The War of the End of the World is the latest entry on my desert-island list of books. It’s the second book by Peruvian novelist, Nobelist, and classical liberal Mario Vargas Llosa that I’ve read (the other is The Feast of the Goat), and easily the better of the two. It is a fictionalized account of the story of the “War of Canudos,” the 1893-1897 attempt by the Brazilian republic to wipe out a utopian, Catholic-fundamentalist, ultra-monarchist city of the poor in the arid back country (sertão) of Bahia state.
Antonio Conseilhero (“the Counselor”) is a wandering lay preacher, who travels among the impoverished villages, towns, and haciendas of the region, gradually picking up a following as he goes. His disciples are the cast-offs of society: the deformed, the sinners, the drunkards, even the gangsters. Inspired by his simple faith and good deeds, they abandon their homes and their former lifestyles and take up the self-abnegating life of a religious devotee (“brushed by the wings of an angel,” they call it). Eventually, they settle on an abandoned hacienda called Canudos, owned by local aristocrat and leader of the Bahia Autonomist Party, the Baron de Canabrava.
The simple, rural, devout folk of Canudos see in the secular republic the beginnings of an atheistic oppression. They forbid census takers, whom they accuse of trying to identify all the former slaves to reinstate slavery (the monarchy had abolished slavery shortly before its overthrow), and tax collectors, and the coin of the republic is banned from circulation.
The Progressive Republican Party sees an opportunity to hang Canudos around the neck of the dominant Bahia Autonomist Party. They allege that it is a monarchist conspiracy to overthrow the republic, supported by the British. Ultimately, Canudos is caught up in political intrigues that sweep beyond Bahia to the capital of Brazil itself, Rio de Janeiro. Several military expeditions attack Canudos and are repulsed with great loss of life. Despite the attacks, the poor and devout from around Bahia and neighboring states move into Canudos in great numbers, hoping to be blessed by the Counselor and to see the kingdom of God on earth. Against great odds, this small, utopian, primitively armed commune holds out against the combined might of the Brazilian state for several months. Of course, the story cannot end well.
The book draws in an immense cast of characters, but because they are introduced gradually and methodically into the story, they do not overwhelm the reader. Major characters include the Counselor and his core disciples; the Baron, whose life is totally upended by the conflict; the Journalist, who accompanies one of the largest military expeditions to Canudos and then finds himself trapped among the defenders; and Galileo Gall, a Scottish-born anarcho-communist who hears of Canudos and thinks to find there a social revolution of the poor.
This is a book about fanaticism and its consequences. For Brazilian military officers and political republicans, the residents of Canudos are “fanatics,” “monarchists,” and even, “the English.” (In the absence of any evidence, they continue to believe that that imperial power must be backing the community.) Yet the republicans are just as fanatical. They are Jacobins, seeing in all local autonomy, religious devotion, and resistance to the state’s mechanisms of “legibility,” to use James C. Scott’s term, the seeds of treason. All adversaries must be crushed, and the soil that fed them salted. Canudos responds in kind; the exigencies of war require more atrocities, more fanaticism, more resistance.
The fate of Canudos may be sealed, but that of the individual is not. While the novel can be bluntly realist, even naturalist (the fierce environment of the sertão is almost a character unto itself), it is ultimately ideas that drive the characters to act as they do. While the novel’s atmosphere is dark, particularly by the end, it is also, at times, romantic. Vargas Llosa’s sympathy for what Canudos must have been comes through. Their beliefs may have been bizarre and mistaken, and some of their methods morally questionable, yet Canudos was giving the destitute and hopeless things of great value to them: community, security, meaning, hope. Had they simply been left alone… But no state, especially none as insecure as the young Brazilian republic, would have left them alone.