3.5 stars — What an elephantine statement. I began the novel with the impression that it was kind of a Christian millenarian Germinal in terms of the3.5 stars — What an elephantine statement. I began the novel with the impression that it was kind of a Christian millenarian Germinal in terms of the bleakness of its storyline. By the end, however, it was clear to me that Vargas Llosa's model was predominantly Russian. When AC says here that "there is a certain archaism and hieratic nature in the writing," I think this is in part what he means, though the limited third-person voice never widens to full God-like omniscience.
The novel is based on the Canudos or backlands rebellion in Brazil of the late 1890s, which is known to us primarily from Euclides Da Cunha’s pioneering Sertões (available in translation from Penguin as Backlands: The Canudos Campaign), which has been called the starting point of Brazilian letters. Brazil has deposed its monarchy and established a young, unstable republic. The disenfranchised monarchists want to hang on to their property rights and are in a political fight with the republicans. This conflict forms the novel’s lethal backstory. In the foreground is the messianic figure, Antonio Conselhiero (the Counselor), who, over thirty years of preaching in the backlands has assembled a flock of congregants, including many notorious bandits, but made up largely of poor farming families forced off the land by devastating drought.
The Counselor views the new republic as the Anti-christ because of a constitution that separates church and state. The republic's transgressions include the institution of civil marriage, when, as the Counselor knows from direct contact with his deity, a perfectly valid form of religious marriage already exists. Also cited as fodder for rebellion is the collection of taxes, viewed as an encroachment on Church tithing; and a census, which is seen as a way to both reinstitute the slave trade, abolished under the monarchy, and provide the Antichrist republic with the information it needs to undertake a pogrom of all declared Catholics. An entirely baseless claim yet one that is not without irony given the story's genocidal conclusion.
In time the dispossessed pilgrims settle on one of the landholdings, Canudos, of the Baron Canabrava. The pro-republican propagandist, Epaminondas Gonçalves -- a man whose murderous PR would make even Joey Goebbels burst with admiration -- paints the squatters as recidivist monarchists in league with the elderly baron. This is false. It is true, however, that the squatters have rejected the republic. When Gonçalves arranges for a shipment of English rifles and ammunition to Canudos he conveniently exposes the "monarchists" as traitors to the fledgling republic and publishes accordingly. Because of this deft bit of disinformation, the republicans and their armies and most of the public do not know that Canudos is in fact a religious settlement with eschatological leanings. Even during the last prolonged campaign against Canudos the commanding general still believes that the jagunços have monarchist tendencies and English officers advising them. Three times the republic sends the army against Canudos and loses ignominiously, thanks to the insurgents' ruthless guerrilla tactics. The fourth campaign succeeds.
Vargas Llosa spends the first 200 pages alone establishing his characters. They are a rogue’s gallery, too, and include the “nearsighted journalist,” a character based on Euclides Da Cunha himself; the elderly Baron Canabrava, head of the (real) ousted monarchists; the newspaper owner and lethal republican, Gonçalves; Galileo Gall, a Scottish socialist, whose over-zealousness and lack of self-examination bring him to an ugly pass; the ex-slave, Big João, who ruthlessly slices his mistress to bits during a backlands excursion; Abbot João, formerly Satan João, Pajeú, Pedrão, and other murderous bandits turned upstanding Christians; the Vilanova brothers, itinerant merchants; the filicide Maria Quadrado; the Lion of Natuba, a literate, deformed young man who serves as the Counselor's scribe; and the entire Brazilian army -- a Tolstoyan dramatis personae if ever there was one.
On the whole, the novel is an admirable endeavor. The narration is straightforward, the diction very flat. There's no fancy vocabulary, except for the occasional Portuguese word, and no structural sleight-of-hand. The writing strives to stay out of its own way, and largely succeeds. But neither does the prose exhibit any real "nicety of style," to use E.M. Forster’s phrase, at least it doesn't come through in this translation. In other words, it doesn't sing. The book’s achievement is in its structure and its length (580 pages). A bit too long for me, the battle scenes especially. As we hurtle toward the end, increasingly there's a tendency toward melodrama. Cliches start popping up: "A chill ran down his spine." Then again there are many beautifully vivid renderings of action and space: the sere landscape, the streets of the impoverished squatter town. Recommended with reservations....more