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A Sunday Evening Thought: Humanity

Apropos of everything or nothing, depending on your inclination.

I admire Olaf Stapledon’s vision of humanity in Last and First Men (1930): relentlessly self-destructive but irrepressibly resilient, brimming with potential but fundamentally and permanently limited. In this vision, humanity maintains a precarious existence and is usually too individualistic and preoccupied to realize just how fragile it is.

He repeats the sentiment more succinctly in the opening chapter of Starmaker (1937):

From this high look-out the Earth would have appeared no different before the dawn of man. No visiting angel, or explorer from another planet, could have guessed that this bland orb teemed with vermin, with world-mastering, self-torturing, incipiently angelic beasts.

Unhelpfully trite though it might be, a particularly notable line about the better angels of our nature comes to mind.

Eleven Thoughts about “X-Men: Days of Future Past”

Needing a break and looking to tear myself away from my usual routine, I went to the movies last night and watched the latest installment of the X-Men franchise. It was okay. Here are eleven thoughts I had at or that were stimulated by the film.

  1. I’m not wild about the secret or alternate history genre in movies (more so than books) because it is often done in a ham-handed way by going to the largest or most notable events in the past and attributing them to the central conceit of the story. It might appeal to some people, but I find it simultaneously dull and pandering.
  2. The longer a franchise runs and the more any of the movies nod toward true ensemble casts, the more likely that later installments devolve into a string of cameo appearance.
  3. I really like Peter Dinklage’s voice.
  4. Eric Lehnsherr (Magneto) is a brilliant character, and I like how Michael Fassbender/Ian McKellen play him. He is a powerful character, but beyond his manipulation of magnetism, he is a Holocaust survivor with incredible charisma and will power, one who melds both the outcast ideology of Zionism with the Nazi ideology of racial supremacy, a revolutionary and a terrorist, but one with a (e)utopian vision, a man who has a God-complex, but who is also a good friend. These combine to make him really compelling to watch.
  5. One set of cameos was mutants serving in the army in Vietnam. They are about to be taken away experimented on when they are rescued. It was early enough in the film that I assumed that this would be some sort of Chekhov’s Gun. In a way, it was, but the men being rescued only served as bit-pieces for a cheap tug on the heart-strings. Again, a ham-handed effort to show depth to the world of the story, but comes across poorly because clumsy sleight of hand reveals exactly how deep the story is rather than creating the illusion that this is just the beginning.
  6. I cannot think of a dramatic portrayal of Nixon that I have ever found compelling.
  7. There were some pretty special-effects in X-Men and between some good acting, interesting characters, and the effects, there were the makings of a good story. It made sense in the past-present are brought together for the time-travel portion of the plot, but the transitions between the two timelines were often nearly symmetrical, a feature that I found oddly jarring.
  8. The “present” timeline really only served to heighten dramatic tension to the movie, which was a waste, given the actors whose role was to sit around and act concerned…or over-used since its main point was to remind everyone that they were on a deadline that would inevitably expire just as the “past” timeline reached its resolution.
  9. The frequent glossing between “mind,” “brain,” “psychic energy” and the like bothers me. I realize that this is super-hero/comic book neuroscience, but I’m waiting for the Marvel documentary that explains “the science” at work here. In the meantime, this strikes me as a verbal dodge of the sort found in bad science fiction. I can suspend disbelief to a point, but when you start pulling obvious word-game mumbo-jumbo it is a bridge too far.
  10. I am a sap when it comes to the obligatory motivational speech about humanity with the proper musical accompaniment, but while there was the occasional excellent line in this film, the writing was not transcendent or even consistently clever and interesting. Good writing punches up good characters, and it is unfortunate when characters cannot constantly present themselves as interesting/intelligent/charismatic as they are supposed to be because the writing doesn’t allow it. But this may be a topic for consideration on its own.
  11. The central plot of X-Men is that they go back in time to rescue a defense contractor in order to save the future. It is a nice message that you shouldn’t kill people and the contractor doesn’t entirely get away, though only through his own hubris, not his experiments on people or the central project he worked on. But saving the future by saving a large defense contract is a fairly depressing conceit to hang your plot on. At least in the animated series they had to rescue the President.

