‘An Abundance of Hats and a Shortage of Heads’: Outlaw Violence, Theater of the Law and the Impossibility of Literature in ‘La guerra del fin del mundo’

Juan Pablo Dabove


I. Introduction

Vargas Llosa’s fictional retelling of the story of Canudos remains his most ambitious and accomplished literary enterprise. Indeed, La guerra del fin del mundo has been both an instant classic and a consistent best-seller for nearly three decades.1 This is a rare accomplishment for several reasons. As a foreigner, he was tackling a story central to (indeed, foundational for) the cultural imaginary of Brazil, with the many risks for failure or scandal or irrelevance that such attempts entail. He was venturing into a literary realm (that of the literature on the Northeastern sertão) in which he would join some of the giants of Brazilian Literature: Euclides da Cunha, José Lins do Rego, Jorge Amado, Rachel de Queiroz, João Guimarães Rosa among others.2 Vargas Llosa has fared notoriously well on both accounts. The continued success of the novel is also striking particularly because of the controversy that has surrounded Vargas Llosa’s increasingly vocal and committed turn to the center or center-right from the 1980s on, a turn that is heralded precisely by this novel and that has meant, for many, a fall from grace.3

My examination of La guerra del fin del mundo, will take into account the novel’s most apparent dimensions as historical war-cum-adventure novel.4 But it will focus on the relationship between outlaw violence (that of the jagunços of Antônio Conselheiro, considered as part of a universe of outlaw violence inextricably woven into the fabric of sertanejo life)5 and the epistemological, ethical and political predicaments of modern literature (embodied, in the novel, in the trajectory and ordeals of the short sighted journalist). To consider La guerra del fin del mundo a critique of modernity as embodied in one of its defining institutions (modern literature), seems to run counter to Vargas Llosa’s unapologetic modernizing credo (that, as noted before, has drawn the ire or derision of many in the U.S. and Latin American Left). But I would argue that this internal and unresolved tension is precisely what gives La guerra del fin del mundo its aesthetic and political poignancy. Vargas Llosa presents the paradoxes of modernity, but does not imagine himself outside or above the predicament he presents. Quite to the contrary: in the novel, the scribe (the salaried journalist) becomes a writer (of a work that remains forever in the future), the écrivant becomes an écrivain, as Barthes puts forth, when he is (un)able to face the impossible challenge of the outlaw, and when he realizes that he will consume his life in the failed (but splendidly so) attempt to translate that challenge into words.

II. Nightmares of the Lettered City

The rural bandit, as it appears in the text of elite Latin American culture (from penal codes to sonnets, from protocols for the execution of bandits to schoolbooks, from historical works to news articles), should be addressed as a formation of the political unconscious, a cultural “nightmare”.6 These nightmares are a sort of transaction between a desire and a repressed certainty. In Latin American postcolonial culture, that desire is usually named “modernity”—in its many possible versions: fascist or Marxist, liberal or conservative. The repressed certainty is twofold: this desire is perhaps unachievable, and that modernity is itself an evil but unavoidable transaction with forces that have little to do with the modernizers’ ideal image of it. Of course, this notion of the bandit as the “demonic force” (“demonic” in the double sense of “adversarial force” and of “possessing force”) of modernity implies the acknowledgement that the image of banditry in Latin America is vastly different from the most popular (and harmless) image of the bandit: the noble robber à la Robin Hood and his merry men. In Latin America there have been a number of celebrated noble robbers (Chucho el Roto and the Peruvian Luis Pardo come to mind, among others). But the image that has prevailed is that of the nomadic warrior, either the haiduk or the avenger: Villa in Mexico, Moreira and Quiroga in Argentina, Corisco and Lampião in Brazil, Briones in Ecuador, Boves in Venezuela, Sangre Negra in Colombia, Águila Blanca in Puerto Rico. All—in different conflict scenarios and national traditions—have embodied the unleashed violence of the multitude.7

Banditry is a vastly productive cultural trope and it has always entailed a representational struggle that is fought primarily in the arena of discourse. Hobsbawm’s classic (and entirely tautological) definition of the phenomenon sheds some light on this point. Bandits, he says, “are peasant outlaws whom the lord and state regard as criminals, but who remain within peasant society, and are considered by their people as heroes, champions, avengers, fighters for justice, perhaps even leaders for liberation, and in any case men to be admired, helped and supported. This relation between the ordinary peasant and the rebel, outlaw and robber is what makes social banditry interesting and significant. It also distinguishes it from other kinds of rural crime”(Bandits 17). I will not dwell on the debates that this definition has spurred over the years—in particular the debate regarding Hobsbawm’s unmitigated affirmation of the peasant bandit-link.8 Suffice it to say that banditry is defined by the existence of this undecidable double perspective. It is not what a rural insurgent does, but how contending groups outside the immediate perpetrators regard these actions what brings banditry into existence (as opposed to mere criminality that can pose a material threat, but not the symbolic threat of the blurring of contested cultural distinctions).

The bandit functions in a given culture as the arena of a representational struggle that implicates (or could implicate) contending notions of identity, sovereignty, violence, property and so forth. Therefore, the examination of the representational dimensions of banditry is not an added dimension, but is (or should be) at the core of any analysis of the phenomenon. Indeed, throughout Latin American history, banditry was a label applied to almost any offence. However, as a penal offense banditry is notoriously absent from most Latin American penal codes (much like “terrorism” is today). Although it is primarily associated with robbery or an attempt against private property (kidnapping for ransom, blackmailing, protection rackets, cattle rustling, vandalism—offenses that do appear in codes), banditry may comprise such diverse offenses as resisting authority, smuggling, homicide, conspiracy to commit a crime, possession of prohibited weaponry, vagrancy, desertion, rebellion and poaching. In fact, any challenge to state rule could, and most frequently was, at one point or another, labeled “banditry”, and what is more important, it was harshly dealt with as such. I entirely agree with Joseph when he indicates that“much like the modern concept of ‘terrorism’, ‘banditry’ became more a part of the ‘metalanguage of crime’ than a specific crime itself. It was used in this manner by the state to ‘mark’ certain kinds of violent or potentially violent behavior by ‘dangerous classes’ in society. Indeed, even banditry’s etymological origins (coming from the Latin bannire, meaning to banish) suggest this process of exclusion, in which a boundary was created between the bandit and society (the process is cast in even bolder relief in the case of the analogous term outlaw)” (22). Any approach to the topic of banditry and its representation should have a strong empirical bent. We should not decide beforehand whether a manifestation of rural unrest is “really” banditry, or whether a particular manifestation of rural insurgency labeled banditry by the state is “really” banditry. This would assume that the analyst has a sort of suprahistorical point of view that allows him/her to make a decision regardless of the particular discursive reality under analysis. Quite to the contrary, it is the conflict over representation what constitutes the central and most productive political and cultural feature of the phenomenon of banditry. To give an example: the followers of Antônio Conselheiro were dubbed bandits. But, were they really? They were a collective organization that exerted violence outside the law, violence that, for many and perhaps most sertanejos, was legitimate, and even sacred. But equally crucial is that the army reports, government documents, newspapers, and contemporary accounts (including da Cunha’s) referred to them as bandits (the mere denomination jagunços entails a criminalization of the group, and it cast Conselheiro not as a religious but rather a gang leader), and were treated as such (witnessed by the mass slaughter, the burning and flattening of Canudos, the beheading of Conselheiro, and so forth). (I will return to this point later.)

