I finished the first of the really big books I have on my list The War of the End of the World. I read it on the Kindle, but the hardback edition has 576 pages – so it isn’t the longest book in the world, but it’s long enough.
There was a ten-day setback in there when I misplaced my Kindle. I couldn’t find it for over a week and it was driving me crazy. The thing goes with me where ever I go, so I can get a little reading done in the small drips and dregs of time that are sometimes allotted to me – and that’s risky. I’ve come close to losing it twice – leaving it on a train once and on the roof of my car another time (where it fell off along a Frisco road) – but each time a good Samaritan found it, looked me up and contacted me.
This time I was pretty sure I had not left it someplace… but you never know. It turned out it was in the garage where I set it down in a dark, little-used corner when I went back there to get something.
Finding it made me happy and let me finish the book.
Call Me Ishmael
Misplacing your portable electronic reading device is a first-world problem. The conflict at the heart of The War of the End of the World is not.
The novel is based on true events at the end of the nineteenth century in a dried up, impoverished, and forgotten stretch of worthless desert in the Brazilian state of Bahia. There, after a horrible drought that kills a good part of the population appeared a wandering preacher, Antônio Conselheiro (“the Counselor”), who went from village to village, collecting a rag-tag group of followers, repairing churches and spreading the word of God.
He eventually gained thousands of converts, and they settled on an old farmstead named Canudos – transforming it into something of a religious commune. At its peak, more that thirty thousand people called Canudos home – making it the second-largest city in Bahia. This attracted the attention of the newly-minted Republic of Brazil which did not agree with the teachings of The Counselor. The central government began sending military expeditions and then…. Well, let’s just say, things do not turn out well.
The book, by Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, is a vast kaleidoscope of characters – all pulled into the firestorm of disaster that is the War of Canudos.
It was more than a little confusing at first (about half the male characters seem to have the name João or Antônio) and I put together a little crib sheet listing everybody and their relationship to the story. After a few hundred pages that wasn’t necessary – the list stops growing as fast and the denizens of the pages become burned into the reader’s mind sufficiently.
The theme of the book is the danger and the tragic results of fanaticism. Every character sees the world in an inflexible view – and pays for that in spades. The Counselor is a man of great power and wisdom and is able to attract a huge following – converting the most evil of bandits and incorrigible criminals into paragons of religious virtue and conviction. Yet, he can’t understand the implications of what he has done and the horror that will inevitably befall the faithful.
The central government does not see a religious settlement – they see foreign spies and secret plots – because that is all they are able to see. The wealthy landowners only see land and cattle thieves and can’t comprehend anything else.
It is a sad story with results that are beyond appalling.
That’s the first question that a reader must answer, “Why was Canudos destroyed?” But the answer, when you think about it, is, “How could it not?”
And that’s the mark of a mature work of fiction – the ying-yang pull of hope and the inevitable doom. You only wish that some of these people that you have spent so much time with… even some of the evil ones… are able to find some sort of justice, some closure, some comforting balm in the midst of their endless suffering and hopeless struggle.
And some do.
But it is only temporary.