Monday, April 09, 2007
"The War of the End of the World" Mario Vargas Losa
This is a fictional account of the Conselheiro uprising in Brazil in 1897 that at the same time manages to be an extended meditation on the nature of history and historiography. The key figure in the wide range of narrators is that of the nearsighted journalist, whose task it is to note and preserve the uprising. Unfortunately, he finds himself trapped in the battle, without his glasses, paralysed by debilitating fits of sneezing, apparently useless, a parasite: the author, reader and historian fumbling around in a fog. Only when the events of the uprising are in the past and he has escaped –one of only seven people out of thirty thousand to do so- does it become clear what his role is. In the discussion with the Baron, one of the other main characters who represents the outdated monarchist party of Brazil, details of the final defeat of the uprising become clear.
The narrative method is deliberately fractured and disjointed, with different characters being chosen as the focalisers: in the first part of the book the mysterious character of the Scottish phrenologist and revolutionary Galileo Gall, in the second part, the journalist himself. The characterisation is excellent, with different characters, both fictional and historical, representing different points of view; at the same time they are never merely ciphers for a historical argument, but real, complex people with fears and motives. The main narrative constantly branches out with mini narratives, giving us glimpses of the characters’ past lives. Only about two thirds in does the structure and theme begin to take shape and one can see the narrative purpose. Time is not linear. There are extensive and disruptive –like the sneezing fits of the nearsighted journalist- analepses. This reflects Benjamin’s view of history as moments of significance, laid out in a pattern of significance for the novel, rather than in a chronological development. This reflects too the mysterious nature of the uprising, with its origin shrouded in confusion, an origin or reason that none of the characters –except for the jaguncos- can really comprehend.
Ostensibly, this is a battle between the poor and the rich, but the issue is complicated by a non-alignment of views. The insurgents are staunchly Monarchist, and Catholic, they do not reject the Church – the Counsellor, as an unordained man, will not celebrate mass, but waits until a priest sympathetic to their cause joins them. Their rebellion is founded in utterly absurd reactionary beliefs such as the denial of the metric system, their refusal to accept civil marriage and their view of the new Brazilian Republic –a political system that ironically has its historical roots in an idealism aimed at bettering the lot of such people as the insurgents- as the Antichrist. The community they establish has all the features of first century Christianity. Their opponents on the other hand, the new rationalists, are intent on stamping out a reactionary political heresy. And yet that is also not the whole story. Galileo Gall, the revolutionary character who yearns to get to Canudos in order to convince them of the error of their religious motivations, is himself misguided by the pseudo religion/science of phrenology, a science used at the end to try to explain the Counsellor’s motivation. Politics enter into it in the arguments between the republican Epaminondas Goncalves and the Baron. All these conflicting ideologies blend together and confuse the issues. Canudos is not a story but a tree of stories.
The book is an exhausting read, with its scenes of battle studded with terrible details of wounds and death, strategic and logistical planning, fatigue and pain. Tolstoy knew the secret of writing about war, to alternate it with scenes of peace and thus to mitigate the strain on the reader and the slightly boring effect that constant struggle can have. However, this aside, Vargas Losa’s control of the narrative is excellent, and his ability to shift from view to view, to alternate vantage points and to give both sides of the story, the Republicans’ as well as the insurgents’, shows at least an attempt at historical objectivity. It’s impossible to tell what side he’s on, and he doesn’t let us take sides: the insurgents religiosity is so absurd and repellent, that one doesn’t really sympathise with them except in so far as they are people with personal histories.