There are eleven thoughts. The movie, with its 8.4/10 ranking on IMDB was solidly okay 7 or 7.5/10, plus or minus a bit depending on what you care most about in a movie. I had hoped to go somewhere where I could not multitask and didn’t have a dozen other things to do as a means of hopefully recharging my spent fuel cells. Sometimes the movie theater experience can re-focus me. I did not achieve the ideal outcome, but, in X-Men’s defense, it is entirely possible that I was unable to get that immersive experience because I have several dozen other things on my mind.

Questionable humanity: A Review of Attack on Titan Season 1

I having been feeling the need to exercise my thinking muscles lately and just finished watching the anime series “Attack on Titan,” which is an adaptation of a manga series by the same name. I really enjoyed the show, hence, a review.

A century before the story there appeared in the world titans, which are tall (ranging from four to sixty meters) humanoid figures, usually masculine in shape but lacking in genitalia, that are attracted to areas with high population densities, breaking into towns and eating as many humans as they can get their hands on. Thus far, it appears that the titans are instinctive and unthinking, impossible to communicate with and difficult to bring down since the only way to kill them is to cut into a small spot at the base of the titan’s neck. Titans do not need humans as food and nothing is known about their energy sources or how they communication or where they came from. The titans appeared and multiplied, driving the remnants of humanity behind three concentric sets of walls, Maria, Rose, and Sina, which are commonly thought to have been sent by God to protect humanity.

Human society militarized to confront the threat of the Titans and recruits are divided between the Scout Regiment, which operates beyond the walls, the Garrison Regiment, which mans the cannons on the walls, and the Military Police, which is a position of luxury and privilege. The military provides both internal and external security, as well as enforcing the will of the Monarchy that rules over this new kingdom. In addition to rifles and cannon, all soldiers are trained in the use of 3-D Maneuvering devices that use gas-powered launchers to fire pegs attached to wires in every direction, quickly pulling the wielder in its wake. In enclosed spaces, this gives the soldiers an opening to get around behind the titan and strike at its neck. The device give the human soldiers a chance against titans, it does not give them an edge.

The story opens when Eren Yeager’s hometown in the Shiganshina on Wall Maria is attacked in an apocalyptic event when a sixty meter tall titan appears at the wall and breaks it open, allowing a horde of smaller titans in. Almost everyone in the city is slaughtered and the main characters, Eren, Mikasa Ackerman (Eren’s foster sister), and Armin Arlert (his friend), just children, are forced to flee with the survivors behind Wall Rose. The influx of population into the smaller wall circuit causes famine and social unrest, while our protagonists sign up to join the military with the goal of destroying all the titans.

Each character deals with the training and war against the titans in his or her own way. Eren is an implacable enemy, aggressive but lacking in sense. Mikasa is, for reasons learned in the show, completely dedicated to Eren, but is a much better fighter. Armin is a genius, but the weakest of the three. These characters are the fulcrum upon which the story rests, but they are joined by a larger cast of characters from their cadet corps and future comrades-in-arms as elements within the military buck the innate conservatism of the political apparatus in order to try to win the conflict with the titans rather than waiting, huddled within the walls.

Fair warning, the following portion of the review will include spoilers.
(Continued)

My Name is Red, Orhan Pamuk

Orhan Pamuk, My Name is Red.

I, Satan. I am fond of the smell of red peppers frying in olive oil, rain falling into a calm sea at dawn, the unexpected appearance of a woman at an open window, silences, thought and patience…Of course because I’m the one speaking, you’re already prepared to believe the exact opposite of what I say. But you’re smart enough to sense that the opposite of what I say is not always true.

We don’t look for smiles in pictures of bliss, but rather, for the happiness in life itself. Painters know this, but this is precisely what they cannot depict. That’s why they substitute the joy of seeing for hte joy of life.

For the sake of a delightful and convincing story, there isn’t a lie Orhan wouldn’t deign to tell.

In the closing years of the sixteenth century, the Sultan has instructed Enishte Effendi to create a fantastic book that will, in the European perspective style, demonstrate the power of the Ottoman realm. To create this book, the master miniaturists from the imperial workshops have retreated into the privacy of their own homes to work on the individual images, which fuels the rumors that some or all of the illustrations will be an affront to Islam. One of the illustrators working on the manuscript is brutally murdered and dumped into a well at the same time as Black, Enishte’s nephew, returns to Istanbul after an absence of twelve years.

