Commentary Magazine

Beyond Magic Realism

The Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa is known both for his interest in politics and for his realistic narratives, as contrasted with the experimental forms favored by a number of his Latin American contemporaries. In his most recent novel, The War of the End of the World,1 Vargas Llosa has expressed his views on the dynamics of his continent’s politics more forthrightly than in any of his previous books. He has done so, moreover, by recreating with scrupulous precision a real historical event, and has even dedicated his work to the author of the primary source on this event, which carried within itself many if not most of the central elements, the important issues, of 20th-century Latin American politics.

That Vargas Llosa should have been willing to go back nearly a hundred years to this event and ask himself how it resembles the contemporary scene is in itself an act of intellectual courage in a continent that has all too often dealt with its problems by denying them. It is altogether fitting that his courage should have been rewarded with so fine a novel.

The event in question was a rebellion in 1896-97 against the young Brazilian republic which had been established five years earlier upon the abdication of Pedro II. It was a fanatically, hopelessly anti-republican action led by a messianic figure by the name of Antònio Vicente Mendes Maciel, an itinerant preacher among the poorest of the poor, who referred to him as o Conselheiro, the Counselor.

Four expeditions were required to subdue the Conselheiro insurrection, which was based in a locale called Canudos in the impoverished drought-stricken backlands of the province of Bahia. Accompanying the last such expedition as a journalist was a retired military engineer named Euclides da Cunha. The report he wrote, Os Sertões (“The Backlands,” published in 1903; the 1944 English translation by Samuel Putnam, Rebellion in the Backlands, is still in print), was recognized immediately as a literary achievement of the first rank, one that would put Brazil, and indeed Latin America, on the world literary map. But comparatively little attention was paid to the work’s prodigious importance as a political and historical document. The events it described in epic detail seem to have been outside the comprehension of a generation, in Brazil and beyond, that had not yet been shocked by world war and revolution into a somber appreciation of the nature of modern politics.

Not that the Brazilians had any difficulty understanding that the Conselheiro insurrection was a deadly serious affair. The first two reinforced police expeditions, in October and January 1896-97, were routed by the jagunços (backlanders), who evidently had passed from rural banditry into militant anti-republican utopianism under the leadership of the mad preacher, a figure who until then had been dismissed by Church and civil authorities alike as just another starving charismatic heretic. The political and military leaders in Sao Paulo now became deeply alarmed. Some of the most notorious bandits in the backlands had placed themselves in the service of the Counselor; whole families were going to Canudos; and the jagunços were expropriating arms and provisions from Bahia’s great plantations, on which the slaves had been freed less than ten years earlier.



It became apparent that the jagunços, who proclaimed that the republic was the work of Satan and the Antichrist, posed a new type of military challenge to the state. Fighting irregularly, sustaining enormous losses relative to the numbers of soldiers they killed, they were driven less by territorial than by religio-political motives. Against them, Colonel Moreira Cesar, the aging hero of Brazilian republicanism, took command of a third expedition led by the crack troops of his own Seventh Regiment and supported by artillery. Moreira Cesar was every inch a political soldier. His friends organized riots in Sao Paulo aimed at “monarchists” who, they claimed, were responsible for the rebellion and were plotting to prevent Brazil from achieving its great destiny; the idea was that Moreira would return in triumph, seize state power, and establish a “Jacobin” republic.

But Moreira Cesar was killed before Canudos on March 3. Having driven his regiment back, the jagunços were now convinced the millennium was at hand. The government called a national mobilization; under the command of General Arthur Oscar, six brigades in two columns, supported by the heaviest artillery available, laid siege to Canudos. Antonio Conselheiro died of starvation in September, but, fantastically, the city held out until October. Out of a population of 20,000 or more, 300 women, old men, and children surrendered and were executed. Among the jagunço combatants, there were no survivors. Wrote da Cunha:

Canudos did not surrender. The only case of its kind in history, it held out to the last man. Conquered inch by inch, in the literal meaning of the words, it fell on October 5. . . . There were only four of them left: an old man, two other full-grown men, and a child, facing a furiously raging army of five thousand soldiers.



Had Euclides da Cunha lived (born in 1866, he was assassinated in 1909), he might have revised his text to read: “The first case of its kind. . . .” In his genius, he understood that what he had witnessed was not just a weird New World throwback to the medieval uprisings of feverish millenarians. To be sure, the Counselor and his followers were gripped by the kinds of eschatological doctrines profoundly etched in the Christian mind and which the Church, whether Catholic or Protestant, had repressed only with the greatest difficulty well into the Reformation. They believed that King Sebastian, a 16th-century Portuguese monarch who had disappeared in Africa and into apocalyptic legend, would return after they had won their victory over the satanic republic, in anticipation of the second coming of Christ. Yet whereas it could be said that medieval millenarians were only demanding immediately what Church doctrine asserted would happen sooner or later anyway, modern millenarianism represented an attack on the modern world itself, which had rejected millenarianism. Couched either in the language of religion or the language of revolution (or both), it could not coexist with secular, pluralistic, democratic political cultures.

