This section contains 6,574 words
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Critical Essay by Sara Castro-Klarén
SOURCE: "Cinematography and The War of the End of the World," in Understanding Mario Vargas Llosa, University of South Carolina Press, 1990, 247 p.
Castro-Klarén is a Peruvian-born educator specializing in Latin American literature. In the following excerpt, she studies the plot of The War of the End of the World, comparing Vargas Llosa's narrative to Euclides da Cunha's Os sertões (1903), on which it is based.
In many of the interviews given by Mario Vargas Llosa since the publication of his first novel, The Time of the Hero, he has freely spoken of himself as a dedicated and voracious movie fan and of the influence that cinema has had on his narrative strategies. [In "The Green House: Formal Experimentation and Marginal Territories" in my Understanding Mario Vargas Llosa, Luis A. Diez and I have] endeavored to show how many of Vargas Llosa's narrative innovations are closely linked to the speed and montage of cinematographic narrative. His interest in the melodramatic side of Mexican blockbuster movies has also been documented in the truculent and even grotesque configuration of the characters and stories of Captain Pantoja and the Special Service and Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter.
In 1973 the Brazilian movie director Rui Guerra was planning to make a film based on the classical Brazilian essay Os Sertões (1903 [Rebellion in the Backlands, 1944]), by Euclides da Cunha. Rui Guerra asked Mario Vargas Llosa to read the voluminous historical essay on the civil war that plagued northeastern Brazil during the last decade of the nineteenth century and to write a script for a screen version. So, as he had previously done in preparation for writing and creating jungle scenarios for The Green House, Vargas Llosa traveled to the backlands of northeastern Brazil. He read widely about its history, its flora and fauna. In the backlands of Bahia he met the local folk, spoke at length with those who still remembered something about the days of the war, the legends surrounding the Conselheiro, and the fabulous bandits of the sertão. The purpose of this trip was to nourish and set the parameters of the imaginary world that would emerge in his movie script.
Just as in the earlier case of the jungle setting for The Green House, Vargas Llosa must have found out that there was already a vigorous literary tradition about the backlands of Bahia, Ceará, and the other states comprising the Brazilian northeast. Da Cunha's master narrative is perhaps only the most brilliant and best known of a large number of travelogues, novels, essays, and crónicas of the sertão. In spite of Rui Guerra's interest in making the movie and Vargas Llosa's willingness to engage in necessary documentary preparation to write the script, the project failed. The movie was not made….
A few years after Vargas Llosa's first visit to the backlands of the Brazilian northeast, the Peruvian novelist went back to Brazil for further documentation on Euclides da Cunha's work and the rebellion in Canudos. This time he seems to have read the diary that Euclides da Cunha wrote during the months when he, as a correspondent for a major Brazilian newspaper, reported on the war. Vargas Llosa also read newspapers of the period. All of this was in preparation for the writing of his novel on the Conselheiro's messianic movement, La guerra del fin del mundo. The novel was awarded the first annual Ritz Paris Hemingway Prize in 1985.
This huge novel depicts the chilling and fabulous adventures of a large number of characters caught in the deep social upheaval that took place in the backlands of Bahia shortly after Brazil became an independent republic. Without the anticipation of anyone involved in this dispute among the conservative peasant-lumpen masses, Bahia's regional urban political forces, and Rio de Janeiro's weak central government, the conflict quickly evolved into a civil war of apocalyptic contours. The scenes in which the protracted armed struggle for the defense of Canudos is depicted appear taken right out of Hollywood's biblical and Western sagas or pirate movies. Bodies in repose, in agony, and in swift, maddening motion constitute the mainstay of this novel. The opening of the camera lens is almost always wide and in close-up to better capture the body's movement, its extraordinary gymnastic ability, the contortions of a face in pain, the silent gesturing of men and women in the midst of battle. Point of view on the canvas is almost always internal, as if the narrator, like God, managed to be intimately present in all the thousands of locales and scenes where the simultaneous actions take place. For example, the long-awaited first assault of the Brazilian army upon the lumpen assembled in Canudos is depicted from within the midst of the square of the town under siege:
Upon returning, Maria Quadrado managed to get close to João Grande, and when she was about to tell him that the Leon de Natuba was missing, the first cannon blast was heard. The multitude stopped and listened. Many, confused, explored the sky. But another cannon blast thundered, and they saw one of the hovels by the cemetery explode in splinters and red-hot coals…. João Abade gave orders to put out the candles and wick lamps in Canudos. Soon the city became a dark pit.