Work continues on the manuscript even as the search for the murderer commences. Black is an outsider to the entire process and has an ulterior motive: to rekindle his childhood romance with Enishte’s daughter, Shekure, a widowed mother of two whose husband has never been confirmed dead, but who has moved back in with her father because her husband’s brother dangerously lusts after her. What ensues is a beguiling tale that explores the nature of art and reality, love, lust, violence and sacrilege and, as with all of Pamuk’s work (at least those books I’ve read) the Turkish anxiety about sitting at a crossroads between East and West. Black pursues Shekure, Shekure demurs out of her own reluctance, fear for her children, and respect for her father who she doesn’t want to leave. Black interviews the other master miniaturists, the murdered (“I Will be Called a Murderer”) hides his identity, and Hasan, the brother-in-law schemes to get Shekure back.

Questions loom large in My Name is Red. Is perspectivist style artwork an affront to Islam? Ought art reflect objects as seen by Allah or as seen by the artist? Is “style” a defect? What determines the greatness of an artist, aesthetic judgement or accumulation of wealth? Can truth, whether or textual, be captured on a page? What is real? And on and on.

The appropriate place to begin this part of the review (one of the fourth opening line) is a discussion of the narrator. Pamuk gives the impression that there is a storyteller who takes on the multitude of viewpoints while telling the story, as in mimicry of a storyteller in a coffee shop. That storyteller is Orhan, blurring the line between Pamuk himself and Shekure’s younger son. In neither case is there a narrative frame for the story. Instead, the book contains just the complete story, whirling from character to character, always in a first-person limited viewpoint and sometimes switching perspective within a single scene. But these viewpoints are not limited to people, as one character has two distinct personae and the story includes narration from a picture of a horse, a corpse, a gold coin, a picture of a tree, and Satan speaking through a picture of Satan.

The end product is a multifaceted tale that forms a uniform whole and a story where each narrator is cast from an unseen storyteller, confident in its own authority, but in such a way that it is clear that the reality humans have access to is subjective based on one’s own perspective, crafted as that is by whim, desire, and opportunity. Truth belongs to Allah; meaning is the essence of truth, but may have little bearing on reality.

I loved My Name is Red, and it is clearly written by the same author as Snow, which I count among my favorite novels, though one of the common complaints of the latter is that it is boring. This book is a bit more lively than Snow and the format of the novel gives the illusion that the story moves along quickly even as Pamuk draws the reader into his web of questions.

Next up is Jim Harrison’s The Raw and the Cooked, collected essays of a foodie and a writer.

On Baking: I have a bowl

My current apartment has 480 square inches of counter space, twenty four by twenty inches, most of which is covered a utensil basket, drying rack, and coffee grinder. To give a bit of perspective, the sink, including edges, is 552 square inches. This arrangement is problematic for cooking, but even more so for baking, which usually requires prolonged kneading.

I have a bowl. This bowl holds eight or more quarts, though, to be honest, I do not really know how large it is. The exact size isn’t actually important. It is large and fits comfortably in my lap when I sit on the floor. As a result, I have compensated for my lack of counter space with this bowl. Almost everything I make I knead in this bowl, seated on my living room floor with my iPad playing something or another on Netflix; kneading, particularly with limited motion, usually takes about an episode of a half-hour show like “Attack on Titan” or “Parks and Rec” (recent go-tos). From there I sit and I knead. From time to time I add flour from the bag at my side and after a while I cut off a slice to see if it passes the window-pane test by stretching until it forms a complete, translucent membrane. If the dough tears I adjust the water or flour levels and continue kneading.

Netflix works well for kneading because I don’t look at the dough. Almost exclusively, I knead toward a texture and a stickiness until the point of giving the dough the window-pane test. In the meantime, bread dough serves as an oversized stress ball with the promise of something delicious to come.

Another virtue of baking is that it requires patience. Bread is one of those things that cannot be rushed. It is possible to bake the bread before it has fully risen, but that cuts only a little time off the total process. The rest of the time is spent waiting. I’m not a particularly patient person, but the rewards of baking are worthwhile. It is cliche to say that the world moves too quickly and reminders to slow down are necessary parts of life, but it is nonetheless true. Baking plays this role for me and the periods when the dough rises work well for various chores and for reading (though not work), while kneading causes a practically meditative state.

