Monday, August 10, 2020

The War of the End of the World by Mario Vargas Llosa

The War of the End of the World is the first book that I have read by Mario Vargas Llosa. This is a massive and sprawling novel that chronicles the real - life historical conflict known as the The War of Canudos which occurred in the last few years of the Nineteenth Century. The book is filled with interesting and complex characters. The plot is also compelling. The book plays with all sorts of ideas about ideology, fanaticism, violence, gender, religion among other things. My version of the novel was 750 pages long. Both the length and the nature of the story are epic. My translation was by Helen Lane. This seems to be the only English translation available. This was first published in 1981. 

I will summarize the events of the book here, not the real historical events. However, a little internet reading leads me to believe that the book follows fairly closely to the actual history. In the time that this story takes place, a coup against Brazilian Emperor Dom Pedro II had occurred a few years earlier. A republic under the influence of military interests has been set up. In the back – country, around the town of Canudos, a messianic religious leader known as The Counselor has attracted first hundreds, then thousands, then tens of thousands, of followers. His group has a set of complicated set of beliefs. They are rooted in Catholicism and they are pro – monarchy. They reject many aspects of the modernity like the republic itself and secular marriage. They label the Republicans agents of the anti – Christ. The worship The Counselor as Godlike. Yet the also support a communal ownership of property and other radical beliefs. Even the characters in the book that hold differing belief systems from the rebels are a little befuddled by them. 

The Counselor’s followers are espouse lots of fanatical beliefs. Some of their ideas are shown to be harmful. However, most of the individual members, as is The Counselor himself, are portrayed for the most part sympathetically. Some have been turned away from violence and barbarism by The Counselor. Others have been rescued by him from abject oppression. Their behavior is far from perfect, but most of them act ethically and with humanity. For instance, despite the fact that the mutilate the dead bodies of their enemies, their leadership generally tries to avoid brutality towards living people. 

The Counselor attracts a very diverse group of people. In addition to the poor peasantry, he is joined by many ex - criminals and bandits, many of whom previously practiced savage brutality. When joining The Counselor, they have genuine religious epiphanies and renounce their past deeds. 

Throughout the novel the Brazilian government sends a series of military expeditions to crush The Counselor's group. The first three expeditions are thoroughly routed by the increasing militarized and competent forces of The Counselor, who set up a base and established control of Canudos. Even an enormous fourth military expedition meets skilled and fierce resistance. 

It is a difficult to write about the characters in this book because of their large number. The narrative also often goes into their backstories. There are too many of them to thoroughly cover in single blog post. The book focuses upon the Counselor’s followers, the military, politicians and landowners who are trying to navigate between the two sides, and neutral peasants. I will try to talk about just some of the more important individuals here.

There is a reporter who is only known as the nearsighted journalist. This man starts off covering the third military expedition but eventually finds himself in Canudos after the government’s defeat. 

The Baron de Canabrava is a local land owner. He is also conservative and anti – Republican like the rebels. However, he eventually finds himself in conflict with them and they eventually burn his estate. 

The Dwarf is a is a member of a traveling circus. Though his body is deformed, he shows empathy and humanity to others and is capable of establishing strong bonds with people. 

Galileo Gall is a Scottish anarchist, and an atheist who despite the fact that he has many conflicting beliefs, wants to assist the rebels. 

Jurema is a young woman who is raped by Gall who ends up helping the nearsighted journalist to survive. Throughout much of the book she is pursued by her husband who wants to murder her. 

Colonel Moreira César is a cruel general from the Brazilian republic who generality believes in a militarized form of Republicanism. He is known for acts of brutality against civilians and prisoners. This officer was real historical character. 

Rufino is Jurema’s husband. When Jurema runs off with Gall, he begins searching for the pair and becomes obsessed with killing them both. 

