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The War of the End of the World
By Mario Vargas Llosa, Helen R. Lane
Farrar, Straus and Giroux Copyright © 1981 Mario Vargas Llosa
All rights reserved.
The man was tall and so thin he seemed to be always in profile. He was dark-skinned and rawboned, and his eyes burned with perpetual fire. He wore shepherd's sandals and the dark purple tunic draped over his body called to mind the cassocks of those missionaries who every so often visited the villages of the backlands, baptizing hordes of children and marrying men and women who were cohabiting. It was impossible to learn what his age, his background, his life story were, but there was something about his quiet manner, his frugal habits, his imperturbable gravity that attracted people even before he offered counsel.
He would appear all of a sudden, alone in the beginning, invariably on foot, covered with the dust of the road, every so many weeks, every so many months. His tall figure was silhouetted against the light of dusk or dawn as he walked down the one street of the town, in great strides, with a sort of urgency. He would make his way along determinedly, amid nanny goats with tinkling bells, amid dogs and children who stepped aside and stared at him inquisitively, not returning the greetings of the women who already knew him and were nodding to him and hastening to bring him jugs of goat's milk and dishes of manioc and black beans. But he neither ate nor drank until he had gone as far as the church of the town and seen, once more, a hundred times over, that it was dilapidated, its paint faded, its towers unfinished and its walls full of holes and its floors buckling and its altars worm-eaten. A sad look would come over his face, with all the grief of a migrant from the Northeast whose children and animals have been killed by the drought, who has nothing left and must abandon his house, the bones of his dead, and flee, flee somewhere, not knowing where. Sometimes he would weep, and as he did so the black fire in his eyes would flare up in awesome flashes. He would immediately begin to pray. But not the way other men or women pray: he would stretch out face downward on the ground or the stones or the chipped tiles, in front of where the altar was or had been or would be, and would lie there praying, at times in silence, at times aloud, for an hour, two hours, observed with respect and admiration by the townspeople. He recited the Credo, the Our Father, and the Hail Marys that everyone was familiar with, and also other prayers that nobody had heard before but that, as the days, the months, the years went by, people gradually learned by heart. Where is the parish priest? they would hear him ask. Why isn't there a pastor for the flock here? And each time he discovered that there was no priest in the village it made him as sad at heart as the ruin of the Lord's dwelling places.
Only after having asked the Blessed Jesus' pardon for the state in which they had allowed His house to fall did he agree to eat and drink something, barely a sample of what the villagers hastened to offer him even in years of scarcity. He was willing to sleep indoors with a roof over his head, in one or another of the dwellings where the people of the backlands offered him hospitality, but those who gave him lodging rarely saw him take his rest in the hammock or makeshift bed or on the mattress placed at his disposal. He would lie down on the floor, without even a blanket, and, leaning his head with its wild mane of jet-black hair on one arm, would sleep for a few hours. Always so few that he was the last one to retire at night and yet when the cowherds and shepherds who were up earliest left for the fields they would catch sight of him, already at work mending the walls and roof of the church.
He gave his counsel when dusk was falling, when the men had come back from the fields and the women had finished their household tasks and the children were already asleep. He gave it in those stony, treeless, open spots to be found in all the villages of the backlands at the main crossroads, which might have been called public squares if they had had benches, tree-lined walks, gardens, or had kept those that they had once had and that little by little had been destroyed by drought, pestilence, indolence. He gave it at that hour when the sky of the North of Brazil, before becoming completely dark and studded with stars, blazes amid tufted white, gray, or bluish clouds and there is a sort of vast fireworks display overhead, above the vastness of the world. He gave it at that hour when fires are lighted to chase away the insects and prepare the evening meal, when the steamy air grows less stifling and a breeze rises that puts people in better spirits to endure the sickness, the hunger, and the sufferings of life.
He spoke of simple and important things, not looking at any person in particular among those who surrounded him, or rather looking with his incandescent eyes beyond the circle of oldsters, men and women, children, at something or someone only he could see. Things that were understandable because they had been vaguely known since time immemorial, things taken in along with the milk of one's mother's breast. Present, tangible, everyday, inevitable things, such as the end of the world and the Last Judgment, which might well occur before the time it would take for the town to set the chapel with drooping wings upright again. What would happen when the Blessed Jesus looked down upon the sorry state in which they had left His house? What would He say of the behavior of pastors who, instead of helping the poor, emptied their pockets by charging them money for the succor of religion? Could the words of God be sold? Shouldn't they be given freely, with no price tag attached? What excuse would be offered to the Father by priests who fornicated, despite their vows of chastity? Could they invent lies that would be believed by a God who can read a person's thoughts as easily as the tracker on earth reads the trail left by a jaguar? Practical, everyday, familiar things, such as death, which leads to happiness if one comes to it with a pure and joyous soul, as to a fiesta. Were men animals? If they were not, they should pass through that door dressed in their very best, as a sign of reverence for Him whom they were about to meet. He spoke to them of heaven, and of hell as well, the domain of the Dog, paved with burning-hot coals and infested with rattlesnakes, and of how Satan could manifest himself by way of seemingly harmless innovations.