Four things I like about baking, from most to least important:

  1. Eating. Everything I bake I can eat and I do love to eat good bread products, including bagels, pizza, brioche, challah, stuffed crescent rolls, cinnamon rolls (to name a few). Without question, this is the top reason to bake bread.
  2. Sharing. One of my favorite things to do when I bake is to make about twice as much as I am going to eat myself, and then to give the rest away to other people who like to eat.
  3. Making. It is deeply rewarding to make something, from start to finish and get to see the final product.
  4. The whole stress-ball thing. Seriously, it is relaxing to knead dough.

June Reading: The Case of Comrade Tulayev

For a variety of reasons, including co-teaching a Greek History course, working on my dissertation, and watching (too much) Justified I only finished one book this month, Victor Serge’s The Case of Comrade Tulayev. Serge himself was born in Brussels to Russian parents and moved to Russia to join the Bolshevik revolution. He was expelled from the party in 1928 and arrested multiple times before being allowed to leave Russia in 1936 and lived in multiple foreign countries (always on the run from Soviet agents) before his death in Mexico City in 1947. The Case of Comrade Tulayev was published posthumously.

Comrade Tulayev is a high official in the Soviet government, but on a cold night in Moscow he is shot down in the street. Serge does not hide who committed the murder, which takes place on the page in the very first chapter, but the killer escapes into the night and the hunt begins. The story unfolds in a panoramic look at investigation into the murder, the fundamental mistrust and uncertainty bred in the Stalinist state, and the purges that rippled outward from the case. The murder investigation provides the fulcrum on which the story rests, but Serge delves into the Soviet policies of scarcity, the deception of economic productivity, the gap between the haves and the have-nots, accusations and false-confessions, and the tension between the veterans of the revolution–those people who knew Lenin–and the younger generations that aspire to positions of influence.

The Case of Comrade Tulayev was an excellent novel, grimly funny at times, and for all the terror and failures of the Soviet system, Serge displays an unshakeable faith in humanity. To give just one example, Stalin makes several appearances throughout the story and he is neither a heartless monster nor a cuddly caricature. Instead, Joseph Stalin comes across as detached and isolated, subject to the mistrust that filled the atmosphere. It would have been simple for Serge to attribute the mistrust to Stalin’s own personal paranoia, showing it to be something that radiated outward from the dictator and into the subordinates, but he does not. The mistrust is part and parcel of the system and acts upon each individual equally.

I firmly believe that not every book is for everyone and while I like Russian literature, I also sometimes find it difficult to read. To be fair, this is in part an issue of translation because Russian is more difficult to render well into English than many other languages, including Spanish, Italian, and based on the luck I’ve had thus far, Turkish. That said, I recommend that anyone who has read Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita or Orwell’s 1984 give The Case of Comrade Tulayev a chance for different look at life under the Soviet State.

Currently, I am about 70% of the way through Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red, which is an enchanting tale of murder and marriage in 16th century Istanbul that also serves as a meditation on the nature of art, east and west.

Social Networking II: The Twitter

Just about two years ago I deleted my Facebook account with the declaration that, from my perspective, it had failed. I do miss its convenience for contacting people whose phone numbers or emails I do not have readily available and am disappointed by the occasional missed invitation (the “oh right, you’re not on Facebook” by way of apology gets old quickly), but gchat has replaced Facebook chat and my life is improved having rid myself of that attachment.

With Twitter I get all the aspects of Facebook I liked, with none of the annoyances. By using Twitter clients I’ve even mostly managed to avoid the “new layout” angst. In particular, I find the micro-blogging more conducive to mixing work, hobbies, social commentary, and jokes. I also prefer it as a platform for sharing links despite–or perhaps because of–the limited space for commentary.

At its best, Twitter is a place where I can share my love of food, sports, history, and literature with like-minded people, including those I know offline and those who I respect, but who I have not yet met in person. I’ve also had discussions about ancient sources and topics that have proven valuable in my own work. On the other end of the spectrum, Twitter takes on the worst aspects of demagoguery, leading to all manner of harassment both for good and for ill, and sometimes for both simultaneously.

