Discussed in this essay:
• The War of the End of the World, Mario Vargas Llosa (trans. Helen R. Lane). Penguin. $17.00. 576 pp.
• Rebellion in the Backlands, Euclides da Cunha (trans. Samuel Putnam). University Of Chicago Press. $41.00. 562 pp.
When I look back through the books that have affected me most—epics, fantasies, descendants of myths, novels of ideas—caricature factors prominently in many of them. Caricature was a strong component in the birth of the novel, especially through the (literal) giants of Rabelais and Cervantes. An outgrowth of caricature, the grotesque, visits contemporary readers in some memorable works from the 20th century: the ghosts of a man cut in two who lives as two men in Italo Calvino’s The Cloven Viscount; a big-eared runt of a giant in Roald Dahl’s The BFG; and an overgrown adenoid that just might be Adolf Hitler in Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. But perhaps the most instructive use of caricature to enhance a novel comes in Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa’s masterwork, La Guerra del Fin del Mundo (The War of the End of the World), first published in 1981.
Despite its pedigree, caricature sometimes is considered less than ideal. When Vargas Llosa began the task of writing his early novel The Green House, he wanted to use an Indian character as the central figure. He soon had to abandon the attempt because he believed
It was totally impossible for me to invent a persuasive description of a man who was so far away from me from a cultural point of view, a man who had not a rational but a magical relationship with the world. I felt I was making a caricature of this character and finally decided to describe him through intermediaries, through characters whom I was able to divine and to perceive. 1
When I read this quote, I was surprised to see that he uses the term “caricature” in the manner of those, from casual reviewers to professionals like Michiko Kakutani2, who consider it synonymous with E.M. Forster’s “flat” character. To this way of thinking, characters either descend into caricature or fight to rise above it, as if they have been cast into a black pit from which they must struggle to emerge into the bright sun. “Caricature” is used in this sense as a term of failure, an awkward marionette that may capture one’s attention but never one’s imagination.
Certainly, criticism of caricature is legitimate when authors employ the technique poorly. Especially in the realm of satire, there is a risk that caricature will cause the reader to not buy in to the “rules” of the chosen style, ruining the alchemy necessary to make a story resonate. An example of this is Gary Shteyngart’s Absurdistan, an essentially well-written and funny satire that I found diminished when the Confederacy of Dunces-esque narrator was transported from the slightly silly Russia to a very silly Absurdistan. The novel became calculatedly referential, and I ceased to think about the characters as anything more than props and symbols. By the end of the book, emotional scenes weren’t landing as they should have. This is a minor gripe about a generally good book, but it set me to thinking about the ways in which caricature is best employed. In this respect, Vargas Llosa’s The War of the End of the World has much to offer.
I. Adapting the Truth
The War of the End of the World is a historical novel, much of which rests on the story of Antonio Conselheiro. Established facts support much of it. At the end of the 19th century, this wandering preacher drew thousands of followers to a makeshift religious settlement in Canudos, Brazil. The rebels of Canudos, a motley militia of the desperately poor led by ex-bandits, used guerrilla tactics to fight the newly founded Republic of Brazil as it launched four brutal military campaigns of escalating strength against them.
The historical account of this civil war that inspired Vargas Llosa to write his novel was Os Sertões3, by Euclides da Cunha. Revered as one of the greatest books to come from Brazil, Os Sertões has ambitions of telling the history of the Brazilian backlands and its people through this one event. So when Vargas Llosa encountered the tale, he had a ready-made world created for him (which certainly would have eased the transition to his first non-Peruvian setting). For a novelist, however, a historical account is made more promising through what is left out of it, so there is room for imagination to flower. In Os Sertões, the clear void was the characters within Canudos. Descriptions of them are sparse and teasingly enticing. By today’s standards, they would be considered racially insensitive; one character becomes a puma and a caveman, another a gorilla. It is likely that da Cunha was limited to myth and hearsay to identify the Canudos leaders4, but it is precisely the abstracted, symbolic descriptions of these warriors that make them intriguing. As Vargas Llosa once put it, “[Great novels] hold up a mirror that seems to reflect real life but in fact deforms real life, adds fresh touches, reshapes it.”5
In The War of the End of the World he does just that. The book enlarges Canudos’s mythic characters, centralizes them. Where Os Sertões has reams of distant exposition, all of The War of the End of the World is seen through a constantly shifting close third-person. Each section of the book shows us the unfolding events through the actions and thoughts of a different person. And what persons they are! The narrators of the novel are a disparate band of bloodthirsty outlaws, murderers, sinners, rebels, and freaks. The author takes liberties with the reported facts in order to better serve the story.