Banditry also summons two core issues regarding the cultural-political-economic synthesis that we call the modern nation state. First, it conjures up the state’s privilege of the monopoly of violence (that which makes a state a state), and the social (cultural) legitimacy of that monopoly.9 Bandit narratives produced by the lettered elite simultaneously work towards creating that legitimacy—through the suppression, real or symbolic, of the rural insurgent–while calling it into question in profound ways by exposing the secret and sometimes not so secret affinities between legal and outlaw violence.10 One should keep in mind that these generalizations are by definition falsifiable: every instance of the bandit trope—as formation of the political unconscious—is unique, and there is no “key” to understanding them beforehand, beyond the specific cultural dynamics of which they are a symptom.

III. Banditry and Modern Literature

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La guerra del fin del mundo is an exemplary literary instance of what could be called a “self referential” use of the bandit trope.11 Outlaw violence, or more precisely, the impossible relationship between modern intellectuals and outlaw violence, is an indirect means to reflect on the status and limits of modern literature (modern literature of which La guerra del fin del mundo, as a great product of the liberal imagination, represents both a summit and a closure). In this sense, I would group it with other novels of the last half century, such Grande Sertão: Veredas, (1956) by João Guimaraes Rosa, Zama (1956) by Antonio di Benedetto, Polvo y Ceniza (1979) and El árbol de los quemados (2008) by Eliecer Cárdenas, Hombres de caminos (1988), by Miguel Gutiérrez and Plata Quemada (1997) by Ricardo Piglia. Two earlier novels could be added to this list: El luto humano (1943) and Los días terrenales (1949), both by the Mexican José Revueltas. Perhaps what sets the latter novels apart from the others is that in Revueltas’ novels, the outlaw (cattle smuggler, noble robber, guerrilla or hired assassin) calls into question the claims of epistemological privilege of another avatar of the modern imagination: Marxism as the blueprint of History.

Bear in mind that the nexus between modern literature and banditry is present from the very beginning of postcolonial Latin American literature. Allow me to offer a sort of fiction of origin of this link. It appears in book five of El Periquillo Sarmiento, the 1816 Mexican novel by Joaquín Fernández de Lizardi, considered the first Spanish American postcolonial novel.12 Perico is its protagonist. At this late point in the narrative, Perico is down on his luck after a brief stint with a gang of highway robbers. The gang was stamped out of existence in an ambush by the Acordada, the colonial corps in charge of providing security in Mexican caminos reales. Perico was the only survivor. This would seem just like another episode in his adventurous life. But something else happens this time. Riding away from the scene of the ambush, he spots the bloated corpse of Januario, hanging from a tree, executed as a brigand chief. Januario was Perico’s childhood friend, and a partner and sponsor of his early misdeeds. Perico understands that this is no chance meeting. This is a “lesson” that the dead Januario “loudly voices”. How Perico reacts to this rather ghastly sight is significant: he composes a sonnet and carves it into the very tree from which Januario’s dead body hangs. This encounter, as I have argued elsewhere (see Nightmares), is the center of the novel. Because of this encounter Perico realizes that he must redeem himself sincerely and for good. He abandons his criminal career and becomes Don Pedro: a model citizen, a husband, a father, and an owner. And above all, he becomes a writer (the writer of the autobiographical novel that is, precisely, El Periquillo Sarniento).

There are two dimensions of this scene that I would like to discuss. The first one is the decisive role of the state in the production of the man-of-letters. Januario probably did not die by hanging, but was most likely shot by a firing squad or killed during a skirmish. He was later hanged. The state’s posthumous assault on the body (the refusal of burial, the theatrical display) is a plus, not of violence, but of meaning. It shows that in Januario’s dead body there is a message. This is what was called a “theater of the law”, the deliberate communicative techniques through which elites reasserted their hegemony when challenged from below.13 It dispossessed Januario of his voice (and the hanging could not be more symbolic in this respect), and animated what was the empty carcass, dead flesh, with the state’s own voice. Januario thus becomes a talking corpse that repeats the law ad infinitum: the one, anteceding any actual laws, that makes the bandit an enemy of mankind, bound to be killed on the spot. Perico hears that voice, he feels that it interpellates him, since Januario is a mirror image of his own self, and this act of “hearing” the state’s voice is the origin of the novel, in a very literal sense.

But additionally: the state provided the initial event that organized Perico’s aimless wandering into a “life”, a time with meaning, a politically and ethically relevant learning process. Don Pedro provides the raw facts, but the state provided the meaning, the narrative framework of which the raw facts are only illustrations. Don Pedro’s memories (El Periquillo Sarniento) want to be a life lesson for his offspring. But Don Pedro is less the author of that lesson, than the translator into words of the lesson that the state taught him through the dead body of the bandit. I would argue that all of the destinies of the modern intellectual in literary texts are played out as either variations or denials of this original scene.

