Cunninghame Graham’s Brazil (1993)

[Joanne Wilkes: AVSA: Conference Papers (1993)]

Cunninghame Graham’s Brazil:
Differing Interpretations of the Canudos Campaign,

History never repeats itself. The historians repeat each other.
There is a wide difference.

– Oscar Wilde (Ellmann, 1987, p.102)

[Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham


Antonio Conselheiro

The man was tall and so thin he seemed to be always in profile. He was dark-skinned and raw-boned, 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. (Vargas Llosa, 1984, p.3)

‘The man’ is Antonio Maciel – better known as Antonio Conselheiro (Anthony the Counsellor) – and the ‘backlands’ region in question is the Sertão in the arid North-east of Brazil. Compare, however, with this rather sympathetic description by the Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, the following passage from R. B. Cunninghame Graham’s biography A Brazilian Mystic: Being the Life and Miracles of Antonio Conselheiro (1920):

he was an unconscious Montanist, or perhaps a Carpocratian, preserved miraculously, just as a mammoth is occasionally found preserved in ice, in the Siberian wilds. Nature, it would appear, is indestructible, preserving prehistoric forms and follies intact for us to wonder at, to imitate and copy, and to perpetuate, so that no form of man’s ineptitude shall ever perish, or be rendered unavailable for fools to promulgate. (Cunninghame Graham, 1920, p.84)

He was, in other words, a mystic – with beliefs like some of the ‘Gnostic sects in Asia Minor in the first and second centuries’ (Cunninghame Graham, 1920, p.3). Sufficient cause, apparently, for an eruption of Voltairean scorn on Graham’s part.

As if this were not enough, let us look at yet another reading of him, this time from Euclides da Cunha’s Os Sertões (1902), the standard account:

A species of great man gone wrong, Antonio Conselheiro in his sorrowing mysticism brought together all those errors and superstitions which go to form the coefficient of reduction of our nationality. (da Cunha, 1944, p.140)

Which, then, are we to accept? Antonio Conselheiro as the itinerant preacher whose ‘quiet manner ... attracted people even before he offered counsel’; as a mammoth frozen in ice, whose mere existence proves the indestructibility of every ‘form of man’s ineptitude’; or as a kind of quintessence of all the bad features of Brazilian nationality? It will be obvious at once that these three readings are constructed from very different premises, so I suggest that for the moment we leave aside the question of disinterested historical validity, and ask ourselves instead what we can learn about these three authors from the form of their remarks. In order to make sense of these comments, however, it will probably be found necessary to have some summary of the conflict in question, since even the most resolute historicists are bound to some extent by the shape of the events they report.

Antonio Conselheiro first began to attract attention in the late 1870s, when a traveller reported his influence in the following manner:

Accompanied by a couple of women followers, he lives by reciting beads and litanies, by preaching, and by giving counsel to the multitudes that come to hear him when the local Church authorities permit it. Appealing to their religious sentiments, he draws them after him in throngs and moves them at his will. He gives evidence of being an intelligent man, but an uncultivated one. (da Cunha, 1944, p.130)

All that was then known of him was that he was the offspring of a family, the Maciels, which had been devastated by one of the Corsican-style vendettas endemic to the region; and that he had spent ten years in the wilderness after having his quiet life as a book-keeper disrupted by his wife’s adulteries. The staples of backlands life – revenge and betrayal – had thus surrounded his life ‘in the world’. Ever since his return, however, he had done nothing but good – travelling through the Sertão (at first alone but later with a group of followers), repairing churches and cemeteries, and giving ‘counsels’ to the poor.

In 1893, in a small town called (rather appropriately) Bom Conselho, Antonio Conselheiro was shown some notices recently posted by municipal officials throughout the region. These notices concerned the collection of taxes, and the organisation of a census for this purpose. Giving voice to the suspicions of those who surrounded him, he declared that this was a plot on the part of the atheistic Republic (which had succeeded the Empire in 1889) to reintroduce slavery, abolished by Emperor Dom Pedro II in 1888, and to begin the persecution of true believers throughout Brazil. He tore the notices down, ‘Then,’ (as Euclides da Cunha puts it) ‘realising the gravity of his offense, he left town, taking the Monte Santo Road, to the north’ (1944, p.142).

