Sunday, April 30, 2017

The War at the End of the World - Mario Vargas Llosa

I can read dystopian novels with the best of them, but for some reason I found this book to be soul crushing. I can’t tell if I’m having situational depression due to reading this book, or if it could be attributed to the weather and the bleak and dreary reality of a German spring…either way, a deep and lurking hopelessness has begun to claw it’s talons into the far reaching geography of my heart. 

Reading this book was sort of like playing monopoly with my twin sister when we were kids. Within 15 minutes there was a clear winner. One of us would spend the next 6 hours winning gloriously and the other would spend 6 hours facing one pecuniary hardship after another. Instead of a decisive coup de grace to put the soon to be vanquished out of their misery, it was just a long hopeless narrative of mortgages and refinancing until eventually the cash reserves were bled out to the last cent, nothing left to mortgage. Usually by this point we were beyond the point of civil communication, if we made it to a stopping point without the board being flipped and our relationship being completely severed that was an unexciting bonus. Either way, we were usually no longer on speaking terms until tempers cooled.

This book is 750 pages long. With 300 pages left to go the narrative takes a whiplash of a turn and jumps forward in time to the end of the battle between Canudos and the Republic and we find this:

“‘People are forgetting Canudos,’ the nearsighted journalist said, in a voice that sounded like an echo. ‘The last lingering memories of what happened there will fade in the air and mingle with the music of the next carnival ball in the Politeama Theater.’

‘Canudos?’ the baron murmured. ‘Epaminondas is right not to want people to talk about what happened there. It’s better to forget it. It’s an unfortunate, unclear episode. It’s not good for anything. History must be instructive, exemplary. In this war, nobody has covered himself with glory. And nobody has understood what happened. People have decided to ring down a curtain on it. And that’s a healthy sensible reaction.’”

I found reading this book to be an unfortunate unclear episode of my life, but I digress. 

It’s 1897. Brazil has been a republic for less than a decade and the growing pains of a new world order can be felt from the booming metropolis to the thorny underbrush of the sertao. The republic has introduced civil marriage, separation of church and state, and the metric system. While most embrace this as progress, a tall emaciated man in a purple robe wanders the country side and says these things can only be the bastard child of the union between Freemasons and Protestantism ie. signs of the Antichrist. 

At first, the man in the purple robe, Antonio Conselheiro, known as the Counselor to his followers, attracts little attention. He wanders into the hot dusty villages and he and his followers set up camp by the church and cemeteries where they repair broken windows and erect fallen tombstones. But over time his message begins to attract  the most motley and desperate cast of characters: prostitutes, murderers, hunchbacks, filicides. In exchange for their deformity, physical or otherwise, the counselor offers them hope. Hope that Christ will raise an army that will defeat the antichrist. Hope that suffering will be abated. Egalitarianism will be ushered in and men and women once and for all will be free. 

Eventually the small contingent sets up camp in Canudos. They begin to build a church from scratch and a society wiped clean from the deleterious effects of class suppression. 

‘There it stood facing the east, that stupendous disharmonious facade, without rule or proportion, with its gross friezes, its impossible volutes, its capering delirium of incorrect curves, its horrible ogives and embrasures, a brutish, shapeless hulk, something like an exhumed crypt, as if the builder had sought to objectivise in stone and cement the disorder of his own delirious mind.’

For a short time Canudos is left to itself. But then the republic issues a national census which for the impoverished and illiterate pilgrims could mean only one thing: a diabolical plot to re-enslave the blacks.They refuse to pay taxes which could only be an attempt to keep the poor impoverished. They will not give in to the hocus-pocus of the metric system only meant to confuse and entrap them. Instead they would live side by side without violence amid a fraternal society and a climate of exaltation. A tapestry of humanity woven from the down trodden and derelict. Without realizing the historical relevance of what they are saying they begin to mutter under their breath something akin to “liberty, equality and fraternity,” and it is not long before a revolutionary from a failed and distant revolution has found them. 

Galileo Gall, a self made/named man has chosen his moniker after the father of the scientific method and Franz Joseph Gall the founder of phrenology. Like his name sake, Galileo Gall is also obsessed with revolutionary ideas, but instead of astronomy he has chased after one societal collapse after another waiting each time with bated breath for mankind to get it right and usher in a new era of humanity. Gall thinks Canudos has picked up the fight where others have left it, and unbeknownst to them they are breathing life back into the Idea…but he must help them realize this. 

‘In the last analysis, names did not matter; they were wrappings, and if they helped uneducated people to identify the contents more easily, it was of little moments that instead of speaking of justice and injustice, freedom and oppression, classless society and class society, they talked in terms of God and the Devil.”

Gall hires a guide, with the help of Baron de Canabrava, the societal detritus of a collapsed monarchy. Quickly a rumor develops that the baron, functioning as a representative of the Autonomists are intent on establishing this group of outlaws in Canudos to profane the Republic and provides them with arms and supplies. 