Euclides da Cunha understood this as well as did Moreira Cesar, but he also saw in Canudos a profound tragedy for the modern spirit. Unlike Moreira, a would-be military dictator who regarded the jagunços as vermin and Antonio Conselheiro as a brazen insurgent in the pay of the monarchists (and the British empire), da Cunha saw in the whole affair evidence of the republic’s shortcomings, of its arrogance, its lack of humanity. He believed that the republic, with whose fundamental objectives of political order and economic development he was of course in agreement, was spoiling its own enterprise by neglecting the back-lands and treating its inhabitants like savages. Da Cunha was a man of science; he had no romantic illusions about Canudos; but he demanded a similar realism about the virtues of the republic. “What we had to face here,” he wrote, “was the unlooked-for resurrection, under arms, of an old society, a dead society, galvanized into life by a madman.” And then he added:

Caught up in the sweep of modern ideas, we abruptly mounted the ladder, leaving behind us in their centuries-old semi-darkness a third of our people in the heart of our country. Deluded by a civilization which came to us second-hand . . . and shunning, in our revolutionary zeal, the slightest compromise with the exigencies of our own national interests, we merely succeeded in deepening the contrast between our mode of life and that of our rude native sons, who were more alien to us in this land of ours than were the immigrants who came from Europe.

The significance of Canudos, and of da Cunha’s Os Sertões, to Brazil and to Latin America as a whole, is apparent from even so cursory a summary. The clash between the coast, with its great capitals and human ferment, and the appallingly poor interior; and the conflict between the modernizing middle classes, who have often relied on the military both for personal advancement and social progress, and the inheritors of the land, aristocrats as well as bondsmen, represent some of the key givens of Latin American history. They also represent issues that have never been resolved satisfactorily. In Vargas Llosa’s Peru, for example, the virtual exclusion of the vast majority of the people, who are Indians, from the political and economic life of the country, has been an urgent national problem at least since the 1920’s.



Latin Americans have been cursed by political and cultural traditions that have been founded on, and maintained by, lies. They are not unique in this respect, but their case is an extreme one, as their own greatest writers (not to speak of Simon Bolivar, the Liberator) have admitted. The flat denial of the racial problem in countries like Mexico and Brazil is one instance. The habit of blaming their own political instability on the scheming of the United States—or, in an earlier era, on that of the British empire—is another. The contrasting honesty of da Cunha, who sought in the geographic, the political, even the racial realities of Brazil the answers to the problems raised by the crisis he had witnessed, is unusual in Latin American letters—and so is the fact that now, Mario Vargas Llosa has dedicated his novel to Euclides da Cunha, and made wholesale use of the Brazilian’s material.

This aspect of The War of the End of the World has received scant, if any, attention from reviewers, but it is of the utmost significance, and for more than one reason. In his work, Vargas Llosa generally has avoided the paraphernalia of tricks going under the name of “magic realism”—the deliberate obscurities, linguistic games, and irrational narrative devices, not to speak of the arbitrary use of time and space and the introduction of fantasy, which have done so much damage to Latin American writing (while delighting European literary critics and their North American fellow-travelers). It is worth speculating, indeed, that the cultivation of literary difficulty by Latin American novelists may be less a consequence of modernist literary aspiration than a result of knowing that one’s writing is based on false premises. A novelist who feels compelled to say that Yankee imperialism is responsible for his country’s problems, and yet who knows perfectly well that this is untrue, is, understandably, going to seek refuge in stylistic games and literary cover-ups. Thus the renewal of a link with da Cunha is important not only because of the burning urgency of the great Brazilian’s theme—the false and violently destructive alternatives of revolution and militarism—but also because it suggests a desire on the part of Vargas Llosa to return to a clear, lucid, and honest tradition in Latin American writing.

Vargas Llosa’s work has long expressed a profound concern with the relationship between public and private corruption. He has always been interested in politics and, rather exceptionally for a Latin American writer, has championed liberal democracy while denouncing the bigotry of those who think Latin countries must choose between Marxist utopianism and rightist dictatorship. He refuses the patronizing advice of foreigners like Guenter Grass who seek a revolutionary heaven anywhere but in their own countries, and has written (in connection with Grass, who has suggested that Latin Americans follow the example of the Sandinistas) that “an intellectual who believes that freedom is necessary and possible for his own country cannot decide that it is a superfluous luxury for others. . . .”

