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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

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 whole delicate diagnosis lies in it.

Conselheiro’s revolt attracted the attention of Conrad’s friend R. B. Cunninghame-Graham, who published a book about it in 19201—encouraged, he says, by a letter from Teddy Roosevelt. “No one,” Teddy wrote, giving an impeccable impersonation of himself, “has touched the subject of the frontiersmen of Brazil. Why don’t you do it? for you have been there, know them, and speak their lingo.” Cunninghame-Graham was much taken by the strange cowboys of the region, a sort of cross between gauchos and samurai, and thought their situation resembled that of the lonely warring clans of the Scottish Highlands. He saw that their frontier was different from the North American one, since it was “the evershifting barrier between the old world and the new, or…betwixt our modern life and medievalism.” For the rest he was pretty much baffled by Conselheiro’s story, and limited himself to an account of the countryside and the campaigns, largely paraphrased from Da Cunha, and to some engaging but aimless comments on the prevalence of superstition (“the great book of human folly which so many take for fate”) and the heedlessness of governments of all sorts (“Few Governments are much disposed either to pity or to common sense, and the Brazilians were no exception to the rule that seems to make republics and monarchies alike hating and hateful to mankind”).

The story really is baffling. Why did these people flock to Conselheiro’s side? What were his motives, his hopes? Was he mad? Was he wilier or more resentful than he seemed? Was there any kind of conspiracy? Why couldn’t the government leave him alone, or cope with him in some measured, less desperate and bloodthirsty way? Just what were his enemies afraid of?

Euclides da Cunha has answers for most of these questions—too many answers for his or our own comfort, since they breed new questions before they have settled the old ones, and help, along with his patient, intelligent observation of the land and its inhabitants, to make his book Os sertões, Rebellion in the Backlands (1902), a stern and complicated classic, the bible of Brazilian nationality, as it has been called, but also one of the first masterpieces of modern Brazilian literature. Samuel Putnam compared the work to Leaves of Grass and Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Putnam’s translation appeared in 1944, and had a small vogue, I seem to remember, in the later 1960s.2

Os sertões is a work of geography and anthropology and of scrupulous military reporting; but it is most profoundly a work of imaginative and thoughtful history, along the lines, I would say, to add another comparison to the pile, of Carlyle’s French Revolution. Da Cunha is not always consistent, or even plausible, but he is always eloquent and sensitive to shifting nuance, and to what he calls the “complexity which is imminent in concrete facts.” He wants to argue, for example, that the people of the backlands are the “bedrock” of the Brazilian race, and also that Conselheiro was a mere manifestation of an austere local madness: “The life of this man at once becomes a synoptic chapter in the life of a society.” Does he mean the core of the nation is crazy? No, he means that a nation’s madness, if there is such a thing, may be intimately linked to its virtues rather than to its vices—that an adventurous, lively, loyal people may come closer to fanaticism than their more sluggish, less constant cousins.

For Da Cunha the very identity of Conselheiro’s people was his accomplice. “His insanity…became externalized,” rendered normal by the welcoming superstitions around it. “The multitude created him, refashioning him in its own image…. He drew the people of the backlands after him, not because he dominated them, but because their aberrations dominated him.”

We know,” the president of Brazil said at a late stage of the affair, “that back of the…fanatics, politics is at work.” What was at work was a refusal of politics, which was a political resistance in the deepest sense, and as such incomprehensible to the soldiers and administrators of the country, who became, in Da Cunha’s striking phrase, “unconscious mercenaries,” aggressive agents of a half-baked European idea of national unity. “What we had to face here,” Da Cunha writes, “was the unlooked-for resurrection, under arms, of an old society, a dead society, galvanized into life by a madman.” He adds that these “weak creatures, these poor rebellious ones…should have met with another reaction on our part.” All Brazil could send them was battle, “and that one supreme incisive argument of the moralist—bullets.”

Da Cunha’s anger is impressive, and stands Teddy Roosevelt on his head. No wonder Cunninghame-Graham was confused. The story takes on tragic dimensions for Da Cunha because he is in spite of everything an evolutionist and a progressive. “To live is to adapt one’s self.” He believes, he says grimly, that we are “condemned to civilization”: “Either we shall progress or we shall perish. So much is certain, and our choice is clear.” But can we progress, without such awful error, and human waste, and reckless cruelty? To ask this question without nostalgia or a taste for defeat is to look on a bleak and troubling landscape. The book Da Cunha was working on when he died was to have been called Paradise Lost.

Mario Vargas Llosa’s long and impressive novel, published in Spanish in 1981 and now well translated by Helen R. Lane, is in part dedicated to Euclides da Cunha, and contains a character who in many ways resembles him, an unnamed journalist reporting on the campaign against Conselheiro, as Da Cunha did, and permanently altered by his experience of it. But Vargas Llosa’s tone and interests are quite different. Da Cunha, as my quotations may have indicated, had the confident, prickly, scientific mind of the turn of the century—a mind not unlike Freud’s, say. He was anxious to understand, never wanting for categorical (if sometimes puzzling) explanations. Vargas Llosa has the more modest, less stringent mind of a later time. He would like to understand, but is keener to sympathize, and he knows a mystery when he sees one. He turns into a principle of narrative the bafflement that Cunninghame-Graham merely suffered. If Da Cunha’s temptation is a certain harshness of the intelligence, Vargas Llosa’s is sentimentality.

