A.J. Howard's Reviews > The War of the End of the World

The War of the End of the World by Mario Vargas Llosa
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Oct 22, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: finished-in-2011, 1001-books, bookshelf-fiction, nobel
Read from October 22 to December 02, 2011

The War of the End of the World is, after The Feast of the Goat, only the second the second Mario Vargas Llosa novel I have read. But I still feel mostly secure in saying that Vargas Llosa, more than any other novelist I can think of this side of Tolstoy, has a better and more intuitive grasp of the subtleties of politics. By this, I don't mean such politica machinations as electioneering and how a bill becomes a law. Instead, Vargas Llosa's writing explores the essence of the political relationship between the governors and the governed.* In the Feast of the Goat, Vargas Llosa uses the final days of the Trujillio regime to craft a revealing and disturbing portrait of a society trapped in an authoritarian cult of personality. With The War of the End of the World, his golas are more ambitious.

The novel is centered around the War of Canudos, an extremely violent, yet incredibly localized, insurrection that took place in the early years of the Brazilian Republic, shortly before the beginning of the 20th century.** In the aftermath of the abolition of slavery the previous decade, the town of Canudos had swelled from a small baronial outpost to a semi-squalid metropolis of roughly 30,000 people. The reason for this expansion, was the personal magnetism of Antonio Conselheiro, known in the novel as The Counsellor. Conselheiro was a wandering mystic who spent years travelling the region and attracting a group of disciples around him. Eventually, he identified the Republican government as the personification of the antichrist, and led his band of followers to the small village of Canudos, to separate themselves from the atheist government, establish a new Jerusalem and to await the apocalypse. Officials in the state and local government never fully understood Conselheiro's movement, and the resulting attempts to restore order to the region led to a utterly destructive and devastating war, with somewhere between 10,000 and 30,000 deaths resulting. In attempting to create a sanctuary from the coming apocalypse, Conselheiro and his followers created an apocalypse all of his own.

Now that that's explained I need to make two quick qualifications. First, The War of the End of the World isn't a book about the War of Canudos. The narrative is centered on the war, but the war itself is more of a backup to the human drama that Vargas Llosa is concerned with. For instance, there are very few scenes depicting actual battle, most of these centered on non-participating bystanders trying to survive. The ongoing war is treated as an inevitability. The followers of the Counsellor, have no illusions about prevailing over the government, they are merely awaiting their promised salvation. This is, after all, the promised apocalypse.

Remember all that stuff I just said about The Counsellor? Good, because my second qualification is that he is a very minor character in the novel. Let me clarify that, he is a huge, overwhelming presence in the story, especially when the narrative shifts to one of his followers in Canudos. However, the narrative is never told from his perspective and he makes very little appearances in the course of the novel. This is somewhat strange because he is the direct cause of almost all of the events in the entire narrative. However, it is ultimately probably appropriate. The detached treatment Vargas Llosa gives the war would be diluted if the character was given access to it's central figure's inner thoughts and motivations. By not granting the reader access to the Counsellor Vargas Llosa creates a character that is unique in his illusiveness. Vargas Llosa allows the Counsellor to be defined solely through the lenses of his characters. Therefore, in the end, the reader has to decide himself whether the man was an apocalyptic cult leader who lead thousands of his followers to a certain and cruel death or a Messiah.

Before I go further, I must warn that the novel is a bit of an uphill battle to get through. You know how sometimes spend a long time establishing the world of the novel, before getting to the point where the plot starts to flow organically? Well, The War of the End of the World takes a long time getting to the point where it can take a long time establishing the world of the novel, before getting to the point where the plot starts to flow organically. What I mean by that is the novel's first 100+ pages (which read like 200+ pages) isn't exactly reader friendly. The novel begins with a short section that introduces readers to the Counsellor and his activities around the time he started attracting diciples. Then it shifts to a scene in a newspaper office in Santiago where an eccentric Scott named Galileo Gall is attempting to publish an advertisement calling for a rally in support of the rebels in Canudos.

