Backlands: The Canudos Campaign [Os Sertões] (Penguin, 2010)
by Euclides da Cunha [translated from the Portuguese by Elizabeth Lowe]
"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. (http://www.penguinclassics.com/)
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).