The story of the war is narrated in a relentless sequence of scenes of violence and dazzling action interrupted only by moments of sheer physical exhaustion. After the battle there is always a moment of rest. The combatants spared from death or mutilation look after the sick, the dying, and the starving, only to start fighting again when they least expect it, for this is a guerrilla war waged principally by the element of surprise. Sometimes the fighters themselves seem surprised by their own determination to risk it all in a moment of despair. Each combatant becomes a veritable war machine interested only in his enemy's annihilation. Death, one's own final physical end, appears meaningless in contrast with the idea of killing the other. In a masterful scene in which one man's physical and mental courage is rendered, we see encapsulated the sanguinary and apocalyptic nature of the "final solution" that razes Canudos to the ground:
He looks, and sees horsemen with lances. Two hundred, many more. They have crossed the Vassa Barris, half a kilometer to his right. They are forming up in platoons so as to attack the lower flank under the bugle's frenetic sound…. In a second, he sees what's going to happen. The lancers … will reach Belo Monte in a few minutes. Once they discover the opening, the soldiers will follow. Neither Pedrão, nor João Grande, nor Pajeú has had time to fall back to the city to reinforce the jagunços hidden behind the roofs and towers of churches…. Then without knowing what he is going to do, guided only by the madness of the moment, he grabs his munition bag, jumps out of the pit, shouting to Honorio: "We've got to stop them, follow me, follow me." He runs, his head low, the Mannlincher on his right side, the revolver to his left side, the bag over one shoulder, feeling like a dream…. At that moment, the fear of death—which sometimes wakes him up in a cold sweat, or freezes his blood in the middle of a trivial conversation—disappears, and what overcomes him is a sovereign contempt for the idea of being wounded or disappearing from the realm of the living.
While captivating the reader with the events and outcome of the story, The War of the End of the World offers and demands a reading beyond and beneath the plot. This conjugation of hundreds of characters caught in moments of critical decisions, conversions, and self-revelations delves into problems that Vargas Llosa has grappled with before: religious fanaticism, political corruption and self-delusion, the unbearable weight of fossilized ideologies or utopias, the absurdity of sensational journalism, sexual excess and experimentation, faith, hunger, and fraternal love. None of the more than forty-three lives chronicled in the novel conclude in marriage, death, or exile from the community in which the drama is set, as they would in a realistic novel. Individuals see their lives brought to end by the war, by an inexorable death that does not leave behind a community in which the consequences of their living and dying can be felt or measured. There are no wills, no heirs, no family left to mourn the dead. Only the scorched earth remains as witness of the blood spilled in Canudos. The ending of The War of the End of the World, unlike Vargas Llosa's previous ambiguous endings, is final and unequivocal for the Conselheiro's followers, for many soldiers, for Galileo Gall, and for General Moreira César. For those who go on, people like the Barão de Canhabrava, the journalist of O Journal de Noticias, and the high echelons of the Brazilian army, life will never be the same after the apocalypse at Canudos. Even though Vargas Llosa has added only a few characters to Euclides da Cunha's rendition of the war, and remains faithful to the main historical events of the last decade of the nineteenth century, one of the chief differences between Os Sertões and The War of the End of the World is the uncompromising apocalyptic tenor of the novel….
