the sertões



Considerations on the book by Euclides da Cunha, on the 120th anniversary of its publication

The experience of the Canudos War, for Euclides da Cunha, gives a special dimension to the meaning of the journey, which, although it does not deny romantic implications, takes on its own contours. The theme, for him, has the stamp of another myth, the myth of the search for authenticity in the virile adventure. It is by going into the inhospitable that character is tempered, like steel, through almost superhuman trials.

Since the first writings, made up of poems that a note from the hand of an adult Euclides attributes to the age of 14, the sertão is present and is already a predominant yearning in his spirit.

Several times Euclides would express, writing to friends and family, an old recurring fantasy of his, and which would surface in certain steps of his biography: that of moving into the country, leaving the urban centers. This is how he would be, successively, a public works engineer in the interior of São Paulo, a reporter in the Guerra de Canudos and, later, an explorer in the mission to Alto Purus; all of them positions he expended efforts to conquer. In his imagination, as manifested in poems and epistolography, the desire to escape towards the sertões is explicit – as it was customary to say and write at the time, in the plural –, which came from afar, rooted in the education absorbed at the Military School.

During this period, dominated by the gallomania of Belle Epoque, this trait composes the profile of several deviant intellectuals, who turn their backs on the ballroom galas and the fashions of the capital, then in an accelerated process of modernization. Euclides was not the only one and, among the many of this type that his generation at the School produced, perhaps the most characteristic fruit is his colleague Cândido Mariano da Silva Rondon, installing the telegraph lines that crossed the country from south to north through the backlands, in addition to being a pioneer in the protection of Indians and creator of indigenism.

The sertões become for Euclides a mixture of Spartan Pasárgada and Fortunate Islands, a place of fullness, personal fulfillment and the exercise of virile virtues, removed from urban Sodoma. This was embodied in the only city worthy of the name in Brazil at the time, where even São Paulo barely reached 200 inhabitants, and which was the capital, Rio de Janeiro, where the excesses of the new owners of power were ostensible.

He would leave the Army, retiring in 1896 to work as an engineer in public works in the State of São Paulo, which meant living in small towns – São Carlos do Pinhal, São José do Rio Pardo, Lorena and later Guarujá – and traveling incessantly, by train and on horseback, away from the comforts of home and exposed to the elements for long periods. He was capable of self-criticism, as a letter balances these impulses: “I am incorrigible, my dear João Luís: I don't know when I will finish starting and destroying careers” – which he would do without ceasing, until his death.

Among the failed careers are politics and teaching, both attempts to sedentary this stubborn nomad. In the first episode, he would not be, although he wanted to be, constituent deputy of the state of São Paulo. In the second, it was his great friend and senior correspondent Francisco Escobar, a well-known politician, who tried to make him federal deputy for Minas Gerais. At that moment in public life, Escobar also considered Euclides for Minister of Transport, a project that he equally thwarted.

As for teaching, Euclides, who had already taught at the Military School in 1892, had been frustrated successively when trying to work at the Military School of Rio Grande do Sul, at the São Paulo Polytechnic and at the gymnasiums of Campanha and Campinas. But he would finally get it weeks before he died, at Colégio Pedro II (Ginásio Nacional), after an ill-advised contest in which Farias Brito would take first place, but Euclides, thanks to the commitment of powerful friends, would be nominated. Our author referred to the episode as “the most clumsy, confusing and inconsequential of contests”. Adding the mockery: “Were it not a logic contest! (…).”

In the professional definition phase, while he pondered different solutions and hesitated between them, he would spend a period trying to work on his father's farm and be a “roceiro”; but it wouldn't fit either.

Much later, already famous, even after the publication of the sertões he would not disdain the pioneering chimera when faced with the possibility of participating in the reconnaissance mission of the Alto Purus then in preparation, which he would lead. There would still be adventures in his future, like this journey to the Amazon that kept him away from home for 18 months, in a true expedition full of mishaps, carried out on foot in long marches and in a barge that traveled the rivers. Contact with those lands, exotic to him, would sharpen his intelligence and result in unusual writings, as well as the unrealized project of dedicating a book to the region. But he wrote several essays, which would form the first part of On the margins of history. Of all these essays, “Judas-Asvero” and “Os caucheros” have been considered worthy of being among his most valuable works, as well as among the most valuable that the Amazon has ever raised.

But well before that, he would enter the territory of his daydreams with the Canudos War as a magnet, where he would go, as we have seen, as a reporter for The State of S. Paul in 1897.


