Those Heads on the Stakes

Philip Horne

1900 was the end of the 19th century but it wasn’t the end of the world, as we can see. Antonio Conselheiro, a religious leader in the Sertao, the harsh backlands of north-eastern Brazil, had predicted that it would be: ‘There shall be a great rain of stars, and that will be the end of the world. In 1900 the lights shall be put out.’ He was not there to see this prophecy belied; his own light had gone out on 22 September 1897, towards the end of a strange, grim piece of history. He had issued other, preliminary prophecies, among them the eerie sentence: ‘In 1898 there will be many hats and few heads.’ His resistance to the newly-established Brazilian Republic was based on passionate objections to the census, to metrication and to civil marriage. Conselheiro’s thousands of followers, the rebels of the Sertao, lived mentally as well as geographically apart from the rest of mankind. Others, including other Christians, would have to say of such beliefs, with the agnostic Wittgenstein: ‘I think differently, in a different way. I say different things to myself. I have different pictures.’ So that perhaps, insofar as Conselheiro’s settlement of the faithful at Canudos lived in a world of its own, the apocalyptic prophecy carried a rough truth: for by October 1897, concluding a protracted campaign shockingly brutal on both sides, the Brazilian Army had brought that world to a close with cannon, carbine, dynamite and bayonet.

Faber’s blurb is misleading, though, when it describes Mario Vargas Llosa’s newly-translated novel (first published in Spanish in 1981) as ‘inspired by a real episode in Brazilian history’. Misleading not because Canudos is not ‘a real episode’ – it took place all too authentically; nor because its reality does not ‘inspire’ him – Vargas Llosa’s book pulses throughout with his characteristically persuasive representation of excited perceptual states; but because one could say with equal relevance ‘inspired by a classic of Brazilian literature’. The War of the End of the World bears a dedication ‘To Euclides da Cunha in the other world’, and Cunha, who appears in it as the major but unnamed character, acts as the catalyst for Vargas Llosa’s reaction to Canudos. Cunha’s extraordinary Os Sertoes (translated from the Portuguese in 1944 by Samuel Putnam as Rebellion in the Backlands) came out in 1902, the year of Heart of Darkness, and Conrad’s confrontation of civilised and primitive in a remote interior does not so perilously trace the painful raw edge of the topic as does ‘this monstrous poem of brutality and force’ (as Cunha was later to describe it). Os Sertoes is not a composed fiction, but a harrowed piece of testimony by one who accompanied as a journalist the successive military expeditions sent to discipline the back-country; and its text, first treatise and then narrative, moves increasingly into a disturbing quasi-novelistic prose whose violent, ambivalent responses to violent, ambiguous incidents are at the mercy of an overwhelming real predicament. Cunha is imaginatively at full stretch in ordering his feelings under the hardly bearable experience of this increasingly disordered ‘war’ and it is the presence of ‘demons’, the anguished struggle between his writing and the world, that attracts Vargas Llosa to him, as it attracted him to the overstrained writer of soap operas Raul Salmon the original of Pedro Camacho in his earlier book Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter.

Starting with geographical description and a lofty anthropological theory about the mixture of races in the Sertao (European, Indian and African), and after expressing some serious, liberal reservations about the wisdom of a crushing military response to Antonio Conselheiro’s puzzling repudiation of Brazil’s new Republic as the Antichrist, Os Sertoes passes to a detailed account of the heroic tenacity of those under siege and of the tactical mistakes, inefficiency, disintegrating discipline and emergent ferocity of the army campaign. It concludes its genuinely ‘perilous essay’ with a portrayal of the last expeditionary force as ‘a criminal multitude, armed to the teeth and paid to kill’. Vargas Llosa, copies of whose first novel The Time of the Hero (1963) were burned by the military in Lima, is bound to feel interested in the way Cunha ended by paying for such words – assassinated by some worked-up soldier at a station in 1909. Since writing The War of the End of the World in 1981, Vargas Llosa has himself taken part in a somewhat tamer but nonetheless comparable excursion to Peru’s own interior, investigating the massacre of eight journalists by frightened Indian villagers who mistook them for Maoist Luminous Path guerrillas; and his latest novel, Historia de Mayta, apparently has the author investigate, years after the fact, a doomed minor rising in provincial Peru by an idealistic Trotskyite in 1958. We can see that Cunha, the fervent appreciator of disastrous delusions on the fringes of civilisation, is an exemplary figure for him.