What da Cunha refers to as his ‘hegira’ came to an end when he reached the small settlement of Canudos and established there his own City of God, the ‘mud-walled Troy of the jagunços’ (1944, p.143) (the ‘name of jagunço ... up to then had been reserved for rowdies at the fair, bullies on election day, and the pillagers of cities’ (da Cunha, 1944, p.148) - it now became the generic term for a follower of Antonio Conselheiro). The Government in the South were too concerned with squashing dissension and civil war at home to notice events in the traditionally neglected North-east, so Canudos was quite a thriving town when it next attracted attention – in 1896, when the chief magistrate of a neighbouring district telegraphed the Governor of Bahía, asking for protection against the jagunços, who were threatening to take revenge on a local merchant who had cheated them.

There were, in all, four military expeditions against Canudos. The first consisted of 100 soldiers, and was routed before it even reached the town. The second was larger, 560 men, but it too was defeated in a series of battles in January 1897. The third comprised an entire regiment, under the command of the war hero Moreira Cesar, but he and most of his forces were killed in a frontal assault on Canudos in March. The fourth and final expedition was in two columns, each of 2,000 men – nevertheless, it took them from June until September, with periodic heavy reinforcements, to capture the town. Da Cunha again summarises:

Canudos did not surrender. The only case of its kind in history, it held out to the last man. Conquered inch by inch, in the literal meaning of the words, it fell on October 5, toward dusk – when its last defenders fell, dying, every man of them. There were only four of them left: an old man, two other full-grown men, and a child, facing a furiously raging army of five thousand soldiers. (da Cunha, 1944, p. 475)

In the interesting introduction to his 1944 translation of da Cunha’s work, Samuel Putnam compares this defence to the ‘contemporary epic of Stalingrad’ (1944, p.v).

Antonio Conselheiro was already dead. He had collapsed and died of dysentery on September the 22nd. The victorious forces of the Republic tortured his closest disciple, Antonio Beatinho – ‘Pious Anthony’ – captured a few days before, until he showed them the site of the grave. The corpse was first disinterred, then photographed, and finally decapitated so that it could be examined for signs of ‘crime and madness’ by the phrenologists in the capital. Antonio Beatinho, like all the other male prisoners, had his throat cut on the spot.

The purpose of this paper, then, is to discuss three different ‘readings’ of the man, Antonio Conselheiro, and the war of which he was the effective cause. we have already seen something of the change of focus made inevitable simply by the different historical circumstances of our three authors – not to mention their different philosophies of history. All of them see Antonio Conselheiro as in some way exemplary, but of different things. For the Brazilian eye-witness Euclides da Cunha, he exemplifies the degeneracy and barbarism of his ‘uncivilised’ contemporaries (though this is combined with a certain admiration and even local pride).[1] For the contemporary magic realist Mario Vargas Llosa, he represents the challenge to reconstitute ‘The vision of the conquered [which] goes entirely unrecognised, in the first place because there were no witnesses among them who were able to write it down ... [but also] because all we tend to know for certain is the official version’ (Quoted in Castro-Klarén, 1986, p.382). As for Cunninghame Graham, his position as an outsider ought really to qualify him to see the event in wider terms – but in fact, paradoxically (as we shall see), it is the European who is most resolute in interpreting the event as somehow typical of ‘South America’.

I shall therefore close this opening section with another quotation from Cunninghame Graham which, when read against da Cunha’s description, demonstrates the diverse ways in which one can interpret even so simple an event as the finding of a body:

His face was calm, his body almost mere skin and bones, worn out with fasting and with the death of his illusions, but his soul unconquerable.

