Here and there – Religious fanatics


When the play Richard II begins, some big-hitting magnates are at each other’s throats.  One character refers to some ‘soon-believing adversaries’ (1.1.101). The Oxford editor gives ‘easy-to-convince’ for ‘soon-believing’. Another word is ‘gullible,’ for which the Oxford English Dictionary gives ‘capable of being gulled; easily duped.’  But Shakespeare’s phrase has a cool feel to it.  It catches the ear, and there is no reference to causation.

We have recently seen a lot of soon-believing or gullible types in the UK and the US.  Many have fallen for snake-oil salesmen like Farage or Trump. But it’s not just mountebanks and cranks who prey on soon-believers.  Religious fanatics just love them.  It’s amazing how fanatics and soon-believers find each other out.

Throughout history, religious fanatics have engaged in murder and terrorism.  A horrifying instance is described by Mario Vargas Llosa in his novel The War of the End of the World.  It is based on events in Brazil near the end of the nineteenth century known as the War of Canudos.

It happened in a very poor part of semi-arid backlands of Brazil and it was driven by poor people who had been left behind.  It took place soon after Brazil became a republic, and shortly after slavery had been abolished.  A charismatic preacher called Antonio Consulheiro, who became known as the Counselor, predicted that the world would end at the turn of the century.  People soon believed him.  He developed a large following.  A lot of these people had been bandits, and they knew about killing. The faithful believed that the Republic was the work of Satan, and they said Brazil had done wrong in seeking to separate church and state.  They liked them fused in the empire.  They settled in a town called Canudos.

The government sought to weed them out, but the fanatics, who did not fear death, repelled three different moves against them by regular troops.  The town, or what was left of it, eventually fell.  The carnage and starvation and cruelty were beyond description.  About 30,000 died. Very few prisoners were taken. The Counselor had died before the fall, but they dug him up, and the photo resembles another murderous mystic, Rasputin.  The remains of Canudos resembled the remains of Mosul.

The novel deals with all this horror around seven main actors.  The three historical fanatics commence with the Counselor. He is a prayerful ascetic who prefers war and death to any kind of religious corruption.  He is, if you like, a Catholic puritan.  Then there is a Scot called Galileo Gall who is a kind of permanent revolutionary. When he tries to indoctrinate the illiterate crazies with a secular socialist vision, the results are entertaining.  Then there is Colonel Moreira César, a career soldier who is a cold blooded killer.  He saves ammunition by throat-slitting and is so named.

There are two political adversaries.  The Baron de Canabrava is old time nobility and a naturally suave politician and leader of men.  His wife Estela is a gorgeous aristocrat not built to face these horrors.  The opposition is led by Epaminondas Gonçalves, a nouveau newspaper man of plastic standards who spins the yarn that Canudos is an anti-republican plot sponsored by England.  He, too, finds plenty of soon-believers.

But the two main characters are I think fictitious.  One is a journalist who works for Gonçalves having worked for the baron.  He wears thick glasses and is referred to throughout as ‘the nearsighted journalist.’  He is intelligent and inquisitive, but nervy, and his nerves send him into spasms of sneezing.  He is locked in at Canudos under siege, and his glasses shatter.  He is therefore effectively blind. For company he has three rejects from a circus, A Bearded Lady, a Dwarf, and an Idiot.  This is high theatre. The near-sighted journalist is a kind of Greek chorus, although as the novel goes on, he gets more involved.

The principal character for me is Jurema.  She is a plain, decent human being who is much put upon and abused.  She represents suffering humanity – and, perhaps, God.  She is like Brecht’s Mother Courage.  The stories of the near-sighted journalist and Jurema form the literary or emotional heart of this novel.

And it is a real epic.  If you wanted to plot it on a literary graph, you might draw a line from Euripides to Cervantes to Dostoevsky to Faulkner to McCarthy to Marquez.  This is a seriously big book.  The Nobel Prize winning author thought it was his best.  It is not to be entered into unadvisedly.  The violence, cruelty, and starvation are awful.  Rape appears to have been a national past-time, as well as an incident if not instrument of war.