But more than its penchant for channeling outrage, I’ve recently been having a second problem with Twitter: its intensity. As I was with Facebook, I am too capable of simply watching the world flit by on Twitter instead of doing my own work, let alone going out into the world and thus being limited by whatever there is around me. This escapism also prompts me to frequently reopen the Twitter page when it is closed, sometimes for fear of missing out on whatever aphorism, quip, or thought has just been posted, but more often because I am struggling to write or read whatever I am working through at that moment. Unlike Facebook, though, I am much better at closing down Twitter and coming back to it at more regulated intervals and accepting that I am not missing anything important in doing so. Still, this aspect of Twitter is less time-intensive (at least for me) than Facebook was.

What I mean by intensity is that many people I follow have crafted erudite and intelligent professional personae on Twitter and tweet with passion about professional matters from their current writing projects, to the articles or sources they read and recommend, to thoughts about the academy. In isolation, this is a good thing and when my own work is progressing to my satisfaction, I am encouraged to see such a positive and enthusiastic community on social networks–and, in my experience, it is an incredibly positive and supportive group of people on Twitter. The problem is that when it seems that my own progress has stagnated, the same positive and enthusiastic community becomes intimidating. A swarm of Care Bears, puppies, or kittens remains a swarm, particularly if one appears, solipsistically, to be on the outside of the given group.

There appear to be two root causes of this dissatisfaction above and beyond the frustration with my own work. The first is that I do not use Twitter as an exclusively professional medium, but one that brings together a variety of aspects of my life, a fact that make me feel like a dilettante rather than a scholar. The second returns to the idea of a swarm. Everyone has periods where they do not write as much as they would like, if only because most go through periods where the immediate demands of teaching and grading cut into writing time, but, because there are one or two hundred scholars whose social media personae I follow, there is a constant stream of positive information about research in progress. Very often, I find the torrent a source of motivation and encouragement. The problem is that when the current ceases to be uplifting, I find it entirely overwhelming and I am further paralyzed.

I do not foresee myself deleting my Twitter account anytime soon. Rather, I noticed an ebb and flow of my own activity, writing here on my personal blog and production of pages on my dissertation and a correlation with my enthusiasm for and activity on Twitter. Twitter does not cause the ebb, but neither does it always inspire a rebound.

Errol Morris’ “The Unknown Known”

“I bet Rumsfeld is one hell of a poker player.” –my first comment walking out of Errol Morris’ documentary about Donald Rumsfeld.

Before seeing the film I had heard Morris talk about sitting down with the former defense secretary and he contrasted the experience with that of filming McNamara for “A Fog of War.” McNamara, he said, grappled with the consequences of his policies in Vietnam while Rumsfeld was glib, disingenuous, empty, and not someone who was at all relatable. A review in the Atlantic follows this same tact by saying that Rumsfeld was unsuccessful in his verbal jousts and that Morris’ true target in the film was smugness.

I do not totally agree. Don’t get me wrong, Rumsfeld was absolutely smug and does not vindicate himself in the film, but focusing on this surface attitude overlooks some larger points.

The issue is that Rumsfeld appeared to have three modes: toeing in the party line, coyly defending Rumsfeld against the rest of the Bush-administration appointees, and the truth, from his point of view. My contention here is that Rumsfeld was telling the truth more frequently than he gets credit for.

One theme Rumsfeld repeated in his answers was his unflappable faith in rational actors. He is a realist, through and through and the great failing of realists is their faith in rationality in the face of an irrational world. Take two examples:

  1. With the prisoner abuse scandals Rumsfeld tried to justify the sequence of events and defend the D.o.D. by pointing out that 1) the interrogators went further than permitted and 2) they failed to heed a memo that retracted the order. On one hand, this is Rumsfeld passing the blame on down the line where another person would express remorse. On the other, I do not doubt that Rumsfeld believed that his responsibility was done with once he sent the memo. Does this absolve Rumsfeld? No, but given the situation, his power was a good deal more limited than many people would like to think and I can understand why he might have believed himself not responsible for the prisoners and certainly not solely responsible for the military decision in the Bush administration.
  2. In a line of questions that dealt with the capture of Saddam Hussein, Rumsfeld said he had no interest in talking with the Iraqi leader. Rumsfeld had met him in the 1980s and found him to be a pompous blowhard (in so many words), but had connected with one of Saddam Hussein’s lieutenants on that same trip. Rumsfeld said that that was who he wanted to talk to, rational actor to rational actor to learn how he could let Iraq get into a war with the United States–he was genuinely perplexed as to how the two sides got to the point of war, but it was clear that he expected Iraqi decision making to be based on the same rational process as his own.

