Sunday, August 24, 2008

The War of the End of the World

Does anybody know what the image on the cover of this book means in the context of Christian narratives about the end of the world? The wikipedia article on Eschatology doesn't have anything. (I didn't read it fully, I just searched for "dog"). May be it is just a generic picture with dog as devil fighting the angel (of death?) but it does seem much more specific than that or may be it is not related to all this at all. The edition I read from had a different, much more abstract cover with a vulture in the sky and an abstracted and bleak landscape below littered with skulls. Anyway, I was thinking about this book after this discussion about Mario Vargas Llosa and the Latin American novel on Madhuri's blog. This is my personal favourite of his novels and I think it is a must-read for anyone interested in latin american culture, politics and history. At over 600 pages it is also a huge novel but at the same time a complete page-turner too.

A few words about the novel now that I am at it. Some people complain that it is rather simple and straightforward in style and and that Vargas Llosa eschews experimentation which has become one of the hallmarks of the latin american novel (and I am not talking about the awful and rather condescending tag of "magical realism" here). I will be the last person to defend stylistic conservatism but in this case the form of the novel is determined by what Vargas Llosa was aiming to achieve - that is, to represent a real historical event in all its complexity and the multitude of often contradictory voices without privileging one over the other. This is in fact a great example of what the Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin called the "polyphonic novel," and it is specially important for Vargas Llosa to follow this idiom because it is such a politically charged subject that it could have easily become a propagandist work if handled in any other way.

The novel fictionalizes a real event from Brazil's modern history - the war of Canudos which took place in the late nineteenth century which was also one of the events which came to define modern Brazilian national identity by providing it with a legitimacy both against the monarchist forces and the provincial power centres. In Vargas Llosa's hands this story also becomes emblematic of violent entrances into modernity that many other third world countries went through too - the rise of the modern nation state and all the violence that it necessarily entailed.

The story that Vargas Llosa tells is extremely complex and cast incredibly huge and in fact I have forgotten lots of details in the last 4-5 years but surprisingly a lot of this book has stayed with me all this time. The main thread of the novel is about the rise to power of the central character (even though he always remains mysterious and in the background) Antonio the Counselor, a priest and a preacher, who thinks that the modern democratic and secularized republic which has overthrown the Christian monarchy is not only a repudiation of Christian teachings but in fact an agent of Satan and the harbinger of the end of the world. His cult is actually one of the many millenialist cults which arose from time to time in medieval Europe too, which also gives Llosa a chance to link this particular event to a larger current of history itself, not just religious but also modern Utopian political beliefs which were similarly propelled by similar messianism. The Counselor attracts a massive following consisting of bunch of colourful characters - bandits, prostitutes, beggars, circus freaks, in general poor, desperate and starving people of the region and also a European anarchist who sees in Counselor's utopian pursuit a reflection of his own ideological thinking. Of course it all ends badly and Vargas Llosa doesn't spare any of the details of the brutal and violent fate that most of these characters meet in the end.

What makes it so successful and powerful is, as I said above, its polyphonic complexity. Llosa was himself going through an ideological transformation at that time after having publicly broken off from the leftist movement but he never lets ideological bias colour his judgement at any place. He presents each of the characters on every side of the political spectrum with their own indirect interior monologues so that the reader himself can judge and think about their actions or else what happens to them. In the end a powerful feeling of despair does remain - the feeling of the essential senselessness and meaninglessness of history, the idea that history is just a sequence of calamities with no purpose at all, other than senseless violence itself. I don't think that this bleak and extremely pessimistic vision of history with its anti-Utopianism is the only valid reading of the novel. Like any complex and authentic work of art this leaves room open for multiple different interpretations. The book is actually dedicated to Brazilian writer Euclides da Cunha who wrote the first account of the war based on his first hand experiences called Rebellion in the Backlands. It is considered an important literary work in its own right though it is not as famous in the English speaking world. There is a character of a journalist in the novel which seems to be modeled after him. In a rather plain and transparently metaphorical way Llosa makes him myopic - implying that even though he is able to see the events clearly he still misses the larger philosophical meaning of what happens. This is also a statement by Llosa justifying his own work as a novelist too. There are truths that only a novelist can find, truths that will always escape journalists and historians no matter how diligent, sincere and honest they may be. In short it is a huge novel but every bit worth the time and effort.


Kubla Khan said...

This review makes your enthusiasm about this "novel" very clear. I too like it and if one had to read only one novel of Llosa's, it should be this.

one of his themes in this work is the mundane nature of revolution in the general scheme of things, and how myth replaces the factual nature of things. this is true but then revolution is necessary at times.....

in other words, the distinction between history and truth and the narrative myth that it acquires. Canudos itself becomes mythical. the counsellor? in the end who he is gets does not seem to matter.

the tone and manner of this novel is journalistic, i mean the style. However, that as i always think about this work does not detract from its merit.

re the cover, could be one of those fire blowing angels signifying the end of the world.

Alok said...

yes I liked the way how he makes this very particular series of events in a remote place in some remote past feel so alive and so familiar - The craving for Utopia, and how one sees suffering and injustice in the world. I used to find all this religious apocalypticism ludicrous (i also hardly knew anything before reading this book) but it made me understand this better and helped me put it in the context of philosophy of history.