Friday, 7 February 2014

The War of the End of the World by Mario Vargas Llosa (4.5/5)

First published: 1981
Original title: La guerra del fin del mundo

Original language: Spanish
Translation to English by: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1984

Page count: 750

The back says: The War of the End of the World is one of the great modern historical novels. Inspired by a real episode in Brazilian history, Mario Vargas Llosa tells the story of an apocalyptic movement, led by a mysterious prophet, in which prostitutes, beggars and bandits establish Canudos, a new republic, a libertarian paradise.

I say: This was a real tour de force if ever I experienced one – at least for the first 500 or so pages when I couldn’t put it down. And even more so after finding out that it is based on The War of Canudos that took place in Brazil 1896-97.

The basic premise of the novel is that the Councelor, a preacher, manages to encourage over 30’000 people to resettle in Canudos, where he speaks of the end of the world. His sermons reform a lot of former bandits, who take up arms, alongside the other converts, against the Brazilian military who are trying to destroy the new community.

And then add a lot of politics and philosophy.

According to Wiki there are 18 main characters in this book (I didn’t feel like counting myself, so I’ll trust that number) that are allocated the protagonist voice of a different chapter. Of course, most of their lives come to intertwine at some point in the novel, since they all have some relationship to Canudos. This was the most impressive part of the novel; Llosa’s masterful spinning of this incredibly intricate web of characters, politics, religion and philosophy.

I must admit I know very little – if anything at all – about Brazilian history and/or politics, so it was a great feat making me understand the goings-on of the time. However, as the war progressed and the military got more and more involved, I lost interest in the details of the government’s side of the war, and simply wanted to know the fates of the characters. Yes, it was all an intricate part of the conflict, but even so.

Although I love a meticulous plot and well-crafted characters, I do feel that this novel was about 250 pages too long. Perhaps it’s impossible to write about this any conflict without properly presenting both sides, but some of the information we learned about the generals and army doctors felt superfluous. Granted the most intriguing part for me was how the Councelor - so Jesus-like in everything – managed to convince all these people to build a new community with him, and then later to take up arms to protect it. On the other side of that coin, was the fascination with how the government used false information to warrant and attack on this, seemingly, harmless group of people.

I could go on for days about this, and probably will at some point, and I do see myself re-reading it sometime. Llosa’s vivid descriptions of the landscape, the emotions, the rotting flesh of the casualties is one of the main reasons I got so drawn into the story. Needless to say, I’ll be reading more of his works.

4.5/5 because it was too long.

Apart from that it was pure perfection.

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