The cowherds and peons of the backlands listened to him in silence, intrigued, terrified, moved, and he was listened to in the same way by the slaves and the freedmen of the sugarcane plantations on the seacoast and the wives and the mothers and fathers and the children of one and all. Occasionally someone interrupted him — though this occurred rarely, since his gravity, his cavernous voice, or his wisdom intimidated them — in order to dispel a doubt. Was the world about to end? Would it last till 1900? He would answer immediately, with no need to reflect, with quiet assurance, and very often with enigmatic prophecies. In 1900 the sources of light would be extinguished and stars would rain down. But, before that, extraordinary things would happen. A silence ensued after he had spoken, in which the crackling of open fires could be heard, and the buzzing of insects that the flames devoured, as the villagers, holding their breath, strained their memories before the fact in order to be certain to remember the future. In 1896 countless flocks would flee inland from the seacoast and the sea would turn into the backlands and the backlands turn into the sea. In 1897 the desert would be covered with grass, shepherds and flocks would intermingle, and from that date on there would be but a single flock and a single shepherd. In 1898 hats would increase in size and heads grow smaller, and in 1899 the rivers would turn red and a new planet would circle through space.
It was necessary, therefore, to be prepared. The church must be restored, and the cemetery as well, the most important construction after the House of the Lord since it was the antechamber of heaven or hell, and the time that remained must be devoted to what was most essential: the soul. Would men or women leave for the next world in skirts, dresses, felt hats, rope sandals, and all that luxurious attire of wool and silk that the Good Lord Jesus had never known?
His counsel was practical, simple. When the man left, there was a great deal of talk about him: that he was a saint, that he had worked miracles, that he had seen the burning bush in the desert, like Moses, that a voice had revealed to him the unutterable name of God. And his counsel was widely discussed. Thus, before the Empire had come to an end and after the Republic had begun, the inhabitants of Tucano, Soure, Amparo, and Pombal had heard his words; and from one month to another, from one year to another, the churches of Bom Conselho, of Jeremoabo, of Massacará, and of Inhambupe were gradually springing up from their ruins; and in accordance with his teachings, adobe walls and vaulted niches were constructed in the cemeteries of Monte Santo, Entre Rios, Abadia, and Barracão, and death was celebrated with respectful funeral ceremonies in Itapicuru, Cumbe, Natuba, Mocambo. Month by month, year by year, the nights of Alagoinhas, Uauá, Jacobina, Itabaiana, Campos, Itabaianinha, Geru, Riachão, Lagarto, Simão Dias were peopled with his counsel. In the eyes of everyone, his teachings appeared to be good ones and therefore, first in one and then in another and finally in all the towns of the North, the man who gave such counsel began to be known as the Counselor, despite the fact that his Christian name was Antônio Vicente and his last name Mendes Maciel.
* * *
A wooden grille separates the copywriters and the other employees of the Jornal de Notícias — whose name is written large, in Gothic characters, above the entrance — from the people who come to its offices to place an advertisement in its pages or bring in a news item. There are no more than four or five reporters on its staff. One of them is checking out information in a filing cabinet built into the wall; two of them are engaged in an animated conversation, having divested themselves of their suit jackets but not their stiff shirt collars and string ties, alongside a calendar that shows the date — Friday, October 2, 1896 — and another one, young and gangling, with the thick glasses of someone suffering from acute nearsightedness, is sitting at a desk writing with a quill pen, paying no attention to what is going on about him. At the far end of the room, behind a glass door, is the office of the editor-in-chief. A man wearing a visor and celluloid cuffs is waiting on a line of customers at the Classified Advertisements counter. A woman has just handed him an ad. The cashier wets his index finger and counts the words — Giffoni Clysters
Cure Gonorrhea, Hemorrhoids, White Flowers and all ailments of the Urinary Tract
Prepared by Madame A. de Carvalho
Number 8, Rua Primero de Março — and tells her the price. The lady pays, pockets the change, and as she leaves the counter, the person waiting behind her moves forward and hands the cashier a piece of paper. He is dressed in a black frock coat and bowler that show signs of wear. Curly red locks cover his ears. He is a full-grown man, on the tall side, solidly built, with broad shoulders. The cashier counts the number of words in the ad, running his finger across the paper. Suddenly he frowns, raises his finger, and brings the text up close to his eyes, as though fearing that he has misread it. Finally he looks in bewilderment at the customer, who stands there as motionless as a statue. The cashier blinks uneasily and then motions to the man to wait. He shuffles across the room with the paper dangling from his hand, taps with his knuckles on the glass door of the office of the editor-in-chief, and goes inside. He reappears a few seconds later, motions to the customer to go inside, and goes back to work.