For starters, Vargas Llosa dispenses with da Cunha’s disdain for the Canudos’s founder, Antonio Conselheiro, here named “the Counselor.” Described through the eyes of the awed believers he becomes a more enigmatic and prophetic6 character, which lends him a messianic air. The story begins with his caricatured description:
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.
As the book progresses we see less and less of the Counselor, until he disappears almost entirely from the second half, while at the same time his legend grows to godlike status, his followers eventually calling him “Blessed Jesus the Counselor.” This exemplifies one of Vargas Llosa’s favored techniques for justifying his exaggerations: showing a character only through the eyes of another subjective observer.
Vargas Llosa also uses teases and hints to allow the myth of certain characters to grow. Take the extraordinary individual called the Lion of Natuba. Several other characters vaguely mention a monster that walks on all fours by the Counselor’s side, and Vargas Llosa withholds the Lion’s full introduction for one hundred pages to allow the reader to wonder just what this “monster” could be. Ultimately, the Lion of Natuba is described for us:
He was born with very short legs and an enormous head . . . instead of going about on two feet like humans he went about on all fours . . . his head became so monstrously large that it seemed like a miracle that his frail body could hold it up. But what caused the townspeople of Natuba to begin to murmur among themselves that he had not been fathered by the horsebreaker but by the Devil was the fact that he had learned to read and write without anyone having taught him.
Vargas Llosa is at his best when he takes a description like this and conjures out of it something more haunting. Through the eyes of another character, the “inhuman” nature of the Lion is again emphasized:
The face hunched over between two bony knees, the massive hump behind the head, like a big bundle tied behind his back, and the extremities appended to limbs as long and spindly as spider legs. How could a human skeleton dislocate itself, fold itself around itself like that? What absurd contortions were built into that spinal column, those ribs, those bones?
These descriptions are pure caricature, and viewed in isolation they fall afoul of the prime complaint against caricature: shallowness, or flatness, which is substituted for roundness of character. But while sketchiness is a feature of caricature, this does not preclude these sketches from being profound, from meting out feeling economically. Vargas Llosa delicately supplements the caricature by allowing us close access to the Lion of Natuba in a few sections, through which emerge an intelligent, fragile, deeply disappointed, deeply needful human being. Perhaps more importantly, he grants the Lion independence. He is the only literate follower of the Counselor, and one of the only nonbelievers among his disciples. He is a character capable of surprising the reader, and his contorted body is a great part of what makes him memorable.
Government soldiers in the war of Canudos
To see the effects Vargas Llosa achieves with caricature, compare his account of the bandit Pajeú with da Cunha’s nonfiction account in Os Sertões. First, da Cunha:
Endowed with an impulsive temperament which combined the tendencies of the lower races from which he sprang. He was the full-blown type of primitive fighter, fierce, fearless, and naïve, at once simple-minded and evil, brutal and infantile, valiant by instinct, a hero without being aware of the fact—in brief, a fine example of recessive atavism, with the retrograde form of a grim troglodyte, stalking upright here with the same intrepidity with which, ages ago, he had brandished a stone hatchet at the entrance to his cave.
Instead of all of this, Vargas Llosa embodies the entire personality of the bandit-turned-saint Pajeú in a brutal scar on his face.
He is a husky Indian half-breed with an olive complexion and a scar that has left him with almost no nose at all.
Pajeú can feel the scar on his face; a drawing sensation, as if the old wound were about to open again. This happens to him at crucial moments, when he is having some extraordinary experience.
Nearly every description of Pajeú revolves around the scar, reminding us of his violent past, his criminal instincts. It establishes his past, his demons, and his menace with far more economy and elegance than does the genealogical insult from Os Sertões. And then, much as with the Lion, we learn later of the humanity within this hardened killer as his story unfolds.
II. On Minstrelsy and the Carnivalesque
Her head, with its clumsily lopped-off locks of hair and bare skull, called to mind the heads of the lunatics of the asylum in Salvador. She had cut all her hair off herself after being raped for the fourth time . . . to punish herself she had cropped her hair off and transformed herself into as grotesque a monster as the ones exhibited by the Gypsy’s Circus in the towns of the sertão.
—Description of Maria Quadrado
“Have you ever seen so many people who are one-armed, blind, crippled, palsied, albinos, so many who are missing ears, a nose, hair, so full of scabs and blotches? You haven’t noticed, Jurema. But I have. Because here I feel normal.”
