Wednesday, November 13, 2013

"It Will Be Recalled By Countless Human Beings Not Yet Born:" Vargas Llosa's The War of the End of the World, pp 1-750

Mario Vargas Llosa's The War of the End of the World brings to mind the Cigarette Smoking Man's immortal verdict on the value of literature relative to more generic time-killing pursuits: I would rather read the worst book ever written, he says in "Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man" (season 4, episode 7), than watch the greatest movie ever made. And it also brings to mind the anxiety I used to feel when discovering a band like Evangelicals or A Sunny Day in Glasgow, or even non-obscurities like Bill Callahan. We have only so much time in our lives; every second reading something unworthy of it represents the denial of an opportunity to read something good. I could easily have gone my entire life without coming across Evangelicals' The Evening Descends, which I found through the internal and probably now defunct (and totally legal, for the record) file sharing network of a music magazine I wrote for back in college. And I could have brushed past Llosa's 750 page account of a largely forgotten civil disturbance in late 19th century Brazil without having the slightest inkling of the mistake I'd made. Discoveries like this should be cause for disquiet: coincidences don't have to happen, and you could sail past any number of life-changing experiences, artistic and otherwise, without feeling any real sense of loss. But the loss is immense, almost immeasurable seeing as almost by definition you can't perceive it, at least not moment to moment--this accumulation of countless books unread, music unlistened to, places unvisited, thoughts unexpressed.

I'm beginning the post like this because the story of my possession of this book actually sort of ties in to some broader points I'm going to make about it. I bought The War of the End of the World at the Diwan Bookstore in Cairo, on the far end of the 26th of July corridor in Zamalek. I'd just finished Ismail Kadare's The File On H--which is a fine read about the collision between art, nationalism and cosmopolitanism in pre-war Albania, even if it's more breezy than that heavy description would suggest, and frankly the themes feel a little forced at times--a book I had bought at that same store like four days earlier. I was in a city with a 9 PM curfew and needed something long and I vaguely remember a book editor friend of mine recommending TWOTEOTW, and a bit of Wikipedia'ing revealed that Roberto Bolano considered it to be Llosa's greatest work. I'll get back to that later.

Anyway, it turns out that the first half of TWOTEOTW is about a three-way conflict between religious fundamentalists, radical Jacobins, and pro-monarchy conservatives--or, to cast it in Egyptian terms, between the Muslim Brotherhood, the military and the felool. The ingenious thing about (SPOILERS AHEAD) TWOTEOTW is that it takes a virtually-unknown episode that occurred deep in the desert wilderness of a largely unfamiliar country and endows it with a kind of trans-historical urgency, such that I could see it clearly reflected in my immediate environment. Of course the tension between religion and the state isn't exactly a new topic for literature (see: The Bible), but Llosa happened on something slightly different and even deeper, something I might not have realized had I not read this on the heels of a reporting trip to Egypt.

See any vision of progress must obviously come at the expense of radically different alternatives--we aren't going to have five-year plans in America (nice try, Obama); China isn't simply going to fire its two million web censors, etc. etc. TWOTEOTW is an account of a moment when one society was staring into the abyss of a fundamental choice about its own nature, not unlike Egypt has over the course of this violent and very confusing year. TWOTEOTW is about how these moments are negotiated by societies that aren't ready to deal with them (y'know, as if any society is ready to deal with them). More importnatly, they're about how they're buried--how their non-existence is incorporated into the mythology of the side that eventually wins. It's a historical novel in the truest sense: it's about how things could have gone, what was sacrificed or gained when they went in a particular direction--and what is sacrificed and gained over the even longer process of forgetting history. This, too, is relevant to my Egypt experience over the summer, when I saw no physical inkling of violence or massacres at Nahda Square, a typical and wheezing Cairene traffic circle, rather than a place that had been a battleground only ten days earlier. Inevitably, TWOTEOTW is about how a country of 200 million people can pull this off.