Os Sertoes swerves between the accuracy of history and the explanatory power of story: the war of Canudos was generated by monstrous misunderstandings between the two sides, and proved a quite different experience for the Army and for the rebels, so that its true meaning can only be approached by a risky mediation between the clashing fictions of the antagonists. The Cunha figure in The War of the End of the World says that ‘Canudos isn’t a story; it’s a tree of stories’; and his original ends up with an image that draws attention to the vertigo produced by his methodical relativism. ‘We are like one who has ascended a very high mountain. On the summit, new and wide perspectives unfold before him, but along with them comes dizziness.’ Vargas Llosa’s genius for dealing with multitudinousness allows him to skirt the same abysses, and scale yet more dangerous peaks, without allowing his adeptness to obscure the giddily dismaying perspectives discovered by Cunha. His multiple strands of narrative – following a highly various group of characters on both sides and neither, most real, some seemingly invented – challenge us to unify this mass of disparate experience (violent, mystical, rationalistic, sensual, military, literary and so on) by some provisional synthesis that yet does justice to the glaring constitutive contradictoriness of the whole business.

One of Vargas Llosa’s characters, the politically superseded Baron de Canabrava, caught up reluctantly in a bizarre Faulknerian torrent of bitter retrospection by the Cunha figure, struggles for a moment to suppress the memory of Canudos in the name of sanity:

It’s better to forget it. It’s an unfortunate, unclear episode. It’s not good for anything. History must be instructive, exemplary. In this war, nobody has covered himself with glory. And nobody has understood what happened.

But the obsessive curiosity which drove Cunha to his equivocal, unforgettable masterpiece is a contagion. People crave stories, stories they can believe. For the Republican Army the explanation of Canudos was a monarchist conspiracy aided by the agents of a European power. For the followers of Antonio Conselheiro the explanation of the expeditions sent against Canudos was that Apocalypse was imminent and that these were the forces of the Dog. Neither of these one-sided accounts still works: the first was baseless propaganda and the date-stamp on the second has long passed. Yet Os Sertoes is founded on a tragic sense of the necessity of illusions, a necessity to which it sometimes romantically gives way with a certain self-consciousness. Thus Cunha lucidly notes how the soldiers propagate atrocity stories about the jagunços (‘ruffians’) who were their opponents: ‘They believed such stories as these; they made them up, seeking in advance an absolution for their misdeeds. At other times they deliberately exaggerated their feelings.’ But at intervals in his narrative Cunha’s own feelings get written ‘up’ with a metaphorical profusion and luridness which deliberately exaggerate certain responses in order to find release for others. He goes to town on Antonio Conselheiro’s great Temple: ‘There it stood facing the east, that stupendous disharmonious facade, without rule or proportion, with its gross friezes, its impossible volutes, its capering delirium of incorrect curves, its horrible ogives and embrasures, a brutish, shapeless hulk, something like an exhumed crypt, as if the builder had sought to objectivise in stone and cement the disorder of his own delirious mind.’ Here we detect the melodramatic imagination at work, giving rise at every turn of phrase to what Vargas Llosa’s study of Madame Bovary calls ‘a certain distortion or exacerbation of feeling’. Cunha’s pseudo-scientific theory that Canudos manifested an evolutionary discrepancy between the racial development of the sertanejo and that of the coastal Brazilian appears in this light as not much more than a means of access to the satisfying rhetoric of the really primitive: the jagunço leader Pajeu, for example, appears as ‘a fine example of recessive atavism, with the retrograde form of a grim troglodyte, stalking upright here with the same intrepidity with which, ages ago, he had brandished a stone hatchet at the entrance to his cave’.