IV. La Guerra del fin del mundo

Indeed, at the end of the historic cycle that Fernandez de Lizardi inaugurates, Vargas Llosa returns to the problem. La guerra del fin del mundo tells the story of Canudos.14 But, as one of the characters of the novel reflects, “Canudos” does not name a story, but an infinite, ever-expanding, ever-bifurcating tree of stories (433). We can group these stories, as they appear in Vargas Llosa’s novel, into two categories: first the stories of the warriors (insurgents, bandits, henchmen, military men) and second the stories of the intellectuals. The warrior stories narrate the military as well as the cosmic conflict between the jagunços of Antônio Conselheiro, under the leadership of former cangaceiros Pajeú, João Abade, João Grande, Pedrão, Joaquim Macambira, and the state and federal forces under the successive leadership of Lieutenant Pires Ferreira, Major Febronio do Brito, Colonel Moreira César and General Ártur Oscar.

The writers and intellectuals whose destiny Canudos impacted in vastly different ways, can be further divided into two more groups: the backland intellectuals (the dwarf, a consummate storyteller), father Joaquim (nexus between Canudos and the outside world), León the Natuba (who faithfully records each word that the Conselheiro utters, in order to add a fifth gospel to the Bible), and the urban intellectuals of various formations and political opinions. It is to these urban intellectuals to whom I am going to devote the following pages. These intellectuals are: the anarchist and amateur phrenologist Galileo Gall, who dreams of reaching Canudos, a place that, for him, is the spearhead of the world revolution; the Baron of Cañabrava, prototype of the elite nineteenth-century politician and intellectual whose personal life, fortune and political career Canudos damages beyond repair; Nina Rodrigues and Nepomuceno de Albuquerque, criminologists of the School of Bahia, in charge of the examination of the severed head of Conselheiro. And last, but not least, the near sighted journalist, the unlikely center of this constellation. As envoy of the republican Jornal de Noticias (directed by the unscrupulous Epaminondas Gonçalves), he followed the third expedition and became Moreira César’s shadow. The colonel openly despises him. He has many reasons to do so: above all, he is an intellectual (a dangerous but necessary species of creatures, according to the colonel).15 He also has many physical and moral handicaps: he is ungainly, he is weak, he wears extremely thick glasses, and he is allergic and sneezes constantly.16 The two men, however, establish a strange bond. And this happens not only due to the journalist’s endurance of the forbidding trek and determination to reach Canudos that surprises Moreira César. It is also perhaps because he recognizes that both represent certain ideals related to modernity: the autonomy of literature, the national-statist rationality as the exclusive affiliation (and pathway for social organization), respectively.17 (The existence of opposing or mirroring pairs of characters is a recurring device in the novel: Galileo Gall, Moreira César and Antônio Conselheiro mirror each other to a certain extent, since—according to the Baron—all three embody the violent fanaticism that would define the twentieth century.) It should be remembered that in the novel, the war of Canudos is considered, more than once, the ominous opening salvo of the twentieth century, the “Age of Extremes” as Howsbawm put it. Two of the main actors of the twentieth-century were the state (this was the century in which the nation state reached its extreme limits, in its Stalinist and fascist forms) and the multitude in its historical avatars (mass, crowd, people-as-Volk, people-as-liberal-civil-society, People-as-proletariat, people-as-multiclass-alliance, or people-as-consumer) and the uneasy transactions, battles, and struggles around representation that were waged between the two. The intellectuals in the novel are torn between these actors. And the novel is a reflection of this battle, in the form of the war between outlaws and the State. It provides us with three powerful emblems of this conflict, and of three possible destinies of the modern intellectual caught between the state and the multitude. These are: (1) the destiny of the severed head of Antonio Conselheiro; (2) the ill fated saga of Galileo Gall, phrenologist and as such, interpreter of heads, and (3) the fatal encounter between the shortsighted journalist and the rotten head of Moreira César. Allow me to comment on these three moments in this order (which does not correspond to the order in which they appear in the novel).

V. The Head of Conselheiro

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The first head that occupies us is that of Conselheiro, and its destiny as narrated in the novel.The triumphant leaders of the fourth expedition were not satisfied with taking Canudos, with destroying the Troy of mud and setting it ablaze, or with slaughtering the few survivors with knives, thus denying them salvation in the afterlife.They needed more. They wanted more. With dogs (known embodiments of Satan) they tortured the Beatito, Conselheiro’s closest aide in order to find out where the dead leader was buried. They exhumed the corpse, took some measurements, the photographer Flávio de Barros captured the picture now universally known. They then cut off his head and sent it to Salvador, so that it could be studied (432). But the report by Nina Rodrigues was irritatingly brief, and it tersely stated that the cranium showed no evident abnormality.18 However, things could not stand like this. Honorato de Albuquerque wrote a dissenting report. He concluded that “the cranial curvature was exactly the same as […] those in epileptics who […] had the missal in their hands, the name of God on their lips, and the stigmata of crime and brigandage in their hearts” (433). Once the exams were finalized, and the disagreement between these two verdicts established, the authorities sank the head in the Atlantic, in the exact midpoint between the San Marcelo Fort and Itaparica Island.

