War of the End of the World, The
I sheepishly admit that upon seeing the title and the praise without reading anything about the description, I thought that this would be some sort of science fiction epic. I was understandably disappointed within the first few pages when I realized that it was not science but historical fiction. That said, the story was more engrossing than a lot of sci-fi I have read, with interesting characters and events. For various reasons, I couldn’t put it down and finished all five hundred and some-odd pages in about a week.
I’m curious as to how much of the book is fact — for example, which of the characters besides the Counselor and some of the military officers were real people — and I’m strongly considering reading the journalistic account of the War of Canudos, Rebellion in the Backlands. I sort of hope that some of these characters (Galileo Gall, Abbot Joao, the Lion of Natuba, the Little Blessed One, Maria Quadrado) have some basis in reality, but I’m not holding my breath.
The only books I’ve read in the last 2 years that have been as engaging as this were Homage to Catalonia, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Seeing and Blindness, in that order. I guess it says more about me than anything else that the first two are war stories and the second two are by Saramago. Now that I think of it, all five of the books have in common their treatment of mass disaster and the breakdown of social order, which fascinates me.
Vargas embellishes his treatment with highly memorable characters and mostly good (if occasionally anachronistic) dialogue, but I still had some problems with it. First and most distracting was an issue of voice and pacing, which aren’t the same problem but somewhat related nonetheless. For the life of me, I can’t figure out why Vargas wrote some sections in past tense and others in present. I tried to detect a pattern but got nothing, possibly because the book was too long to remember specific examples as I kept reading. If anyone can enlighten me I’d be appreciative, but in the meantime I’m going to continue with my impression that it took me out of the flow of the story when he changed tenses. He also had an entire section that was a letter in the 1st person without introduction, and later intermingled the baron and journalist’s conversation with Abbot Joao’s war account in a confusing way.
A related issue was the actual structure of the novel. Though it was consistently engaging in each of its separate sections (several sections for each chapter), the technique of completely shifting perspective, character, setting and time between sections had the effect of totally halting any momentum that I had going as a reader. Perhaps this was a good thing overall, as it allows the reader a chance to put the book down and do something else. But for me it was mostly frustrating, for example being wrapped up in a blow-by-blow account of a particular front of the battle, then switching abruptly to the Baron/Journalist’s later conversation, or conversely being enthralled with the happenings of Canudos as it is trying to endure the siege and then being switched to a minor subofficial of the Republican Army that we have never met and will never see beyond this section. Basically, I would have enjoyed the book more if it had been less episodic.
My next biggest problem with the book was its hyper-romanticism, which quite simply needed to be toned down. **SPOILERS FOLLOW** My first instance of this feeling occurred in the battle-to-the-death of Rufino and Gall, all the circumstances of which were oh-so-convenient and just sort of ridiculous. The next examples were more or less minor and mostly had to do with extremely fortuitous character encounters (Pejao being the one to shoot Col. Moreiras, the journalist stumbling randomly upon Padre Joaquim, who then randomly stumbled upon Jurema and the Dwarf). These instances were just sort of ridiculous and unbelievable. The worst for me was the relationship that developed between Jurema and the journalist. It was not sufficiently developed and was absolutely incredible. **END SPOILERS**
There were even passages that explicitly admitted this incredibility:
Once again the baron was overcome by the feeling that it was all unreal, a dream, a fiction, which always took possession of him at the very thought of Canudos. All these happenstances, coincidences, fortuitous encounters, made him feel as though he were on tenterhooks. . . the thought of the strange geography of chance, the secret order, the unfathomable law of the history of peoples and individuals that capriciously brought them together, separated them, made them enemies or allies. 502
And then a couple of pages later this is an actual exchange between the baron and the journalist:
“Why is it you didn’t die of thirst? You weren’t a combatant, were you?”
“I wonder myself why I didn’t,” the journalist answered. “If there were any logic to this story, there are any number of times when I should have died in Canudos.”
“Love doesn’t quench thirst,” the baron said, trying to wound his feelings.
“No, it doesn’t quench it,” he agreed. “But it gives one strength to endure it. . .”
So Vargas literally admits that many of his events are illogical and make no sense, and then explains them with the power of love. Like I said, too romantic and totally unnecessary. Plus, just because you blatantly acknowledge that your story is completely unrealistic does not excuse or validate it. The story of Canudos is plenty captivating without having to stoop to sentimentality. Vargas either needed to make this as realistic as possible or run with his sentimental instincts and go full-blown magical realism.
Another minor detail that bothered me was the gratuitous use of violence and rape, which was effective up to a point but just seemed too much by the last couple hundred pages. At certain points the book almost reminded me of The Stand because of this, but not in a good way.
Ultimately, I really liked this book and almost loved it, but it didn’t quite make my favorites; it would have been much better with less embellishment of the fact.