The militants of the Republic spread the rumor as well. It will be just as helpful for them to amputate the dangerous ideas before they spread like gangrene into the underbrush of the uncivilized peasants eking out a living in an inhospitable world. 

And so Canudos finds itself in the political interstices of opposing factions. Each faction demands resolution purified with glorious battle and so Canudos, a favela comprised of the elderly and deformed, must ready itself for a battle for which they are underprepared and undersupplied. 

The cast of characters swarms in and out of focus like the sertao 's carnivorous fire ants, burrowing into flesh and proliferating only to disappear in the hot pulsating flesh for a moment before bursting out in an oozing pustule of narrative and regeneration. The narrative baton is passed quickly and chaotically. 

Gall edges forth as champion of narrative only to make one dire mistake and after being tracked through the scrubland dies in a stranglehold with his guide. Each one fighting for the right to die with honor. 

Jurema, the guide’s wife, has been a quiet background character throughout and momentarily finds herself thrust into the role of protagonist, sullenly picking up the narrative as well as a dwarf and an emaciated birdlike journalist. The three struggle to make their way to Canudos where they dissolve for a time into the background of the city, erecting blockades, shivering in the cold, sharing the last remaining moisture from the marrow of a bone. 

As the Republic mounts its offensive the outlaws are joined by more and more disenfranchised citizens. The Mirandela village of Indians, herded together in the eighteenth century by the Capuchins missionaries, trickle into Canudos to offer their support. While the Republic fights with Krupp cannons and artillery the bandits have slingshots and bees nests. There is no conceivable reason for the bandits to win, but they do, one battle after another. They fight a battle without quarter and mercurial lines of offensive. But even this isn’t enough. The war of attrition takes it’s toll on both sides, and every evening the emaciated and desperate living are harder and harder to distinguish from the dead. 

As the death toll climbs to thirty thousand souls, seven skeletal bandits escape through the cover of darkness. All have been chosen and given consent to leave by the Counselor as he too succumbs to starvation, but not all are joyous at the prospect of abandoning the fight. The Villanova brothers have been chosen to start again, somewhere else sometime else. They will pick up one stone and a trowel of mortar and slowly rebuild the hopes and dreams of the diaspora. The journalist and his nuclear family which now includes the dwarf and Jurema, have been tasked with escaping so that the world can know their story; why they fought and the truth about the end of the world. 

As the seven scurry away the bandits hidden in their trenches hold their breath, waiting for that last bullet that will end the entire conflagration once and for all. Throughout the cacophony of artillery and rubble exploding a voice is heard. The Little Blessed One has decided to send the women and children across the battle lines. There is nothing left for them here and no space for the living amongst the rubble and the dead. As one by one the aged and infirm, women and children begin to make their way across the small no mans land, a few of the bandits begin to think they are sending their loved ones to certain death by torture and mutilation by the Freemasons. Rather than allow this atrocity they begin to shoot their own wives and daughters in the back so as to save them humiliation and pain from being accosted from the front. 

With this last sacrifice they have exchanged ideology for extremity. Fanaticism for clarity of purpose. With the counselor dead and the leadership dispersed each one is left with the imprint of a thought, the ghost of an ideology; shape shifting and indistinguishable. 

‘I don’t know. Once again I don’t know anything. In Belo Monte everything seemed clear to me, day was day and night night. Until the moment, until we began firing on the innocent and on the Little Blessed One. Now everything’s hard to decide again…because maybe the Father wanted us to go to heaven as martyrs.”


As the narrative sputters to a close, one crazy spasmodic episode after another Colonel Macedo stops to ask an emaciated toothless woman if she’s seen one of the notorious outlaws, Abbot Joao who is rumored to still be alive:

“The little old woman shakes her head and clacks her tongue, as though sucking on something. 
‘He got away then?’
The little old woman shakes her head again, encircled by the eyes of the woman prisoners. 
‘Archangels took him to heaven,’ she says, clacking her tongue. ‘I saw them.”

With this last salvo we are left within the swirling vortex comprised of madness and fanaticism, fate and responsibility, hope and oppression.  


“Like Brazil at the dawn of the century, ''The War of the End of the World'' looks both forward and backward; the forces acted out are eternal and elemental. It is not a multitude of competing ideologies that besets the world, Mr. Vargas Llosa tells us; rather it is one, always the same, calling itself by different names, its hero showing a thousand faces, forever haunting the peace of prelates, presidents, general secretaries and chairmen, threatening their benefices, palaces and chairs in the name of liberty, equality and life more abundant. Espousing the rule of the Messiah, the Christ, the people are in pursuit of an unchanging goal - the final liberation of mankind from evil, the settling at last of the oldest direct question in the world, the question of suffering. A thousand revolutions in the name of that one resolution.” (Stone, Robert. “Revolution as Ritual.” New York Times, Books. August 12, 1984.)

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