If the history of nations could be whittled down to one element, it would be violence. War, the domineering force of endless violence, is central in the re-telling of any history, whether its a comedic depiction like in Catch-22 or a brash exposé like in Slaughterhouse-5. However, Mario Vargas Llosa’s gruesome fourth novel, The War of the End of the World, elicits this phenomenon more coyly, making it a masterful tragedy that still echoes so poignantly today.
The War of Canudos, Brazil’s deadliest civil war, was a seemingly odd subject for the author to take on when he first published the novel back in 1981. It was his first novel set outside his native Peru, and his first historical novel (a feat he would take on again decades later documenting the Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo in The Feast of the Goat), but one that was written two decades too late. Its insight into fanaticism and conflict, into the clash of differing cults of salvation, is as complex as it is painstakingly relevant today.
“Today, in our globalized world, we have again come to understand, like the Brazilians did more than a century ago, that such thinking is naive.”
Unlike classic war novels, such as War and Peace or For Whom the Bell Tolls, The War of the End of the World does not deal with war in the traditional sense—there are no established warring powers, no conventional battles. Instead, it is a war turned against itself, a nation against its citizens, an internal resistance and confrontation of ideals where the old rules and structures do not apply. And it is telling that this battle in the arid sun-beaten northern backlands—a land basked in tradition, on the precipice of anarchy—had such resounding effect on the modern republic of Brazil. There was much shock during that time that the remote and seemingly insignificant Canudos could have such an impact. Today, in our globalized world, we have again come to understand, like the Brazilians did more than a century ago, that such thinking is naive.
The War in Canudos was as much guerrilla warfare as it was a civil war. Described in macabre detail in ideas and opinions, Varga Llosa’s world was one where the once daily atrocities of the Sertão failed in comparison to those committed in the name of the state or the religion. It was a war that changed Brazil’s identity, straining just how far it would go to upkeep its ideals and its future against an antithetical, radical force that was winning the hearts and minds of the backlands.
“And herein lies the ingenious relevance of the The War of the End of the World: as cerebral as it can be, it is equally corporeal, as if the reader is watching, in excruciating detail, the slow tearing of a sinew of humanity.”
Almost every character undergoes, willingly or not, a transformation on account of the war that gives them startlingly intimate and complex dimensions. Most never end up who they once were, but are never completely sure of who they now are, or what they are becoming. Many characters also skid the threshold of idiosyncrasy and deformity that spans the comical (the inauspicious circus dwarf, the blind and neurotic war journalist, the expat Scottish revolutionary phrenologist) to the more abject and sordid (the facially scared bestial bandit, the hunchback religious apostle who walks on all fours who reveres the feces of a religious ideal, and the infanticide “mother of men” who submits herself to brutal biblical repentances and rapes).
And while we may have the modern luxury of being removed from our war, of being able, in periods, to even forget it, Varga Llosa’s War of Canudos brings us front and center. Varga Llosa’s novel knows no boundary, shows little respite, and unsheathes certain veritable truths: war is a nihilistic hell, change is violent, and the truculence of belief is never more of a salvation than a punishment to those who fight. His depiction of war has the same shock-and-awe impact of a modern day aerial bombing—the reader is always struck by the scale and decrepitude of the conflict, the intransigence of idealism and religion, yet the doubt and apprehension of its followers, in any attempt to fully understand, to fully make out the intricacy of its abominable nature. And herein lies the ingenious relevance of the The War of the End of the World: as cerebral as it can be, it is equally corporeal, as if the reader is watching, in excruciating detail, the slow tearing of a sinew of humanity. A tearing we unfortunately have come to know all too well.