One common theme here seems to be that people become obsessed with causes, both personal and public, to the detriment of society and of themselves. The Counselor’s followers, though often portrayed sympathetically are zealots. Supporters of the government, such as Colonel Moreira Césarare true believers and are not hypocrites, but they are brutal as they murder and torture civilians and prisoners. Rufino’s quest for retribution descends into violent madness and leads to personal catastrophe. One of the most virtuous characters is Jurema. She  is fairly simple and avoids ideology. She also cares and sacrifices for others and shows empathy. A connection forms between Jurema, the nearsighted journalist and the Dwarf may be the most important connection in the book. These three characters are more or less untainted by ideology and do not follow causes, 

At one point the nearsighted journalist thinks about his relationship to Jurema and the Dwarf, 

How was it possible for him to feel such a great affinity, such boundless love for those two beings with whom he had nothing in common, whose social background, education, sensibility, experience, culture were in fact altogether different from his? What they had been through together for all these months had forged this bond between them, the fact that without ever imagining such a thing, without deliberately seeking it, without knowing how or why, through the sort of strange, fantastic concatenation of cause and effect, of chance, accident, and coincidence that constitute history, the three of them had been catapulted together into the midst of these extraordinary events, into this life at the brink of death. That was what had created this tie between them. “I’m never going to be separated from them again,”

There is a lot to the above quotation. I think that mention of differences between the individuals, as well as their chance connection is important. In the end, what is most important is the shared experience leading to love. 

I think about Joseph Conrad’s Under Western Eyes where the ideology of all sides was shown to be poisonous and where genuine human compassion, charity and empathy was held up in high regard as being preferable to politics. In that way I think that in this way these two books are related. 

As mentioned above, the book describes monstrous brutality including murder, rape and sexual slavery. I found some of this disturbing. The narrative also includes descriptions of empathy as well as great acts of redemption. Sometimes the brutality is tied to the redemption as the former perpetrators of atrocities are changed and sometimes even come to terms with their former victims. Redemption is an important theme here and is connected with certain Christian beliefs in the narrative. 

Though I did not know anything about the conflict before, from the little I read online about the real War of Canudos, Llosa seems to have maintained a lot of historical accuracy here. It appears that much of the political and military maneuvering here is conveyed as it happened. I am a little uncomfortable with historical fiction that mirrors real life events. I am a stickler for history being portrayed as accurately and as objectively as possible and I think that novels are not the best way for this to happen. As historical documents, novels and history do not mix well and I always worry that people will try to learn history from fiction. In the end I am fine with these books as long as they are considered fiction and not history. I may eventually read a non – fiction account of this conflict.

I have only scratched the barest part of the surface of this book in terms of characters, relationships, ideas and even the plot. There is so much going on here. I really just mentioned a few points that I have found particularly interesting. 

This is an extraordinary and epic novel. It is complex. It is full of interesting characters. It has an engaging plot. It seems to have a lot to say about the world. Almost any reader is likely to find all sorts of things to think about  within its pages. This is the first time that I have read Llosa. I do not know what his other books are like but I will surely give them a try. 


Richard said...

So glad you enjoyed this, Brian! For sheer storytelling, I think it's the best of the Vargas Llosa novels I've read although Conversation in the Cathedral would probably be a contender for that crown also (its storytelling is more complex, experimental than this one). The nearsighted journalist figure, as you might already know, was a homage to Euclides da Cunha, the author who wrote Rebellion in the Backlands, the nonfiction source for Vargas Llosa's novel. The Da Cunha book is amazing in its own right; as a fellow history buff, I suspect you'd find that book at least equally rewarding as this one. Anyway, here's my old review should you care to compare notes. Cheers!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Richard - I was a very enjoyable book despite some of the violence.

I had heard that the nearsighted journalist was based on the author of that account. That is really interesting. I might give The Da Cunha a try.

I will check out your commentary and I will check out more of Llosa’s books.

Kathy's Corner said...

Hi Brian, Years ago I read some of Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter by Vargas Llosa. I didn't give that novel the attention I should have and I have always meant to try another of his books and Conversation in the Cathedral sounds very good. I guess due to the present situation when I hear about the Counselor being a God-like figure to his supporters it hits close to home.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Kathy - I think that if Llosa’s other books are anything like this one then they really need attention while reading.