But the world is not made of rational actors, on either side, which was one of Rumsfeld’s grand delusions. Likewise, there is a persistent glossing of WMDs (chemical, nerve, atomic) and a Nuclear Program that was used as justification for the invasion of Iraq, and The Terrorists were characterized as some sort of unified front against which the US and Co. fight against as the Defenders of Freedom. These are two of the great myths of 21st century political discourse that Rumsfeld used in his answers and Errol Morris slipped into his questions. Thus, a final point: n both the film and the clips of press conferences from Rumsfeld time at the D.o.D., Rumsfeld only answered the questions asked, and not all the questions were good.

“Unknown Known” didn’t do Rumsfeld any favors in terms of his legacy because he was smug, clever, sometimes coy, and unrepentant. But to dismiss him as such gives Rumsfeld both too much and too little credit.

May Reading Recap

Proud Beggars – Albert Cossery
Reviewed here, Cossery’s 1955 novel celebrates the three beggars–the former professor Gohar, middling bureaucrat El-Kordi, and the drug dealer Yeghen, which, he treats as a sort of intelligentsia of the slums. Much like in The Jokers (published 1964), Cossery takes a dim view of middle class society and praises the virtues of those who refuse to play the same game as the rest of society, refuse to be trapped by the obsessions that plague the rest of us. The plot of Proud Beggars is the investigation into a whorehouse murder that stuns most of the people in their little environment, but further heightens how dissimilar the beggars are from the rest of the citizens of their Egyptian slum. In the end, though, the conceit of the novel is that nobody can actually escape from his or her obsessions.

The War of the End of the World – Mario Vargas Llosa
Reviewed here, The War of the End of the World is a literary retelling of the war of Canudos in 1890s Brazil, where Antonio Consulhiero, an itinerant breacher in Bahia Province gathered an enormous following of dispossessed souls, while the new Republican state brought increasing amounts of firepower to suppress the revolt.

Home Land- Sam Lipsyte
When I was a senior in high school, one of my classmates circulated an open letter to most of the school–pre-Facebook, this meant typing up a letter, copying it, and slipping the copies into people’s lockers. I didn’t keep a copy of the letter, but the gist of it was that a certain cadre of the class would go off to fancy colleges and lead miserable lives and those who remained in town with practical careers should just ignore them and be happy. Flash forward fifteen or twenty years…Sam Lipsytes’ Home Land is a pithier and less relenting version of that letter, albeit without the satisfaction of happiness on the author’s end. “Teabag,” as the author is known, is fed up with the shallow, overly roses updates his classmates are writing to the alumni newsletter. So he writes his own, in serial that are cynical and vicious enough toward his former classmates and former principal that the editors refuse to publish them, at least to begin with. Teabag’s world is not a happy place, but he pitches it as a cold dose of reality, grounding his classmates who continue to aspire to things the way they did back when they were kids. Home Land is dark and cynical and sadly funny.

Throne of the Crescent Moon – Saladin Ahmed
The first time I heard of this fantasy novel was Ahmed himself talking about his premise. Most fantasy novels share a setting, that of medieval Western Europe, so he set his in a Middle Eastern world; most fantasy characters are young, so his protagonist is old. The Crescent Moon Kingdoms and the enormous city Dhamsawaat are facing a crisis between the brutal Khalif and the thief, the Falcon Prince as the later schemes to overthrow the ruling family and harness the power of the ancient throne from a long-past civilization for good. Dr. Adoulla Makhslood is a ghul-hunter by trade and is looking for the source of a series of murders committed by an unusually large number of ghuls, which gets him trapped between this brewing conflict.

