A couple of weeks ago, I re-read Euclides da Cunha, Backlands: the Canudos Campaign, trad. Elizabeth Lowe (New York: Penguin Books, 2010), better to understand its relation to Mario Vargas Llosa's 900-page novel, La guerra del fin del mundo, about the same bloody episode in Brazil's northeastern backwoods in the 1890s. For some of the background on these two books, please see my earlier weblog entry History, fiction and historical fiction which is the first part of this essay.
Da Cunha's book is considered a classic of Brazilian literature. It is dramatic, moving, encyclopedic and often — like its author — grandiloquently, pigheadedly wrong. The savage war in the Brazilian northeast backlands of Bahia state from 1893 to 1897 was a defining event of the new Brazilian republic, and Euclides da Cunha's amazingly vivid account of it, Os sertões, is considered by many Brazilians as their country's most outstanding literary achievement. That should be reason enough to put it high on your reading list. But even if you don't care about this huge country (192 million people, a booming economy, a territory amounting to almost half the South American continent) that is rapidly rising to world influence, you will want to understand the dynamics of that war, because it has parallels to some of the world's most critical struggles today.
That it also inspired Vargas Llosa's powerful and complex novel is for me an equally important reason for studying it. Vargas Llosa insists that he has never written a "historical novel", "a more or less animated retelling of historical events", which he apparently thinks of as a lesser category of literature. What he has done here and in La fiesta del chivo and his new novel on Roger Casement is to use thoroughly researched historical events to tell an original story that helps us feel and understand those events from an original perspective. And that's what I've tried to do in A Gift for the Sultan. To me, it's what a historical novel should be, and this is why I'm fascinated by the ways Vargas Llosa handles his material.
But first, lets look at the material, the documented historical events, filtered through Da Cunha, that Vargas Llosa was working with. Every local and traditionalist movement is peculiar, the more local the more peculiar, and the movement around the holy man Antônio Conselheiro in the dense, ramshackle settlement of Canudos was so peculiar that the sophisticates in Salvador de Bahia or Rio de Janeiro could not believe it. A primitively armed, fanatically devout poor rural people was defeating every invasion by a modern, disciplined and experienced army with all the latest technology and firepower.
Sound familiar? They didn't have car-bombs or suicide belts, but they were ingenious at using everything they did have (even slingshots and crossbows, plus traps and tricks) and did not hesitate to sacrifice their own lives to destroy an enemy that they saw as the Devil incarnate.
Brazil had just become a republic in 1889, when the army deposed the ailing and weary Emperor Pedro II. Only a year earlier, Dom Pedro had achieved his long-held ambition to abolish slavery—provoking the wrath of slave-using coffee-growers and contributing to the anti-monarchical sentiment among the urban elite that led to Dom Pedro's downfall.
The rebellion in the backlands began as defiance against the republic and its new laws. A wandering visionary named Antônio Maciel, known as o conselheiro (the counselor), gathered a growing following as he denounced such impieties as a census (he said its purpose was to count people who would be returned to slavery), civil marriages and non-religious burials (an offense to God), and taxes (instead of tithes to the Church). He and most of his followers were barely literate, so we have only fragments of his preaching and exhortations recorded by people who regarded them as holy, and reconstructions from oral accounts by those who heard him. With the few believers he allowed to accompany him, he strode continually through the mountains, caatinga (shrubland), arroyos and canyons, stopping at each settlement to preach and also to command the restoration of abandoned chapels and cemeteries or the building of grand new ones, which he would demand be attended by a priest. The Catholic Church didn't know what to make of him. Sometimes a curate would invite him to preach, but the church hierarchy was suspicious of his strange sermons, equating the republic with "the Dog"—meaning the Devil—and predicting the end of the world and the advent of the Good Jesus to the backlands. But what caught the authorities' attention was his destruction of official edicts proclaiming the census, elections and taxes, and his orders not to obey any authorities of the republic.