Straws (Canudos)

Two articles by Euclides da Cunha – or an article in two parts bearing the common title of “A Nossa Vendeia” – are printed in the newspaper The State of S. Paul in the year 1897. They left when the national alarm caused by the defeat and disbandment of the 3rd. Expedition against Canudos. The title establishes a comparison that would become famous and would be repeated by all, by equating the uprising in Bahia with that of a religious and counterrevolutionary character, uniting peasants and nobles in reaction to the French Revolution, in 1793.

It was, therefore, not surprising when the São Paulo newspaper asked the columnist to be its war correspondent specially sent to the stage of events. By that time, the main newspapers in Rio de Janeiro and Bahia had already advanced to The State of S. Paul and sent its correspondents, regularly publishing coverage of events from July and August.

This is how Euclides, although retired from the Army by then, would finally head to the sertão accompanying Marshal Machado Bittencourt, after traveling by ship between the 3rd and 7th of August, the date of his arrival in Salvador.

Leaving Salvador on August 30, he would travel by train through Alagoinhas to Queimadas, from there riding via Tanquinho, Cansanção and Quirinquinquá to Monte Santo, from where he would reach Canudos on September 16. It sends reports under the heading of Journal of an expedition, describing the trip and dating its various stages, passing through the news of the war which he witnessed in person, until he left Canudos on October 3rd.

Such reports, starting already on board the ship Espírito Santo, which led troops on the Rio de Janeiro-Bahia route, are impressive for being so well written, when it is known that the material working conditions were painful, and would get worse from the capital. He would write to the rock of the train, on the back of a horse or, literally, on his knee, while living in barracks in the military camp, under the thunder of grapeshot. Already in Salvador, he was touched by the testimony of a 14-year-old jagunço, taken prisoner. This one had denied what the inquisitors suggested, that the Counselor performed miracles and that he guaranteed the resurrection of those killed in combat. Asked, then, as to what the Counselor promised as a reward to Canudenses who risked their lives, he replied: “Save the soul.” Surprised, Euclides observes: "... they don't lie, they don't sophism and they don't deceive, at that age, the naive souls of the rude children of the sertão".

This is the first sign that Euclides' intelligence is on the verge of catching some mistake in the air. Penetrating the hinterland and reaching Canudos, the writer gradually intensifies these signs, and mitigates the patriotic enthusiasm that he had shown at the beginning, without, however, completely losing it. Deviating from the other reporters, he will reflect on the mistaken nature of welcoming the bullet given to Canudenses, when another type of more civilized treatment could solve the problems. And from there, a hand's breadth away, is the emergence of the admiration that he starts to manifest for them.

Among many of his perceptive notes, he registers, towards the end of the campaign, that the troops and even the officers would abandon their uniforms and fight in plainclothes, the majority starting to adopt the baggy gaucho bombachas.

His observations coincide with what can be seen in the photos taken from Flávio de Barros' lens, because, as you can see, it wasn't just the troops from Rio Grande do Sul who dressed like that. The metamorphosis is profound: “The color changes, taking on rough tones of old bronze; as if the flesh withers and the bones swell; elegant young men quickly turn into gangly and stiff athletes…”.

And Euclides continues, proposing a neologism to account for the process: “It almost becomes indispensable to create a verb to characterize the phenomenon. The verb 'ajagunçar-se', for example. There are complete and rapid transformations”. This phenomenon, as is known, is widely explored and with great effectiveness in the final stretch of the sertões, serving as an embodiment of the metaphor of a fratricidal war, in which both sides tend to the common denominator not only in clothing but even physically.


The "Avenging Book"

Returning from the war, Euclides dedicated himself to accumulating a notable range of knowledge to face his object; and only in 1902, five years later, was his “avenging book”, as he called it, published, with a fulminating success. It is with the first part, entitled “The Earth,” opening the narrative like a majestic portico, splendid in its literary galas, that the reader comes into contact with the sertões.

Considering the region of Canudos from three points of view, namely the topographical, geological and meteorological, the author treats it with passion, giving rise to imposing natural pictures. The rivers rush, jump and fall in waterfalls, while the mainland imitates the fluvial movement in the contortions of its accidents and in the clashes between the different geological layers that sustain it. In short, an extraordinary landscape, which looks more like the work of man's hand, but on a monumental scale, resembling colossal menhirs or ruins of cyclopean coliseums.