When Mario Vargas Llosa was growing up (he was born in 1936), freedom and democracy were anything but superfluous luxuries in Peru. The country was ruled by a military dictator named Manuel Amoretti Odría. Most Peruvian intellectuals regarded Odría’s soldiers as footstools of the rich, who relied on them to stave off APRA—the Popular American Revolutionary Association—which was considered well enough organized and sufficiently popular to be the sure winner in a genuinely democratic election. But other, Left-leaning intellectuals believed that APRA represented a fascist (later, Peronist) trend, and the party was thoroughly hated by the Communists.

All this is the background of Vargas Llosa’s Conversation in the Cathedral (1970), a novel about a rich man and his estranged son during the Odría period that fairly drips with bitterness. Powerful as it is, however, in its examination of greed and cowardice and lust, it is also marked by the influence of Lima’s San Marcos University, where the intellectual atmosphere was (and remains) heavily tainted by Marxists and Communists (in the party sense). This leads to certain distortions, notably a failure to consider that the Odría period could be understood differently from the way it is described here. Actually, General Odría was benign and even benevolent by the standards of his time, which was the time of Juan Peron in Argentina and Perez Jiménez in Venezuela (among others). These are not the standards self-respecting Latin Americans would want to be held to, and they should not be, but the dictatorial regime that emerges from an uninformed reading of Conversation in the Cathedral does not really correspond to Peru under General Odría, who relinquished power on the exact day he said he would, having fulfilled his mission, as he saw it, of restoring order and legality.

Before Conversation in the Cathedral, Vargas Llosa wrote a partly autobiographical novel about boys in a military academy, The Time of the Hero (1962), which was bleak and brutal enough to be burned by the officers of the academy the author had attended, and The Green House (1965), which is about the jungle just outside the city, or the animal within. Both these novels won important literary prizes and were widely acclaimed, and both have much to say about the way people are exploited by others more powerful than they. The trouble with them, especially the second, is that the author’s control over his material often seems tenuous and sometimes seems to disappear entirely. In the burlesque and farcical Captain Pantoja and the Special Service (1973), which concerns the attempt by army officers to relieve the frustrations of enlisted men in a remote garrison, the very idea of authorial control seems to be caricatured.



After the loosening-up (if that is the term) of Pantoja, and the touching good humor of Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter (1977; English translation, 1982), the latter more evidently autobiographical than any of his books since The Time of the Hero (and much funnier), Vargas Llosa was, it seems, ready for the most deeply political novel of his career, The War of the End of the World. When coming to the latest book by a very good writer, one frequently gets the impression that all his previous work has been a preparation. This is certainly the case here, but it is equally difficult not to see in the events of Vargas Llosa’s lifetime a series of inducements to write about Canudos.

In his youth, he had lived through oligarchism and military dictatorship. Thereafter, APRA was kept out of power in Peru by a rather unholy alliance among the liberal Fernando Belaúnde Terry, the Communists, and the army. But in 1968 the soldiers took over again under the leadership of General Juan Velasco Alvarado, and this time they covered their public-relations flank with leftist, Third Worldist rhetoric, which for a time they took so seriously that even Fidel Castro began revising his views on the revolutionary potential of military officials. For Vargas Llosa, who like most of the young men of his time and place had supported the Castro revolution, the experience was instructive.

Velasco bought Soviet arms, and with these there arrived military advisers and political operatives; Communists were also placed in charge of government programs. The situation in Peru thus became, and remains, somewhat reminiscent of Italy (although APRA is still the strongest force on the Left). The Velasco period, which lasted until 1980 when Belaúnde Terry’s Acción Popular, now situated on the Center-Right rather than the Center-Left, came back to power, corresponds in some ways to the Italian “opening to the Left” of the early 1960’s, the net result of which was a huge increase of Communist influence at all levels. In Peru, the intelligentsia is overwhelmingly Marxist. The mayor of Lima (as of Rome) is a Communist. And, almost in imitation of the Italian Red Brigades, Peruvian extremists calling themselves Sendero Luminoso (“Shining Path”) or Túpac Amaru (after an 18th-century Inca who led a rebellion against the colonial government in Peru) have picked up the gun, hoping to provoke a military repression while at the same time castigating the official (or “democratic”) Left for going legal.