Gall is extremely important to this section of the book. A self-proclaimed professional freedom fighter and phrenologist, Gall identifies the Canudos uprising through the prism of his own ideological views and begins to idolize the Counsellor's rebellion. However, despite his intentions, he is just as much a colonialist as the mercantilist exploiters of the recent past. He imposes aspirations that has struggled for in France and Spain on the rising in Canudos, therefore misunderstanding the uprising even more egregiously than the aristocratic local governmental authorities. For instance, Gall is informed that civil marriage ceremonies in Canudos have been banned. Hearing this, Gall is convinced that the rebels have unceremoniously tossed aside the antiquated institution of marriage and are practicing free love. In reality, the Counsellor and his followers are reacting to the rumors that the Republican government has begun to recognize civil marriages performed outside the Church.

The first section alternates between second-hand accounts of the ongoing Canudos uprising, often through the device of Gall writing correspondence to an anarchistic newspaper back in Europe, and short stories detailing the backgrounds of various followers of the Counsellor. These stories are extremely effective and well-written, many of them would work quite well as short stories, but they can be a bit stifling in terms of the overall narrative. If you watched the show Lost, imagine if the show-runners had started the first season by showing episodes entirely composed of each characters flashback scenes. Only after the characters had been introduced in their pre-Oceanic 515 life do we see the first episode where Jack wakes up after the plane crash. Each of these origin stories ends with it's subject leaving beside his or her old life and following the Counsellor. This extended prologue allows Vargas Llosa to avoid having a conventional beginning. I emphasize this because it's somewhat genius. By the end of the first section of the novel the reader feels that the actual events of the plot are within the grasp of his fingers, but still elusive. We know the kind of people involved in the uprising and how they became so devoted followers of the Counselor. We also have some idea of the events and motivations behind the uprising through the not incredibly reliable filter of Galileo Gall, who in turn is learning the sources from other first and second-hand sources with biases of their owns. Therefore, in the next sections, when the reader actually encounters the characters introduced in the first section, their fates are effectively sealed. They have all chosen which line in the sand they are going to stand on.

This novel could have easily been obnoxious by trying to score points. Vargas Llosa remains remarkably detached. The back of the novel depicts the plot as a standard little man gets crushed by those with power, but the story is much more complex than that. Vargas Llosa doesn't depict Canudos as the idyllic commune described in the teaser (which actually resembles Gall's warped understanding of the uprising). He does nothing to romanticize the uprising and he depicts the inhabitants of Canudos committing atrocities on opposing soldiers. My subjective interpretation of Vargas Llosa's interpretation of the events was that the Counsellor led an apocalyptic cult whose actions could result in no other result than the defeat of his followers. He and his followers may not have had malevolent intentions, but they are equally, if not mostly, responsible for the deaths of thousands of innocents. However, that interpretation is based entirely on my own reading.

While I can recommend The War of the End of the World as a great novel to have read, I am more hesitant about praising the actual reading experience. A book can be a difficult reading experience for a variety of reasons, but I have divided the concept of a difficult or tough read into three distinct classes:

1. Sometimes, a read require excessive mental effort in order to fully comprehend the book. The author's stylistic decisions might not be readily comprehensible, there might be a large number of characters with unfamiliar names, or the writing and/or pacing may require patience exceeding your present capabilities. There are other examples, but whenever a book asks for a little more effort than you wish to put in the book may be a grind.
2. Other times, a reader may be actively enjoying a read, but slowly, bit by bit, a sense of lingering impatience starts building up. The reader may find himself thinking about which book he plans on reading next and then realizes that he's not even to the halfway point of this one. The reader starts counting how many pages remain until the finish, but feels no closer to the end by the days reading. Soon the reader counts how many pages remain in each chapter, sometimes even before they begin the chapter. Soon, the reader discovers that he is unable or unwilling to read as many pages in a sitting as he once was. He/She is more easily distracted, and days pass with the book at the bedside giving you a guilty look. Yet the reader can't force himself to pick up something else, for after all, it's not like he/she wasn't enjoying the previous book. Soon there are nightmares where, like Sissyphus rolling a boulder up a hill for eternity, the reader is cursed to never finish this never-ending fucking book that he/she thinks is pretty good! Chances are, our reader is stuck in a slog.
3. Sometimes, there are books that could be easily comprehended and picked up by anybody with access to a grocery magazine section that are the hardest books to read. This isn't because they require mental aerobics or zealous commitments, but because they are awful, steaming piles of quasi-literary shit, that was a complete waste of paper, ink, staples, and however many hours you have put into them already, but you can't toss it aside and move on, because some completely irrational obligation to finish anything you put up, and worries that your 1 star screed of a goodreads review might be insufficiently sincere if you didn't suffer through the whole thing. Or, you just weren't digging it too much. Either way, for lack of a better word, it sounds like a suck.