Perhaps because I was in need or something lighter this month, my favorite of these four books was Throne of the Crescent Moon. Others were better written or dealt with higher themes and I was sorely tempted to put Proud Beggars in the top spot, but, as I addressed in my review, there were a few parts of Cossery’s story that chafed at me in that for all it exulted in the freedom and vitality of the unattached poor, it was too flippant about the value of a human life.

Currently, I am reading Victor Serge’s The Case of Comrade Tulayev.

Historians and Storytellers: a review of The War of the End of the World, Mario Vargas Llosa

“A story of mad men.”

“…not so much a story of madmen as a story of misunderstandings.”

In the Brazilian state of Bahia in the 1890s there was a popular uprising against the young Republic. In 1888 the Portuguese Emperor abolished slavery, and in 1889 a military coup ended the monarchy and established a Republic. Bahia had been beset by extreme drought less than a decade earlier and, combined with both new taxes and large numbers of newly displaced persons in the form of former-slaves (at least according to Wikipedia), the conditions were ripe for an itinerant preacher and mystic, Antonio Vicente Mendes Maciel a.k.a. Antonio Conselhiero, to develop a following. In 1893 he set up his permanent home at an abandoned hacienda called Canudos. Tens of thousands of outlaws and other dispossessed came to Canudos and they defeated three military expeditions sent to destroy the rebellion, before finally succumbing to the overwhelming firepower of a fourth military force in 1897.

The capture of Canudos led to atrocities, including murder, rape, desecration of the dead bodies. But to the extent that the media covered the sack of Canudos, the narrative was that the men and women of Canudos were Monarchists, backwardly religious, and supported by European powers that sought influence in the new Republic.

This is a long, roundabout way to get to reviewing a novel written by a Peruvian author and published in 1981. Yet, Llosa’s novel is a dramatic retelling of this episode in Brazilian history, presented as a historical novel rather than history. Llosa’s storytelling has two distinct advantages over a historical approach to the topic. The first is that he doesn’t need to follow a linear chronology and often skips forward and backward, particularly when moving between the events at Canudos and the events elsewhere in Bahia. The second is that Llosa embraces the confusion and uncertainty that surrounded the origin and conclusion of the rebellion.

The early portions of the story are dedicated to the mythology of Antonio Counselhiero and his band of devoted followers. Llosa narrates how a motley band of outlaws, outcasts, and sinners became intensely devoted to this mystic–and in so doing became respected and upstanding individuals. The laws and rules of the Republicare what force them to transgress, rather than the there being something deficient in their natural make-up. The followers therefore reject the Republic (which they also lump in with Protestants, Atheists, and Freemasons) as the instrument of Satan, and pray for the return of both Jesus and the emperor.

The story progresses and gradually leads the reader to the government expeditions to drive them from Canudos; the latter part of the story is dedicated to the machinations and confusion of the majority of the population who accept the rule of the Republic. The characters on this side of the conflict profess a belief in science and progress, dismissing the backward superstition of the believers at Canudos. But it quickly becomes clear that science–and newspapers, regulations, politics, and modern life–don’t provide any more certainty than does religion. In fact, the discipline of the Republic only goes so far and the soldiers are frequently revealed to be both less happy and less moral than the criminals at Canudos.

I frame this review from the perspective of telling history and telling stories. I’m sure that there is value to a history of this revolt at Canudos, but I came to appreciate Llosa’s story telling. Unlike One Hundred Years of Solitude, which the dustcover blurb invokes, The War of the end of the World tracks a huge number of characters over a series of years. On one hand this made the story a challenge to read, but it also enabled Llosa to approach the events at Canudos from a variety of angles and hammer home the misunderstandings. The story is poignant and there plenty of rising action building up to that final conflict at Canudos, but the conclusion falls flat. This is a story about the implacable advance of modernity and I suspect that the dullness of the resolution is by design, an inversion of the progressive narrative that does not shy from the problems of the earlier time but is nostalgic all the same.

The War of the End of the World was a challenging read and there were times that I found myself dragging while reading this book, though some of that was the end of the semester grind, but it was also immensely rewarding to get through.

In a distinct (and welcome) change of pace, yesterday I finished Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon, which I intend to talk about in an upcoming post about fantasy novels, but haven’t decided if I will review independently of that, and have begun Sam Lipsyte’s epistolary novel Home Land.