viernes, 17 de septiembre de 2010

Backlands: The Canudos Campaign #3

Backlands: The Canudos Campaign [Os Sertões] (Penguin, 2010)
by Euclides da Cunha [translated from the Portuguese by Elizabeth Lowe]
Brazil, 1902

At this point we must interrupt our search through the debris and focus our attention on a certain similarity between the events at Rua do Ouvidor and an incident in the caatinga, both of them equally savage.  Backlands violence was making its mark on history and was a harbinger of social unrest that was not just found in a corner of Bahia but was spreading to the capitals of the Brazilian coast.  The man of the backlands, a crude figure in leather, had partners in crime who were potentially more dangerous than he was.  Do we need to be more blunt?

This environment was producing, through the process of heredity, a generation of new, albeit developed, cavemen.  They wore gloves and had a veneer of culture, but they were complete troglodytes.  Civilization generally weeds out such peoples but occasionally a traumatic event will bring them back.  When they return, new lawlessness ensues. These people lack significance other than to give us perspective.  They remind us to stress this point:  To attribute the crisis in the backlands to a political conspiracy is to show ignorance of our race.

This situation is much more complex and interesting.  It has to do with circumstances that have nothing to do with dreams of returning monarchies.  Not understanding these facts has worse consequences than wiping out three expeditions.  It proves that we are not much more civilized than our backward countrymen.  At least they were logical.  Isolated both in space and time, the jagunço could only behave as he did.  He was compelled to put up a terrible fight against the country that, after having ignored him for three centuries, tried to civilize him at gunpoint.
(Euclides da Cunha, Backlands: The Canudos Campaign, 280-281)

At great personal cost to me in terms of the overall quality of this post, I've decided not to lead off with a perfect quote from Euclides da Cunha on the finale of the Canudos campaign--just in case any of you choose to read da Cunha yourself some day.  It will make a great surprise for you if you ever get around to it.  In the meantime, I hope you appreciate my discretion!  While I'll return to the extended passage above in a moment, my goals today are rather simple: to provide an idea of the flavor of da Cunha's writing on the battle in his own sublimely visceral words.  Before I start, though, I'd like to clarify a few things that may not be evident from my two previous posts on the work.  First, I think I've already mentioned that da Cunha was an eyewitness to the campaign.  Although this is true, in reality he was only at the front for about a month or so in his guise as a war reporter.  However, he apparently saw enough in that short amount of time to traumatize him: Os Sertões might be seen as his attempt to write himself out of that profound psychological funk.  Secondly, speaking of a single "campaign" in relation to Canudos isn't really accurate.  The Brazilian government sent out four armed expeditions, increasingly larger in size, from 1896-1897 to subdue the rebellion, and the first three were crushed against all expectations.  The passage above touches on the coastal elites' reaction to the defeat of the "invincible" Moreira César campaign and how this supposedly inexplicable setback led to false rumors that outside agitators with monarchist sympathies must have been supporting the backlanders in an attempt to overthrow the republic.  While the fourth army expedition finally achieved its objectives--wiping a settlement of some 5,000 mud huts off the map--da Cunha tells us that the resistance was so fierce that it took three months for this modern army to subdue the last 100 yards of Canudos' remaining holdout.  Finally, I'm not sure I've emphasized enough just how much I enjoyed Elizabeth Lowe's translation of this work.  It reads beautifully and captures nuances of tone that I imagine must trace back to the original.  And while I hope I don't cost Backlands any new readers by saying this, there was more than one occasion where I felt that the da Cunha/Lowe writer/translation team in combination with the theme of the senseless horrors of war reminded me of nothing so much as Thucydides on the Sicilian expedition.  I won't, but I could easily spend another week posting on this new favorite of mine.  A few sample da Cunha quotes to follow.  (

Canudos and the sertão in NE Brazil (click to enlarge image)

Da Cunha's attitude to the enemy seems as if it were in a constant state of flux throughout the work.  However, the six chapters in Part II on "The Battle" reveal a writer who increasingly comes to esteem his opponent despite his obvious distaste for their backward ways.  In the passage above, da Cunha subverts his caveman/civilization comparison to declare that the national war frenzy was just as retrograde as the backlanders' lifestyle.  In the two passages that follow, he'll maintain that the army's goals and actions were just as "mad" as Antônio Conselheiro's.  Who is more at fault for the War of Canudos then?  A lone individual or an entire government that's willing to massacre its own citizens?  Da Cunha spends much of the second part of Backlands grappling with these questions.  I'll give you two hints as to his possible answers.  The first passage comes from page 363.  Having already described rebel leader Pajehú as "evil and childlike, instinctively chivalrous, a hero without knowing it" and "an excellent example of recessive atavism, stalking his prey straight on two feet with the same drive with which he defended his cave with a stone hatchet" (227), da Cunha here lauds the backlanders as a whole for their primitive tenacity in defending what he elsewhere calls a "Babylonian weed patch" in "a biblical landscape" (342).  The second passage appears on pages 453-454.  Da Cunha uses this moment to describe the brute force required to subdue the besieged backlanders during the last days of their resistance to the inevitable :