Cunha’s original account, then, already turns fact towards fiction; and when Conrad’s eccentric Scots friend Cunninghame Graham came in 1920 to plagiarise Os Sertoes in A Brazilian Mystic he spun the yarn further by more fictionalisings and distortions (and at times simple misunderstandings) of his Portuguese model. Cunha had written of the Canudos campaign that ‘a single bit of news was soon distorted in the telling beyond all recognition.’ A Brazilian Mystic effects an exemplary distortion of the single gruesome fact that the jagunços, after defeating the third expeditionary force, placed the severed heads of the corpses on the ground on either side of the road to Canudos. In Graham ‘the heads they placed on stakes on each side of the defile’ is an insignificant elevation unless we recall ‘those heads on the stakes’ in Heart of Darkness. (Vargas Llosa puts them back on the ground.)

This real and literary history of distortion superimposed on distortion, this labyrinth of human illusions and perspectives, makes Canudos an ideal territory for Vargas Llosa’s preoccupations. Kathie y el Hipopotamo, his 1983 drama, apparently concerns a ghost writer hired to help a woman tell lies about the past. Its epigraphs announce its subject: Simone Weil’s ‘Life ... can only be borne with the aid of illusion’ and Eliot’s ‘human kind/Cannot bear very much reality.’ In the preface to the play Vargas Llosa explains the premise, related to these perceptions, which underlies his method: ‘The systematic rectification of life that is worked by fiction constitutes the documentary record, faithful as a photographic negative, of some human story.’ Our lies, he says, seen from the right point of view, ‘express us just as accurately as the more authentic truths we utter’. Canudos itself can be viewed like this, as a systematic rectification, under the influence of Christianity, of the misery of life in the intolerable Sertao (Cunha often looks at it this way). When the world is cruel you may pretend it’s about to end. But this is not all, for Vargas Llosa’s subsequent use of Eliot and Simone Weil gives us a clue to one special strength of The War of the End of the World. Where Cunha mostly invoked the language of science to explain Antonio Conselheiro’s religious movement while remaining at a distance, Vargas Llosa’s imaginative project involves him in intimate attention to the religious lives of those around ‘the Counsellor’, in an impersonal narration of their ‘different pictures’ without ironic signals of sympathy or of respect withheld. Correspondingly, there is no account, as there is in the deterministic Cunha, of the amazing unhappy background of the baffling Counsellor himself. Taking his lead, perhaps, from Flaubert’s ‘Un Coeur Simple’ (at one point ‘a parrot kept frantically repeating: “Felicity, Felicity!” ’), Vargas Llosa lovingly re-creates the life of simple faith, the kindness among those in the unique, impoverished, intricately described community of Canudos. The bandits and killers who repent and join the Counsellor fight brutally for him, but the good faith of their conversion is not explicitly questioned, except by them in their conscientious soul-searchings. The lives of these people are – at least subjectively – redeemed by the significance and shape conferred on them by their contact with the Counsellor. Abbot Joao (a real figure in Cunha) is given by Vargas Llosa a past as a psychopathic bandit leader, ‘Satan Joao’, and a sudden repentance to match that of Robert the Devil in the old story which has been his favourite as a child (a story, like ‘St Julien l’Hospitalier’, full of the melodramatic and possibly not spurious appeal of its provision for saving discontinuities, abrupt redemptions in damned lives).

In each of the biographical strands concerning the ‘fanatics’, we can sense this element of collaborative creative vocation, a transforming interest in their own lives taken by people who seemed destined to the misery of insignificance. Cunha’s positivist leanings make the sympathetic intensity of his treatment of Canudos in Os Sertoes remarkable: but The War of the End of the World, traversing the borderline of fiction and non-fiction on which Cunha trembles, goes imaginatively much further.

