IN ONE SENSE, Mario Vargas-Llosa's latest novel, The War at the End of the World, is a retelling of an old story. Ever since the Holy Grail was lost, men and women have forsaken everything for the sake of eternal salvation. But the temporal results are seldom beneficial. Usually the participants end up like they do here, dying violently with a prayer on their lips.
But the hundreds who perished in the messianic rebellion which swept Northeastern Brazil in the last years of the 19th century have twice achieved some measure of immortality. First they were the subject of Luclides da Cunha's classic Os Sertaos. And now Mario Vargas-Llosa, one of Latin America's most original novelists, has turned his attention to this ill-fated band.
The central character in both works is a thin, ascetic prophet known only as the Counselor. He walks clad only in a purple tunic, through the arid hills of the Sertao region promising salvation from the destruction which, he says, the lord will visit upon the wicked at the end of the century. When his band of followers becomes too numerous to wander the scrublands, he takes them to a hidden valley, Canudos, where they await the end of the world around them. But before the new century dawns, the zealots of Canudos draw the attention of the Brazilian government, which sends troops to the remote encampment. After several failed missions, the Army succeeds in killing the Counselor and destroying the tent city built by his followers.
Vargas-Llosa is successful in recreating for the reader both the small, desolate towns of the Seriao and the people who live in them. From the oligarchs of the coast to the poorest beggars of the interior all are portrayed skillfully. First we meet a collection of bad guys right out of The Magnificent Seven, who have given up their lives of pillage and rape to serve the Counselor. Then there are misfits of another sort, the town cripples and carnival freaks who are likewise "touched by the angel's wing" of the Counselor. Arrayed against this band are the rich planters from the coast, who see the movement as threatening their authority.
But the book's most important characters have talents of a different sort. The common trait shared by all of them is a singleminded devotion to a cause. The conflicts between their beliefs form the book's underlying message. The most important of these is the Counselor himself, a magical figure who has a strange power over men that only he can understand. Then there is Gallileo Gall, a proto Marxist Scot shipwrecked in Brazil, who sees Canudos as the revolutionary commune he left in Paris in 1871. On the other side is Morcira-Cesar, the military leader who vows to eliminate the religious revolt or die trying.
All of these zealots die in the course of the book, victims of their inability to see beyond their fanatic blinders. Ironically, the only fanatic who lives is the one who can see the least, the myopic reporter who covers the events in Canudos. Judging from the casualty list, the journalist's monomania is the one kind Vargas-Llosa approves of.
LAST YEAR the Peruvian writer had a chance to play this part himself when he headed a commission investigating the deaths of eight newsmen. The journalists had died trying to make contact with the kind of fanatics Vargas-Llosa doesn't like, the violent Maoist guerrillas of Peru's "Shining Path" group. Like the nearsighted reporter, Vargas-Llosa view of the ideologically motivated rebels of Canudos and elsewhere is that they offer not redemption, but damnation to an earthly life of violence and suffering. All we can do is record the events and to pray that they don't happen again.
This is a valuable message, especially for a continent which has seen more than its share of demagogues and false prophets. But Vargas-Llosa belabors the point. A good adventure story even one with as cogent a message as this one, shouldn't go on for 568 pages. Unlike the myopic reporter who is the novel's hero, the author sees too much. This is evident in the book's last third, where he gives what seems like a minute-by-minute account of the final battle for Canudos. In his previous novel, the brilliant Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, Vargas-Llosa showed an ability to handle tragedy with sensitivity. Here all we see is blood. Vargas-Llosa, like the journalist, sees the saga of Canudos as "not one story, but a tree of stories." The War at the End of the World, though a moving, important, powerful novel, could use some pruning.