... Some of the faithful had placed some withered flowers upon his breast. His body lay upon a ragged piece of matting, and both his eyes were full of sand. (Cunninghame Graham, 1920, pp. 233 & 238)

[Antonio Conselheiro]


R. B. Cunninghame Graham

A short introduction to Cunninghame Graham himself is still, perhaps, required. In Chesterton’s famous phrase, ‘Nothing could prevent Balfour being Prime Minister or MacDonald being a Prime Minister, but Cunninghame Graham achieved the adventure of being Cunninghame Graham’ (Tschiffely, 1937, p.189). Even now, Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham, Socialist M.P. and first President of the Scottish Nationalist Party, is a figure who inspires either enthusiasm or exasperation – never apathy. To an admirer who described him as a poet and a gaucho, he replied, ‘more gaucho than poet’ (Walker, 1978, p.4.), and this was an essential part of his legend. As George Bernard Shaw put it, in the preface to his play based on Graham’s Moroccan adventures, Captain Brassbound’s Conversion (1900):

His tales of adventure have the true Cervantes touch of the man who has been there – so refreshingly different from the scenes imagined by bloody-minded clerks who escape from their servitude into literature ... He is, I understand, a Spanish hidalgo ... He is, I know, a Scottish laird. How he contrives to be the two things at the same time is no more intelligible to me than the fact that everything that has ever happened to him seems to have happened in Paraguay or Texas instead of in Spain or Scotland. (Watts & Davies, 1979, p.133)

At their best, his writings combine these two qualities of poet and man of action in a manner which contrives to illuminate both; unfortunately, this is by no means all of the time. He himself confessed, in the preface to the last collection of his sketches: ‘But still I might have finished all those sentences; not broken off to moralize right in the middle of the tale; split less infinitives, and remembered those rules of grammar that I have disregarded, as freely as a democratic leader tramps on the rights of the poor taxables who put him into power’ (Tschiffely, 1936, p.xvi) - you'll notice he repeats the same errors he is apologising for. A certain rationale for the interplay between the two roles has been suggested by his biographers, Cedric Watts and Laurence Davies:

The point that should be made is this: Robert’s South American exploits [in the 1870s and 1880s] stocked his brain with remembered situations and remembered sensations for the rest of his life. The memories stay relatively constant; what changes is their significance ... what comes through is sometimes the absurdity, sometimes the savagery, sometimes the boredom and discomfort of events (Watts & Davies, 1979, p.32).

Cunninghame Graham’s opinions – whether on politics (radical: he was one of those arrested and imprisoned for instigating the ‘Bloody Sunday’ demonstration in Trafalgar Square in 1887); imperialism (anti: in his sketch ‘Niggers’ (1897) he explains with Swiftian irony that ‘Niggers who have no cannons have no rights. Their land is ours, their cattle and their fields, their houses ours; their arms, their poor utensils, and everything they have; their women, too, are ours to use as concubines, to beat, exchange, to barter off for gunpowder or gin, ours to infect with syphilis, leave with child, outrage, torment, and make by contact with the vilest of our vile, more vile than beasts’ (Watts & Davies, 1979, p.163)); or literature (he championed both W. H. Hudson and Joseph Conrad before it was fashionable to do so, and provided background material for Nostromo (1904) and perhaps, if the above extract – echoing both Roger Casement’s passionate denunciations of the Belgian Congo and Marlow’s famous comparison of the Thames with the Congo – is any guide, Heart of Darkness (1899) too) – his opinions, in short, are always worth taking seriously, but they are not always consistent with one another – nor do they remain constant over time. To some extent this is because the essence of his philosophy was to be free and unpredictable, but it had the unfortunate side-effect of allowing him to espouse some reactionary and even (at times) racist attitudes in his later writings. As Watts and Davies put it:

The later Graham depends more on literary stock-responses; often, where formerly his religious scepticism had been prominent, there is now a recurrent indulgence in religiose reverie (Watts & Davies, 1979, p.282).

The truth of this statement can be witnessed by a simple comparison of the two passages from A Brazilian Mystic already quoted in the first part of this talk. In the first, comparing the mystic Antonio Conselheiro to a ‘mammoth ... preserved in ice’, a certain Voltairean scorn is apparent (as I noted at the time). In the second, describing the discovery of his body, a sentimental transformation seems to have taken place – the brutal scene of decapitation and disfigurement from Os Sertões has been replaced by what Watts and Davies, in their discussion of the book, call ‘Graham’s gentler, more elegiac and plangent version’ (Watts & Davies, 1979, p.278).

