Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Review: The War of the End of the World, by Mario Vargas Llosa

[This review contains spoilers. Cleaned up a little too.]

To recap from previous comments, when Mario Vargas Llosa won the Nobel literature prize last year, the choice was lauded from many quarters, a sometimes political novelist (and a sometimes politician novelist) who found supporters from many surprising quarters. When pressed the crack team of commenters over at alicublog recommended The War of the End of the World as particularly impressive, and that was a good enough excuse for me to pick it up.

The story involves a relatively large cast of players and several significant intertwining threads, moving along approximately linearly, which keep up tension despite a few gigantic giveaways, despite this being a story whose outcome is already known anyway. It's a fictionalized account of the "War of Canudos" that took place in Brazil in 1897, a stunningly tragic affair in which the government, at great cost to its own military, mercilessly eradicated some twenty thousand souls that had founded a religious colony in the dusty backlands of the state of Bahia. The villagers, composed of fanatics, pilgrims, and former bandits, turned back three invasions before being overwhelmed and butchered by an ovewhelming final force. The conflict was by various respects an extension of the struggle between the country's contemporary republican and conservative political factions, an assertion of state authority over independent homegrown autonomous movements, or even an understandable attempt (gone horribly awry) to curtail extortion of the neighboring localities by the upstart community. Modern American parallels might include the massacres at Waco or Jonestown, although those were at not nearly the scale.

The Canudos war was chronicled by a Brazilian war correspondent named Euclides da Cunha, who published Os Sertões (the title is usually translated, apparently not well, as Rebellion in the Backlands) in 1902 after his experinces there. Now, Os Sertões is highly acclaimed in its own right, thought by some to rival Tolstoy, a comparison which, when it comes to scope and its morally tinged realism, is easy to draw for The War of the End of the World as well. (Or if not War and Peace, then at least War.) Although he remains unnamed in the novel, da Cunha is one of Llosa's primary characters, and the author does not present him very favorably. His physical deficiencies are used instead of his name (he is "the nearsighted journalist"), and no mention passes without a reference to his irritating voice, his ungainliness, his social awkwardness, his crippling myopia, his insufferable allergies. (I would add cowardice to the list, but I don't think Llosa condemns cowardice so much, and it may even be a byproduct of relative sanity.) He is moreover offered as a shallow hipster sort, possessed of a tiny, spent cachet of coolness among the other journalists, which only makes him more of a misfit among the serious people and ascetics. The actual journalist's Wikipedia entry has a photo of a handsome man, however, and while I don't want to add much approving weight to ideologies in this review, he seems to have been motivated by a reasonably decent naturalist one. And of course there's that great book he wrote. As one of a handful of survivors, Llosa's journalist is also one of the two people to experience a positive character evolution from the conflict, and may be the only one gifted with both intelligence and, at the end, something like maturity. I wish I had read Os Sertões too, wish I knew what comment Llosa was making on it and why he felt one was needed. Is he looking to remove that early 19th century gloss? To call out its simple ideologies? Possibly The War of the End of the World is ultimately a novel of becoming Euclides da Cunha.

I have the characters in War divided loosely among three types: the mad idealists; the pragmatists; and lastly, the group that includes the journalist, the dependents at the mercy of the rest. The first are the most striking, and include the inscrutable Counselor (Antônio Conselheiro) who founded the place, Colonel Moreira César who led the second expidition against the rebels at Canudos, the peasant guide Ruffino, and the itinerant revolutionary Galileo Gall. As a group they favor extreme views of their individual philosophies (the Counselor's Catholic-derived teachings; Moreira César's Republicanism; Ruffino's code of personal honor; and Gall's anarchism) and they have considerable overlap in terms of personality and even the structure of their ideas, but the intensity of conviction makes them utterly incompatible with one another, to the point of death for each one of them.

