IT WAS 20 YEARS AGO that I experienced for the first time, while reading, the strange combination of soaring and falling natural only to the economies of debtor-states. This crushing euphoria was caused by Mario Vargas Llosa’s retelling of the Canudos rebellion, an uprising led by Antonio Maciel in the last years of the 19th century against the newly-declared republic of Brazil. Maciel, a figure of such gauntness that looking at him is already like looking at him in profile, travels on foot to each of the far-flung communities of the backlands (so poverty-stricken that Church and State are conjoined in amnesia about them). He carries with him his version of the coming apocalypse, an event which will cause the faithful to join battle with the Antichrist—otherwise known as the republic. The republic must be fought because it deposed the king, because it upholds civil marriages which are rightfully church business, and because it is about to conduct a census, which can only be in order to return black people freed from slavery by the king to that very state. The Counsellor, as he comes to be known on account of his cheerful predictions, stirs the imagination of this populace and organises them into a theocracy of sorts. The republic begins to respond to this prodding, thus allowing the Counsellor his apocalypse.
The War of the End of the World, to identify the novel by its English title, had epic sweep and then some more. This tale of competing imaginations and the forms of blindness they enforce as articles of faith—the rebels fight the republic to restore a ‘natural’ order comprising Christ, a deposed king and the Counsellor, while the republic views them as misguided hordes or as agents of free love and anarchy who need to be saved from their barbaric fevers by an inoculation of modernity—was rich in idea and irony. In narration, these competing imaginations came home for me because they spoke dialects of bulbous resurrection and utopian bliss not very different from those favoured by competing fundamentalisms in the city where I grew up. Among the novel’s other charms were its audacious juxtaposition of the mythic time in which the rebels lived with the secular time of the republican army, the playful insertion of Euclides da Cunha (whose novel Os Sertões was an attempt at reclaiming the event from the footnotes of government history) as a character identified only as “the near-sighted journalist,” and, finally, the nature of the disclosure that ends the novel—that the victory of a modern nation preaching order and progress over older, local mythopoeia is more illusion than history.
I spoke of soaring and falling. This overloaded novel simply beggared everything I had read. The genteel Forster-inflected verities by which I measured fiction were incapable of holding this wild, twisting thing. The drab commonplaces of literary history that I had accumulated laboriously over some years departed from me with the valedictory shriek normally heard from exorcised spirits in horror fiction. What I now felt was the sense of terrifying freedom I had once glimpsed in picking my way through a sentence for the first time as a child. It was Vargas Llosa who won me over to another life with fiction—not a somnolent trance but an urgent wakefulness—and that is no small debt.
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