—The Dwarf, describing Canudos
Myths and folktales are an integral part of The War of the End of the World. The book is the telling of a myth itself, with characters, like the Counselor, who were already legendary before Vargas Llosa got his hands on them. But like a Russian doll, within this tale the mythological characters are engrossed in further myths, layering the story’s reality with further abstractions and exaggerations.
For instance, the people of Canudos believe that the deceased King Dom Sebastiao will return to support them in defeating “the Dog,” the name they use to refer to the anti-Christ7.
In his sermons, the Counselor had so often foretold how the forces of the Dog would come to seize him and put the city to the sword that no one in Canudos was surprised when it was learned, from pilgrims come on horseback from Juazeiro, that a company of the Ninth Infantry Battalion from Bahia had arrived in the vicinity, charged with the mission of capturing the saint. Prophecies were beginning to come true, words becoming facts. The news had a tonic effect, mobilizing old people, young people, men, women. Shotguns and carbines, flintlocks that had to be muzzle-loaded were immediately taken up and bandoleers threaded with the proper ammunition, as at the same time knives and daggers appeared, tucked into waistbands as if by magic, and in people’s hands sickles, machetes, pikes, awls, slings and hunting crossbows, clubs, stones.
Myths, superstitions, and willful untruths are what drive the two sides to kill so viciously. The Brazilian soldiers believe they are driving the English from their land, and the rebels believe they are driving back the Devil.
As in Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, with its cracked man with the cracked pince-nez, and its giant, intelligent, murderous, talking cat, Vargas Llosa employs the carnivalesque to evoke the anti-Christ. Consider. This is fitting: The War of the End of the World takes place in Brazil, the established home of Carnival, so Vargas Llosa makes use of the carnivalesque to tell an intimately Brazilian story. He explicitly ties the inhabitants of the sertão (the backlands) to a circus through the inclusion of the Gypsy’s Circus, a traveling band of players that includes the Dwarf, Pedrim the Giant, the Bearded Lady, the Idiot, the Spider Man, and more. In fact, the Gypsy’s Circus is something of a burlesque parody of Canudos, with the Gypsy taking the Counselor’s role. The Bearded Lady and the Idiot come to be replaced by Jurema (a woman whose stigma is not facial hair but rape) and by the nearsighted journalist. Pedrim the Giant is reminiscent of the giant bandit Pedrão, and we learn that the Lion of Natuba himself was once forced into the Gypsy’s Circus.
There is layer upon layer of parallels, told polyphonically, together creating a kaleidoscopic view of Canudos. Within The Gypsy’s Circus come the tales told by the Dwarf, another layer. And then yet another: one of the Dwarf’s stories, a medieval minstrel tale called “The Terrible and Exemplary Story of Robert the Devil,” is a direct reference to the blood-soaked backstory of the Canudos military leader, Abbot João. At one point, Abbot João even reflects on how strange it is that things had turned out in his life just as in the minstrel’s stories. This blending of fact with myth refracts the layers of grotesques, sinners, and freaks, all living comfortably and piously together under the Counselor, living out their religious mythology. To supplement these characters with their caricatured doppelgängers has the effect of increasing their stature, and making myths out of men.
III. On Seeing and Not Seeing
When she awoke, the nearsighted man, at her feet, looked at her the way the Idiot from the circus had.
The “nearsighted journalist” appears to be a double of the journalist Euclides da Cunha, author of Os Sertões. Like da Cunha, the nearsighted journalist travels with the soldiers of the third campaign as they prepare to invade Canudos. From there, the fictional character undergoes a symbolic loss of identity: he becomes the only character left without a name, and Vargas Llosa calls him “the man who appears to be a caricature of himself.” Somewhat like the professor in Paul Bowles’ great short story, “A Distant Episode,” who loses his tongue and is made a fool and a slave, the nearsighted journalist accidentally breaks his glasses and becomes trapped in Canudos, transformed into a blind embodiment of fear and dependency.
That little figure moving back and forth, tripping and falling and picking himself up again and peering at the ground with his outlandish monocle, was such a funny sight that the women finally began pointing at him and making fun of him.