Anyways, The War of the of the World is the sloggiest of slogs. I cannot think of another novel with a more deceptive page count. This is partly due to the fact that the edition I read set a new standard for words to page efficiency. Vargas Llosa writes long paragraphs and while his prose is certainly satisfactory, the actual reading experience is rarely thrilling and mostly unremarkable. The novel ends on the 568th page, but it reads like a 1200 page epic. There are sections that take 30 minutes to read that you finish and realize that you can summarize the action contained within in five sentences. You would be sacrificing something by this, but some sections will leave you wishing Vargas Llosa had more eager editors. I'm not saying the book should have been shorter now for two reasons. First, I just finished the marathon, I still have the runners high. Secondly, the fact that this book isn't a breezy read at all, that it's a relentless, somewhat repetitive, slog somehow makes the reading experience more visceral.

One reason for the perceived long-windedness of the novel is it's structure. The novel is divided into four parts, three lengthy and one short that serves as an interregnum between the first two. The three long parts read more as three self-contained novels forming a trilogy than as three sections of one novel. Each section has it's own defined beginning, rise to action, climax and end. At least for me, by the final part I grew somewhat weary of this by now repetitive cycle. Characters that dominate the first part disappear by the third, and characters that are briefly mentioned in the early parts come to prominence near the end. Therefore, I might advise readers to consider taking a break between the lengthy books.

I didn't take a break between sections. Instead, I took a one day sabbatical from reading the book, that ended up lasting over two weeks. I've read over one hundred books this year, but this one alone took me well over a month. Some of that may have been due to circumstances beyond the book itself, but my sabbatical from this book has coincided with a sabbatical from this site. Visiting this site made me feel guilty about not finishing this book. (Thank's Catholic Guilt!) Anyways, I've compensated for a month's absence by writing this absurdly lengthy review, which probably turned into a slog itself a long time ago. Therefore, allow me to wrap up. Just know what you may be getting yourself into.

Toward the end of the novel, Vargas Llosa has a character recount a discussion between two individuals discussing the events in Canudos. The character realizes that the meeting "had been not so much a dialogue as two monologues running side by side without ever meeting." Without realizing it, the character has identified the base tragedy of the novel and of politics in general. The 30,000 deaths in Canudos wasn't tragic because they were avoidable. While the suffering described throughout the book was meaningless, and resulting from misunderstanding, it is hard to envision realistically a different outcome. What makes Canudos, and much of the suffering in history, truly tragic is that because humanity has opted for competing monologues instead of true dialogue, such suffering is inevitable.

*Which would have made his presidency, had he been elected in Peru, unbelievably intriguing.

**Here's where I would usually comment on the book's historical accuracy, but my 19th century Brazilian history is a bit rusty, and I only have this novel and a short wikapedia page to go by. I feel comfortable saying that the novel reads like an extremely well researched book. In the absence of independent study, I'll take the novel's depictions of events on face value.
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Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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Marc Kozak Really really great review! Great insight and you summed up the reading experience perfectly! Cheers!

Kevin Good points - the first 100 pages were hard to get through, but other parts flew by. At times I was frustrated that, 400 pages into the book, he was introducing even more new characters... and yet ultimately it worked for me. I was reading it in Spanish, which is a third language for me, so this took months to get through -- yet very much worth the time spent, especially as the war in Canudos encompasses so many different possible narratives (both historically and in this fictional form). Perhaps the lack of reliable historical record allows people to project so much onto it (a la Gallileo Gall) but I appreciated that MVL showed a wide range of perspectives and never really argued for the supremacy of any, which was in part the book's genius.

A.J. Howard Kevin wrote: "Good points - the first 100 pages were hard to get through, but other parts flew by. At times I was frustrated that, 400 pages into the book, he was introducing even more new characters... and yet ..."

I'm a couple years removed, but I remember flying through the first 100 pages and getting bogged down in the later parts. But everything you say is right. Parts of the novel can be a mire, but it's not empty filler, it's rich and full storytelling. It's probably what makes the novel great.

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