The pragmatists temper their belief with necessity, and great examples of this are Antônio Vilanova and Abbot (a.k.a. Satan) João who lead Canudos' surprisingly effective administration and military staff. They are motivated by idealism, but it's tempered enough to make them useful people. This category could also include the baron de Canabrava (monarchist and the nominal landowner of Canudos, gradually losing his grip to the republicans) and his opponent Epanimondas Gonçalves (the schemer of the other political faction). These people tend to survive, or at least die less fantastically, in the novel. They're shown capable of change, but don't necissarily manifest any worthwhile personal growth. The baron shrinks in moral stature; Vilanova's left to re-start his life yet again; and Epanimondas continues to shift around like a perpetual Reynard. Further down the spectrum, other dependant types include Ruffino's wife Jurema, a circus dwarf (doesn't every epic novel have to have a traveling circus?), and the deformed, lenonine scribe of Canudos. These people are given to fear, doubt, and childish displays of need. You might call them the victims, the real people (although these are all of them novel-style people) least infected with zealotry, and in the absence of spiritual salvation or other true belief, they're the ones who at least have a chance of a hward-won literary redemption.

[In addition to the journalist, known historical figures include the Counselor and Colonel Moreira César. My guess about Epanimondas Gonçalves is that his name is meant to suggest a political provocateur that history forgot, but I had similar and stronger suspicions about a militant little shit named César, and I was wrong about that one. Presumably there was a real Baron de Canabrava at this time; hopefully history did not give us a Galileo Gall.]

Now this can clearly lead to a lot of smaller personal conflicts and all kinds of compare-and-contrast kinds of exercises, and that's the meat that Llosa fills his book up with. (The skeleton is a story of sad deaths and unlikely survivals, and a hate-to-admit-it gripping military tale of plucky underdogs versus the hostile empire.) Although I had early difficulties with some aspects of the book, I really loved the way he could jump gears to weave in a background story or a subplot into the body of the text. There is no loss for words or ideas here. The story of Canudos is, as the journalist describes it late in the novel, in reality a tree of stories, with expansive roots, and branching everywhere.

I want to put the uniting theme of the book as a failure of idealism, but there's the troubling fact that Canudos, as Llosa presents it, basically works as an idealist society before it's squashed. Is it a story specifying the conditions for ideology's success then? Well, the town works nearly in spite of the loopy counselor and his inner core of whackos; and the various other modes of belief presented in it could have similar interpretations. There's a more-or-less effective Brazilian state or of a more-or-less successful mutualism going on in town.(It happens that the faithful follower of Proudhon has no hope of understanding it, but he is also sort of right about it.) Is it about the correctness of that faith, of that brand of libertarianism? No, the counselor's specific objections to the Republic are basically silly (at best a well-motivated misunderstanding), and Gall is a philosphically ineffectual but personally monstrous buffoon (his ideas are cast off as naive and he unrepentently fails to practice them when it comes to individual people--he's a real Alden Pyle type). Is it a contrast between European (Gall's) vs. Brazilian ideas of liberty? Not really--it'd take some familiarity with European history to use "Jacobin" as an epithet for the political ascendents. Speaking of the rapist Gall, is the message to put the abuse of women and the poor in the inevitable denominator of society? Well not even that: a woman is the other character lucky enough to catch an epiphany through all that; the poor rebels were happy as well as oppressed; and the rich had their successes and failures too. It's maybe all of those things. Or maybe it's just given as a bunch of stuff that happened, with a healthy nod to how things relate to ideologies, but aren't really.

I'll have you know that it's a bitch to type out all of those special characters, and I found the early abundance tilded, carated, and accent-marked proper nouns (the first 50 Brazilians that you meet are all named either Antônio or João) for which I had little feeling of a correct pronunciation to be an extra difficulty. Add to this that I didn't have a good intuition for the geography, and was learning fast to loathe this redheaded Scottish asshole featured so prominently at the front end of the book, and the first 75 pages was actually a bit of a slog. After that, however, (and maybe because I was home and had time to read) I caught the groove of it, and the book suddenly flew. I enjoyed the rest of the novel enough to go back and reread the first parts, which no longer seemed so slow.

The geography issue wasn't the backlands of Bahia, which are presented in great fine detail. As I mentioned yesterday, I got a distinct Victor Hugo vibe from their description, as Llosa lovingly and condescendingly re-introduces to the reader these superstitious country folks that modern society has stopped thinking about. He gets across that we're in an arid climate of scrub forest and Andean pampas in this part of the country. No, what I really missed here was any useful contrast between that and the coastal parts of Bahia. I didn't get a good picture of Salvador as an urbane, cosmopolitan place, and it took a while to figure out that Queimadas was the railway terminus, the cutoff point between civilization and the rest of the state. I mean, Llosa is writing to a South American audience which has some of the requisite cultural baggage, and that's all fine, but I kept thinking that if this was straight fiction instead of the historical variety, I'd have been content to have it spelled a little clearer. In a great departure from the inability of the characters of the novel to communicate with each other and the difficulty they had in traveling out there, I scouted out Canudos and environs with Google Maps, and it helped a lot.