Vargas Llosa deploys the events of his story along the lines of two separate geographic and social riverbanks. In the case of The War of the End of the World, only a few characters cross from one side to the other; and even fewer return. Jurema and the journalist cross from the Bahia urban sphere to Canudos. Having been miraculously spared, they return to life in Bahia after the war is over. Galileo Gall, a utopian European, embarks on a spiritual journey to the Conselheiro's first settlement. He reaches Canudos when the plantation still belongs to the Barão. The European anarchist never really makes it to the Canudos of the social experiment and apocalypse. With the exception of the Conselheiro during his very early days, no one from the backlands ever reaches Bahia or returns to Monte Belo, Uãuà, or Canudos. The Brazilian army, of course, makes it to Canudos, destroys it, and, itself tattered and almost defeated, returns to the barracks of the republic.
Each side has its own social logic and history from which characters and events are generated for the story of the war. As the action of the novel progresses, the lives of characters anchored on either side begin to project a shadow and a desire that reaches beyond the chasm that keeps them separated. The body of the novel grows as if a weaver at the loom had begun taking threads from one side in order to mix their colors with the threads from the other side. The chapters and sections that integrate the novel almost mechanically alternate a section set in the backlands with a section set in Bahia, with yet another section focused on either the army's or Galileo Gall's march to Canudos. The War of the End of the World is thus structured in the form of a double spiral: Bahia/sertão, city/countryside, Barão/Conselheiro, jagunços/republican army, messianism/republican civilian ideology.
What happens in the backlands towns of Bahia, the singular and privileged focus in Euclides da Cunha's historical essay, is balanced, or rather flanked, by the political events and discourse set in Bahia. Galileo Gall, the romantic European phrenologist, is perhaps one of the most idiosyncratic and weak characters added to the original story on the side of Bahia. The Barão, an important character in The War of the End of the World, can only be implied in Os Sertões, even though the Barão de Canhabrava is probably based on the historical Barão de Gerembão. Gonçalvez Viana, although a historical participant in the events of Bahia, appears to be a composite of the various self-serving and vain Bahian politicians who saw in the Conselheiro's following the excuse to attack their enemies and consolidate the new republican power.
Critics have been quick to point out that since Euclides da Cunha was the journalist who accompanied the troops and, with reports that he wired to his newspaper, created the furor that this expedition actually caused in Brazil, Vargas Llosa's myopic journalist has a historical referent in Euclides da Cunha. If this is so, then La guerra del fin del mundo parodies not only utopian and idealistic figures such as Gall but also the best and most committed Latin American intellectuals. Because of the great distance in intellectual prowess and quality between da Cunha and the journalist in this novel, I am inclined to think that the latter has no specific historical referent.
Even though the bespectacled, flabby journalist cannot be assigned any specific equivalent in history, his soft physique and stubborn intellectual demeanor seem to place him within a general scheme that Vargas Llosa uses for his journalists, scribblers, or well-intentioned souls such as Mayta in The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta, Pedro Camacho in Aunt Julia, or even Saúl Zurata in El hablador. These little men are singled out by an unmistakable physical defect: myopia, a birthmark, standing red hair, flat feet, or a big soft belly. As if to compensate for their physical disability, these little men have learned to endure physical pain and humiliation. Moreover, they are indefatigable in their moral and intellectual pursuits, a quality that makes them carriers of a terrible disease: the questioning of established modes of perception, the desire to halt the common contempt for the poor and suffering, along with an intrinsic solidarity with such "marginal" peoples. Thus, in The War of the End of the World, Galileo Gall is not far apart from the myopic journalist, nor is he too far away from the nearly anthropomorphic body of the León de Natuba, or the Dwarf, or even the epileptic body of Moreira César. These monstrous little men stand in sheer contrast with the natural and at the same time studied elegance and perfect physique of the cultivated Barão and the army engineer who reconnoiters and maps the route for the Brazilian troops advancing upon Canudos. The latter is more likely to stand as the fictional version of Euclides da Cunha who before taking up journalism had been a military engineer.