But all this is seen from so high up and so far away that it can only be identified through a kind of God's gaze, glimpsing an immemorial desert, dying of thirst, dying of sunstroke. The cosmic forces themselves can only be expressed by antitheses.

The scourge of drought deserves special attention, successively devoted to various hypotheses about its genesis, ranging from the influence of sunspots to the peculiar regime of winds. Later on, it will move from hypotheses to proposed solutions.

The plants of the Caatinga develop between two unfavorable environments, namely, the arid land and the heat of the Sun. Thus, their adaptive mutations all go towards protecting themselves from death from thirst and heatstroke. But defensive strategies vary: stunting, resulting in dwarfism that exposes less surface to the elements; bury itself, and scarcely rise above the ground; or congregate in social plants, with their tangled underground roots retaining water and soil, and reinforcing mutual security.

The author, in short, concludes that the hinterland of Canudos is unique, as its characteristics do not exactly coincide with any pre-existing taxonomy, emphasizing how “nature delights in a game of antitheses”.

From the physical environment, the author moves on to the examination of ethnicities. The main issue – and therefore the most complex – in the study of the Brazilian man is for him miscegenation, a conceptual knot with which all thinkers in the country struggled at the time. It resulted in the sertanejo, with its own characteristics, body and spirit, inherited from the clash between the three ethnic groups that gave rise to it. Such characteristics, according to the author, imply advantages and disadvantages. Among the first, he lists adaptation to a hostile environment, resistance, stoicism. Among the latter, he counts religious fanaticism, superstition, unstable psychic balance, as well as a considerable delay in relation to the march of civilization.

The determinism that presides over this meticulous analysis of the physical environment and ethnic components will emerge in the person of Antônio Conselheiro. Indeed, this would constitute a synthesis of the historical process in which the currents of settlement resulted, through miscegenation in isolation.

The Conselheiro's diagnosis is contradictory, the reader perceiving the author's hesitation between considering him a great man and declaring him “serious illness”, affected by paranoia. “Condensing the obscurantism of three races,” the person of the leader of peoples “grew so much that he projected himself into history”.

Trying to elucidate the origin of the War of Canudos, Euclides shows how the advent of the Republic brought about changes that disturbed the spirit of the counselors: new taxes, separation between Church and State, freedom of worship and the institution of civil marriage, which directly contradicted a Catholic sacrament.

At the end of the war, as we have seen, the defenders numbered no more than four. Always remembered, this inglorious ending became representative of what was a war of extermination against a defenseless population.

The corpse of Antônio Conselheiro, who had died of illness on September 22, shortly before the end, was exhumed. His head was cut off and taken to the Faculdade de Medicina da Bahia to be autopsied, with the intention of discovering the origin of his missteps, which, according to the Lombrosian theories then in force, could be inferred from the dimensions of the skull and brain dissection. However, the official report avoided presenting any definitive conclusion, deepening the mystery, to the disappointment of those who wanted to blame something palpable, such as the leader's anatomy.



The Canudos War would end up revealing the ignominy of a slaughter of poor devils. It became evident that there had been no conspiracy and that this bunch of miserable sertanejos had no connection with the instituted monarchists – white, urban people from other social classes, with a horror of “jagunços” and “fanatics” –, nor any support logistics, either in the country or abroad.

The resulting turnaround was remarkable: opinion switched sides and began to deplore the slaughter of valiant countrymen in a fratricidal struggle. Moreover, it ceased to be a secret that the Army's conduct had been far from irreproachable. The practice of publicly beheading defenseless prisoners began to be revealed, sanctioned by everyone, including the commanders.

With the War of Canudos, the process of consolidation of the republican regime was completed. Thanks to her, the specter of an eventual monarchical restoration was exorcised. Later, taking into account the testimonies, it can be said that public opinion was manipulated and that Canudenses served as a scapegoat in this process. They unwittingly played the role of the common adversary of all, the one that collectively confronts and allows for the forging of national unity. In the absence of an external enemy, capable of promoting the cohesion of the social and political body, infallible in the event of international war, an internal enemy was created, with unusual effectiveness.


The book

Five years, as is well known, or a little less considering the editorial procedures, were necessary for the true metamorphosis that goes from reports to The Hinterlands: five years and a big ambition. The mass of scientific and historical information accumulated in the book points to the risk of dispersion. But, gathered there, they gain a certain unification, which is conferred on them by the naturalist style, then predominant in Brazilian literature, together with a Parnassian treatment of the landscape. The mix of impersonal description with genetic concern, in the style of Naturalism, is put here at the service of the chronicle of a war. And war, as we know, is literally the figuration of drama, or confrontation between two sides.

