Rebellion in the Backlands is not fiction but rather a factual account of an actual historical event. The event—a rebellion led by a charismatic religious fanatic against the federal government of Brazil—might have sunk into obscurity but for Cunha’s account, which does not merely report the event but also defines and interprets its significance. As a result, Rebellion in the Backlands has been called Brazil’s national epic, and its influence on Brazilian fiction—indeed, South American fiction—has been substantial. The work itself, with its plot buildup, might be said to anticipate the so-called nonfiction novel of later decades.
Cunha does not, however, begin with plot but with extensive essays on the land and the people of the backlands region. Taking up approximately one third of the book and covering geography, geology, rainfall, flora and fauna, race, ethnology, psychology, and other subjects, these two long essays are burdened by outdated nineteenth century theories of environmental influence and race. Cunha draws a daunting picture of the hot, rugged, semidesert sertão, periodically stricken by killing droughts, and speculates that the sertanejo’s personality has been formed by this harsh environment and by his mixed racial heritage (white, black, and Indian). Whereas the admixture of “superior” and “inferior” racial stocks (as Cunha expresses it) has resulted in universal “degeneration” along the Brazilian seaboard, the sertanejo, through isolation in his primitive backlands environment, has become “a retrograde, not a degenerate, type.” He is physically robust but morally backward. The sertanejo’s atavistic tendencies are superbly represented by his undying devotion to the religious fanatic Antonio Conselheiro, himself a spiritualized version of the backlands mentality. In the sertanejo’s simple view, “Anthony the Counselor” is a backlands saint.
These long introductory essays serve to romanticize the subject matter, to set the stage for the narrative of the rebellion. The introductions make clear that the underlying causes of the conflict are cultural differences between the isolated backlands and the developed seaboard. These cultural differences first cause religious friction between the established Catholic Church and Antonio Conselheiro. Later, the Counselor begins preaching against the recently established Brazilian Republic (proclaimed in 1889), whose new taxes and new laws regarding civil marriage and the like offend him. The Counselor’s idea of proper government is a vague theocracy, ruled by the law of God rather than civil law. He and his followers label the republic an Antichrist, call its laws “the law of the hound,” and rip down its tax notices.
In 1893, a contingent of thirty Bahian policemen comes after the Counselor for preaching insurrection. They catch up with him in Massete, where his band routs them in a shoot-out. Another contingent of eighty soldiers turns back when the Counselor fades into the forbidding backlands. The die now cast, Antonio Conselheiro and his followers withdraw to distant, inaccessible Canudos, where they establish their theocracy and military stronghold. Actually, it is a fairly inadequate theocracy, since the motley backlands population rallying to Canudos includes not only thousands of the religiously devout but also hordes of bandits, who raid the surrounding countryside. Despite such depredations and the Counselor’s growing power, the government leaves...
(The entire section is 1448 words.)