I would not compare The Counselor to any modern day figure, but such messianic characters were fairly common back in the Nineteenth Century.

thecuecard said...

Messiah plots are often interesting. (We actually recently watched a TV series on Netflix called Messiah that was sort of interesting ... and wasn't so much about religion as showing what the obsessed followers are like etc.) I like the bond of the 3 characters you mention (outcastes who come together and are more virtuous perhaps). I think good fiction can enlighten us in ways about history, so I am not as opposed to good historical fiction ... it can bring us into such real events & situations.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sue - Charismatic religious leaders fascinate people in both real life and in fiction. This is a deep exploration of the theme.

In the end, I am fine with historical fiction as long as it is seen as fiction.

Judy Krueger said...

Excellent review, Brian. I have read the first two novels by Mario Vargas Llosa: The Time of the Hero and The Green House. Both are reviewed on my blog. Since I am reading his books in order of publication, I have three more to read before I get to The War of the End of the World. I admire his writing even though in The Green House, I found him a bit hard to follow.
As far as historical fiction goes, I read quite a bit of it. I find it gives me insight into the individuals who lived in historical times. By now, I can usually tell if the author has been faithful to the historical record or is just making stuff up to fill in the characters. The second kind I usually don't bother finishing.
I think there are also two kinds of historians. Those who do accurate research of primary sources and those who have an agenda. It is up to us as readers to distinguish.

mudpuddle said...

i got the impression from your post that Llosa was attempting to portray human events as they are in reality: complicated and sporadically illogical... i think it's pretty difficult to convey a distinct message in a text and simultaneously imitate the craziness of real life as it changes over time, but this book seems to have come closer than any i've heard of in doing that... i'd read it if it weren't so gory, but your excellent post will have to do... interesting...

Suko said...

The characters sound fascinating--and I know there are many more! Terrific, thoughtful commentary, Brian Joseph! I will keep this book in mind for future reading.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Judy - I must read more Llosa.

When I think About it, I do not think that if a book is historically inaccurate that it would bother me. Foe instance, if I found out that if this book was historically inaccurate, I would like it just as much.

Some historians write agenda driven books. I think that is OK if the historian makes clear what they are doing and if they follow certain rules of fairness and truth. If they are deceptive it then becomes a problem.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Muddpuddle. I should have mentioned that in my post. Many of the events portrayed here do not really fit into a theme because they reflect real history. He portrays a messy, disordered world that has s hard to pigeonhole.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Suko.

Dorothy Borders said...

Several years ago, I went through a period in which I was fascinated by South American literature and I read practically nothing else, including some of Llosa's books. The one I particularly remember was Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter which I very much enjoyed. I've not read the book that you reviewed. It sounds very different from his other books that I'm familiar with but something that I would enjoy reading.

Sharon Wilfong said...

Great review, Brian! I have recently begun expanding my literary tastes to include countries I've not really touched upon before. South American authors are among them.

I'm with you that I prefer non fiction to historical fiction. I worry that the fiction will paint a false image of real life people. Still, it sounds like this book is fairly faithful to history.

I am fascinated by the cult of personality and causes and beliefs that people throw themselves into. We see it in our own country. Jesus said it best: we are all like sheep led astray.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Sharon. I also am trying to expand the authors that I read to include different parts of the world,

The cult of personality is so interesting. Here it is very complex as those who fall for it are not completely unethical or ignorant.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Dorothy - I must read more Llosa. I chose this one because both the author himself and Harold Bloom considered it his best.

James said...

This sounds like a great read. Your description made me think of the Branch Davidians in Waco back in the 90s. I've enjoyed some Llosa, especially Conversation in the Cathedral.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi James - I must read more Llosa.

David Koresh really was a wood example of the cult of personality.

Lark said...