With the exception of Who Killed Palomino Molero? this vast novel can be said to be the most traditional in Vargas Llosa's oeuvre. Each character is presented in a sort of careful block of portrayal. After the initial physical and social presentation of the characters, what evolves is a set of minor traits as the characters respond to the extraordinary circumstances in which they find themselves. Indirect interior monologue is often used to unveil the individual's mind before he or she faces the possibility of death, the certainty of physical pain, or the shaking doubt and weakness felt before the killing of a fellow human being. But even though this critical moment is subtly scrutinized in the cases of Maria Quadrado, Pedrão, João Grande, Pajeú, Rufino, and many others, the particulars of the case do not seem fundamentally different in each character's crisis. Nor do they seem to stem from the past of each different person in crisis. In fact, each moment of truth in this tale of killing and maiming seems to be more a variation on the same theme than an indepth, sustained examination of a single personality before his or her transgression. There is no Raskolnikov in either the character or the plot dynamics of The War of the End of the World. Death and murder fall upon people with too great a speed. Death and murder are not the subjects of intense and extensive meditation as in Crime and Punishment. In this war death and murder seem inexorable. Characters do not have the time or inclination to consider either at great length. Death, violent death, is simply a given of life. There is only time to feel the shudder of fear and then face up to the inevitable. Maria Quadrado's anguished consciousness in search of an almost unattainable good is often portrayed in the days before the first assault on Canudos. She unfolds the pleats of her fear as a rebuke to her inability to feel happy before the end:
She would have to be happy, because this means that the suffering of the body will come to an end, that she would see the Father and the Holy Trinity, thought Maria Quadrado. But fear permeated her. She begged God to forgive her cowardice, and she tried to pray…. But she could not concentrate her mind on the Credo. João Abade and João Grande no longer insisted in taking him [the Conselheiro] to the refuge. The Commander of Streets tried to persuade him not to visit the trenches: the war could surprise him in the open air, without any protection whatsoever, Father.
Part of the richness of the novel stems from the portrayal of characters during self-examination. Moments of indirect interior monologue dot the telling of the story, offering a contrapuntal relation between the depiction of physical action and the unveiling of consciousness. The Beatito and the León de Natuba, together with Maria Quadrado, are the characters closest to the Conselheiro and to the flow of spiritual energy that emanates from his person and his silence. In search of sainthood and the understanding of their good fortune, the León de Natuba questions his frail faith, weak love, and self-loathing:
He was unfair. Not only did he owe thanks to the Counselor, but also to the others. Did they not carry him when he no longer had the strength [to walk]? Did they not pray, especially the Beatito, so that he could have faith? Was Maria Quadrado not kind and generous toward him? He tried to think with love of the Mother of Men. She had tried her best to get him to like her…. When he had had the fevers, she had cuddled him in her arms to give him warmth…. Why then, did he not love her? No doubt, because [he] had heard her accuse herself and confess her feeling of disgust for the Leon de Natuba and her belief that his ugliness was the work of the Evil One…. I am spiteful, he thought.
In this vast epic the characters enjoy a greater stability than in Aunt Julia or The Green House. No radical changes in identity occur. There are no characters whose life seems to have come to a novelistic end in one story (Bonifacia), only to reappear in another under a different name (Selvática). Even though many of the characters in the backlands side of the story experience a great spiritual crisis before becoming the Conselheiro's followers, once they see the light and make a vow, they are set forever in their new profile. This conversion is seldom portrayed fully; it just seems to happen, as if the poor, the forgotten, the bandits, and the criminals who swell Antonio Conselheiro's ranks had been living their lives in expectation of the one moment of revelation. Such is the picture of Maria Quadrado's appearance in Monte Santo, the Conselheiro's first settlement:
She appeared one rainless dawn, high on the road to Quijingue. She was carrying a cross on her back. She was twenty years old, but she had suffered so much that she looked ancient. She was a broad-faced woman, with bruised feet, a shapeless body, and mouse-colored skin. Her name was Maria Quadrado, and she had walked from Salvador to Monte Santo. She had borne the cross for three months and a day…. Her head was a patchwork of bare skull and stiff locks of hair that reminded people of the lunatics in the Salvador asylum. She had shaved her head after having been raped for the fourth time.