This is the baron addressing Gonçalves.

I admit that I have become obsolete.  I functioned better in the old system, when it was a question of getting people to follow established customs and practices, of negotiating, persuading, using diplomacy and politesse.  That’s all over and done with today of course.  The hour has come for action, daring, violence, even crimes.  What is needed now is a total dissociation of politics from morality.

Does that ring a bell?  When did you last hear the word ‘politesse’? Later, the baron says:

Let us keep our Republic from turning into what so many other Latin American republics have: a grotesque witches’ Sabbath where all is chaos, military uprisings, corruption, demagogy…’

Sadly, they’re still there.

Others had to compromise to meet the new order.  When César is ordered to retreat, we get this.

‘You know I had to resign myself to conspiring with corrupt petty politicians.’  Moreira César’s voice rises and falls abruptly, even absurdly. ‘Do you mean to tell me that we’ve lied to the country in vain?’ 

The book might prove that the depravity of war is capable of being described by an artist other than Goya, but the book also reminds of an essential truth.

‘It’s easier to imagine the death of one person than those of a hundred or a thousand’, the baron murmured. ‘When multiplied, suffering becomes abstract.  It is not easy to be moved by abstract things.’

‘Unless one has seen first one, then ten, a hundred, a thousand, thousands suffer,’ the nearsighted journalist answered.  ‘If the death of Gentil de Castro was absurd, many of those in Canudos died for reasons no less absurd.’

Two words that recur in this book are equally revolting – honour and martyr.  Jurema is advised to knock back a proposal from Pajeu, a once vicious soon-believer.

‘But we can’t break the news to him all at once.  We mustn’t hurt his feelings.  People like Pajeu are so sensible that it’s like a terrible malady.  Another thing that’s always amazed me about people like him is their touchy sense of honour.  It’s as though they were one great open wound.  They don’t have a thing to their names, but they possess a surpassing sense of honour.  It’s their form of wealth’.

Exactly – that’s why those who have not got one are so jealous of their citizenship, and so anxious to prevent others getting into their club. It’s their only form of wealth.  Soon-believers are very big on exclusion.  Just look at Trump and Muslims.

The great strength of this book is in its epic architecture.  But even in translation, we come across wonderful writing.  Here is the baron reflecting on his wife Estela and her maid, Sebastiana.

As he saw her settle in the armchair at Estela’s bedside, the thought ran through the baron’s mind that she was still a woman with a firm, beautiful, admirably preserved figure.  Just like Estela, he said to himself.  And in a wave of nostalgia, he remembered that in the first years of their marriage he had come to feel such intense jealousy that it kept him awake nights on seeing the camaraderie, the inviolable intimacy that existed between the two women.  He went back to the dining room, and saw through a window that the night sky was covered with clouds that hid the stars.  He remembered, smiling, that because of his feelings of jealousy, he had one day asked Estela to dismiss Sebastiana; the argument that had ensued had been the most serious one of their entire married life.  He entered the dining room with the vivid painful image, still intact, of the baroness, her cheeks on fire, defending her maidservant and repeating over and over that if Sebastiana left, she was leaving too.  This memory, which had long remained a spark setting his desire aflame, moved him to the depths now.  He felt like weeping.

The gullible are always with us – and inside us.  There’s one born every minute. We often read of people putting their life savings into a gold mine or Bitcoin.  The soon-believers here surrendered body and soul to the Counselor.  They believed him because they wanted what he was offering and they had not been brought up to know better.  The people of the blessed Jesus reviled others as Protestants, Freemasons, and dogs.  For their pains, the whole tribe gets wiped out.  Well, every faith has its failures and cancers, but on the basis of this great novel, it is not easy to see any part of South America being improved by religion of any kind at all.

This is as strong a novel as I have read.

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