And folks, it ain't pretty. This is the most violent book I've ever read (Blood Meridian included, incidentally), and the violence isn't portrayed in procedural or clinical fashion like in Bolano's 2666. It is lush and descriptive and psychologically punishing, yet also unsentimental and unidealized. There are lurid and unreadably detailed accounts of the ravages of warfare--insects burrowing under the skin, survival off of rainwater and grass, dead bodies mutilated, executions, starvation, rape--that possess a jarring, blunt honesty. It's this violent because war itself is this violent, and more than once, I found myself thinking of Syria, of the way in which distance obscures and even abets the horrors of war, and the way that a book like this one unapologetically collapses this distance.  I can't imagine writing something like it. It must be the product of a tormented imagination, of an author warped and consumed by his subject matter--of an artist swallowed whole.

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So here's what it's actually about, and I realize I'm embarking on a serious mishmash of Llosa, Wikipedia, and the decidedly non-expert ruminations of someone who doesn't actually know that much about Brazil. Anyway the last 30 years of the 19th century were a time of upheaval and crisis in Brazil. The country's slave-based economy was both immoral and impractical; as in the US, it entrenched a system in which landed elites ruled vast swaths of the country--and its diverse and perhaps ungovernable population--as a kind of personal fiefdom. Unlike in the US, that system was connected to an honest-to-God monarchy that was at the core of the entire country's social structure and national self image, along with a titled aristocracy for whom the endurance of the slave economy was literally a matter of survival. When the monarchy finally abolished slavery, it was only a matter of time before the existing political system was swept away as well, replaced by a kind of republican-nationalist government headed by the military.

TWOTEOTW takes place in the years following the establishment of the Republic, but during a time when the monarchial power structure was still firmly in place in parts of the country--such as Brazil's arid northeast, the setting of the novel and a desperately poor area in which something like half of the rural population had been killed off in a drought in the early 1870s. The drought is a crucial early event in the book, and gives the novel its apocalyptic context: The pilgrims of Canudos could believe that the world was about to end, because many of them had seen it end within their own lifetimes.

Anyway by the mid 1890s, it wasn't exactly a given that republicanism would survive in Brazil. The monarchy represented a historical and even religious connection to Portugal, Europe, Catholocism etc; the roots of the old system remained strong, and in a polyglot and largely ungoverned country that had experienced a series of civil uprisings and disturbances in the wake of the monarchy's abolition, the merits of the new system remained unproven. And there was the matter of the freed slaves, the shock of a massive, impoverished and racially different population attempting to enter a society that likely wasn't ready to accommodate them. Most of the country was incredibly poor and backward. It was, to borrow a phrase from Durkheim, a period of normlessness. Normlessness can create the opportunity for newer and better norms--think South Africa in the years after apartheid. Or it can result in a kind of chronic social rot that grows deeper and less manageable over time--think about the US's treatment of racial issues in the nearly 100 years between the end of the Civil War and the Civil Rights Act.

In Brazil, normlessness resulted in a bizarre guirilla war sparked by a messianic and egalitarian religious movement. That movement was itself started in Bahia's rapidly desertifying backlands by a mysterious wandering self-appointed Christ figure named The Counselor. In the HBO miniseries that I've been casting and indeed producing and acting out in my mind while jogging, bathing, etc., Brian Cranston plays The Counselor. Cranston/The Counselor was a kind of back-country mystic who blamed all of society's problems on the new republic's insistence on the separation of church and state, since taxation, civil marriage, the metric system, the census etc were symbols of man's usurpation of God's dominion on earth, thus making the Republic the antichrist, thus making resistance against it nothing less than an all-or-nothing apocalyptic struggle.

But The Counselor's movement isn't impractical or backward-looking. In Canudos, the town that his followers create in an impossibly-remote desert (see here), racial and social barriers fall away; former slaves, murderers, prostitutes and bandits are transformed and redeemed by God's love as channeled through The Counselor, who preaches a doctrine of mutual responsibility and acceptance. They don't want to overthrow the state so much as just be left alone by it. There is no money in Canudos; all resources are shared and its inhabitants want for nothing. All of their physical and spiritual needs are fulfilled, which is an astounding accomplishment within the bleak moral and physical/geographic environment the novel describes. Pilgrims arrive--tens of thousands of them. The politics of itmight be wacky, but it's clear from the beginning that there's something real underneath them, something that Brazil's new secular republic and arguably no secular republic can provide: a sense of meaning and worth for the marginalized and vulnerable; a separation between the harsh and unfair realities of a society in utter chaos, and a higher and purer truth that supersedes this degraded earthly realm.

