“Out of the South American auteurs I have read, including Marquez and Bolano, it is Vargas Llosa who strikes me as the most enduring,” writes Praveen Murali Palakkazhi.
The War of the End of the World is a sprawling, magnificent epic based on a true incident that happened in the Bahia region of Brazil towards the end of the nineteenth century as the country was coming to terms with ending the monarchy and abolishing the slave trade as well as establishing a young Republic.
Mario Vargas Llosa is one of the foremost South American literary giants but probably not as well-known as his great adversary (he even punched him in an altercation once), Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Which is disappointing, because out of the South American auteurs I have read, including Marquez and Bolano, it is Vargas Llosa who strikes me as the most enduring; his style a perfect mix of authorial flash as well as no nonsense storytelling. One can hope that his Nobel Prize win in 2010 throws more light on his work. First published in 1981, this particular novel can be considered his masterpiece.
At its heart the story is about a mysterious stranger who walks the backlands of Bahia preaching the gospel and collecting stranded souls who accompany him on his travels from thereon. This stranger, Antonio Conselhiero, known simply as The Counselor, arrives in small towns and villages which are mostly impoverished and sets about righting the broken down churches and trying to lead inhabitants away from the paths of sin as he calls it.
It’s a dangerous time, as droughts and famines have driven the populace to poverty and despair as they grapple with the new Republic’s laws. To add to the woes, there are numerous bands of bandits who roam the arid lands and plunder without mercy. Is it a wonder then that many find succor and purpose in the Counselor’s teachings? However, there are those who are on the fringes of even a deprived populace, and it is to these people that the Counselor’s blessing and acceptance provide the most hope and admiration.
Thus, we have in depth descriptions of the backstories to some of these characters who end up following the Counselor around devotedly. These include, among others, a woman who committed filicide, a deformed human who walks around on all fours, and a woman established as a water diviner. There are also former shopkeepers, beggars, prostitutes, and even bloodthirsty bandits who genuinely turn to a peaceful life under the spell of the Counselor.
After going around with his coterie for years, the Counselor decrees that the new Republic is a construct of the Anti-Christ and has to be resisted. For this, his band set up on one of the prominent landowners’ land called Canudos and establish their slice of civilization there. But, the landowners and even the Republican state are not happy with this state of affairs, and soon the backlash begins. What initially begins as an assault by a small unit to get the group off the baron’s land turns into full-fledged warfare, as the state is brutally surprised at the intensity with which the Counselor’s followers repel the advances against their way of life. Before long, the inevitable bloodshed and brutality on both sides leads to its inevitable, yet wholly avoidable, conclusion.
It’s a riveting piece of work that Llosa has come up with here. He doesn’t seem to overwhelmingly take sides here. The Counselor’s band could have been described as a bunch of raving religious loonies, but there is real heart and depth in their portrayal. It would make even the avowed atheists re-examine their outlook towards the power or use of religion for some good for a chance. If even murderous bandits can be turned to a life far removed from their pasts, is the Counselor’s message, despite its religious bluster, all that bad? So do we root for them in this battle? But, the other side is also not represented as wholly lacking in human decency either.
The baron, Canabrava, is not shown as a slave abusing landowner with no feelings. Instead, his is a carefully painted portrait of a compassionate man who is involved in the politics of the land and time. Even the renowned soldier, with the moniker Throat-Slitter, sent out by the Republican government to put an end to the rebels is painted as a complex figure with his own moments of sentimentality. It is this moral conundrum which grips the reader from beginning to end and from which the novel derives its considerable strength.
There are some more interesting characters in the mix here – a disillusioned atheist revolutionary from Scotland, a guide and his wife in the backlands who get unwittingly mixed up with the revolutionary and Canudos, and a traveling circus troupe and its performers (including a dwarf and a bearded woman).
But make no mistakes about its title though. This is, ultimately, a book about a war and the descriptions match that. There is some real brutality on display as both sides murder, mutilate, rape and desecrate corpses. If you are of the weak of stomach or disposition you may want to be prepared before picking this up. It is also a bleak social commentary on the futility of war as the number of corpses pile up and even young children are forced to lose their innocence.
Eventually, it is a triumph of storytelling by a genius of the written word. Serious readers would be doing themselves a favor by picking this up and sticking with it throughout its considerable size.