Just as in Os Sertões, the Conselheiro's following in this novel encompasses all kinds of outlaws, fools, disabled, hungry, killers, renegade priests, and even itinerant merchants of the backlands. Buried deeply in their marginal, deprived, and suffering lives, the reason for their conversion vibrates unknown but alive. In contrast to da Cunha's version of the Conselheiro's person and message—"the babblings of a fool or a madman"—Vargas Llosa's rendition of the messianic and charismatic Conselheiro remains enshrouded in mystery and silence. His beliefs, his very early Christian version of the message of Galilee, appears in the novel as part of the Beatito's search for the Conselheiro's word, Maria Quadrado's quest for repentance, and the León de Natuba's quest for humanity in the Conselheiro's loving acceptance of his deformed and repugnant body. The Conselheiro's indirect message appears to be a strange mixture of love and wrath, compassion and vengeance, hope in the Good Jesus and the expectation of the cleansing, final scorching of a corrupt and mean world. His hope is messianic, for the social and material hold only the despair of the same ancient hunger and suffering.
In the fictionalized version of the historical Conselheiro that The War of the End of the World describes, the man who appears for the first time in Monte Santo is a shadowy, unworldly figure. The first scenes that introduce the character project a poor, humble lay brother who moves from one miserable town to another, rebuilding fallen cemetery walls and abandoned churches. Extremely ascetic, the dirty and silent lay brother lives exclusively on the meager alms—food and drink—that the possible parishioners of the abandoned churches bring him. He never asks for anything. He refuses all but the most frugal meal.
After a long time of roaming the desert, the man seems moved to speak. He begins to preach in the atriums of the churches that he and a few volunteers cleaned up and rebuilt. The conselheiro preaches the need for repentance for the great sins that people commit daily. Repentance is necessary immediately, for the end of the world is at hand. To the Conselheiro and the people of the sertão (backlands) who listen to him, the end of the world is the time of great deliverance. At last, deliverance from suffering can be a real hope. The possibility of a great rest for the exhausted land and the equally spent sertanejos now seems to be real. The Conselheiro's preaching holds, as the final reward for repentance, repose and peace. Union with sweet Jesus seems to be their idea of final bliss and eternal reward.
Slowly and imperceptibly the Conselheiro's preaching begins to attract followers. He does not ask people to join him, he does not really instruct them. They simply join him, hang around him at night, share the alms that they are offered. Without a plan the poor, the vagabonds, and other outcasts and pilgrims become a solidarian community. Breaking his habitual silence, perhaps his long meditation, the Conselheiro erupts, from time to time, into fiery sermons about the coming of the end of the world, the end of the reign of all those who have abandoned Christ and his laws, laws that the Conselheiro affirms above any human law.
The Conselheiro's following grows larger almost imperceptibly. One day the authorities of nearby towns and churches awake to realize that the Conselheiro's adherence to Jesus' supreme law represents a challenge to their own worldly interests and power. Many people in the towns feel empowered to challenge the supreme power of the police, the local mayor, or the local priest. The potential conflict between civilian rulers and the Conselheiro's religious preaching soon comes to a head with the proclamation of the republic's new laws. While the empire had ruled the interior of Brazil negligently, the new republic aggressively seeks to stretch its rule and power over the entire territory outlined as the sovereign space for the new nation. Many of the laws proclaimed by the new state do not make any sense in the sertão; what is more, they go against the mores and age-old customs of the backlands people.
Seeing that the Conselheiro attracts people to mass, baptism, and even marriage, many of the local priests, who have in turn been forgotten and abandoned by their dioceses, allow him to do his preaching in church atriums. The priests are nervous about his preaching, but happy to collect a few coins for the dispensation of the sacraments. Things begin to change, however, when the Conselheiro, in his parsimonious but irrevocable way, indicates that he wants to preach—to "his" lambs—inside the churches and from the pulpit. A few priests are willing to bend even here, but many others see a tremendous danger in lending the Conselheiro the trappings and symbols of their authority and monopoly over the sacred. This parting of the ways between some local priests and the Conselheiro more or less coincides with the aggressive promulgation of the new laws of the republic. Hostility between the church's hierarchy and the Conselheiro grows. He becomes despondent and loses no time in showing his contempt for the church and its sins. Keeping a watchful eye over the Conselheiro's relations with the church, the guardians of civilian power and authority grow restless and nervous every time the Conselheiro and his large following arrive in the outskirts of a town in the sertão.