Cunha ends his book with the severed head of the Counsellor phrenologically analysed. ‘Let science here have the last word. Standing out in bold relief from all the significant circumvolutions were the essential outlines of crime and madness.’ His tone – could this be sarcasm? – is hard to gauge. By the end of The War of the End of the World, on the other hand, Vargas Llosa’s Cunha figure (usually ‘the nearsighted journalist’) is obsessively recounting official verdicts on the affair in a tone of cool outrage. Characteristics are redistributed – that is, ‘distorted’. Much of Cunha’s science is passed, not to the Cunha figure, but rather to an invented character, a revolutionary Scots phrenologist with the alias Galileo Gall who battily sees the apocalyptic jagunços as unconsciously fumbling towards the principles of socialism and sets off into the scrublands to help the struggle. The Cunha figure can thus stand more forcefully as ‘the writer’. The bewildered experience of Gall, an intriguing if somewhat schematically conceived innocent who is inadvertently involved in a (to him ludicrous and anachronistic) vendetta, becomes an empirical testing-ground for the European materialist framework for rebellion against the injustice of the world – which, it is suggested here, may be more of an illusion (a ‘fairy-tale’) than the Christian one. As a journalist, too, the Cunha figure moves between two probably invented rival employers: the ex-governor, the Baron de Canabrava, and his successful replacement, the ruthless young Republican Epaminondas Gonçalves.

This fictional world, in other words, is Vargas Llosa’s, the plot a cunning embroidery on Cunha’s original fabric. He imposes his own wonderfully insidious timings, so that we shift forward and back in time and space with startling equanimity, recognise unforeseen intersections in the characters’ lives, have curious instincts constantly aroused, and pick up the book’s momentum as it gathers itself for the end of its world. Vargas Llosa packs the book with violence, too: sexual violence, of course, but, most of all, the sights, sounds, smells and sensations of battle and death. The novel’s great attraction lies in its combination of the oppressive physical immediacy with which it contemplates the horrific particulars of countless struggles for life in the Sertao and the subtlety with which its scheme makes these remote things matter. Like the best 19th-century novels, it satisfies both our sceptical and our credulous impulses, our preference for true history and our desire for good stories; and almost satisfies our greatest wish in this area – that true history and good story should be one and the same. We might be surprised, then, by Vargas Llosa’s daring distortions in the treatment of his Cunha figure, a grotesquely driven romantic artist, racked by chronic sneezing fits, dangerously myopic, an unhappily unloved frequenter of brothels, physically ridiculous: the novel systematically turns the real writer’s imaginative captivation by the people of Canudos into a complete realised fantasy of involvement with the rebels, signalled as a rhetorical departure by its location ‘in that dreaming that is and is not, a dozing that blurs the borderline between waking and sleeping’. In this later hallucinatory strand of the book the Cunha figure is detached from the Army and swept into the other world, experiences a succession of intensities which one might think ‘realities’: humiliation, blindness (his glasses broken), terror, pain, hunger, thirst, wonder, comradeship, the tenderness of requited love. He enters a melodramatic phase (‘What can the Dwarf look like? Can she be his mother?’) which corresponds to Camacho’s disintegrating soap operas in Aunt Julia – a phase on the borderline whose status as experience is radically uncertain. What is certain, however, is that Vargas Llosa’s complex equivocation between the fictitious and the real only increases the hallucinatory vividness of reading The War of the End of the World; it is a paradox of literary experience, and of dreams, that things intensely represented seem to be there in a way they’re not when we actually see them (which is a different, doubtless a truer way). In this respect The War of the End of the World is a perfect nightmare for us as readers, while the war of the end of the world is an appalling reality for the reporters who have come with Colonel Moreira Cesar, ‘Throat-Slitter’, on the third army expedition, wishing to see things with their own eyes. ‘They have not yet recovered from the sight of those throats being slit just a few steps away from them: the meaning of certain words – war, cruelty, suffering, fate – has left the abstract domain in which it dwelt and taken on a measurable, tangible, carnal materiality that has left them speechless.’