In this case, the state (under the guise of its lettered staff) performs two crucial procedures on the head of Conselheiro: first, it reads it, then, it writes on it. In the morphology of the skull Albuquerque reads the deleterious influence of both environment and heritage. By doing this, he is able to territorialize the entire Canudos phenomenon, a territorialization that is a spectacular way to reinstate the epistemological privilege accorded to the state as the place where all instances of the social are symbolically totalized and resumed. In the novel (in the path of da Cunha’s Os Sertoes), Canudos was not only the military scandal of the defeat of urban modernity and of a powerful modern military armed with European weaponry at the hands of dispossessed peasants led by rural bandits. It was an epistemological scandal, for which there was no adequate narrative.((Modern (American) examples of similar scandals and of the perhaps insurmountable difficulties in grappling with them in a coherent narrative fashion are evidenced in the struggle against the Vietcong guerrilla in Vietnam (that, just like Canudos, has given us at least one masterpiece: Apocalypse Now, also the story of a warrior community deep in the backlands, and its inscrutable leader) and also in the fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan.)) More than necessary, this scandal made all of the versions on monarchist or British conspiracies imperative. (Proving these versions correct, would make Canudos a war between equals, which, regardless of which side won, would keep the prestige of modern institutions—and of modernity itself—intact). In fact, the Jacobin plot to produce a box of British rifles headed for Canudos, as part of the foreign aid to the fanatics—a plot that cost Gall (conveniently framed as a British agent) his life— is barely fictional, if at all. Many stories like this, involving boxes or bottles with suspicious substances were reported in the newspapers at the time [Pernambucano de Mello). To read the head of Conselheiro, and then to re-write it by stating beyond doubt that Canudos was born fully armed out of that head, like Pallas Athena out of Zeus’s, reinstates a dominant narrative that revolves around the degeneracy of the inhabitant of the backlands, and takes Canudos away from history and politics, reducing it to an event of criminal psychiatry, a “natural” anomaly (the contradiction is glaring, but still reassuring), and a formless residue of history. The divergence between the reports by Nina Rodríguez and Nepomuceno de Albuquerque, the fact that the verdict of banditry has to be confirmed at all costs, shows the state’s will for truth (Nietzsche) that is far more powerful and enduring in imposing a version of reality than Epaminondas’ still crude concoction of a British agent by using the red hair of Gall, or the willful self-deception of those who “saw” the redcoats prowling the sertão, and the supposed ravages of advanced weaponry.

The other procedure performed on the head of Conselheiro is more complex, and involves the manner of its disposal. Vargas Llosa’s account (the sinking of the head in the sea) differs from the historical record. In reality, after the head was severed, “it was displayed on a pike and subsequently taken to the coast, where it was held high at the front of a military parade for all to see and finally given to Nina Rodrigues to be examined for congenital abnormalities, with the results that we know. The head remained a curiosity on display at the Medical Faculty until the building burned down at the beginning of the twentieth century” (Levine 184). The novel is rife with these divergences, condensations and expansions (see Bernucci). It is highly significant, however, that such a crucial event, such a well-known fact involving the most important character in the Canudos drama, should be rewritten. This is especially striking since what really happened provides a wide array of symbols: the forces of civilization parading a head on a pike, the “real” city, Salvador (as opposed to the monstrous city, Canudos) as the stage for such a ghastly spectacle, and a modern army parading in front of the decomposed head of a “bandit chief”. (Vargas Llosa chose to omit these events entirely from his account).

In the novel, the head is thrown into the sea with the purpose of making it unreachable, thus consigning it to oblivion (in reality, the head was given to Nina Rodrigues for precisely that reason [As collectividades131]).19 But the location seems to be no secret. The last appearance of the Baron in the novel shows him witnessing, in awe and disbelief, how pilgrims row or sail to the place where the head was sunk and then throw flowers as funereal offerings (508). And what is more important: the head was not sunk in an undetermined, indifferent location in the open sea, but rather placed within constant view of the city, in a point that is exactly halfway between the fort and the island, in the entrance to the bay, and thus, practically in the path of all ships entering or leaving the port. A suspicion arises: perhaps, the head of Conselheiro was not hidden at all. Perhaps the purpose was for it to endure the same destiny as other famous outlaw corpses. Bandits are not merely executed. They are quartered, their body parts hanged, nailed to trees in crossroads, in squares, in markets, at the entrance of towns, and, very prominent in the Brazilian case, photographed or made part of travelling exhibits to ensure maximum publicity.20 The head of Conselheiro is not merely thrown into the sea. It certainly has to be unreachable, but it has to remain right there, invisible but continuously in plain sight, in order to be an incessant reminder of what must always be remembered-as-already-forgotten (to use Anderson’s expression): the material and epistemological violence that originates and sustains the nation state. It is hidden, because “civilization” at the dawn of the twentieth century, is supposed to have confined these spectacles to the past (or to the limits of the penintentiary).21 It is always in plain sight, because civilization is animated by the same lust for revenge as its imaginary foe, banditry. I would call this display (in this case, perpetual) of the body of the vanquished enemy, as a reassertion of elite hegemony, the theater of the law. In this theater, the head of Conselheiro was deprived of his own voice, his irrecoverable voice that set the backlands ablaze. And it became, like the corpse of Januario in the Mexican El periquillo, a silently talking corpse, the enduring memory of violent state retribution, and the warning, the promise of more violence to come. The military massacre, the burning and razing of Canudos were only part of the preliminary violence necessary to exorcise the “real” threat of Canudos, the symbolic menace of the incomprehensibility of outlaw violence. To direct (or to participate in) that theater of the law as a form of exorcism of outlaw violence is one of the destinies of the modern intellectual, one of its definitions: the intellectual as the reluctant yet willing instrument in the suppression of the Other.

VI. Galileo Gall, Reader of Heads

A contrasting destiny of the modern intellectual is embodied in Galileo Gall. Gall is an anarchist, a writer and professional revolutionary, a sworn enemy of the state. And he shares his profession as a reader of skulls with the criminal anthropologists of Bahia. Galileo Gall is not his real name. He adopted the last name as an alias, taken from Franz Joseph Gall, one of the creators of phrenology. (The tongue-in-cheek political statement behind the adoption of “Galileo” as his first name hardly needs to be explained). The novel contains two scenes of Gall’s head-reading.. Both of the heads that Gall reads belong to subjects of outlaw violence: the guide and capanga Rufino, who is hired to guide Gall and the weapons given by Epaminondas to Canudos (62), and the cangaceiro Barbadura, who Gall encounters en route to Canudos (198).

Unlike the criminologists of Bahía, Gall operates without the material and symbolic guarantees provided by the state. That is, he reads heads while his own head is on the line. Furthermore, he is a staunch supporter of Canudos and he dies in the pursuit of his cause. But his problem is, to a point, the same as that of the Bahian criminologists: how to interpret outlaw violence from the viewpoint of modern knowledge and modernity. As an anarchist, Gall has a different idea of modernity, and he does not want to suppress premodern violence altogether, rather he wants to transform it into modern revolutionary violence. But he is, nonetheless, an apostle of modernity because like the Bahian criminologists, he cannot relate to Canudos or to backland violence in general, without exerting some kind of epistemological violence. In his case, he has to reterritorialize Canudos as a “primitive rebellion” (I borrow the term from Hobsbawm, but I consider it apt in Gall’s case), and as a revolutionary movement that has no self awareness of its true nature and of its place in History (56).22 (Of course, the yagunzos are firmly placed in a different history, that of divine trial and redemption, the final test before the impending Second Coming). Gall is not like father Joaquim, formerly an amiable man with readings as well as vices who feels the call to Canudos and becomes a convert, a warrior and a martyr. (In all cases, he is a follower of that man who showed him the light). Gall fancies himself the leader of the movement, who knows about his prospective followers what they do not know about themselves.