The news of his presence in the desert reaches Bahia. Bishop, journalists, lawyers, governor, and landowners think that the man's influence on the "unthinking" lumpen should be contained and watched over carefully. Thus, a detachment of soldiers is ordered to make its way into the sertão to arrest the man. His followers, many of whom suspect the government's ill intentions and, in anticipation, have set up a net of spies, find out about the arrest order long before the soldiers get to the sertão. In their minds this confirms the inimical attitude of the government and the alliance of the republic with the devil himself. The Conselheiro's followers decide to take the initiative.
In Os Sertões, Euclides da Cunha implies that the Conselheiro is the mastermind behind the deeds of his followers. In The War of the End of the World, however, he appears as a vague figure whose desires and orders are more divined by his followers than explicitly given by the mystic himself. It stands to reason that the Conselheiro should wish not to be arrested. But he does not say so at any moment, nor does the text of the novel indicate that he is aware of the government's plans for him. It is his followers who interpret, and take the step that links interpretation of "the Word" to consequent action upon the world. Later, in Canudos, we shall be puzzled once again by the Conselheiro's mystical and silent body, in contrast with his followers' clever determination to build the citadel and defend it and their salvation with all their might and ferocity. How the Conselheiro's silence, or vague references to the Dog/Devil or to sweet Jesus, is translated into such specific historical action remains a mystery and a weak point in the discourse of the novel.
As the soldiers nervously approach one of the lost towns of the sertão where the Conselheiro's guard has laid its trap, the first battle between the Brazilian messianic rabble and the Brazilian armed forces erupts. Because of the darkness, the element of surprise, and their clarity of conviction, the Conselheiro's wretched bunch of men and women score their first victory. Even though they suffer many losses, the Conselheiro's people, accustomed to the idea of battles between the coroneis's private armies and the cangaceiros and other armed groups in the sertão, thank the good Lord Jesus and take their victory in stride. They know, however, that this is only the first battle in a protracted but not really new war between the government's forces and the various resisting forces of the sertão.
In The War of the End of the World the victory of the Conselheiro's rabble over the soldiers is distinctly attributed to the planning strategy and flawless execution of the battle plan conceived by the former bandits or cangaceiros joining the Conselheiro's following. Certainly such a view of the Conselheiro as the head of an army of bandits is the prevailing belief in the thinking minds of Bahia. In the educated circles of that town it is believed that the Conselheiro, posing as a mystic, works in fact as an agent for infamous England in her interest to destabilize the fledgling Brazilian republic. The frightened and self-righteous Bahians tell each other that only England's might, her capacity to finance and arm colonial wars, could account for the Conselheiro's victory over a detachment of Brazilian soldiers. The Conselheiro must be destroyed. He is a threat to the entire nation. The central government in Rio must be made to see the danger and send the Brazilian army to defeat this intolerable rebellion. After all, the Brazilian army, victorious against Paraguay in the War of the Triple Alliance fought by Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil against Paraguay in 1864, knows exactly how to deal with backlands people. In the minds of the Bahian politicians and the emerging bourgeoisie that they represent the solution seems at hand.
Back in the desert the Conselheiro and his followers keep on roaming in search of a natural castle, a place from which they can organize their defense. The choice is difficult in view of the fact that the number of people who arrive daily to join the Conselheiro's followers grows continually. It is as if all the downtrodden of the huge Brazilian sertão were congregating at the feet of this compassionate but single-minded man who has nothing to offer but love and eternal salvation. Natural leaders, many of them famous and feared bandits, begin to emerge as the Conselheiro's lieutenants. Pedrão, João Abade, João Grande, Pajeú, the Villanova brothers, the Sardelinha sisters, and Maria Quadrado become the founders of a new order in Canudos, the place finally chosen for the Conselheiro's experimental creation of a Christian community.