The War of the End of the World covers the same ground as Os sertões, clings to the same haunting story. But Vargas Llosa insists that the story is “endless,” “a tree of stories,” and the last words of the novel, in an affirmation that is now almost traditional in Latin American fiction, assert the primacy of passionate fable over unquickened fact. “Archangels took him up to heaven,” an old woman says of one of Conselheiro’s henchmen. “I saw them.”

The point of view moves rapidly, but is always that of the people who participate in the events: various pious or violent followers of Conselheiro; a wild Scottish phrenologist and revolutionary who sees in Conselheiro’s teaching a dream of fraternity, only superficially muddled by religion; soldiers and local and national politicians; guides and trackers; the members of a traveling circus; an easy-living priest, who comes to prefer Conselheiro’s discipline to the careless tolerance of his superiors in the Church; a feudal landowner and conservative leader, a weary, intelligent, and finally despairing man, whose wife is driven mad by the destruction of their estate. Then there is the journalist I have mentioned, who is left behind by the scattered and retreating army, and gets closer to Conselheiro’s inner circle than he ever expected or wanted to be.

In the half-meditative, half-narrative last section of the book, the story of the desolate, dying days of the commune is filtered through a conversation between the journalist and the landowner, in which both nag at the riddle of it all, reluctant to believe even the most self-evident statements, incapable of letting the matter rest. “Here,” the journalist thinks, “something different from reason governed things, men, time, death, something that it would be unfair to call madness and too general to call faith, superstition….”

There are touches of melodrama in the novel—history in this case is a subtle and economical writer, and we feel a certain bagginess when Vargas Llosa tries to improve on history, or fill it out—and ideas that seem to me dim and reactionary about the relations between sexual and political repression. Rape, for instance, is seen mainly as a mode of male self-discovery (“that sudden, incomprehensible, irrepressible impulse…. In anguish, he thought or dreamed: ‘How could I have done that?’ “). The ugly, unwanted journalist finds love and happiness in the final siege of Conselheiro’s battered city (with the same woman the other fellow raped, no less); two male rivals slaughter each other, and lie dying in each other’s arms, like figures in a pastiche of Dostoevsky. In all, though, the book’s steady and generous concentration, its agility in moving from one angle of vision to another, its deep identification with quite different characters in the somber story, make it thoroughly memorable, likely to stay in the mind for some time.

Sensibly, Vargas Llosa does not attempt to get inside Conselheiro’s head, and doesn’t even recount his earlier life. He remains opaque, an enigma, although he speaks more gently than in Da Cunha’s book, and he makes more sense. He has “quicksilver eyes” and he says, “God is other.” We may want to compare this with Da Cunha’s: “It was a clownish performance, but dreadful. One has but to imagine a buffoon maddened with a vision of the Apocalypse.” Vargas Llosa is arguing, implicitly, that need and faith can’t simply be wrong; that the perceived wisdom of Conselheiro requires sympathetic representation, whatever our skepticism may actually think about it. People are drawn to him, then, not by an obscure social pathology, but by their love, because he has been “able to reach past their abjection, their hunger, their lice, to fill them with hope and make them proud of their fate.”

Conselheiro is not mad, merely a forlorn, unworldly saint saddened by the wickedness of the times and the slackness of the established Church. He is not a political man, but he is rapidly caught up, Vargas Llosa insists, in the politics of others, quickly conscripted for scares and machinations. If he is against the republic, he must be a monarchist. In fact, he is a monarchist, but his king is not of this world. His revolt is not against life itself, as Cunninghame-Graham suggested, but against life-in-society, the sullied, compromised, unchosen life-with-others that civilization requires of us.

Perhaps such a revolt cannot be explained except as an overriding rejection of what most of us don’t think twice about accepting, and Vargas Llosa obviously wanted to leave us with jagged, revealing images rather than theory or analysis: with vultures descending on the ruins of the commune, for example, the whole dream-adventure come to that; with thieves and murderers literally reclaimed, converted into model citizens of their invented country; with honest but rabid military men who despair of the untidiness and corruption of civilian politics and want to make Brazil clean and whole in one fell swoop; with the extraordinary resentment of the ordinary, up-to-date, wheeling-and-dealing world against the practitioners of an ideal. Can it be that we are bound to see people who choose to be different as backsliding or as engaged in conspiracy or treason?

Although the setting of the novel is Brazil at the end of the century, its application is wider and touches more recent matters. Will the lure or the threat of the military ever go away in Latin America? What is the place of religion in those supposedly secular countries? What is the yearning for submission and abnegation that brings back again and again those ever-circling caudillos? We need to remember too that the end of the world for Vargas Llosa is not only a promised time but is used more than once in the book as a locution for a far or lost place: the middle of nowhere, the heart of darkness. It is the point where civilization ends, and that, of course, does not need to be a place at all. A change of custom will do. “We’re at war,” the Scottish revolutionary says, “and every weapon counts.” He means the class war, not the battle in the field. His interlocutor repeats the phrase. “Every weapon counts…. That is a precise definition of the times we’re living in, of the twentieth century that will soon be upon us…. I’m not surprised that those madmen think that the end of the world has come.” The road from the backlands leads to Guernica and the arms race and terrorism on all sides.

  1. 1

    A Brazilian Mystic, being the life and miracles of Antônio Conselheiro (Heinemann, 1920).

  2. 2

    University of Chicago, 1944; seventh edition, 1967.

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