lunes, 13 de septiembre de 2010

Backlands: The Canudos Campaign #1

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

"No hubiera escrito esta novela sin Euclides da Cunha, cuyo libro Os Sertoes me reveló en 1972 la guerra de Canudos, a un personaje trágico y a uno de los mayores narradores latinoamericanos" (Mario Vargas Llosa, Prólogo a La guerra del fin del mundo).

"I wouldn't have written this novel without Euclides da Cunha, whose book Os Sertoes in 1972 revealed to me the war of Canudos, a tragic character, and one of the best Latin American narrators" (Mario Vargas Llosa, Prologue to The War of the End of the World).

Although I'd been wanting to read Euclides da Cunha's 1902 Backlands: The Canudos Campaign ever since I first saw Mario Vargas Llosa raving about it as the source of his 1981 La guerra del fin del mundo [The War of the End of the World] last year, I had no idea what a treasure was in store for me.  Wow!  Wow, wow, wow, in fact.  Da Cunha's idiosyncratic epic, a work of nonfiction devoted to the nascent Brazilian republic's brutal putdown of a millenarian revolt in 1897, is part geography, part anthropology, part military history, and part political treatise.  Doesn't sound like your cup of tea?  I hear you.  But as trying of my patience as the first third of the work turned out to be (50 pages of extremely dry background info on the nature of the Brazilian backlands followed by another 100 pages or so on the bandit culture of the north), the last two thirds of the book on "The Battle" were just about the best thing I've read all year.  An absolutely riveting narrative.  A story about another unnecessary war pitting haves and have nots against each other due to a mutual misunderstanding.  A firsthand account of an apocalyptic civil war in which the "credulous rustics" of a "backwoods Troy" resisted four expeditions from a modern army with faith and primitive weaponry as their only defense against an unyielding future.  From my perspective, da Cunha is every bit the great narrator and master stylist Vargas Llosa made him out to be.  With any luck, I'll be able to prove this to you over the next few posts.  (

Euclides da Cunha

Chapter 1 ("The Land") is tough sledding from an entertainment standpoint.  However, da Cunha's arresting style can still be observed from this excerpt from the Some Unique Hygrometers section on the Canudos region and drought:

The setting sun has cast the broad shadow of the foliage across the ground, and under its protection, arms akimbo, his face turned to the sky, a soldier is resting.
He has been resting for...three months.
He died during the attack of July 18.  The butt of his Mannlicher rifle had been cracked, his cartridge belt and cap tossed to one side, and his uniform was in tatters.  All this pointed to the fact that he had died in hand-to-hand combat against a powerful adversary.  He had fallen, most certainly, from a blow to his forehead, which had left a black scar.  And when the other dead had been buried, days later, he had not been noticed.  He did not share, therefore, the common grave, less than three feet deep, into which, together in one last formation, his comrades fallen in battle had been buried.  The fate that had taken him away from his abandoned home had given him one last concession: It had spared him the gloomy closeness of the repugnant ditch.  It had left him lying there for three months, arms outspread and face to the sky with its burning suns and its pale moons, its gleaming stars....
And he was intact.  He had only withered.  He was mummified, his facial features preserved in such a way as to suggest a weary warrior getting his strength back with a bit of sleep in the shade of that beneficent tree.  No worm, that most common of tragic analysts, had damaged his tissues.  He was being returned to life's whirl without any repugnant decomposition, imperceptibly flushed out.  He was a sort of apparatus that was showing in an absolute but suggestive way the extreme dryness of the air" (Backlands: The Canudos Campaign [translated by Elizabeth Lowe], pp. 28-29).

8 comentarios:

  1. I dunno. Some Unique Hygrometers sounds like it might be my kind of thing. But I've just been reading Sir Thomas Browne and Moby-Dick so who knows.

    Your writeup confirms everything I have read about this book. Eager to read more.

  2. Wow, indeed. I've a copy of this book in a different translation (Rebellion in the Backlands, trans. Samuel Putnam). I've read the first pages and was blown by the quality of the prose.

  3. I love that excerpt! What a rip-roaring first three sentences! I might even like a book you like! Can we believe it?!!! But actually I love millenarian stuff. One of my all time favorite books in fact is (or was, I should say, since I haven't read it in a thousand years more or less) The Pursuit of the Millenium by Norman Cohn.

    So hmmm, I wonder would I look for Backlands: The Canudos Campaign, or Rebellion in the Backlands? Any thoughts on that?

  4. *Amateur Reader: More on da Cunha is on the way with follow-up posts ready probably Wednesday and Friday. I marked up half the book, so it shouldn't be hard to find style sample quotes or anything like that. What a masterful writer/engaging thinker.

    *Rise: I had your translation checked out from the library for a while last year, but I think the new Penguin edition is far superior in terms of readability. Da Cunha's prose is top tier throughout, of course, but the parts dealing with the battle/massacre are just a joy to behold. Really impressive stuff.

    *Jill: That would be funny if we could finally agree on a title! In the meantime, I'd definitely recommend Backlands: The Canudos Campaign over Rebellion in the Backlands from what I can remember of the other edition: the prose is punchier and more direct in Elizabeth Lowe's Penguin hands, and Ilan Stavans contributes a nice introduction as well. I should have a millenarian anecdote for you tomorrow, by the way...

  5. You're right that on the face of it this DOESN'T sound like my cup of tea, but hey - a good book can be about anything, as Amateur Reader has been arguing lately. The excerpt you quoted does seem super arresting in style and content; I'll be curious to read your follow-up posts!

  6. *Emily: Ha ha, I'm not sure who else in blogland wants to read/read about this "bible of the Brazilian nation" other than Amateur Reader, Rise, and maybe Jill anyway! Am deciding to specialize in posts that DRIVE AWAY traffic--seems I have a knack for it. Cheers!

  7. Funny I didn't notice this post until now. The section about the conflit is epic, riveting. Lately I've been reading about 17th century Brasil, the explorers, the millitarization of Jesuit missions, the Indian rebellions, and I now suspect that Canudos was not only inevitable, it was actually a pretty normal event within the vast history of that nation.

    1. You make me want to reread the book, Miguel! I've read very little Brazilian history to date (although I do have a couple of books on the War of the Triple Alliance out on loan from the library), but all those topics you mention make it easy to understand how one could easily read a book a month on the country and stay totally interested for years. Argentinean and Paraguayan history offer some of the same potential reading pleasures, of course.