158 of 164 people found the following review helpful
on May 28, 2003
This is perhaps Vargas Llosa's best novel and a must for all those well-meaning readers in the developed world who eagerly idealize Latin American revolutions without knowing anything about these countries.
The book is based on the true story of Antonio Vicente Mendes Maciel ("O Conselheiro"), a mad prophet of sorts -kind of a weird Christian ayatollah of the late XIX Century- who ignited, in the most remote corner of Brazil, a bloody uprising among the lowly against Money, Property, Progress, Law, Army, Republic and State, and everything else he found oppressive, sinful and evil. In return, the Brazilian government reacted with indifference, disbelief, concern, anger, outrage and total annihilation.
Little by little, Vargas Llosa transforms this obscure anecdote into a monumental epic of Tolstoiesque proportions that not only hooks you on the plot but reveals the richly interwoven carpet of Brazilian -and therefore Latin American- society; its illusions and delusions, its races and classes, its loves and hates, its fear of the modern and its contempt for the past, and the fanaticism that pervades both attitudes (to date).
I read this mammoth masterpiece during Christmass '94 at the midst of the Zapatista revolt in Chiapas, and it was sad to realize how little have we changed our societies. Our development always seems to engender inequality and our social struggles to defend backwardness and ignorance. Vargas Llosa is acutely aware of this, and he conveys it in his story splendidly, without preaching, without agendas, without aloofness and without letting you put down the book. Should you decide to read it, ask for a few days off!
60 of 62 people found the following review helpful
on December 2, 1998
The War of the End of the World is an impossibly ambitious book which nevertheless succeeds completely, and in the process confirms that Vargas Llosa deserves to be considered among the great authors of all time. Unlike his other books, which are either frankly autobiographical or significantly based on the author's personal experience, this is a straightforward historical novel, taking place in 1890s northeastern Brazil. It is also a real novel of ideas, confronting very seriously such timeless topics as the relationship of individual to society and of faith and personal belief to law and social order, the source of state authority, and truth/beauty and means/ends issues. While somewhat "modern" in style - the narrative does not proceed in a linear fashion, perspectives shift sharply from one character to the next, and "truth" is often in the eye of the beholder - the book really aspires to be a Great Historical Novel in a classic mode, like The Red and the Black or War and Peace. (Personally, I think it is stronger than either of those; at the very least it belongs on the same shelf.) In other words, it is no post-modern mirror-job, but a serious attempt to engage all thoughtful people - including those who ordinarily do not care for fiction - in a subtle and thorough consideration of the factors that create Peru's Shining Path, or Waco, Jonestown, MOVE, Hamas, etc. Vargas Llosa even manages the trick of being both sympathetic to and critical of all sides. The relationship of the book to the author's subsequent (aborted) political career is also fascinating - it is difficult to believe that an author whose extradinarily acute, and depressing, analyses of politics and ideology would be willing to enter the actual world of politics, yet it is easy to see how he yearns for a real-world solution to the failures of the rich to understand the poor, of the poor to understand the rich, and of organized government to appreciate the value of people's actual lives. I recommend this book to everyone (except perhaps readers who cannot handle some extreme and sustained violence in the last part of the book).
53 of 55 people found the following review helpful
on February 2, 2003
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
Vargas Llosa's gripping 1981 book is a fictionalized history of Canudos, the community in the dry interior of Brazil that was utterly wiped out by the Brazilian army in 1897. Vargas Llosa's book is as long (over 500 pages) and as dense as the seminal Canudos book "Rebellion in the Backlands" by Euclides da Cunha, and those fascinated by the story will want to read both. This book takes da Cunha's as its point of departure, for where da Cunha was a military engineer who accompanied the military campaigns against Canudos and wrote about the event's impact on the Brazilian identity, Vargas Llosa is a novelist captivated by the human element. "The War of the End of the World" is the massive story of four successive military campaigns against a religious sect (part-Waco, part-Masada) that killed about 10,000 people on both sides. It is built on the lives of many key personalities. By threading together the life stories of several real Canudos inhabitants who included criminals, castoffs, and misfits with the lives of landowners, journalists, and military officers, including the famously brutal general Moreira Cesar, Vargas Llosa both chronicles the Canudos tale and creates a powerful human novel.