But Gall never delivers the weapons that he sought to deliver. He never mobilizes the masses in support of Canudos. He did not even reach Canudos. His actual role was that of a mere commentator and interpreter of what he never really saw, writing letters to a French radical publication (l’Étincelle de la révolte) that, unbeknownst to him, had ceased to exist years before. This ghostly dialogue with non-existent readers via a defunct outlet is a a fitting and melancholic emblem of his destiny. But Gall’s problem goes beyond failure. For a true revolutionary, failure is one of the conceivable destinies (and not necessarily the worst one). The problem is that he who wanted to be a guide for the sertanejos, died lost in the sertão. Without Rufino, he lost his bearings in the myriad tracks of the caatinga, alternately bone dry or impassably muddy. But above all, he was lost in the web of backlands violence, a violence that he tried and failed to reduce to “class” violence. After killing two assassins sent by Epaminondas to kill him (at this point, Gall realizes that he was used by Epaminondas as a disposable pawn as he was to be killed in possession of the weapons, to show how the British and monarchical conspirators were aiding Canudos), Gall raped Jurema and thus broke his vows of revolutionary chastity.23 From this point on, his pilgrimage to Canudos (without the weapons) became an escape from Rufino’s vengeance. Gall, who thought that he had understood Rufino sufficiently when he read his skull (62) and that he was able to establish a distance between the rational being—himself—and one dominated by “Marvelousness” (62) ends his life as Rufino’s equal, in a fight to the death inscribed in the oral code of honor and vengeance that carries both away.24 His is not a march towards the future, but an uncertain escape from the past. And we must remember that Gall had been, up to that moment, the man with no concerns about the past, and not contaminated by the past.

Gall thus represents the second possibility of the modern intellectual: he who opposes the state, and fancies relations of both knowledge and solidarity with the pre-modern world of outlaw violence, of which he knows nothing, and whose ignorance costs him his life.25

VI. The Journalist

Dabovre ilust 3Cangaceiro Barreira

And thus we arrive at the third destiny of the modern intellectual in his relationship to outlaw violence. This destiny is embodied in the shortsighted journalist. Let’s go back to part three, chapter seven of the novel. The inconceivable has happened. The Third Expedition sent to quash Canudos has been shamefully defeated, and the Colonel killed, along with many other officers. The expedition, put under the auspices of European discipline and technology (of which Moreira César was a fanatical believer), has become a terrorized, amorphous mass in flight (323-324). And the jagunços will give no quarter to the military, during its long retreat back to its rearguard base. At a particular moment in the novel (which constantly oscillates between different viewpoints) we learn the fate of the short-sighted journalist. But first, let’s go back even further. As we already know, the journalist followed the expedition, not as a convinced republican, but as an artist: he wanted to be close to Moreira César because of the thrill of being close to a celebrity of mythological stature (140). He dreamt of being Brazil’s Oscar Wilde, and like Wilde (or better yet, like Dorian Gray), he lived chasing new experiences: drugs, candomblé, the bohemian life, and now the military life. By doing this, he intends to embody the ideal of a Decadentist, a variety of the nineteenth century man of letters. And he seems to be fulfilling this desire to his heart’s content. When Moreira César has an epileptic seizure, he is there (194). The journalist is there when the Colonel—forced by epilepsy to accept the hospitality of the Baron in Calumbí—clashes with his host, and the journalist obviously enjoys the symbolism of the moment (the twentieth century facing the nineteenth) (209). The failed assault on Canudos is narrated from his perspective (and as we will see shortly, the scopic metaphor is crucial). And when Moreira is mortally wounded, he not only witnesses the event, but he is in charge of helping during the ultimately unsuccessful 305). He is even in charge of consigning the Colonel’s last will to paper (307). With the defeat of the army, he is lost in the no man’s land between the army in flight and the circle of fire and piety of Canudos. This risk to his physical integrity is more than compensated by the privileged opportunity to see the battle (or rather, the flight) as nobody else can see it (323-324).26 In fact, he experiences the entire scene of the defeat as an opium dream: he remains lucid, distant and almost totally in control (327). While walking with father Joaquim, just snatched from the jaws of Moreira César’s revenge, he contemplates, without much emotion, a horrid spectacle: the yagunzos decapitating the dead, collecting the heads in bags, and later displaying them on pikes (326). Unexpectedly, he sees something that will change his life: he takes a close look at one of the heads that is crawling with flies. There is no possible doubt: it is the head of Moreira César (327, 344). Distracted and startled by this discovery, destiny catches up to him under the rather humble form of an allergic sneeze. The convulsion of the sneeze makes his glasses fall and break (327, 344). Until the end of the entire Canudos episode, he will be almost blind. The simultaneity of horrible sight and near blindness is not mere chance. The two events are causally related (albeit a symbolic causality that operates outside of time). If the sight of the bloated corpse of Januario is for Perico a revelation, a cautionary tale with a clear message that forces the development of an identity “before the law”, the sight of Moreira César’s head is a negative illumination that robs the journalist of all the guarantees upon which he based his identity.

Allow me to elaborate. First, the journalist, blinded, has to be taken to Canudos, and he will be one of the few survivors of the subsequent massacre. Furthermore, he will be at the very center of the events. He is lodged in the arms depot of the yagunzos, and because of this, he is close to all of the important characters at the very center of a defining event in Brazilian history: the Vilanova brothers, João Abade, Pajeú, João Grande, the León de Natuba, the Beatito, Pedrão. For some inexplicable reason, he even commands the attention of Conselheiro himself. Had the papers of the León de Natuba survived, or had he been able to keep writing until the very end, the short sighted journalist would have been a secondary although memorable character in the New Gospel, as the undeserving recipient of a huge but enigmatic favor (the authorization to leave Canudos before its fall) granted by Conselheiro himself almost in articulo mortis.

