Author: Mario Vargas Llosa
Translator: Helen R. Lane
Publishing Date: August 2008
Number of Pages: 568 pages
Genre: Historical Novel
Deep within the remote backlands of nineteenth-century Brazil lies Canudos, home to all the damned of the earth: prostitutes, bandits, beggars, and every kind of outcast. It is a place where history and civilization have been wiped away. There is no money, no taxation, no marriage, no census. Canudos is a cauldron for the revolutionary spirit in its purest form, a state with all the potential for a true, libertarian paradise – and one the Brazilian government is determined to crush at any cost.
Ever since I started doing list challenges, I have encountered several authors and books that I have never heard about or of previously. It is through these list challenges that my literary appreciation has gone way beyond my comfort zones. I never thought I would ever immerse in the best of literary masters from different parts of the globe. From American and British authors, I have gone on to try Asian, African, and South American writers. One such writer is Mario Vargas Llosa, who is also a Nobel Prize winner for Literature. My interest in his work made me purchase The War of the End of the World through an online reseller. Anticipating a different literary journey, I included the book in my 2018 Reading List.
I never heard of the War of Canudos until I encountered The War of the End of the World. The title got me first but I never thought that what was written about in the novel actually happened. It being a work of a South American novelist, I expected the same magical realism flair that fellow Nobel Laureate and South American Gabriel Garcia Marquez has been known for. The title and the synopsis of the book pointed to a magical literary journey. However, Vargas Llosa’s work is beyond the fantastic as it is within the realms of the realistic.
“A criminal is a case of excessive human energy that flows in the wrong direction. War can channel it in the right one.” ~ Mario Vargas Llosa, The War of the End of the World
The background story, from the annals of history. Around 30,000 settlers founded a community in Bahia State, Brazil. They called it Canudos. At the helm of these settlers is Antonio Vicente Mendes Maciel, or Antonio Conselheiro, a priest/mystic who visited one village to another, preaching and presenting himself as a prophet. Over time, he has amassed a following and in 1893, they settled in Canudos. His promise of a better world further attracted more residents. For fear of invasion and rebellion, the federal government of Brazil sent one expedition after another, igniting a civil war that begun in 1896 and ended in October 2, 1897.
The first few hundred pages of the novel introduced the individual characters who played or are going to play significant roles in the narrative. Through the primary protagonist, Llosa was slowly conjuring and building up the overall atmosphere of the narrative. However, the intricate descriptions were, to some point, both overbearing and overwhelming. There were details, including the battle parts, that could have been removed without impairing the overall context or narrative.
As one immerses in the narrative, one can’t help but notice the how the main characters mirror several Biblical characters, making The War of the End of the World an apocryphal work. After Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, this is the second book I have read this year that contained references to the bible. There were representations of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, Judas Iscariot and Paul. It is without a doubt that the book is populated with colorful and interesting characters. While most of the secondary characters were ably portrayed, the instigator, Antonio, was sparingly depicted. He was, for the most part of the story, a caricature. His silence is appalling but when he does speak out, his voice resonates.
“I am not afraid of hell but of death. Or to put it in a better way, I’m afraid of the nightmare, the dream of death. That’s something different, don’t you see what I mean?” ~ Mario Vargas Llosa, The War of the End of the World
Perhaps because of the theme, a sepulchral atmosphere has gripped the prose from start to finish. A pall of somberness hovers over the narrative. It was like watching a film noir in the form of sentences and paragraphs. The somber mood, however, could be very distressful. The dark theme is complimented by numerous allusions to death. This was, however, balanced by Vargas Llosa’s straightforward narrative. The on-point writing style is one of the book’s biggest accomplishments.
On the subject of writing, compared to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ vivid imagery, Vargas Llosa’s delivery is bereft of the fantastic. The lengthy paragraphs could put off readers but overall, reading the book wasn’t as challenging as I supposed. The narrative shares more similarities with with Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits. Allende is another South American author. Both books are more descriptive and use less character interaction. In spite of these, the novel achieved what it sought out to do – retell the story of Canudos.
On another, perhaps unrelated note, the backstory of the novel is more common than one thought it is. Whether it is gullibility or not, many people, especially the poor in the hinterlands, are often fascinated by these “prophets”. The ordinary people are persuaded by their promises of better life. The rise of people like the “Counsellor” who purport themselves to be prophets is not a problem in itself but, rather, it is symptomatic of a bigger problem. The society’s failure to address the qualms of those in need pushes the ones in the quagmires to cling to people who they believe represent vestiges of hope.
“It’s easier to imagine the death of one person than those of a hundred or a thousand. When multiplied, suffering becomes abstract. It is not easy to be moved by abstract things.” ~ Mario Vargas Llosa, The War of the End of the World
Despite the reading challenges which can easily hamper one’s reading experience, I truly appreciated the The War of the End of the World. The fact that it is a historical novel is already a point to its favor. Mario Vargas Llosa’s faithful and straightforward depiction of the War of Canudos is remarkable, albeit dark. It is one of those rare gems that gives a thumping and gripping reading journey. It neither made me want to skip a beat nor put down the book. It is the first work of the Nobel laureate that I have read but it made me want to read more of his works. I am looking forward to all of them.
Recommended for readers who delve into South American literature, for readers who love historical fiction, readers who want to read the works of Nobel Prize for Literature winners, readers who enjoy painstakingly long paragraphs, and readers who prefer descriptive paragraphs over interaction-laden narratives.
Not recommended for readers who hate lengthy and descriptive paragraphs, readers who dislike religious characters in literature, and readers who want a quick and pleasurable read.
About the Author
Jorge Mario Pedro Vargas Llosa, or more commonly Mario Vargas Llosa, was born on March 28, 1936 in Arequipa, Peru as the only child of Ernesto Vargas Maldonado and Dora Llosa Ureta.
When he was 16, Vargas Llosa started working as an amateur journalist for local newspapers in Lima. He withdrew from Leoncio Prado Military Academy and finished his studies in Piura where he worked for La Industria, a local newspaper. In 1953, Vargas Llosa enrolled law and literature at Lima’s National University of San Marcos.
Vargas Llosa’s first literary works, Los Jefes (The Leaders) and El Abuelo (The Grandfather) were published in 1957. In 1963, his first novel, La Ciudad Y Los Perros (The Time of the Hero), was published. It is based on Vargas Llosa’s experiences at the Military Academy. Although it won the Premio de la Crica Espanola award, its sharp criticism of the Peruvian military establishment stirred controversy. La Casa Verde (The Green House), his second novel, was published in 1965. His second novel, as well, earned acclaim. His success was followed by Conversacion en la Catedral (Coversation in the Cathedral, 1969), La Guerra del fin del Mundo (The War of the End of the World, 1981) and Historia de Mayta (The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta, 1984).
“For his cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual’s resistance revolt, and defeat,” Vargas Llosa was awarded the 2010 Nobel Prize for literature. He also won the 1994 Miguel de Cervantes Prize.
Married twice and separated both times, Vargas Llosa’s current partner is Filipina Spanish socialite Isabel Preysler.