Da Cunha was intrigued by the "why" of Canudos. What fostered a fanatical religious sect in Brazil's interior, allowed it thrive and grow, and why was it the subject of such national fear that the fourth campaign against the village involved fully half of the Brazilian army? Da Cunha spent dozens of pages writing about Antonio the Counselor, Canudos messianic leader. Vargas Llosa is less sympathetic to the military's point of view, depicting Canudos as a safe haven for those rejected by society, by sweethearts, employers, or the church. An island of broken toys. Vargas Llosa writes very little about Antonio himself, casting a reflected light by describing him mostly through the words and actions of his devoted followers. ("Death was more important to these people than life. They had lived in utter dereliction and their one ambition was to be given a decent burial".) Where da Cunha concludes that Canudos was a result of a failure by the Brazilian society and government to embrace all of its citizens -a conclusion that led to a reexamination of Brazil's national identity- Vargas Llosa is less sure. He raises a lot of explanations that have gone before (monarchist conspiracies, racial inferiority, lack of education, "something to do with religion", even a lunatic European communist who tries to make Canudos fit his notions of class warfare ) without settling firmly on any one. Finally, he concludes uneasily, "the explanation of Canudos lies in ignorance".
This is a gripping novel, a powerful tale of warfare, an exploration of intriguing individuals who met in the atavistic isolation of Brazil's parched interior. A Latin American novel devoid of magic realism, for the story of Canudos is fantastical enough.
25 of 26 people found the following review helpful
on April 17, 2003
I read several of Mario Vargas Llosa smaller (but also superb) works before deciding to attempt to read this one, his masterpiece. It is truly one of the more memorable and profound books that I have read. The structure of the book doesn't divert too much from that of the typical epic novel- dozens of characters, numerous subplots, and events of historical significance. Most of the action takes place in the remote, arid backlands of northwestern Brazil. In this land devastated by drought and poverty, a religious leader known as the Counselor manages to recruit a sizable number of miserable and scorned creatures to be his disciples. We are introduced to such characters as the Little Blessed One, the Lion of Natuba, the Mother of Men, Satan Jao, and a host of others who are social outcasts for one reason or another. It is around this time that the monarchy in overthrown and a republic established; taxes are now to be collected, a national census is to adminstered, and church and state are to be separated. The Counselor and his followers regard these new developments as a direct threat and signs of the impending apocalypse, and they set up their own town, Canudos. The newly formed state can obviously not tolerate these renegades, and the book basically relates the war between Canudos and the waves of military forces that are sent to annihilate them. Vargas Llosa spares no details when relating battle scenes; the reviewer on the inside cover of the book was right in calling this one of the bloodiest books of the century. We are presented with images of corpses hanging from trees, ants devouring the open wounds of soldiers, and decapitated heads on stakes. It is perhaps this gritty realism that makes this book so memorable, though. Another aspect of the author's writing that makes this book so convincing is his ability to sympathetically portray all of the competing interests. Although it is probably fair to say that the Counselor's followers are depticted mainly as victims, Llosa also argues from the point of view of the military, the aristocracy, the republican government, a nearsighted journalist travelling with the army, and even a Scottish anarchist. At the end of this book, one is quite uncertain who, if anyone, is on the right side and who is on the wrong side. But I think it is this moral ambiguity that Vargas Llosa is attempting to create in our minds. In presenting this true historical event in the form of an epic novel, Vargas Llosa has given us a masterful tale of devotion, despair, misery, and personal redemption.