But unlike his experience with Moreira César, now he cannot see or understand anything. Canudos was for him only an amorphous fog (of the soldiers as well as of the bandits) pervaded by terror, and later, by the unexpected happiness of desperate love.27The journalist went to Canudos in search of experiences. These experiences were to be attributes that would legitimize his becoming a superior man of letters: Canudos was supposed to be raw experience transformed into narrative material, according to preexisting aesthetic and ideological codes. (This is significant: had he not lost himself in Canudos, the only “authorized” testimony of the campaign would have been the military dispatches, reports and, above all, his articles and chronicles). He does have experiences: he finds Love, he finds History, he finds Terror, Passion (religious as well as intellectual) and Sacrifice. He had, in fact, many more experiences that he would have cared for. But one of these experiences (the one that defines the others) is the opaque realization that the whole event of Canudos is, for him, impossible to understand or depict. , The codes that sustained his practice as writer (and writer was his entire identity, as shown in the fact that he does not have a name, but it is referred only as “the journalist”) are now irrelevant.

Why is the decapitated head the portal to this experience? Much like the case of the corpse of Januario, the desecration of the corpse and the spectacular display of the head on top of a pike is a form of writing. In the case of Januario, that writing has a “natural”, “legitimate” origin: the state. On the other hand, for the short sighted journalist, the head is the ominous writing of those who do not write. It is the performance of the ominous law of a society without a state. But the head of Moreira César is also terrifying because of what it says about the journalist himself, about the civilization that underwrites him.

The corpse of Moreira César is decapitated and his head displayed. The corpse of Conselheiro is decapitated and its head displayed, although the theater of the law is carried out in a more inconspicuous fashion. It is clear that the destinies of both heads mirror or echo each other. This is not unheard of, since the counter theater of the poor responded to the theater of the law, as E.P. Thomson first, and Anton Blok and Ranajit Guha later, have documented and analyzed these dynamics, whereby insurgents (bandits, urban mobs, etc.) deliberately mirror (in an inverted or transgressive fashion) the practices of the state.28But in La guerra del fin del mundo things are more complicated, because the “original” theater belongs to the jagunços. They are the ones who display the head of Moreira César. State retribution comes second, and therefore, the state’s theater of the law is a grim mimic of the jagunço law, and the dynamic ceases to be that between law and outlaw, and becomes a dynamic between two forms of vengeance, of outlaw retribution, that is intended to purge the social body of the threat, but makes that threat more permanent, by installing it at the center of state actions. This dynamic also appears in the act of burning: the mirror events of the burning of Calumbí and the later burning of Canudos. (Understanding 184).

Let’s return to the original scene that we discussed earlier, that of the encounter between Perico and the body of Januario. In El Periquillo, it is the body of the bandit written by the state that forges a new identity. In a complete inversion of that pattern, in La guerra del fin del mundo it is the body of the state representative written by the bandit that pollutes and destroys identity.

In El Periquillo, the origin of the law, and the difference between law and outlaw was clear. It was from this clarity that its foundational value stemmed. In the case of La guerra del fin del mundo, the original theater (and hence, the original law) belongs to the yagunzos, the counter theater to the state. But if this is really the case, then yagunzos claim an epistemological privilege, and the journalist, whose practice has been always put under the economical and cultural guarantees of the state, has always been at the service of a form of barbarism that does not speak its name. This is why, even though Canudos and Bahia are supposedly contrasted as premodernity vs. modernity, or civilization vs. barbarism, things are not really quite so. Canudos is sustained by a dedicated millenarian fervor. But it is an eminently rational community: well organized, self sustaining, moderate in its appetites and in its expressions. The bandits in the novel have truculent bloody pasts, and they are fearsome warriors. But in Canudos they are not represented as bloodthirsty monsters, but rather as meek persons (albeit resolute in the defense of the Conselheiro, like Pajeú), able organizers (like Vilanova), compassionate leaders (like the Beatito), humble companions (like João Abade). 29 The same cannot be said about Bahia, where fanaticism, deceit, greed, bloodlust, treason and sadness reign.

So, in the head of Moreira César there is a message: the affirmation not of a rebellion, but of a superior form of sovereignty. The journalist knows that César’s head speaks to him and about him, but the very nature of the message makes it all but unreadable, because it speaks of powers that are not the powers of the letter associated to modernity, but rather of those that define his identity and his practice as irrelevant.30 The journalist acknowledges this when he says that he has become a monster. That he has always been one.

Gall erroneously thinks that he can interpret premodern outlaw violence, but he keeps his distance from it. The journalist assumes that message for what it is: something absolutely present and something absolutely incomprehensible that destroys any aesthetic of epistemological distance (lack of distance that is the very space of literature). The destiny of the journalist can, finally, be contrasted with that of the Baron. The Baron lived in Bahía his entire life. He is the owner of the land of Canudos. He knew (or thought that he knew) inside out (as is clearly shown in the case of Rufino) the codes regulating violence, honor and deference in the backlands. But the Baron fails catastrophically in his attempt to understand Canudos and he pays dearly for this failure: he lost his fortune, his wife, and his political clout . He, who wanted not to be a politician and a landowner, but an intellectual and a scientist, is painfully aware of all of these losses, and the reason behind them . He resigns himself to surviving as a relic of what he considers a gentler past, he abandons all work and becomes a private citizen, embracing dubious erotic and aesthetic pleasures. This is not the case of the short sighted journalist. He has lived for months in darkness. He never emerges from it, because he discovers that he has always lived in it. But that darkness and uncertainty is his call to work (341): a work on what he did not see, on what he did not understand, a future and conjectural work that, far from clarifying Canudos, would take us into that fog of near-blindness and horror that was his life, a paradoxical “in between”, more deserted that the sertão.

