(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Using the epoch-making historical work of Euclides da Cunha, Os sertões (1902; Rebellion in the Backlands, 1944), Vargas Llosa re-creates the turbulent events of late nineteenth century Brazil in a novel of revolution that has a clear relationship to the continuing history of revolt in Latin America as exemplified in the Maoist el sendero luminoso of his native Peru. As he elaborates the facts and biases of Cunha’s “Bible of Brazilian Nationality,” he follows the career of the millenarian preacher Antonio Conselhiero, his sectarian community at Canudos in the backlands of northern Brazil, the military campaigns to destroy the anti-Republican stronghold of the Counselor’s followers, and the political intrigues of the monarchists and Republicans in a newly independent Brazil. When he departs from Cunha’s social history, he carefully maintains a fidelity to the historical details and backgrounds against which his characters act.

Like much late twentieth century fiction, the novel is, in part, a work about writing. The efforts of the unnamed Nearsighted Journalist, likely modeled on Cunha himself, to whom the novel is dedicated, to explore, record, and explain the facts and hypotheses of a revolt doomed to failure, are central to the plot. The Journalist is, himself, caught up in the campaign against Canudos and becomes a questionable eyewitness to the events (he lost his eyeglasses there). As the Journalist encounters each of the figures whose exploits and intentions he will later seek to note, classify, and explain, so Vargas...

(The entire section is 643 words.)