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.

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