The Backlands Rebellion

The War of the End of the World

by Mario Vargas Llosa, translated by Helen R. Lane
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 568 pp., $18.95

Mario Vargas Llosa
Mario Vargas Llosa; drawing by David Levine

The facts are simple and strange. At the end of the last century, on a scrubland plateau in northeastern Brazil, a raggletaggle band of vagrants, robbers, and ascetics rebelled against the very idea of modern progress. They rejected the recently proclaimed Brazilian republic, and refused to pay taxes or to recognize civil marriages—all of which seemed to them the work of the Antichrist. They were sure the last days of the world were at hand, when the rivers would run with milk, the earth would change places with the sea, and Dom Sebastian, the legendary, long-vanished king of Portugal, would come again to announce the new heaven and to save the just.

The band was led by Antônio Mendes Maciel, known as Antônio Conselheiro, the Counselor, a man who had wandered this wilderness for many years, rebuilding churches, replacing cemetery walls, and preaching odd, brooding sermons stitched together out of the Bible and a book of hours and his own gloomy musings. He was savagely self-denying, hated drink and sex and greed, but he also possessed the weary fatalism of those who know that merely human things are soon to be leveled by the apocalypse. Asked to judge a case of rape, he said of the unfortunate girl, “She is fulfilling the destiny of all women; for all must pass beneath the tree of good and evil.” Conselheiro did not, it seems, seek disciples or power, but both came to him. He founded a commune to which the poor and the guilty and the hopeless flocked in their thousands, and built his shanty Jerusalem at a bend in a river.

It is true that Conselheiro burned the billboards notifying a small town of the government’s intention to collect taxes; it was said that a group of his men threatened to oust the municipal authorities in another town. But his real crime was conceptual, or ideological. He embodied a form of dissent that civilization, as the Brazilians then saw it, could not accommodate. It was a dissent that had to be stamped out, and was; but only after a series of ferocious military expeditions, of increasing size and might, had learned the lesson that opponents of guerrillas have since learned all over the map: that weapons and drill and scholarly strategy are no match for faith and numbers and an intimate knowledge of the country.

The first small party set out against Conselheiro and his commune in November 1896; the last costly campaign began in August 1897. Conselheiro died in September of the same year, and by October it was all over. The famous Brazilian historian of these events, Euclides da Cunha, says the government’s action was a crime “in the integral sense of the word”; a piece of barbarism, he adds, committed by the supposedly civilized against semibarbarians. The rather contorted logic of the thought is worth attending to. A…

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