It is still, nevertheless, in their judgement ‘certainly the best of Graham’s historical biographies’ (Watts & Davies, 1979, p.275), so it is perhaps worth going into a little more detail about the circumstances of its composition. Like most of his later, historical books about South America, A Brazilian Mystic deals with a series of events which he had not witnessed, but into which he claimed a certain insight simply as a result of his knowledge of the land and its peoples (this claim is buttressed in his preface by quotations from a letter from ex-president Theodore Roosevelt, himself no mean Imperialist, urging him to treat ‘the subject of the frontiersmen of Brazil ... for you have been there, know them, and speak their lingo’ (Cunninghame Graham, 1920, p.vii)).

Cunninghame Graham’s declared intention as the historian of Antonio Conselheiro and Canudos was, firstly, to interpret the character of the region to his own countrymen - hence his quoting the Trossachs ‘as an equivalent’ for Sertão, ‘for it is said to mean a broken land of hillocks’ in the ‘Explanatory Preface’ to his translation of Gustavo Barroso's frontier novel Mapirunga (1924, p.6); and, secondly, to include it in the general vendetta against human folly and self-deception (either the folly of ‘Progress’, as in the sketch of that name, or the folly of fanaticism: Antonio Conselheiro and his followers) which he had been waging since he entered parliament in 1886. This intention can thus be seen to have been somewhat compromised from the first. Theodore Roosevelt was, after all, the very man who engineered the Panamanian ‘revolution’ of 1903, encouraging its independence from Colombia in exchange for American control of the canal zone. As Joseph Conrad wrote to Graham at the time, ‘what do you think of the Yankee Conquistadores in Panama? Pretty, isn’t it?’ (Watts, 1969, p.149). Cunninghame Graham’s fiercely anti-imperialist position had been somewhat softened by America’s intervention in the First World War – it was, in fact, he tells us, while buying horses in South America for the British army in France that he first heard about Canudos – but one cannot help feeling that this confusion of stances has something to do with an ideological incoherence at the heart of the work itself.

One passage which illustrates very clearly the complicated processes at work in Cunninghame Graham’s writing at the time (1920) of A Brazilian Mystic runs as follows:

In the days of Antonio Conselheiro, the challenge of the Semitico-Asiatic hordes had not been sounded, and the security of life and property, with European marriage, all seemed as firmly rooted as the foundations of the world. (Cunninghame Graham, 1920, 175)

This would have been meant wholly ironically at the time of sketches like ‘Niggers’ (quoted above) or ‘Progress’ (1905) – in which he describes the illiterate Mexican villagers of Tomochic, victims of a similar siege: ‘It seemed like insolence, in men without a uniform, without an officer who had gone through a military school, and ignorant of tactics as they were, to keep in check a force three times as numerous as their own, all duly uniformed, and officered by men who had commissions stamped and signed by the chief magistrate of Mexico’ (Walker, 1986, p.81), but the onus of his sympathy has ceased to be entirely with the beleaguered villagers, whom he now describes as ‘misguided sectaries’, and as a ‘pack of wolves’ face to face with ‘a submarine, charged with torpedoes and with mines’ (Cunninghame Graham, 1920, pp.173 & 205).

It is still faintly ironic – that mention of ‘European marriage’ – but the ‘Semitico-Asiatic hordes’ can no longer be taken simply as a Bogey-man threatening the Established Order, not by the Cunninghame Graham who is capable of writing that the murders of Black and Tans in Ireland ‘are instigated chiefly & certainly paid for by the band of international Jews, grouped around their fellow Jew, Mr. ‘De’ Valera in New York’ (Watts & Davies, 1979, p.250).

Cunninghame Graham is disingenuous about the amount of reliance he places on da Cunha’s Os Sertões as a source-book, attempting to imply that he has consulted a number of other works as well, but a close comparison of the two texts reveals again and again his dependence on the earlier account, not simply for historical details, but even for apparently ‘spontaneous’ opinions about Antonio Conselheiro’s kinship with the first century Gnostics, and the racial implications of the conflict. Da Cunha’s scientific fatalism undoubtedly influences the tone of Graham’s finished text for the worse, but even when more or less reprinting from Os Sertões a table of the various cross-breeds whom one encounters in the backlands, Cunninghame Graham is careful to specify that ‘The Cafuz, known in the Spanish republics as the Zambo [’the result of interbreeding between the negro and the Indian’] is the lowest of the three types’ (1920, pp.11-12), and he concludes magisterially that the Sertanejo’s ‘tinge of negro blood ... may perchance have given him whatever qualities the African can claim’ (p.17), thus outdoing da Cunha at his own game.