Bahia is controlled by an aristocratic political party, under the leadership of the Baron de Canabrava, whose main purpose is to keep the republican government in Rio out of the local landowners' hair. So naturally an ambitious local republican politician named Goncalves engineers a situation--with the help of a plaint media, because this book is all kinds of topical even 30 years after its publication--in which the federal military is called in to suppress Canudos, which has declared the republic to be the antichrist and represents an open challenge to the legitimacy of the new order. In a way that Goncalves himself clearly doesn't intend, this becomes a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy--Canudos turns from a semi-peaceful yet deeply weird religious commune to a full-blown apocalyptic militant movement and national crisis as the jaguncos manage to defend themselves against waves of republican attacks.

The most gripping parts of TWOTEOTW involve a monomaniacal army officer named Moreira Ceasar, who has been sent to crush Canudos, and who is the closest thing that this amazingly even-handed novel has to a villain--but even he isn't irredeemable. Of the three principles at the center of the novel--The Counselor and the Baron de Carnabrava, played in my mind by Christopher Waltz, are the other two--he is the one that most closely resembles us. The most ruthless character in the novel, who murders journalists in the streets and openly pines for a secular military dictatorship, is arguably the most modern and forward-thinking; meanwhile, the most compassionate and humanitarian character is the leader of what morphs into a millenarian death cult as the war drags on. The Baron is at pains to explain that he released his own slaves a full five years before emancipation, and since everyone seems to misunderstand exactly what Canudos is and why it's mushroomed into a potentially nation-wrecking problem, he seems to have the keenest sense of what's actually going on. But he behaves in ways that are truly monstrous, and represents an old order that's struggling to accept its own rapid obsolescence. He isn't a truly sympathetic character. No one is.

And they're unsympathetic because what they represent is unsympathetic. Goncalves is a bottom-dwelling politician of the worst sort. Cesar is a fascist. The Baron is an old-timey aristocrat. The Counselor embodies a politics based on equality and spiritual transcendence, but also the dangers of such a politics. The collision between these men and ideas kills around 30,000 people; as I mentioned before, it kills them in incredibly painful and unpleasant ways. And over 750 pages, we're introduced to its victims: to conscripts bogged down in the sertao, and to peasants refusing to flee Canudos as the city burns, secure in the belief that their souls will soon ascend to heaven. In the midst of it is the sense of a country working out a sublimated conflict between a kind of crass modernity and superstitions--religious, communal, even nationalist--that are more organic and perhaps more substantive and individually satisfying than anything that such a modernity could offer. This is still a hot conflict, even in our own, far more enlightened world. There is no attractive or easy way out of it. The normlessness of TWOTEOTW is the normlessness of contemporary Egypt, and of any other place where no one seems to be able to grasp the depth and the severity of the choices that confront them. And the people who can grasp them--history's Sisis, Ceasars or Counselors--are often products of that normlessness, the results of a sickly and unsettled national existence, rather than people capable of transforming it for the better.

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Except there is an easy way out of it, and it gets at the truly ingenious thing about WOTETOW, which is as much about the process in which history is forgotten about, as it is about the process through which it is formed. The novel is flush with writers and storytellers--Goncalvez helps spawn a lie that brings the nation to the brink of collapse; the exiled Scottish revolutionary Galileo Gall, the buffoonish antihero of the novel's opening third, writes a series of articles about Canudos, which he mistakes for a second Paris Commune; the Near-Sighted Journalist becomes the only witness--of sorts--to the massacre at Canudos; the Dwarf is a traveling minstrel by trade; The Counselor earns followers through his storytelling and rhetoric, which is dutifully recorded by the Lion of Natuba. Even Cesar, who built his reputation for ruthlessness by murdering a journalist critic of his in the streets of Rio, betrays some awareness of his role in perpetuating an unctrollable cycle of falsehood and myth, as revealed in his dying words: "you mean we lied to the country for nothing?"