He, too, was a monster, maimed, disabled, abnormal.
|Euclides da Cunha
Throughout the book, Vargas Llosa returns again and again to characters that refuse to, or are unable to, see clearly. He had reason to do so: at the time of the conflict, Brazilian soldiers and even Euclides da Cunha himself swore that they saw British soldiers fighting with the jagunços of Canudos, when in fact no British soldiers were there. One character explains this as “people’s credulity, their hunger for fantasy, for illusion.” This great shift from intellectual musing to literal blindness is embodied when the nearsighted journalist, shocked upon seeing the decapitated head of his former leader, drops his glasses and breaks them. From then on, he sees everything through a haze and must rely on his other senses. Naturally, given that the nearsighted journalist is the primary documenter of the war in Canudos, this throws all of the foggy caricatures and potential exaggerations into uncertainty, illustrating The War of the End of the World’s great tragedy: that people are unable or unwilling to understand each other. Only those who “see” clearly are able to glean the true natures beyond the caricatures.
The mystery of Canudos is similar to that of the famed entrance of Omar Sharif into Lawrence of Arabia. What is that shimmer across the desert that grows closer and closer? Everything is presented through heavy layers of obfuscation and subjectivity. It could be, perhaps, that the very real historical war of Canudos makes this more tolerable to the reader. Certainly it is not a stretch to think that this grounds the caricatures in a way that the average novel cannot. For all the obfuscations, vague details, and exaggerations, Vargas Llosa teases us with the fact that something really did happen, that there is an objective truth in these events. He just doesn’t allow any of the characters to objectively see that truth, and therefore we never see it either.
But even if a reader does not need to see the clear picture, she must believe that the picture exists. It is to the book’s credit that there is a clear picture that emerges, one shaped, to paraphrase the nearsighted journalist, by madness, misunderstandings, stupidity, and cruelty. This references religious parable, as with the fundamentalist Christian who sees one absolute truth in the Gospels despite their varying accounts.
IV. Enhancing the Epic
There is another aspect of the caricaturing of the Canudos affair that sticks with you, especially when it extends to the violence of battle.
Finally, one of the menfolk began to cry, out of helplessness or terror. Satan João thereupon plunged his knife into him and slit him wide open, the way a butcher slaughters a steer. This bloodshed had the effect of an order, and shortly thereafter the cangaceiros, crazed with excitement, began to shoot off their blunderbusses, not stopping until they had turned the one street in Custódia into a graveyard. Even more than the wholesale killing, what contributed to the legend of Satan João was the fact that he humiliated each of the males personally after they were dead, cutting off their testicles and stuffing them in their mouths.
That element of enthralling and repellent viscera, in the vein of de Sade or Pasolini or Max Beckmann, that element of debasement of biblical proportions, of cruelty somehow beyond the possible extent of experience—is it exaggerated to fill us with numbing dread, or is it the silhouette of something real? Like the recent shades of real-world violence referenced in Les Bienveillantes and 2666, it leaves a lingering trace like a smell in our nostrils, perhaps the stench from the stacks of bodies wafting over, the shine in our eyes from the orderly rows of sun-bleached skulls along the roadside. And since those bodies in, near, and around Canudos, when still animated, had been introduced and endeared to us, the horror of their extinction is the greater for their individuality, their singularity. The countless descriptions of disembowelment, dismemberment, and bad death sound a haunting tone in the mind of anyone who reads this book, but the characters are what resonate most. The ringing bell in the tower of Canudos that chimes through the smoke and fire was built to ring on even after all is silenced but the crackling flames.
The complexity of an epic novel with so many characters lends itself to caricature as a form of shorthand. Much like Charles Dickens, Vargas Llosa picks one or two telling details to sketch and re-sketch them for the reader as characters flit in and out of the story. Through this, the reader can keep track of individuals within the multitude. In a close third-person story, this is ever-more useful, because many characters are described through the vision of another. Distinguishing characteristics tend to be noticed first, so the Counselor’s purple robe, Pajeú’s scar, Pedrão’s size, Big João’s bare feet, Galileo Gall’s red hair, the Dwarf’s stature, the Lion’s posture, the Little Blessed One’s wire cinched around his waist, the Bearded Lady’s . . . beard, and the nearsighted journalist’s glasses, gangly limbs, and portable writing desk make them all instantly recognizable, and memorable. These can all be considered “round” characters, because we are also made privy to their inner turmoil through the occasional close third-person narration, but the over-emphasis on physical traits delineates the characters in our minds.
Caricature can be recognized for its strength as a tool for shaping a character or thing into a form that rescues its essence from the mundane pit of factual limits, and lifts it up to reverberate into the infinite space of the imagination.
Or maybe I’m only exaggerating.
Travis Godsoe is a native of Bangor, Maine, and a graduate of the Sarah Lawrence College MFA program in creative writing. His short fiction has appeared in The Puckerbrush Review and 5_trope, and he has recently completed a novel, Barnacle. He lives in Manhattan with his wife, the writer Julie Novacek Godsoe.
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