To sum up the argument so far, then, there is a debilitating duplicity at the heart of Cunninghame Graham’s project. His preface makes it clear that he wishes to provide an accurate account of the Sertão, based on his own experience and reading – but the experience is fifty years out of date, and the reading consists, for all practical purposes, of one book, Os Sertões. What in da Cunha is the logical conclusion of certain Determinist and Positivist theories pushed to their breaking point becomes far more questionable in Cunninghame Graham as a result of this undeclared dependence. One thus finds passages resembling the one from ‘Progress’, quoted above, set alongside others expressing the purest reaction. The only unifying factor is, in fact, fatalism – or rather, ‘the great book of human folly which so many take for fate’ (Cunninghame Graham, 1920, 191), in Cunninghame Graham’s own words.

A Brazilian Mystic, then, is a generic hybrid. Graham’s philosophy of composition – the juxtaposition of events far in the past (the Canudos campaign itself, as well as his own travels in the region twenty years before that) with an up-to-the-minute dramatised commentary – means that it adheres neither to the anthropological perspective of Os Sertões nor the fictional subversiveness of The War of the End of the World. There is a certain vividness in Graham’s evocations of the Backlands life known by him in the past, but his attempts to ‘novelise’ the conflict itself end up sounding forced, like Shaw’s ‘scenes imagined by bloody-minded clerks’. This, for example, as a description of the first all-out assault on Canudos:

It was the moment for a man of spirit to curse a little, to pray a little, to talk of honour and of home, of sweethearts and of wives; to strike some, half in anger, half playfully with the flat of his sword, to encourage falterers with a brave word, to curb the headstrong, and by example, bring back courage into their hearts and order to the ranks. (Cunninghame Graham, 1920, p.186)

‘If only I’d been there’ is an unfortunate subtext to glimpse in the history of such a campaign.

[Mario Vargas Llosa (b. 1936]


Ideas of South America

In his recent book of essays A Writer’s Reality (1990), Mario Vargas Llosa writes, in the chapter discussing his novel The War of the End of the World:

Anyone who wants to understand, to specialize in Latin American problems and cultures, should start by reading Os sertões. (Vargas Llosa, 1990, p.133)

And why is that? Because in that book there is ‘something that every Latin American could recognize as part of his own past and in some cases his own present because in contemporary Latin America you still have Canudos in many countries. In Peru, for instance, we have a living Canudos in the Andes’ (p.133). In the final analysis, though:

the main concern of The War of the End of the World is not the religious or political differences that exist in Brazil and, by extension, throughout Latin America, but the divisiveness of these two societies [‘the peasants, the “cowboys”’ of the Sertão, and ‘the civilized, ... westernized Brazil’] caused by their inability to communicate. (Vargas Llosa, 1990, pp.140-41)

I have already quoted his claim, from a 1979 interview printed before the publication of the novel, that ‘the vision of the conquered goes entirely unrecognised, in the first place because there were no witnesses among them who were able to write it down’ (Castro-Klarén, 1986, p.382), and this is a restatement of the same idea. While typical of Latin America and the conflicts within its societies, then, Canudos has a more general significance as a emblem of the violent clash between a ‘higher’ and a ‘lower’ culture, neither of which is equipped to understand the other (the example Vargas Llosa gives of this in his essay is the belief of the ‘progressive intellectuals of Brazil’ that ‘This was a rebellion of the enemies of the republic ... the monarchists, the old members of the court ... and of course the landowners in the interior of Bahía, these rich people who are the natural enemies of the republic’ (Vargas Llosa, 1990, p.128) – even the battered ruins of Canudos had to be searched, in vain, for dead British officers and monarchist spies).