From this perspective, La guerra del fin del mundo, in addition to a war novel, a bandit novel, an historical novel, a political novel, is a novel on “becoming writer”. The condition of possibility of that “becoming writer” is the polluting contact with the body written by the bandit. But that contact is not a plus, a richness that would endow the narrative with the edge of the witness account. It is the destruction of all he assumed that a writer was that transformed him into a writer. We never read a single line of his projected work on Canudos. But we can guess that it will be neither an apology of Canudos (he was terrified of being there) nor a denunciation of the military (after all, the character to whom he feels more closely related is Moreira César). It will not be the work of a convert, nor of an analyst, nor of a witness. That paradox justifies Rama’s epithet, coined to salute the release of the novel: the “masterpiece of a fanatic of literature”. This is of course a play on words, since “fanatic” was the derogatory term used to describe the followers of Conselheiro. La guerra del fin del mundo enacts, under different conditions, a fanaticism that implies a double certainty: the absolute need for literature; the impossibility of literature as a privileged locus of enunciation. Perhaps the shortsighted journalist will become the Brazilian Oscar Wilde, as he dreamt before going to Canudos. But he will not be the Wilde of The Picture of Dorian Gray or “The Sphinx”, but the outcast that called himself Sebastian Melmoth. As Jorge Luis Borges famously stated in “La supersticiosa ética del lector”: “I do not know whether music can despair of music or marble of marble. I do know that literature is an art that can foresee the time when it will be silenced, an art that can become inflamed with its own virtue, fall in love with its own decline, and court its own demise” (217).