Penal-Colony said...

Good stuff.

Llosa always cites Hugo as a primary influence, so it's no surprise the get resonances of Les Miserables, but there's also Dumas & Tolstoy, as you point out. When he speaks of the novel he stresses its sense of adventure, but an adventure that might be mediated by an Edward Said version of the exotic, say, or as Llosa says, 'lying in full knowledge of the truth', which is a kind of ideological blindness. Did you think it worked as an adventure story, or was it marred by the proliferation of mini-narratives? Did Llosa try to squeeze too much in, which is surprising since it began as a screenplay assignment. Maybe he made Sartre's mistake on Flaubert, and maybe The War of the End of the World is his Family Idiot.

Have you read any Amado? He's from Bahia. His Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon is a very sexy book.

Keifus said...

I just cleaned it up a little up there, guess I wasn't quite in time. Damn job lets me edit it dribs and drabs.

I enjoyed the intertwining and jumpy nature of the various story threads. As an adventure story I was fine with it, and I felt rather guilty about the excitement of reading these ragtag band of misfits fending off armies of such greater numbers. After all, Llosa isn't pulling any punches on just how nasty the whole business is. Lying in full knowledge of the truth. Enjoying it that way too. Another vibe I got (and I was ashamed to harp on this one) was that of a sort of high-class fantasy epic--which may be why I was frustrated that some of the other cultural elements could have used a little more background description.

(Yeah, and whenever I get finished with reading these Narnia books to the kids, I'm going to complain mightily about C.S. Lewis. Reading as an adult, I am finding a whole lot of creepy authoritarianism in it. Caspian waltzes in with this, "no really, I'm the rightful king" shit, "let's have a jolly war" and everyone just buys in. Fuck that.)

You're so far ahead of me, man. I have no intelligent comment to make on Flaubert or Sartre, but looking at a synopsis of the Family Idiot, I think I see what you mean there. I haven't read Amado either.

Penal-Colony said...

'Fantasy Epic'? that's just the Gene Wolfe in you.

Well, really, my two Latin authors are Juan Rulfo & Mario Benedetti, the inverse proportion of one another, and together of all the rest.

I suppose we're supposed to read Lewis to our children [I never did], but we'd be better off reading them Carroll and Stevenson.

You haven't missed anything in Sartre: that book allegedly about Flaubert is unreadable. But Flaubert is a must ... talk about the artist-as-martyr.

Keifus said...

They read the first one in school, and my younger daughter was hooked. Could never get her to sit still for books when she was smaller, and I'm really enjoying it at some levels. I keep prompting her with asides about this sort of authority and volition thing.

Not so much Wolfe (whatever the vehicle, that's more about extremely careful reveals of an underlying structure--there's a lot I like in selected readings, but then I read fucking Nabokov), but more a misspent youth that included a few piles of serial fantasy stuff. Not all of it is so regrettable (even if Narnia grates). It's that all this interleaving subplots and leaving off with cliffhangers, the martial themes, the medieval-but-not-really settings, letting "storytelling" be a strength, they're familiar notes. Or if that doesn't work, then maybe look for a hint of Star Wars in there, or your adventure yarn of choice.

I loved Carroll as a kid, and just recently found the tattered edition my grandfather gave me back then. Couldn't get traction with the girls on that one though. "We already saw the movie, Daddy." Drove me nuts.

Flutterby Brathier said...

Wow okay I was expecting a positive review...
I just read this book recently and it has since become my favorite book...
(The Picture of Dorian Gray comes in a close second because Wilde)
I mean your review wasn't negative per se but you wouldn't leave the Scotsman the hell alone...
I love how he comes to terms with his own hypocrisy and the characterisation is beautiful and Llosa resolves his arc satisfyingly well ^_^
I have sympathies for anarchism so that might be why I don't loathe him nearly as much as you...
Why the hate for the Canudos rebels?
I don't think your complaints justify you hatred for them...
Any way you take this novel its still good...