Canudos is chosen because, in contrast with the rest of the many other possible sites, it has water year round. The former site of the Barão de Canhabrava's plantation, Canudos sits on the banks of the Vassa Barris river. The Canudos abandoned plantation, house, and corrals are burned to the ground, for purification purposes, as Pajeú announces to the Baroness; then the Conselheiro's people begin to settle down. Midwives, itinerant peddlers, exbandits, murderers, carpenters, storytellers, and all the dispossessed and scum of the earth meet in Canudos. They organize a solidarian society where enough food and dignity is the bread of daily life. This society was never described by Euclides da Cunha. Although critical of the way the army and the state eventually disposed of Canudos, and compassionate toward his fellow Brazilians, da Cunha saw absolutely no place for the Conselheiro's followers or their experiment in Brazilian national life. On a rich and detailed canvas Vargas Llosa brings to life the human quest and achievement of the rabble assembled at Canudos. Each group and person is given an unforgettable portrait. The cangaceiros, in their dual role as bandits and saints, form the most exotic and interesting grouping:
They were a strange bunch of emissaries from heaven. Instead of dressing up in tunics, they wore leather shirts and pants. They were the same men: they carried shotguns, knives, and machetes; and yet, they were not the same men, because now, all they could talk about was the Counselor, God, or their place of origin…. Religion satisfied their days now.
Vargas Llosa chronicles the town's birth as simultaneous with the rebirth of the populace:
As they were finished, the tortuous little streets were baptized with the name of a saint in a procession…. Many of the reborn changed their name in order to symbolize the beginning of their new life…. Human diversity coexisted in Canudos without violence, in the midst of a fraternal solidarity and an atmosphere of exaltation that the elect had never known before. They truly felt rich for being poor, children of God, privileged. This they were told every afternoon by the man with the cloak full of holes.
Not unlike the emergence of self-government in the shantytowns of Peru, chronicled by present-day sociologists, spontaneous social organization in Canudos makes its mark in creating a just human order:
In spite of the multiplication of inhabitants, life was not chaotic. The guides and pilgrims brought cattle and provisions; the corrals were full of animals. The warehouses were also brimming. Honorio and Antonio Villanova managed the city: they received offerings brought by the pilgrims, distributed clothing and food, and watched over the House of Health set up for the aging, the sick, and the orphans.
Almost coinciding with the moment when Canudos emerges as a full-fledged community, the Brazilian army, led by the famous general Moreira César, starts marching toward Canudos. Four cut-throat assaults are necessary to bring Canudos down after more than a year and a half of butchery. Thousands of soldiers and civilians suffer the most painful deaths. In the end, after a few old women and children march out of the hovels left in Canudos only to be put to the knife, the citadel is burned down in yet another act of "purification." Both in da Cunha's narrative and in Vargas Llosa's rendition of the war this bloody episode passes from the silent annals of Latin American history to fill the first pages of a catalogue of genocides embedded in the civil wars that have ravaged the continent.
In The War of the End of the World, Vargas Llosa deploys all his narrative powers to produce an engrossing epic. For the reader the emotional charge of the story of the war in Canudos is only comparable to the suspense and identification created by the duels in The Three Musketeers or the battles in War and Peace. Even if the reader has read Os sertões and is familiar with the outcome of Canudos's story, Vargas Llosa's mastery of suspense creates the false illusion that, in the novel at least, the final destiny of the characters one has learned to love might not be death. Paradoxically, the reader of Os Sertões finds himself hoping that in The War of the End of the World Pajeú will emerge alive from his final suicidal mission. The same reader hopes against hope that the Brazilian army might encounter yet another insurmountable obstacle, and thus retreat before leveling Canudos. The force of the reality created in the fictional text is so great as to provoke in the reader the childlike desire that the world brought to life in the act of reading might endure beyond the final page and beyond the last period of the novel.
