’s poor forever being at the mercy of the powerful.
The irony of Tocaia Grande and Peacock Island is that Canudos was not a utopia at all. A missionary who stayed in the settlement in 1895 counted eight to nine deaths every day, from famine, sickness, and poor living conditions. People lived in abject poverty. Although the acolytes lived in freedom in some matters – free love was permitted there – and in communion of goods, law-breakers were punished with the death penalty by jagunços who enforced the Counsellor’s authoritarian regime. In hindsight, Canudos may sound like a history of underdogs, a romantic undercurrent feeding the novels of Amado and Ribeiro, but the Counsellor himself had more to do with Reverend Jim Jones, and Canudos was but a precursor of the Waco siege. “Canudos, filthy antechamber of Paradise,” that’s how Euclides described it. At best the Counsellor was a benevolent tyrant. However none of this matters in the hour of forging myths. Like Canudos, Tocaia Grande becomes famous for its licentiousness, and Peacock Island becomes a haven for freed slaves and the birthplace of a modern, democratic conscience. If not themes, then whole episodes are transplanted from history to fiction. The Capuchin priest who stayed in Canudos in 1895, trying to establish a mission, often reappears in the novels of the sertão. This religious man was alarmed at the state the people there lived in, lawless, like animals, amidst filth. He gained an audience with António Conselheiro, and was surprised to see him protected by armed men. “It is for my safety that I have these armed men, because Your Excellency will know that the police attacked me and wanted to kill me in the place called Massete, where there were deaths on one and the other side. In the time of the monarchy I let myself be arrested because I recognized the government, nowadays no, because I don’t recognise the Republic.” The Capuchin priest received permission to formalise marriages, conduct funerals and baptisms, and to preach in the new church. But in his sermons he exhorted the people to abandon Canudos. At the same time the Counsellor started a disinformation campaign against him, scaring his followers with tell-tales that the priest was going to bring the army to Canudos, arrest António Conselheiro and kill everyone else. In no time the missionary was expelled. Dissidence was not tolerated there. What this shows, along with the Archbishop of Bahia’s attempt in 1882 to have the Counsellor committed, is that the church was his first enemy. The priest who opposes utopia in the sertão and is synonymous with law and order, instead of natural innocence, goes by different names in the novels: Father Zygmunt von Gotteshammer, Father Theun and Father Tertuliano, who tries to reinstate the Inquisition in Peacock Island. Even Grande Sertão: Veredas (1955), a novel that doesn’t wear the myth of Canudos so plainly, has an episode narrating how a missionary berates a prostitute during a mass, echoing the uneasy relationship between the pious populace and the clergymen of the other novels.
The jagunço is another mainstay of the literature of the sertão. He’s in Showdown and Grande Sertão: Veredas, and although he’s not in O Feitiço da Ilha Pavão, he shows up in another Ribeiro novel, Sergeant Getúlio (1971). The jagunço was already part of the sertão before Canudos, but Euclides da Cunha’s book was the first great narrative to put him under the spotlight. João Guimarães Rosa’s Grande Sertão: Veredas is the definitive book of the jagunço, a novel fully narrated by a former jagunço, Riobaldo, now an old man talking to a nameless listener of his life as an armed man roaming the byways with other bandits. Throughout the novel Riobaldo fulfils many roles that show the tension between order and lawlessness in the sertão. First he rides with a posse working for the government, fighting other jagunços in order to bring stability to the region. Then he joins a group of bandits; and finally he heads a group that chases a traitor that killed their beloved leader. The jagunço is the repository of romantic ideals like loyalty and courage, and the sertão is a backward corner that needs to be civilized by force. These concepts, already elaborated in Euclides’ book, reappear in the novels. In Showdown the justification to wipe out Tocaia Grande is that bandits have occupied the lands of a coronel. Peacock Island is also the setting of a small-scale civil war when a reactionary party asks outside help to quell a rebellion of Indians. Then we have Sergeant Getúlio, a novel that is all about the violence of the sertão and its dynamic politics. In the novel, Getúlio, a violent military police sergeant, is tasked with escorting a political prisoner across Bahia. During the journey, Getúlio has to defend himself from his followers. Halfway through, political circumstances change and Getúlio is ordered to release the prisoner. But the violent jagunço ignores and marches on. Getúlio only obeys orders from Acrísio Nunes, the politician he owes everything to. Since he does not receive the orders from Nunes himself, Getúlio carries on, eventually having to defend himself from the police and Nunes’ own jagunços. If Tocaia Grande influenced Peacock Island, it could be said that Getúlio influenced Natário Fonseca.
Os Sertões and later Grande Sertão: Veredas established the sertão as a sort of Brazilian Wild West, in need of law and order and in a slow process of modernization through armed violence by men riding horses who come into town to kill criminals. They’re very much like cowboy movies. At the same time the books have something of the frontier, the virgin territory where free men can start a new life. Frequently these two views of the sertão clash. There is also a considerable difference from the American Wild West. In the American myth the community is terrorised by an outlaw and needs an honourable hero, a sheriff, to deliver it from tyranny. In the more sceptical Brazilian literature, authority is corrupt and modernization is just a sham to intrude upon people’s freedom. The Counsellor, let us remember, originally railed against the republic when it started taking censuses of the sertanejos. A curious exception in American literature is a short-story by Nathaniel Hawthorne, "The Maypole of Merry Mount," exactly a tale about a happy community in the early days of American history overtaken by a gloomy, oppressive posse of Puritans led by John Endecott.
I will discuss all these books more in depth in the coming days. What I hope to have made clear is that Euclides da Cunha’s book has been an unavoidable influence on Brazilian literature. Its sphere of influence extends even beyond Brazil. For me Mario Vargas Llosa’s The War of the End of the World is probably the best achievement of this subgenre I made up, perfectly integrating all the themes I list above in one single epic novel. Even so, nothing substitutes reading the one and only Os Sertões: Campanha de Canudos, an inexhaustible narrative of war, death, faith and madness.