In the midst of this rising national crisis—perhaps one should say, this recurring national crisis—Vargas Llosa has come to settle on centrist, democratic pluralism as the best hope for his country and his continent. Despite certain old habits of mind with regard to the United States—he condemned the rescue invasion of Grenada last year, even while he recognized that it was welcomed by the Grenadians—what he wants for his country is, in all but name, the North American model. He even helped to found a pro-democracy, pro-free-market organization called the Institute for Liberty and Democracy—and was, in fact, offered the premiership of Peru by Belaúnde Terry (which he declined on the ground that his influence and that of the Institute would be more effective if exercised privately).



The War of the End of the World can be read as a rejection of the false choice between revolution, which at some level is always based on millenarianism, and military dictatorship. Like the great classic from which it is explicitly drawn, it is a profound indictment of the lies that have brought Latin American countries repeatedly to the awful dilemma of such false choices.

Vargas Llosa despises the violent apocalypticism of the “theology of liberation”—the most influential theoretical treatise on which was written by the Peruvian priest, Gustavo Gutierrez—just as he hates the brutal and arbitrary simplicities of political soldiers. Violent religious leaders, brutal soldiers, men willing and able to make other men die for lies, are the villains of The War of the End of the World. Vargas Llosa’s Moreira Cesar, like da Cunha’s, is a ruthless and unscrupulously ambitious soldier who comes by his nickname—the Throatcutter—honestly. He is driven by his notion of what a properly regimented Brazil will be; as much a “Jacobin” for his times as Velasco was to be in the Peru of the 1970’s, he cannot believe his enormous country is big enough to hold both him and the (fictional) Baron of Canabrava, a great Bahia landowner and the leader of the conservative Autonomist party, which stands for traditional order and authority. As Moreira tells the Baron:

There are people up in arms here who are refusing to accept the republic. Objectively, these people are the instruments of those who, like yourself, have accepted the republic the better to betray it. . . . There is now a civilian president, a party rule that divides and paralyzes the country. . . . [The army will] bring about national unity . . . create a strong, modern country. We are going to remove the obstacles in the way, I promise you: Canudos, you, the English merchants, whoever blocks our path. . . .

As for the rebellious Counselor and his acolytes, they do not express themselves quite so brutally; theirs is a rhetorical tradition based on such concepts as love and generosity and self-sacrifice. What is clear, however, is that their rhetoric is undercut by their deeds—in the quest for spiritual salvation, they are leading thousands to their doom.



Revolutionary utopians, irresponsible militarists—Vargas Llosa also has a score to settle with Third World groupies who (à la Guenter Grass) think they know what is best for other people’s countries. The type does not appear in da Cunha’s book, of course, but in Vargas Llosa’s novel there is a European anarchist who goes by the assumed name Galileo Gall and who finds, in the rebels of the backlands, allies, however deluded by priestly superstitions, in the war against bourgeois order. About a third of the narrative is in fact carried by Gall’s obsessive and pathetic (and fatal) attempt to be wherever the revolutionary action is.

The focus then shifts—against a canvas thick with the blood, dust, anguish, and hope of the Canudos war—to the story of Jurema, an illiterate backlander whom Gall has raped and widowed (characteristically, while trying to make himself useful to the international working class). Jurema, a witness to the sound and fury of Canudos, is a good novelistic idea, though she is not as vividly drawn as the major actors in the great drama.

As for the conservative Baron of Canabrava, he expresses a kind of mature wisdom about the world that contrasts favorably with the twin fanaticisms that engulf his province—but he too comes in for his share of the author’s skepticism. Near the end of the story, he rapes his wife’s maid, a rather mean touch intended perhaps to underline the point that no one gains anything from revolution, repression, and war. Or perhaps there is something of a sentimental streak in Mario Vargas Llosa. In the last line of the book the fiercest of the jagunç leaders is touched by an angel and goes up to heaven. We are, then, also meant to think that whereas men of power will always use their power—in little despicable ways if they cannot use it in great despicable ways—poor men will die fighting, in hope and glory, for what they believe.

These notes, variously jarring and pleasing, are sounded several times in the course of the novel; whether they serve it well or mar it depends on how intelligently and lucidly one feels Vargas Llosa has presented his complex theme. He has, in any event, like Euclides da Cunha before him, given us a powerful epic of the notions men have of themselves and their destiny, and of the terrible, destructive lengths they will go to realize them. He has also pointed the way toward a renewal in Latin American politics of the democratic faith, and in Latin American literature of a related and all but forgotten tradition of honest lucidity.




1 Translated by Helen R. Lane, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 568 pp., $18.95; published in Spanish in 1981.

About the Author

Roger Kaplan has written widely on French politics and on Algeria’s Islamist insurgency of the 1990’s.

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