What, then, are the specific reasons for Euclides da Cunha’s similar vision of Canudos as ‘the coefficient of reduction of our nationality’? His own book ends, after a description of the disinterment of the ‘Counselor’s Corpse’, with ‘Two Lines’:

The trouble is that we do not have today a Maudsley for acts of violence and crimes on the part of nations. ... (da Cunha, 1944, p.476)

The reference to ‘Maudsley’ is to a celebrated phrenologist (a science held in esteem in Brazil long after it had been abandoned by the rest of the world). He is mentioned here because Antonio Conselheiro’s skull was said to have ‘Standing out in bold relief ... the essential lines of crime and madness’ (da Cunha, 1944, p.476).

It is rather an odd note to leave us on. The reference is obscure (having to be footnoted by its own author), and the significance a little doubtful. Does he mean that his own work is to be this ‘Maudsley’, charting the ‘acts of madness and crimes on the part of nations’? Or that such a gauge is impossible and not even to be thought of? The bitterness of his tone would seem to imply that he regards the findings of these ‘skull-readers’ as contemptible pseudo-science – but he nowhere actually informs us of his attitude towards phrenology. He is willing enough elsewhere to quote racial theorists such as Fovel and Gumplowicz on the ‘retrogression’ and ‘moral hybridism’ caused by miscegenation ("An Irritating Parenthesis' - da Cunha, 1944, pp.84-88).

Replying to one of the critics of the book, da Cunha himself admitted that ‘in this mortal leap – 616 minus 70 equals 546 pages – one might expect to meet with a few seeming discrepancies’ (1944, p.481), but these ‘seeming discrepancies’ – his wildly divergent attitudes to the army and the jagunços – seem to depend on which of the many characters he is capable of assuming (scientist, soldier, poet or journalist) he is speaking in that particular moment. There are sections of diary embedded in the text, sections of novelistic evocation reminiscent of Stephen Crane’s nearly contemporaneous Red Badge of Courage (1895). His translator, Samuel Putnam, gopes so far as to compare the experience of reading Os Sertões ‘to that of the European of the last century listening for the first time to Walt Whitman’s “barbaric yawp.”’ (da Cunha, 1944, viii).

Perhaps, in the final analysis, Canudos and its literary portrait, Os Sertões, represent the ‘coefficient’ or (as another critic put it) the ‘Bible of Brazilian nationality’ (da Cunha, 1944, p.iii) because of its very contradictions. It is, of course, vast, it contains multitudes; but it expresses Brazil specifically and the rest of the world only by implication because the universal forces of nationality and ignorance can be seen displayed in greater relief in such a ‘New World’.

Returning to Cunninghame Graham, he ends his own account of Canudos with an extraordinary evocation of the after-lives of the some of the combatants:

some of them possibly still are living [’in the impenetrable forests’], waiting for the millennium and for the prophet’s second coming upon earth. Let them live on, and watch the humming-birds as they hang poised above the flowers, the lizards basking in the sun, listen to the mysterious noises that at night in the tropics rise from the woods, inhale the scent of the dank vegetation, and till their crops of mandioca and of maize. That is the true millennium, did they but know it, and each man makes or mars it for himself, as long as health gives him the power to drink it in, and to enjoy. (Cunninghame Graham, 1920, pp.234-35)

One cannot help feeling that this set-piece nature description is a rather inadequate post-mortem on the lives of Antonio Conselheiro and his followers. There is, however, another purpose hiding behind this and other such pieces of prose-poetry in his book besides the ‘recurrent indulgence in religiose reverie’ diagnosed by Watts and Davies.

Note, for example, the actual imagery he employs. The survivors live in ‘impenetrable forests’, watching ‘humming-birds ... hang poised above ... flowers’, and ‘listening to the mysterious noises that at night in the tropics rise from the woods’. All of these – forests, birds, sounds of the night – are images from the topos of the locus amoenus, or paradise-like garden described in Curtius’s European Literature in the Latin Middle Ages, but also intimately linked to descriptions of South America as the Earthly Paradise and New World from the time of Columbus until the present. ‘Nature in Brazil is so tremendous,’ says Cunninghame Graham, ‘not cut into squares and utterly subdued and tamed as her in Europe; it is so overpowering in its strength that it reduces man to the proportions of an ant, busy, but futile in his enterprises against her immensity’ (Cunninghame Graham, 1920, p. 67). This may be true as a cliché about the Brazilian forest (it certainly repeats similar observations by earlier travellers), but it hardly seems appropriate as a reflection on the man who, in 1897, succeeded in convulsing an entire nation.