The man dressed in black crosses the front office of the Jornal de Notícias, his heels resounding as though he were shod in horseshoes. As he enters the small office in the rear, full of papers, periodicals, and propaganda of the Progressivist Republican Party — a United Brazil, a Strong Nation — he finds waiting for him a man who looks at him with friendly curiosity, as though he were some sort of rare animal. Dressed in a gray suit and wearing boots, the man is sitting behind the only desk in the room; he is young, dark-haired, with a dynamic air about him.
"I am Epaminondas Gonçalves, the editor and publisher of this paper," he says. "Come in."
The man dressed in black bows slightly and raises his hand to his hat, but he does not take it off or say a word.
"You want us to print this, is that right?" the editor asks, waving the little piece of paper.
The man in black nods. He has a little beard as red as his hair, and piercing bright blue eyes; his broad mouth is firmly set, and his flaring nostrils seem to be breathing in more air than his body requires. "Provided it doesn't cost more than two milreis," he murmurs in broken Portuguese. "That's my entire capital."
Epaminondas Gonçalves sits there as though not quite certain whether to laugh or fall into a rage. The man simply stands there, looking very serious, observing him. The editor resolves his dilemma by raising the piece of paper to his eyes.
"All lovers of justice are invited to attend a public demonstration of solidarity with the idealists of Canudos and with all rebels the world over, to be held in the Praça da Liberdade on the fourth of October at 6 p.m.," he reads aloud slowly. "May I ask who is calling this meeting?"
"For the moment, I am," the man answers forthwith. "If the Jornal de Notícias wants to lend its support, wonderful." (The last word is spoken in English.)
"Do you know what those people up there in Canudos have done?" Epaminondas Gonçalves murmurs, banging on the desk. "They're occupying land that doesn't belong to them and living promiscuously, like animals."
"Two things worthy of admiration," the man in black asserts, nodding his head in approval. "That's the reason why I've decided to spend my money on this public announcement."
The editor sits there in silence for a moment. Before speaking again, he clears his throat. "May I ask who you are, sir?"
Without braggadocio, without arrogance, with the merest trace of solemnity, the man introduces himself in these words: "A freedom fighter, sir. Will you publish the announcement?"
"Impossible, sir," Epaminondas Gonçalves, master of the situation now, replies. "The authorities in Bahia are merely waiting for an excuse to close down my paper. Though they've paid lip service to the Republic, they're still monarchists. I take it you've realized that we're the only true republican daily in this entire state."
The man in black gestures disdainfully and mutters between his teeth: "So I thought."
"I advise you not to take this announcement to the Diário da Bahia," the editor adds, handing him back the piece of paper. "It belongs to the Baron de Canabrava, the rightful owner of Canudos. You'll end up in jail."
Without one word of farewell, the man in black turns round and leaves the office, pocketing the announcement. He crosses the outer office of the paper without looking at anyone, without so much as a nod as he takes his leave, his footfalls resounding, merely casting a glance out of the corner of his eye — a funereal silhouette, fiery-red wavy hair — at the journalists and the customers placing paid advertisements. The young journalist with the thick eyeglasses of someone who is very nearsighted gets up from his desk after he has walked past, and with a sheet of yellow paper in his hand walks over to the office of the editor-in-chief, where Epaminondas Gonçalves is sitting, still watching the stranger's every move as he departs.
"By order of the Governor of the State of Bahia, His Excellency Senhor Luiz Viana, a company of the Ninth Infantry Battalion, under the command of Lieutenant Pires Ferreira, left Salvador today, charged with the mission of wresting control of Canudos from the bandits who have occupied the estate and of capturing their leader, the Sebastianist Antônio Conselheiro," he reads aloud as he stands in the doorway. "Page one or inside, sir?"
Excerpted from The War of the End of the World by Mario Vargas Llosa, Helen R. Lane. Copyright © 1981 Mario Vargas Llosa. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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