The War of the End of the World. Mario Vargas Llosa.

Vargas Llosa, Mario. The War of the End of the World. Picador New York 1981 (English translation 1984). F;10/11.

Oh me Lard Jasus! (I’ve just been to Prince Edward Island close to Newfoundland where the preceding is the superlative on the Newfoundland Pain Scale.) Another one of these haemorrhaging black engine-block-anchor tangled monsters. Translated from some other language, of course.

At the end of the 19th century, a heterogeneous group of disenfranchised criminals and misfits holes up, under the leadership of a gaunt uber-charismatic Jesus figure, in the town of Canudos in northern Brazil and establishes a religious society that grows to a population of 30,000 or so. They are thought or at least portrayed by the country’s new republican order to be counterrevolutionary and assisted by the hated English, so three military expeditions are sent against them, comprising more and more soldiers eventually numbering five thousand, trailing huge cannons and hundreds of head of cattle (PLOT ALERT). The religious enthusiasts, many of whom were hideously effective murderers in their former lives, somehow defeat the first two military expeditions, and hold off the final one for many weeks before everybody gets their throats slit, are cut to pieces, and are left in stinking piles overrun and gobbled up by rats and vultures. Only a pathetic myopic cowardly journalist escapes to tell the tale (END PLOT ALERT).

The Canudos characters tend to be strong silent types (like we have to assume the Nobel-Prize-winning author is) doggedly going about their astounding starvation, hundred-mile treks, stealthy guerrilla military strategy, thieving, and painfully devout ersatz religious observation without much comment as if these were the only possible things anybody could do.

And, maybe they were the only possible things these people could have done, as an alternative to living out their evil lives and frying in hell. And to mount professional military response after response to them the only things the government and its soldiers could have done. So on this interpretation once we get past the pages and pages of endurance and blood and guts it’s just that sort of an idea that’s waiting there for us. I flagged on page 246:

No, he would never understand. It was as useless to try to reason with him as it was to argue with Moreira Cesar (short-statured epileptic brilliant army general, eventually defeated) or Gall (wild-eyed Scottish political fanatic, eventually killed in a hand-to-hand duel over a woman). The baron felt a shiver down his spine; it was as if the world had taken leave of its reason and blind, irrational beliefs had taken over. (text in parentheses mine)

That would be the moral of the story that happened to appeal to my current frame of mind. Vargas Llosa’s monstrous semi-fictional version of this hideous little series of historic events is about the inevitability of ideology, how it can’t be separated from human life itself especially when people get desperate, and how it eventually turns everything and everybody to pieces of stinking dead meat (Boom, boom, boom, boom…the last four or five chords of the orchestra crashing down in its minor key to a huge grinding bass finale).

Oh me Lard Jasus. I guess the question is, Why do I read books like this? Or better once having pulled them off the prize-winner shelf at Chapters, started them, and realized what they are, Why don’t I just put them in the trophy shelf and move on to something I really love like A Visit From the Goon Squad? It’s my Jewish Irish bloody-minded ethic of psychological and moral toil. Somewhere in the middle of all that awfulness is this idea that it’s Good for My Soul. And somewhere in the middle of all this awfulness maybe it is. 7.7/?? 8.2

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 30 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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