RHC 2017: The War of the End of the World by Mario Vargas Llosa

Read Harder Challenge 2017

This post is part of a series in which I describe the twenty-four books I read in 2017(ish) for Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge

Task: Read a book set in Central or South America, written by a Central or South American author.

Okay, technically I finished this in February 2018. But this challenge isn’t graded, so I’m counting it. No one can stop me.

The War of the End of the World is a kaleidoscopic novel about the War of Canudos in the sertão region of Brazil near the turn of the century. It includes a staggeringly large cast of characters, a slippery timeline, and rich, dense writing. The translation I read was beautiful, but man was it chewy. I shot myself in the foot by being in a hurry to finish this in order to finish the 2017 challenge (which literally no one asked me to do, and no one even more emphatically ever asked me to write twenty-four term papers while I was at it). This isn’t the kind of book you can read in a hurry, and I wouldn’t recommend tackling it on a deadline.

In case you’re as unfamiliar with this history as I was, the War of Canudos was a bloody civil war fought between the thirty thousand or so followers of Antônio Conselheiro and the nascent Brazilian republic from 1895-1898. Antônio Conselheiro, simply the Counselor in the novel, was a charismatic religious figure who managed to amass a huge following by wandering around rural and extremely economically depressed regions of the state of Bahia. From there, an armed encounter between a small group of soldiers and a band of the Counselor’s followers led to a rapidly escalating conflict between the government desperate to quash anything remotely monarchist-leaning and a huge doomsday cult waiting for a prophecy involving King Sebastian of Portugal returning from the dead to be fulfilled.

I’m not sure if it’s stupid to say that The War of the End of the World feels like magical realism without any magic. I’m worried that’s a stupid thing to say because of the possibility that I’m just conflating Vargas Llosa with One Hundred Years of Solitude because it’s my closest point of reference. But I offer it to you anyway, with caveats about my ignorance of South American literature.

Vargas Llosa tackles the War of Canudos from a dizzying number of angles. We meet the Counselor himself, who fades from the narrative and eventually wastes away from dysentery (after a pretty repulsive last communion among his followers that I’m not sure whether or not was some of the blackest comedy I’ve ever read). Some of my favorite passages involved the introduction of the Counselor’s inner circle– the ascetic, self-flagellating Little Blessed One, the disabled, highly literate, and not exactly a true believer Lion of Natuba, the fearsome bandit Pajeú, the former slave Big João (not to be confused with the other reformed bandit Abbot João), among others.

Outside of Canudos, a number of narrative threads weave in and out of the story. The professional revolutionary Galileo Gall, Scottish anarchist and phrenology specialist, believes Canudos to be a perfect example of the revolutionary spirit, in spite of the unfortunate religious metaphors it’s based on.

Gall also violently rapes the wife of his guide. I thought I was supposed to be reading Gall as an insufferably pretentious and wildly ignorant monster, until I read the NY Times Book Review’s article on the book, which described him as one of the strongest characters and as the embodiment of genuine revolutionary spirit. So, I don’t know what’s up with that. I can confidently say that of this book’s many virtues, treatment of gender is not one.

There’s a massive subplot involving Gall’s victim Jurema, and her husband Rufino. That story intersects with a traveling circus that gets itself swept up in the conflict. There are also a number of military characters, political actors, etc. It’s … a big book.

I admittedly spent a lot of time thumbing the remaining pages of this book despairing of ever finishing it. But now that I have finished it, I’m still thinking about it three weeks later. The violent climax is intense and upsetting. Characters that started out as caricature (I’m cribbing from this essay) end up fully humanized, and it’s difficult to read about their demise. Five hundred and seventy-six pages (in tiny print, in enormous page-spanning paragraphs) of fever dream imagery left their mark too. I’m glad I stuck with it.

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