13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on September 26, 2004
With this acclaimed book the celebrated Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa is paying a tribute to one of the most important Brazilian writers, Euclides da Cunha, who was war correspondent at the conflict's zone in the Northeastern state of Bahia, and who wrote the superb "Os Sertões" in the beginning of last century. The book from da Cunha got immediate accolades from critics and public alike, despite the intricacy of da Cunha's vocabulary. Vargas Llosa is said to be fascinated since he was a youth by da Cunha's report of the Brazilian regional intestine war that almost completely disrupted the newly born republican government, given the many battles its powerful army lost to a rag-tag counterpart of thousands homeless people, who obdurately followed a lunatic visionary called Antonio Conselheiro, who tried to revert Brazil to Imperial rule, dark ages style, and, after many years on the run, finally settled down with his poverty stricken retinue in the village of Canudos.
Almost 90 years after the end of the conflict who claimed thousands of lives in both sides, Vargas Llosa frequently visited the site and cities in the 80's, familiarizing himself with the geography of the place where it all happened, one of the most arid regions of the world, with less than 200 mm of yearly rainfall, to collect personal reports from the poor people who live there and who head the stories told by their ancestors who managed to survive that bloody civil war. Vargas Llosa managed to add a lot of interesting points to the central story by either inventing interesting characters which added weight to the novel: a mysterious English man who shuttle to and from the battle scene as a correspondent to a newspaper, or by portraying in the most faithful way the hard personalities of war commanders who thought from the very first time that war was to be over in a matter of days. Some of them would never return home, their headless bodies being exposed by insurgents throughout the road that led to Canudos.
One of the key points of Vargas Llosa's novel is that he adds also a lot of information as background to the conflict and to the book, portraying very acutely the hidden interests of a rural Brazilian aristocracy that had more to lose than to gain with the Republican government. Also of importance, the author writes a book as if he was born in the region, his style (purposefully) being pretty much akin to some famous modern Brazilian authors like, for instance, Jorge Amado.
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on November 4, 1997
First I must say I disagree with the synopsis of this book in the Amazon site. Canudos is never described as a libertarian's paradise, except in the mind of one of the characters. On the contrary, in a land where the government did precious little for the people, once pressed by droughts and famine the people got together around a spiritual leader, the Counselor, thus finding a way to be governed. Vargas Llosa describes in episodes the almost epic travels of that holy man through the backlands of Brazil, and how he and his followers eventually settled in Canudos, and rejected the ways of the Republic. As with every complex human (movement, revolt?), each main player has a distorted view of what Canudos is about. The Colonel thinks it is a political movement to overthrow the Republic (which, in his martial way, he firmly believes will redeem the poor people). The landowners and local politicians never even consider the insurrection in detail; for them Canudos is just another episode in the local fight for power, bringing into the scene as a new player the federal forces. For the Englishman Gall, it is a libertarian's paradise, a place touched by the revolution, a place of equals. For the journalist, Canudos is an impersonal story, to be recorded for posterity in detail. Even for the people of Canudos the experience is diverse. For some it means redemption from a past life of sin; for others it is where they find their place in society; others see it as a holy place where to wait for Judgement Day. All these feelings are galvanized in the spiritual leadership of the Counselor, and no one really knows what Canudos means for him. As events unfold and the federal troops near their destination, the feeling of ultimate doom permeating the whole book comes to a climax; in that sense the story is a tragedy. There is only one, sorrowful possible conclusion. This is a superbly written book, where Mr. Vargas Llosa's characteristic prose style shines through. A must read.
16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on January 31, 2004
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
During the 1964 presidential campaign, Barry Goldwater was branded a fanatic. In defense of the term Goldwater said something like: "Fanaticism in the defense of freedom is a virtue. The soldier who gives his life to protect our freedom is a fanatic." I remained comfortable with this until I read War at The End of The World.
Vargas Llosa's historical novel is a study on fanaticism and obsessions: religious and patriotic fanaticism, fanatical idealism and obsessions of power, material possession, and sexual pleasure. Every chapter has samplings of these destructive forces, which succumb to villainous misfortune even when the intent is righteous and honorable. Llosa does a superb job in creating multi-dimensional characters who are driven and eventually destroyed by that inner force which decries moderation. It's frightening that we can see all these forms of fanaticism and obsessive behavior all around us in today's world.