This emphasis on storytelling, and on the malleability and impermanence of narrative (also reflected in the fact that we never learn the real names of many of the book's major characters, including Gall, the Dwarf, the Journalist and even the Counselor himself), makes perfect sense if you Google the words "Canudos War." Aside from this amazing database at the University of New Mexico, you're not gonna find much. It apparently gets some kind of mention in Peter Robb's A Death in Brazil, and there is of course Euclides da Cunha's firsthand account of the war, which is apparently considered to be one of the greatest works ever written in Portugese. But it is the only firsthand account of the war, and in that respect the event is as obscure to us as the Jewish Wars, another conflict that lives on through a single and in many cases unfalsifiable first-hand record.

The power of TWOTEOTW comes from the lack of preconceptions we bring to the event itself--I knew so little about the Canudos War that I was shocked to learn that The Counselor actually existed, and that there is even a single, arresting photograph of his exhumed corpse. This shit actually happened. Yet it's difficult to find photos of the war; there's a contemporary sketch of what Canudos looked like when it was still standing, but the only actual photographs of the place depict it in ruins. As for the ruins--they're now under a reservoir created by the damming of the Vaza-Barris River. This is an erasure more complete and more even more horrifying than the coverup of the massacre of the banana workers in One Hundred Years of Solitude. This erasure actually happened--it is not fictional, and everyone is implicated in it. It's not as if the bodies of the people killed at Canudos were trucked away in the middle of the night. The burning of Canudos had to be consciously forgotten about, relegated to obscurity not just as a matter of policy (which policy is dealt with explicitly in the novel's dynamite final third) but as an act of popular willpower spanning over a century.

It's a reality that clashes with the purpose of Canudos, which was to create something for eternity--a merging of the heavenly and earthly kingdoms that could serve as a beacon to the rest of an unfair and benighted world. So one of the most heartbreaking moments of novel comes during the closing moments of the siege that destroys the city, as one of the Counselor's deputies contemplates his leader's dying words:
'It is the Counselor's testament,' the Little Blessed One thinks. He is perfectly aware of what a solemn, transcendent moment this is. What he is seeing and hearing will be recalled through the years, the centuries, among thousands and thousands of men of every tongue, of every race, in every corner of the globe; it will be recalled by countless human beings not yet born.
Even then, it is obvious that no one will recall it. The words are ephemeral; they'll die along with nearly everyone else in Canudos, and the cost of losing them will be immeasurable by virtue of being unknowable. Which is not to say that Llosa refrains from commenting on the more tangible consequences of mangling or wishing away the inconvenient bits of history. Take, for instance, this paragraph just a few pages shy of the novel's conclusion, in which Colonel Macedo--who is introduced in the book's final chapter but fleetingly mentioned about 600 pages earlier--explains why he is so intent on locating the corpse of Abbot Joao, the bandit-turned-leader of Canudos's guerrilla fighters:
'It's a story that goes back a long way,' the colonel growls...'a story that I began, apparently. That's what people say, anyway. Because I killed Abbot Joao's father, some thirty years ago, at least. He was a coiteiro of Anthony Silvino's, in Custodia...'
Of course Abbot Joao's father had nothing to do with Silvino, or with any other backcountry criminal. Several hundred pages earlier, we learn that he was summarily executed when his fellow villagers--in view of both personal jealousy and Macedo's reputation for burning entire towns on the mere suspicion that bandits were present--offered him up as a way to get Macedo to leave their community alone. That doesn't matter. The lie gains the status of official truth--it lives on through Macedo, who has outlived Abbot Joao, and through the lieutenant that the aging bandit-chaser is telling his story to, who will likely outlive him as well. A war that begins partly because of Goncalves and Cesars's lise ends with a lie that is itself connected to the war's even more distant origins ('a story that I began, apparently...'). In the novel's closing pages, Llosa reminds his readers that the real War of the End of the World takes place on the level of memory and forgetfulness; of truth, and falsehood. And he reminds us that even in an enlightened and connected age, it's a war that is more literal than figurative, one that memory and truth don't automatically get to win.

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