  1. The opening sentences of the glowing 1982 review by Ángel Rama set the tone for the novel’s critical success. He states: “Concluída la lectura de las 531 páginas de La guerra del fin del mundo, dos conclusiones se imponen: es artísticamente una obra maestra y con ella ha quedado consolidada la novela popular-culta en América Latina. No son necesarios los dones de Casandra para anunciar que tendrá millones de lectores y que en la renovada apuesta a cien años vista se la mencionará como una de las novelas claves de esta segunda mitad del XX que vio la triunfal expansión del género en el continente.” He adds: “A la intensidad, amplitud y coherencia del proyecto y a la soberana sapiencia narrativa, debe atribuirse que América Latina alcance su Guerra y Paz, aunque con cien años de retraso, haciendo de su autor nuestro mayor clásico vivo” (“Una obra maestra” 600). []
  2. For a discussion and justification of Vargas Llosa’s incursion into a foreign literary tradition see Elmore. Vargas Llosa has repeated this incursion, with equal success, with La fiesta del Chivo, 2000, another historical novel, this time focused on the Dominican dictator Rafael Leónidas Trujillo (1891–1961). []
  3. For three significant instances that show how this controversy affected the critical reception of his work (in particular within the academic Left), see William Rowe, Gerald Martin and Antonio Cornejo-Polar. []
  4. ((Sara Castro Klarén links the novel (or some scenes within the novel) to “Hollywood’s biblical and Western sagas or pirate movies” (Understanding 166). On the other hand, Elmore links some episodes of the novel (eminently, the fracas between Rufino and Gall) []
  5. On the culture of violence on the sertão, see Pernambucano de Mello, Guerreiros do Sol, as well as Pereira de Queiroz, Os cangaceiros. Pernambucano de Mello also provides a most useful presentation of (and distinction between) the different actors of violence that comprise the constellation of outlaw violence in the sertão, namely, cangaceiro, jagunço, cabra, capanga, pistoleiro (see Chapter 2: “Da violência à criminalidade: estrutura, formas e agentes”). This distinction is crucial in our case because, following Euclides da Cunha (and most narratives on Canudos) Vargas Llosa does not distinguish between these categories. For a classic English language presentation of Canudos, see Levine, Vale of Tears. In Portuguese, see Pernambucano de Mello, A Guerra total de Canudos. []
  6. For an extended discussion of the concept of “cultural nightmare” see Dabove, Nightmares, “Introduction”, as well as “Demonios culturales: conjuras y exorcismos”. []
  7. Hobsbawm defines avengers as those bandits “who not only practice terror and cruelty to an extent which cannot possibly be explained as mere backsliding, but whose terror actually forms part of their public image. They are heroes not in spite of the fear and horror their actions inspire, but in some ways because of them. They are not so much men who right wrongs, but avengers, and excerpters of power; their appeal is not that of the agents of justice—but revenge and retaliation are inseparable from justice in societies where blood calls for blood—but of men who prove that even the poor and weak can be terrible” (Bandits 63). Haiduk, on the other hand, is the name that Hobsbawm borrowed from the Balkans to name an entire class of outlaws— the guerrilla-bandits of Christon Archer—“groups and communities of free, armed and combative men [that] emerged among those expelled from their lands or escaping from serfdom, at first almost spontaneously, later in organized forms. What a scholar has called “military strata sprung from the free peasantry” […] were a collective form of that individual peasant dissidence which, as we have seen, produced the classical bandit” (Bandits 77). []
  8. For a consideration of this debate in the Latin American context, see Slatta Bandidos; Joseph, “On the Trail” and Dabove, Nightmares, “Introduction”. In spite of the many (and valid) criticisms that Hobsbawm has received over the decades, he remains an essential reference, since he was initially the one who framed the debate (including the refutations of his theses). []
  9. As Weber explains in “Politics as Vocation”: “a state is a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory. Note that “territory” is one of the characteristics of the state. Specifically, at the present time, the right to use physical force is ascribed to other institutions or to individuals only to the extent to which the state permits it. The state is considered the sole source of the “right” to use violence. Hence, “politics” for us means striving to share power or striving to influence the distribution of power, either among states or among groups within a state” (13). []
  10. Lettered elite is a convenient (although in many ways inaccurate, totalizing, and homogenizing) term that comprises vastly different realities. In any case, in using this term I refer to the groups and institutions that rely on the ownership and administration of a technology (that of the written word, and the use of the written word in specific fashions—such as the novel) in order to sustain a sense of differentiated identity, and a place within society. For a discussion of the term Lettered City (of which lettered elite is a derivation, see Dabove, “Ciudad letrada”). []
  11. An illuminating reading on the self-referential dimensions of La guerra del fin del mundo has already been carried out by Peter Elmore. My reading is indeed largely consistent with his, except that mine introduces a shift in emphasis, or an expansion of the argument in one particular direction: that of banditry and the theater of the law as symbolic practices. []
  12. Lomnitz 38. Cita una obra de Lizardi: Diccionario Burlesco y formalesco, donde diferencia la actitud popular frente a la muerte y los ahorcados de la actitud apropiada (i.e. burguesa). El horror frente a la muerte de Januario es ya testimonio de la nueva posición que ocupa perico.
    Lomnits 38. La actitutud ante la muerte no es heróica o martirológica, sino irónica y llena de flirt. []
  13. This is why many bandits took great pains in preventing law enforcement from obtaining the corpses of fallen comrades. When Lampião’s older brother Levino was killed, it is said that Lampião cut off his brother’s head, in order to prevent his identification and subsequent abuse (Pernambucano de Mello 58). []
  14. The intertextual relations of the novel with Os Sertões, as well as with other works related to Canudos, are analyzed at length by Leo Bernucci in Historia de un malentendido. []
  15. “—Todos los intelectuales son peligrosos—asintió Moreira César—. Débiles, sentimentales y capaces de usar las mejores ideas para justificar las peores bribonadas. El país los necesita, pero debe manejarlos como a animales que hacen extraños” (209). A previous episode (his treatment of authorities and journalists when he arrives to Queimadas, further illustrates his contempt for men of letters). []
  16. Castro Klarén notes that “his soft physique and stubborn intellectual demeanor seems to place him within a general scheme that Vargas Llosa uses for his journalists, scribblers, or well-intentioned souls such as Mayta in The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta, Pedro Camacho in Aunt Julia or even Saúl Zurata in El Hablador. These little men are singled out by an unmistakable physical defect: myopia, a birthmark, standing red hair, flat feet, or a big soft belly” (Understanding 172). []
  17. Much has been made of whom the short sighted journalist “represents”. In particular, it has been debated if he is a fictional rewriting of Euclides da Cunha or not, Vargas Llosa or not. I follow Castro Klarén in thinking that the journalist (even though he certainly has traits that remind us of da Cunha) has no specific (individual) historical referent (Understanding 172). He represents what he is: a modern intellectual. []
  18. The examination by Nina Rodrigues that the novel refers to actually took place. A summary of its results can be read in the posthumous volume As Collectividades Anormaes, as a sort of addenda to an earlier article, “A loucura das multidões”, written while the fighting was still taking place. []
  19. “Terminado el examen de los huesos, había surgido un problema. ¿Qué hacer con esos huesos? Alguien propuso que la calavera fuera enviada al Museo Nacional, como curiosidad histórica. Hubo una oposición cerrada. ¿De quién? De los masones. Bastaba ya con Nosso Senhor do Bonfim, dijeron, bastaba ya con un lugar de peregrinación ortodoxo. Esa calavera expuesta en una vitrina convertiría el Museo Nacional en una segunda Iglesia do Bonfim, en un Santuario heterodoxo. El Ejército estuvo de acuerdo: era preciso evitar que la calavera se volviera reliquia, germen de futuras revueltas. ¿Cómo? ¿Cómo?
    —Evidentemente, no enterrándola—murmuró el Barón.
    Evidentemente, pues el pueblo fanatizado descubriría tarde o temprano el lugar del entierro. ¿Qué lugar más seguro y remoto que el fondo del mar? La calavera fue metida en un costal repleto de piedras, cosido y llevado de noche, en un bote, por un oficial, a un lugar del Atlántico equidistante del Fuerte San Marcelo y la Isla de Itapacarica, y lanzada al cieno marino, a servir de asiento a las madréporas. El oficial encargado de la secreta operación fue el Teniente Pinto Souza: fin de la historia” (433). []
  20. The saga of the head of Lampião and his gang after Angicos is perhaps the most gruesome example of this. The heads, together with apparel pertaining to the cangaceiros (hats, bags, rifles) were taken on a sort of travelling exhibition. The famous picture of the heads of the late gang, neatly arranged in a staircase at the entry of a house, surrounded by cangaceiro memorabilia, pertain to this episode. []
  21. For this (rather sudden) change from public, dramatic bodily punishment to secret, bureaucratic punishment, see the opening sections of Foucault’s Discipline and Punish. In Latin America, and in particular when it comes to rural insurgency, the dynamics of this transition was different, with public punishment surviving well into the second half of the twentieth century (Witness the famous picture of Che Guevara dead, which is not much different in its intent—to proclaim beyond doubt the death of the rebel—or in its aesthetics from the pictures of the dead Conselheiro or Lampião). []
  22. In the same vein that Amado does it in Seara Vermelha (1946). []
  23. For a discussion and an elucidation of this rather enigmatic episode, see Elmore. []
  24. This identification is highlighted by the fact that when they died, they are hardly distinguishable, because they fight in a tight embrace, and are covered in mud. []
  25. Under other forms, Vargas Llosa will return to this problem in two additional novels of the 1980s, his very controversial Historia de Mayta and El Hablador. []
  26. The dominance of the visual dimension in the narrative has to do, according to Castro Klarén, with the fact that the novel originated as a failed movie script on Canudos (Castro Klarén, Understanding 164). []
  27. The fact that he is overcome with passion for Jurema at an extreme point of his life mirrors the event in which Gall, awash in lust, after avoiding being assassinated by the jagunços of Epaminondas, rapes Jurema (see Elmore). However, while Gall tries to keep his distance (intellectual as well as affective) from the event, once it had happened (and fails at that), the journalist surrenders to it. []
  28. Two Brazilian examples: the fact that both Antônio Silvino and Lampião cherished and used their mock titles of Governor of the Sertão and King of the Cangaço respectively, and the fact that Lampião acted in many respects like a bureaucrat, issuing letters, passports, granting interviews, etc. []
  29. Perhaps the most telling case is the respect that Pajeú shows for Jurema. Pajeú, fearsome warrior and hero of the New Jerusalem, is in love with Jurema. But he respects her desires, and does not impose himself upon her (the same cannot be said of the Emancipator, Gall). []
  30. It is in this sense that I prefer to understand the trope of silence, as applied to the Conselheiro (originally put forward by Castro Klarén). Even though he is a public figure and a superb communicator, his motivations, his psychic life, his whole identity remain a mystery in the novel. But, as the scene of the escatological communion , or the conversions successively narrated (but not explained) seem to show, the jagunços partake of the secret (that, avoiding the trap of premodern transcendentalism, is never postulated as a secret). []

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