This novel of epic proportion utilizes events as a backdrop for the players. There's excessive violence which is described in profanely graphic detail. But, I can't recall any novel where all the characters are exposed in such intimate detail. Every quirk, vice, virture; every musing, distraction, and feeling are revealed. Vargas Llosa leaves no thought unexplored or unchallanged. The one exception is the central character, the Counselor, who remains an enigma throughout the book.
I strongly doubt if anything was lost in translation. The translator, Helen Lane, kept the writing fluid and very much alive.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on February 1, 2011
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
If you're only going to read one novel this year by a Latin American author make it this one.
The novel centers itself on a real incident, the razing and massacre of a community of ex-slaves, mestisos, and others at Canudos Brazil in 1897 by government forces. The community was led by a charismatic leader whose theology was a lethal brew of catholic mysticism and anti-government paranoia.
The community which he founded has been estimated to have reached a population of approximately 25,000 at its height. It was located in the extreme north of the state of Bahia, a rough, unforgiving area where infrastructure was unknown and small towns and settlements were connected to the outside world by cattle tracks.
Government intuitions and basic development in Bahia were concentrated along the coast. Even a couple hundred miles inland the government essentially disappeared except for the largely infective rural police.
The area teemed with bandit bands that collected extortion from the large haciendas and terrorized small settlements with raw violence.
On top of this the inhabitants were routinely punished by cycles of extended droughts that drove the subsistence farmers off the land, forced the abandonment of settlements and caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands through starvation, the rigors of forced migration and disease.
The individuals who could exert any kind of force in the area were the white landed oligarchs who had amassed large tracts of land, had their own hired guns and were plugged into the political machine in Salvador.
Into that brutal explosive landscape wanders Mario Vargas Llosa's cast of characters, navigating the dangers as best they can, sometimes successfully, sometimes not, until in one form or another, they are reeled into the simmering tragedy at Canudos.
Lloas is a wonderful story teller and the reader is pulled along by his narrative that speaks with voices from each level of the social strata.
Skillfully he starts with a series of small panoramas that expand, grow and morph into a grand scale where all the different pieces meld into whole clothe.
44 of 57 people found the following review helpful
on March 9, 2004
The previous stellar reviews are quite accurate - the book is beautifully written, ambitious, intellectually challenging, etc. The author does a stellar job of recreating Bahia at the turn of the century, and one comes away with a richer understanding of Brazilian history, messianic movements, class warfare, fanaticism, etc.
And yet . . . it's a challenge to finish. For all the action, there's a curious lack of forward momentum. New characters - and their backstories - are introduced almost every chapter. Roughly a third of the way through the book we know the themes and it's just a matter of finishing the book to reach the ending that's hinted at on the back cover.
Those who compare this work to Tolstoi's had it right in more ways than one. It is a truly brilliant work. And such a chore to read.
11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on February 3, 2002
I agree with most reviewers here that this is a work of epic proportions, excellently written and really deep. I think that there are two basic subjects here: the first one is religion.
Specifically, religion and how it influences the lives of people living at the borderlines of humanity: the poorest, the disabled, the pathetic, the tormented by horrible pasts. Also, the nature of Messiahs and the social movements they start on (I found it impossible not to think of Osama and the like).
The other main subject is politics and society in lands like Northeastern Brazil, with its past of colonialism, corruption, feudal structures, etc.
About the subject: briefly, a group of destitute people gather around a Messiah called the Counselor, and build a city that stands in rebellion against the recently installed Republic.
About the style and structure of the novel: I agree with those who say it reminded them of XIX-century novels, vast panoplies of characters situations, flashbacks and the like. The variety of the human soul and of human experience is even terrifying, as reflected by the stories of each character.
Strongly recommended, it should lead you to reads more by this author, one of the greatest today.