In 1903, six years after the siege of Canudos (1897), the Brazilian engineer and journalist Euclides da Cunha, one of the two people to whom The War of the End of the World is dedicated, published Os Sertões: Campanha de Canudos, translated by Samuel Putnam as Rebellion in the Backlands, 1944. In Cunha’s epoch-making work, called by some the Bible of Brazilian literature, are all of the facts from which Mario Vargas Llosa weaves his fiction: the charismatic leadership and revolutionary preaching of Antonio Conselheiro, the establishment of a bizarre millenarian community in the backlands (os sertões) of northern Brazil, the military campaigns to suppress the anti-Republican community of converted bandits and outlaws, and the opposition of Brazil’s two major political forces (monarchist and republican) in a country that had recently become a republic. Vargas Llosa molds the scientific, geographical, and sociological elements of Cunha’s classic text into a highly wrought narrative of revolution, religion, love, honor, and political expediency which has enduring implications not only for Brazil but also for his native Peru, of which he has written much in recent years concerning the Maoist revolutionary movement el sendero luminoso (the shining path). Vargas Llosa departs from the main outline of historical facts in few particulars, mostly in the introduction of new characters and in the fleshing out of several historical figures that Cunha mentions briefly; when he does so he is careful to preserve an authentic and precise background against which to set his impressive array of characters and their concerns.
At the novel’s core is the journalist’s attempt, and the author’s attempt, to make sense of a surprising cultural and political revolution that pitted a band of fanatical true believers against the military strength of the Brazilian Republic, which represented to them the coming of the Antichrist foretold in the Book of Revelation. Those who choose to join the elect at Canudos are subjected to an unusual scrutiny aimed at discovering their orthodoxy and purity of belief in several contexts. Candidates for political and spiritual refuge at Canudos are not necessarily bound to renounce Satan, his works, and his pomps; instead, they must renounce the Antichrist, the Republic, the expulsion of the Emperor, the newfangled separation of Church and State, civil marriage, the metric system, and the census questions. The revolutionaries’ singleness of purpose goes far toward explaining their otherwise inexplicable success at rebuffing the forays of the well-organized Republican army against the revolutionaries’ stronghold in Canudos. The strength of their singlemindedness and its danger to the young republic may also account for the severity of their eventual destruction, a devastation of apocalyptic proportions as final as the destruction of Carthage in Livy’s chronicles: No one remains alive in the stronghold; few escape; and no brick is left upon another. So threatening is the community and its rebellion that one thing is clear about the journalist’s attempts to record the history of Canudos: No one wants to hear the truth and the details about the uprising, and all would wish the incident forgotten.
The journalist does not care that the political establishment would wish Canudos consigned to oblivion. His own passion for the truth about the community, about the Counselor and his followers, carries him forward to explore the political motivations of the Republicans and Monarchists and their complicated machinations to use the Counselor and his community to their own advantage, in plots which include implicating such improbable allies as the British Empire and the Roman Catholic Church in aiding the rebels. The journalist’s shuttling back and forth across Brazil and through time as he describes his own impressions—impressions that are blurred about the siege of Canudos, since he lost his glasses there—and collects the impressions of others unifies the majority of the work. As he exclaims at one point, Canudos is filled with stories: These stories form the basis of his and of Vargas Llosa’s accounts.
The telling of these stories through highly individualized characters is one of the novel’s great strengths. Vargas Llosa uses expert description and analysis, an accumulation of physical and psychological details, and direct, realistic dialogue to make his work a credible and forceful reflection of life in nineteenth century Brazil and of the lives of his highly wrought characters. The Counselor himself is, expectedly, the focus of considerable interest, and Vargas Llosa succeeds in giving him...
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