This book does sound epic. And at 750 pages, quite a commitment. Glad you ended up liking it so much. I've never read any of Llosa's books but I've been aware of them. Great review! :)

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Lark and thanks for stopping by. I tend to read a fair amount of long books.

HKatz said...

I have a similar uneasiness with historical fiction that uses real-life events/people as major plot points or figures. This uneasiness spills over to "based on a true story" movies or biopics. How much creative bending for fiction is acceptable in this context? Does it matter when the events took place? (For instance, I can enjoy reading Shakespeare's historical plays while realizing that his depiction of Richard III and other figures may not exactly be accurate.)

Also, I have to admit I rolled my eyes a little at the description of Jurema. A female character who is simple, self-sacrificial, and empathetic? Whoa, never seen that before. (Just to be clear, I'm not rolling my eyes at you.)

Anyway, thank you for sharing this review. It's super hard to write a single blog post about a long, complex, and dense novel but you have a knack for bringing out major themes and important points.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Hila - I actually do not care if these books are historically accurate as I try not to get my have history that way. Shakespeare I a good example, not historically accurate but brilliant.

Jurema is indeed a stereotype. I am thinking that if this book were written these days, her character would be very different.

Susan Kane said...

A Renaissance man of sorts, Llosas is brilliant, truly brilliant. I do not think I can hold all the threads in a warp and weft to follow through with such a book. It is so turbulent (as history usually is). Great review, though.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Susan - I must read more Llosas.

The book was not too hard to follow. There were many characters and their backstories were told, but their interactions were not too complicated.

Carol said...

I love the quote you chose from the Dwarf! Just wonderful. South American literature is not a genre I've read much if at all. I tend to err on the side of the Russians mostly! I have to be careful with some content in books & it really depends on the way the author portrays it and just reading your review, which is great, btw, I don't think this would be a book I'd read without causing major disruptions to my sleep. :)

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Carol. There are so many wonderful literatures from around the world.

Certain kinds of violence and brutality depicted in books disturbs me too.

Whispering Gums said...

I have read two books by Llosa or Vargas Llosa --- Aunt Julia and the scriptwriter a long long time ago, and The feast of the goat fairly early in my blogging career. I think your point about Llosa and Conrad - "I think about Joseph Conrad’s Under Western Eyes where the ideology of all sides was shown to be poisonous and where genuine human compassion, charity and empathy was held up in high regard as being preferable to politics. In that way I think that in this way these two books are related" - is a good one.

Like you, I learnt quite a lot about a region and its history, that I haven't ever properly concentrated upon.

Great review, Brian.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks WG. I really do need to delve into this aspect of Brazilian history.

I love the find commonality between authors like this.

the bookworm said...

Hi Brian, this sounds interesting and I'm glad you enjoyed it. I like the quote you shared by the nearsighted journalist.
I myself don't mind books based on history or when the book embellishes.
I'm a fan of Tudor history and while I watch documentaries that stay true to the facts, I also enjoy the films and books that change it up a bit. I tend to google to get the facts when I'm curious on a book or movie version.
Great post like always.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Naida - Though I think that we are in the minority, I also do not care if novelists take liberties with history. These are novels. Shakespeare Also played lose with history.

That is a great quote.

baili said...

outstanding review once again dear Brain

i think work is heavy for me but i truly feel inspired by writer's grave work he put into this as it sounds through your wonderful commentary

i am ordinary person and not much into historical details honestly ,you can count me from those who rely on history grabbed by fiction and mostly because they hardly find time to go specially for it probably

but after reading your opinion i must be careful with my attitude :)

i have read really few novels about weird cults made by weird people which seems more often in west (if i am right in my guess) as it is mostly because of freedom people got there
counslcler 's cult does not seem different here ,i think Jurma is light of the novel :)
thank you for amazing review Brain ,i am specially happy with your diversity of topics ,it is really not just inspiring but entertaining .i learn so much from your blog

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks so much Baili. That is an interesting observation about cults being more prevalent in the West. I wonder if there is truth to it and if it relates to freedom. They really do generate such strange behavior.