As if by contamination of the war that will be narrated after the first two parts, the formation of “Earth” in the first part and that of “Man” in the second part are equally treated as a drama. As far as the Earth is concerned, the anthropomorphized beings of nature are endowed with feelings or even plans. In the case of man, the central theme is the fierce confrontation of three races in dispute for hegemony. And, as often happens in naturalist works, ideas and theories are highlighted at every step, acquiring autonomy. Scientism, determinism, evolutionism, the notion of the linearity of progress, the concern with hereditary factors, all of this often has an active voice in the narrative. For this reason, the polyphonic character of the book as a whole is a first element of composition that is important to retain.

The second element is constituted by intertextuality. Throughout the pages, and this is what gives it an encyclopedic air, authors and texts are constantly quoted and submitted for discussion. In “A Terra”, experts in geology, meteorology, botany, zoology, physics and chemistry are mobilized. In “O Homem”, the most controversial and which generates all kinds of conjectures, writings on ethnology, colonization history, folklore, psychiatry, neurology, sociology are reviewed. In the part of “A Luta”, the author uses not only his own reports and notes in field notebooks, but also the records of other correspondents, the Army agenda, government reports.

Between these two elements, which complement each other without opposing each other, the difficulty of dealing with such an avalanche of knowledge is evident, and materializes in discordant paraphrases that follow one another without being resolved. In the impossibility of carrying out a synthesis, or even partial syntheses, the text advances playing with all kinds of antithesis, which can take on the appearance of a privileged figure, which brings together extremes, the oxymoron – “Troia de taipa”, “Hercules-Quasimodo” –, or appear in the chain of paraphrases that contradict each other.

Such is, in general lines, the complex question of the composition of The hinterlands. And the way in which the text faces it is at the height, by putting into play resources that are far from simplistic or linear, accentuated by the galas of a rhetoric of excess and the exacerbation of a persuasive discourse.

To tie the matter together, Euclides also borrowed from millenarian and messianist Canudenses – who gathered there to await the Final Judgment announced by the arrival of the new century, in a life of prayer and penance to save the soul – the eschatological vision. And it shows how, through the demonic inversion of the biblical images that preside over salvationist belief, it is possible to adhere to their point of view. This is accomplished through the mimesis of the great narrative syntagm of the Old Testament, through which the arc is traced that goes from the creation of the camp of Canudos, the Biblical Genesis, to its annihilation by fire, the Apocalypse, in conjunction with the prophecies of the holy scriptures.

Euclides, due to his training as a military engineer, was a supporter of progress and science, which can already be seen in his choice of profession. It had never occurred to him that modernization is the cause of pain and loss for the poor, whom he ruthlessly butchers when he finds them in his path. Open a railroad; digging a dam; drill a mine; deploy an airport or air base; urbanize the center of a city; automate a factory; adopt reengineering in a company; land grabbing, registering with the notary and enclosing vacant areas, making what belonged to all one; shut down or relocate an industry; align a country's economy with the globalized market; or even replace a monarchy with a republic. They are all, in different instances, phenomena of modernization.

Euclides believed in it so much that he ends up condemning the war, at the close of the book, saying that the Canudenses should have been treated with a primer and not with a bullet, concluding with the enlightened illusion of believing in education as a panacea for iniquity. His great achievement was managing to express (and this is where the universal reach of the book lies) what modernization does to the poor, tormenting them in such a way that their world – Belo Monte, as they called Canudos, or New Jerusalem, second the sertões –, which had everything to be the paradise in which they would await the Final Judgment, metamorphoses into its opposite, that is, into hell.

Coherently, in this eschatological vision, the apocalyptic imaginary, based on the salvationist dogma, undergoes a demonic inversion. The “City of God”, a grid of gold and precious stones, degrades into an earth-colored labyrinth. The “Lamb of God” who takes away the sins of the world is transformed into a goat. The “Rio da Água da Vida”, which flows in paradise, is nothing more than the dry river that passes through Canudos, the Vaza-Barris. The “Tree of Life” becomes the tree of death. And so on. In this way, Euclid bequeathed his libel to posterity.

*Walnice Nogueira Galvão is Professor Emeritus at FFLCH at USP. She is the author, among other books, of Reading and rereading (Sesc\Ouro over Blue).

Book excerpt Euclides da Cunha – A militant of the Republic. São Paulo: Popular Expression, 2009.


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