Once the magic of the first reading is over, one can see clearly that the power of the story set in the sertão overwhelms its counterpart set in Bahia. While the sertão appears to be populated by people sincere and spontaneous, even in their revenge and cruelty, Bahia contains characters fraught with hypocrisy and self-delusion. Some of the Bahian characters, Gonçalvez Viana, and the journalist Galileo Gall, are reminiscent of the world of Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter. While the Barão has been considered by some to be the central character in the novel, others find in him too many gratuitous contradictions. It is not easy to reconcile a facile retreat from Bahian politics in a man who along with his family has played a major role in the power game of the state. The sober and elegant owner of Canudos is not quite convincing in his ascetic views on the burning of his family plantation, or in the contained depression over his wife's madness. At the same time that he retreats from politics, merely laments his wife's illness, and passes over the loss of his estate, he seems to find an incongruous satisfaction in watching the chameleon that inhabits his indoor garden and raping his wife's chamber-maid in the presence of his "beloved" Baroness. Somehow, the Barão's asceticism does not manage to compete with the physical exploits and the faith that nourishes the acts of Pajeú or the Villanova brothers. The final interpretation of the war and its raison d'être is left in the text to the Barão. Upon his return from Europe, and at the request of the surviving, myopic journalist, the Barão attempts to satisfy the journalist's curious and puzzled reasoning with the idea that there are some things in history that just don't make any sense. The butchery at Canudos is one of those events beyond reason. The Barão proposes that, rather than ponder this war's meaning, it is best to forget. Such final words weaken not only the image of the Barão as a principal and highly educated person in the story, but also the coherence of the discourse emerging from the entire corpus of the novelistic text. The Barão's studied distance from the immediate history of Bahia and Brazil comes as a weak epilogue in light of the novel's historical force:
"Now I remember," said the Baron. "Someone wrote me that you were alive. I found out while in Europe. 'A ghost appeared.' Someone wrote me that. But in spite of that, I continued to believe that you were dead, that you had disappeared."
"I did not die and I did not disappear," a little nasal voice said.
"Canudos?" said the Baron. "Epaminondas is right in wishing that people wouldn't talk about that story any more. Let us forget it. That's best. It is a sad, muddy, confusing episode. It is no use. History must be instructive, exemplary. In that war, no one acted gloriously. And no one understands what happened. People have decided to draw a curtain. That's wise, healthy."
In spite of the puzzles in the novel's discourse, The War of the End of the World not only retells a powerful and tragic story but also opens the vast expanses of the historical novel for Mario Vargas Llosa's work. The author's interest in history, in narrative history to be exact, dates back to his university days when he studied with the Peruvian historian Raúl Porras Barrenechea. Vargas Llosa's interest in history also dwells on the gestation of great social movements, revolutions, mutinies, and civil war, some of which have appeared already in Conversation in The Cathedral (the Arequipa revolt) and Captain Pantoja (the cult of the Brothers of the Arch). The War of the End of the World, however, evinces Vargas Llosa's growing interest in the relation between ideology and action. Any observer of some recent trends in Latin American societies and politics can discern the analogies between the Conselheiro's Christian messianism, his communitarian preaching, and his silent criticism of the established church, and many of the precepts and questions raised by liberation theology.
Finally, it would seem that this obsessive curiosity about history, its causes and movements, was not satiated in the writing of the story of Canudos and its diverse forms of armed struggle and organized violence. On the contrary: Vargas Llosa's interest in ideology and action (revolution and revolt)—that is, in the cultural decomposition of the structure of desire and the many surprising faces in which it can reappear—has only been stimulated with the explorative writing of this story of rebellion in the backlands. In his later novels, The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta, Who Killed Palomino Molero? and El hablador, Vargas Llosa reexamines the nature of desire, its mysterious mix with ideology, and the dynamics of the body in further episodes dealing directly with recent events in Peruvian and Latin American history.
This section contains 6,574 words
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