(1) But the jagunço did not know anything about regulation fighting.  He was not really an enemy, which in this context was a euphemism for "bandit," as he was called in the form of martial literature titled the orders of the day.  The sertanejo was simply defending his home.  As long as his aggressors kept their distance, he would simply surround them with traps to stop them.  But if they crashed through his gates and attacked him with rifle butts, he would confront them face-to-face with all he had, unblinking resistance, both for self-defense and to uphold his honor.  Canudos could only be taken in a house-to-house search.  The entire army expedition would take three months to cross the hundred yards separating them from the new church.  On the last day of this unimaginable resistance, which has few like it in history, the last defenders, three or four starving, nameless Titans dressed in rags, would spend their last cartridges on an army of six thousand men!

(2) It was not enough that [the army soldiers] had six thousand rifles and six thousand swords; the strength of twelve thousand arms, the thud of twelve thousand boots, six thousand revolvers and twenty cannons, thousands of grenades and shells--all were of no use.  The executions and fires, the hunger and thirst they had thrown on the enemy were not doing the job.  What had they gained in ten months of fighting and one hundred days of endless bombing?  What use to them were the mountains of ruins, the destroyed churches, and the rubble of broken images, crushed altars, and shattered saints?  All of this had occurred under a bright, serene sky that cast doubt on their obsession with crushing a form of deeply rooted religious belief that brought comfort to their fellow human beings.

Other measures were needed.  The opponent was immune to all the forces of nature and adept at havoc and destruction.  They had made plans for such an emergency and had foreseen this awful epilogue to the drama.  A lieutenant, an orderly of the headquarters staff, ordered up dozens of dynamite bombs from the camp.  This was the only thing left to be done.  The sertanejos had defied all the psychology of ordinary warfare.  Their resistance was emboldened by defeat and they were strengthened by starvation.

The troops were attacking the very bedrock of our race.  Dynamite was the only suitable weapon.  It was a tribute.

Prisoners of war from Canudos

Da Cunha concludes Backlands: The Canudos Campaign with a particularly wrenching account of how the last four fighters ("an old man, two full-grown men, and a child") chose to die facing "a raging army of five thousand soldiers" rather than surrender: "Should we test the incredulity of future generations by going into detail about the women who flung themselves on their burning homes, with their children in their arms?" (463).  Canudos was then leveled, and prisoners of war were beheaded en masse with the complicity of army leaders.  Antônio Conselheiro's body was exhumed, and the decomposing head was decapitated before being taken in triumph to the coast by the victorious army.  There, da Cunha writes, linking one man's folly with a nation's, "it was greeted by crowds dancing in the streets in impromptu carnival celebrations.  Let science have the last words.  There, in plain sight, was the evidence of crime and madness" (464).

9 comentarios:

  1. Actually I was just on the verge of requesting this book from my library but I was waiting for a perfect quote! Alas...

  2. Jill, ha ha, I'll have to e-mail you the quote in question then! Keep an eye on your in-box!

  3. This book sounds truly captivating. I've added it to my wishlist!

  4. The first chapter's more than a little slow, Emily Jane, but the rest of the way is pretty amazing. Captivating, in fact. Cheers!

  5. I finally got the chance to sit down and read through these de Cunha entries, Richard, and must way WOW - the story sounds unbelievable, and the writing/translation impressive! I'm also very drawn in by what you have to say about de Cunha struggling with his own categorizations re: who is more "regressive," "insane," and so on. Great review(s) - this book is definitely on my radar now.

  6. All right, who's putting together the Brazilian Reading Challenge?

  7. *Emily: Thanks for the kind words! I think da Cunha had a hell of a story and a wonderful way of framing his argument, but his struggles with his own values/logic definitely kick his work into another gear from the reader's perspective. Insanely good stuff!

    *Amateur Reader: Ha ha, I'd definitely participate in a Brazilian Reading Challenge if you or somebody else hosted it! In the meantime, I'll be reading João Guimarãez Rosa before too long and am reading Clarice Lispector right now. And Rise just printed somebody's list of the top 50 Brazilian works of the 20th century over on his In Lieu of a Field Guide blog. So what's taking you guys so long?!? :D

  8. I've been thinking about doing a Portuguese Challenge-like thing. I'd cut it off circa 1920, though. Eça de Queirós, Machado de Assis, and Pessoa would be the major (multi-book) writers, then.

  9. That sounds awesome, Amateur Reader! I've been trying to get to all three authors this year, but they keep getting postponed somehow. Please keep me in the loop.