The book was about the War of Canudos in Brazil in the 1890’s, a war in which each side was fanatical and held erroneous opinions about the other side. The brokenness of the situation, and perhaps of all humanity, was symbolized by the many broken, malformed characters: the dwarf, the lion, the bearded lady.
Toward the end, the narrative itself attempted to give an explanation for Canudos. One suggests the mixing of races between Negro, Indigenous and European. Another suggests it was not race, but simply ignorance that led to the war. Another says it was caused by the predisposition to barbarism latent within the bosoms of the warring parties. But a final character, likely speaking Llosa’s own perspective, says it was all of the above, but ultimately a mystery. There was no obvious good guys or righteous causes.
It was observed that the political spectrum in that context equated “right” with monarchy and “left” with marxist, leaving republican liberal democracy the centrist position.
The main question of the evening was, Was the Counselor, the religious leader in the little town of Canudos, complicit or responsible for not standing against the atrocities that his own followers were committing in the prosecution of the war. Opinions were strong either way, which is a testament to the author’s skill in developing the character.
Two other themes were fruitfully observed. The first was the tension between tranquility of order vs. uprising against oppression/enthusiasm, or put differently, reason/rationality discussed amid an irrational scene. At what point does a society forgo the tranquility of order to engage in the upheaval of war in the face of oppression.
The second motif was that of Sight, or the lack thereof. There was a blind journalist, the guy who asks the doctor to shoot him because his face was blasted off, two men fighting blindly, General Cesar shaving without a mirror.
All the group hailed to book as a marvelous read and, after slow going in the first hundred pages, turning into a very enjoyable and engaging book.
And then the voting happened. With only a small number of books proposed, the vote was split between The Orchard Keeper by Cormac McCarthy and Lady Chatterly’s Lover by D. H. Lawrence. The tie-breaker vote was also a tie, 4 to 4. A coin toss decided the August book to be The Orchard Keeper, a resort to which we have had to go only 2 or 3 times in the history of Athenaeum.
July’s book is Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card