The governor of Bahia and the military chiefs in Rio assumed it would be simple to put down this nuisance, and sent a military expedition to quash it. It was destroyed. They sent another, much larger one, under the command of a hero of several other repressive campaigns, and this turned out even more disastrous—Col. Moreira César and thousands of his troops were killed, their huge Krups cannons seized, and the surviving troops chased from the territory. This was incomprehensible from primitively armed cowhands and homesteaders. The excitable press and their elite backers kept inventing more plausible (but completely fallacious) explanations for the ongoing disaster. They must be secretly financed by aristocrats who wanted to restore the empire, and/or by British capitalists who for other reasons wanted to dismember the republic.
A former military man turned journalist and a fervent republican — that is, supporter of the coup that had deposed the Brazilian emperor in 1891 in order to "modernize" the country — Da Cunha got himself embedded in what turned out to be the final, and finally successful campaign to destroy the rebels. Os sertões is not an easy book to follow, mainly because Da Cunha wants to tell so many different stories all at the same time: how the land forms of Brazil were created, how climate affects the habits of cattlement and farmers in different regions, the history of settlement and pillage from earliest colonial times, and only then, after you've got through all that, the story of the "war", one failed military campaign after another until finally the rebellious settlement is overcome and eliminated. (A particular problem with this translation is the lack of maps, making it almost impossible to follow all the military maneuvers or the geological descriptions in detail.) For much of the book, the real protagonist is not the army or the Canudos resistance nor any of its human participants, but the land itself, which Da Cunha describes as a living thing, crashing thunderbolts and rainstorms to flood out farms and fragile villages, or sucking down every last drop of water and splitting open deep gorges during the droughts, then sprouting its hard sharp foliage to slash human invaders, almost as though the backlands were laughing at human attempts to civilize them..
Another difficulty is that Da Cunha's literary standards, what he considered good writing, were so different from those of any of our contemporary best-selling authors. He is forever digressing and interrupting himself for the sake of reaching an especially dramatic phrase or description. And there is the additional problem that some of the things he asserts are completely screwball, especially race as determining character and ability. Then when the supposedly primitive and intellectually simple blacks or Amerindians or mestizos of the Canudos settlement keep outsmarting the supposedly superior Portuguese-descended commanders sent out to crush them, not acting according to type, phrenology — the shape of the cranium as a clue to brain development.
And there are many contradictions like this, because Da Cunha, though fervently on the side of the army, is often overwhelmed by sympathy for the supposedly inferior (racially and culturally) "enemy" who resists that army with courage and ingenuity. If they are so inferior, how can they be so smart and so brave? And how can they, with such poor weapons, obliterate one Brazilian army campaign after another? This gets the author into some very complex speculations about racial mixing and its peculiar consequences, and how those races were somehow better adapted to the harsh physical environment of the backlands. It's as though the social groupings there — the Indians, the blacks, the mestizos — were themselves parts of the natural environment, not to be thought of as "intelligent" any more than the climate or the vegetation or the sharp-edged geology, but that all together they composed the hostile, alien environment that overwhelmed the urban, cultured, white military officers with their neatly formed batallions and cannons and bugle calls.
Vargas Llosa rehumanizes these characters. He takes da Cunha's scattered and often admiring portraits of the famously cruel and brutal bandits Paheú, João Grande and João Abade — real outlaws converted to the Counselor's faith to become fierce defenders of the community — and others and develops them into full, complex psychological characters whose intelligence and human sensibilities, and the wrongs they've suffered and the things they desire, make fully understandable what for da Cunha were simply unexplainable and unreasoned acts of instinct. And he also invents characters — a "near-sighted journalist" (unnamed), a Scottish anarchist who calls himself Galileo Gall, the baron of Cañabrava, the much-abused Jurema, and various midlevel Brazilian military men among them — to lets us see this conflict from other points of view. In all, it is a magnificent denunciation of fanaticism, not just (not even principally) of the Counselor's faithful followers, but also (and even more evidently) the fanaticism of those who thought they were bringing civilization but ended up bringing only total destruction to this poor community.
Like Chechenya, and many other places. It's a marvelous, passionate and thought-provoking novel.