If the Canudos campaign is ‘typical’ of South America for Cunninghame Graham, then (note that he is the only one of our three authors even to speak of ‘South America’ as an entity), it is because it allows him to graft onto it some of the romantic stereotypes – natural descriptions, racial folklore – which have traditionally been employed to represent such regions in European literature. Euclides da Cunha set out, it is true, to characterise an entire region of his nation – but the immensity of this task was enough to daunt him without adding the burden of a general Anatomy of South America. Mario Vargas Llosa, as a Peruvian, is forced to some extent to relocate himself, both linguistically[2] and culturally, in order to write a book set in Brazil – but the tone of events that might have happened anywhere and which are universally significant, despite their specifically regional (Brazilian, even Sertanejo – never ‘South American’) trappings, is sustained throughout. The pressure of facts connected with Canudos itself may do a great deal to obscure such hidden agenda in their work – but the comparison should at least have made it clear that, while all three authors mythologise a world in their own image, only Cunninghame Graham is prepared to associate that construct specifically with a European view of South America. Vargas Llosa perhaps sums it up best, however, when he has his character the ‘short-sighted journalist’ (based on da Cunha himself (Vargas Llosa, 1990, 140)) say, ‘breathing as though he were exhausted from some tremendous physical effort’:

‘Don’t you see?’ ... ‘Canudos isn’t a story, it’s a tree of stories.’ (Vargas Llosa, 1984, p.459)

[Euclides da Cunha


1. da Cunha, 1944, p.476. All one can say is, at least they didn’t use the skull for an inkpot, Like Kitchener with the Mahdi after the battle of Omdurman.
2. ‘I tried to create a language that was not entirely Spanish in spite of being Spanish, a language in which some lusitanismos, some Portuguese words, would be introduced in order to give Brazilian color to the phrases, to the language. I used this not only in the dialogue but also in the descriptions.’ (Vargas Llosa, 1990, p.137).

Works Cited:
  • Barroso, Gustavo. Mapirunga. Trans. R. B. Cunninghame Graham. London: Heinemann, 1924.
  • Castro-Klarén, Sara. ‘Santos and Cangaçeiros: Inscription without Discourse in Os Sertões and La guerra del fin del mundo’. Modern Language Notes, 101 (1986), 366-88.
  • Cunninghame Graham, R. B. A Brazilian Mystic: Being the Life and Miracles of Antonio Conselheiro. London: Heinemann,1920.
  • da Cunha, Euclides. Rebellion in the Backlands (Os Sertões). 1902. Trans. Samuel Putnam. Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 1944.
  • Ellmann, Richard. Oscar Wilde. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1987.
  • Tschiffely, A. F., ed. Rodeo: A Collection of the Tales and Sketches of R. B. Cunninghame Graham. London: Heinemann, 1936.
  • Tschiffely, A. F. Don Roberto: Being the Account of the Life and Works of R. B. Cunninghame Graham, 1852-1936. London: Heinemann, 1937.
  • Vargas Llosa, Mario. The War of the End of the World. 1981. Trans. Helen R. Lane. London: Faber and Faber, 1984.
  • Vargas Llosa, Mario. ‘The Author’s Favourite of His Novels: The War of the End of the World’. In A Writer’s Reality. London: Faber and Faber, 1991. 123-41.
  • Walker, John, ed. The South American Sketches of R. B. Cunninghame Graham. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1978.
  • Walker, John, ed. The North American Sketches of R. B. Cunninghame Graham. Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1986.
  • Watts, C. T. ed. Joseph Conrad’s Letters to R. B. Cunninghame Graham. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969.
  • Watts, Cedric, & Laurence Davies. Cunninghame Graham: A Critical Biography. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979.

[Euclides da Cunha: Os Sertões (1902)]

(10 February, 1993)

Australasian Victorian Studies Association: Conference Papers 1993.
Ed. Joanne Wilkes. Auckland: University Press, 1993. 27-38
[Available at: Versions of South America (14/4/09)].

[4922 wds]

[Joanne Wilkes: AVSA: Conference Papers (1993)]

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