Os sertões, 1902 (Rebellion in the Backlands, 1944)
Contrastes e confrontos, 1902
À margem da história, 1909
Canudos (Diário de uma expediçao), 1939 (autobiography)
Euclides Rodrigues Pimenta da Cunha (KEWN-yuh) is considered one of the greatest Brazilian writers and one of the outstanding stylists in the Portuguese language. Born in 1866 in the municipality of Cantagalo, Cunha lost his mother when he was barely three years old and spent a considerable part of his early life with relatives in Rio de Janeiro and Bahia. His formative years are marked by three major influences, which were to leave a lasting imprint on his life and career. From his father, a poet and lover of books, young Cunha learned to appreciate literature in general and poetry in particular. At Colégio Aquino in Rio de Janeiro, where he completed his secondary education, he was introduced to the abolitionist, republican, and positivist ideas that constitute the essence of his thought. Finally, at the Polytechnic School and at the War College, he received a solid scientific training. An act of insubordination against the imperial minister of war, motivated by his strong republican beliefs, led to Cunha’s dismissal from the War College in 1888, but he was reinstated after the proclamation of the republic one year later and was able to graduate with a degree in mathematics and sciences in 1891.
After serving as a military field engineer for five years, Cunha resigned from the army to pursue careers as a public works engineer in São Paulo and as a journalist for O Estado de São Paulo. It was as a correspondent for this newspaper that Cunha had the experience that formed the basis for his masterpiece, Rebellion in the Backlands. In 1897, he traveled to the backlands of Bahia to cover the suppression by the army of a yearlong uprising in the village of Canudos led by Antônio Conselheiro, a charismatic mystic whose apocalyptic message of a better and more just time attracted thousands of the dispossessed poor to the area. Although religious fanaticism has always been a relatively common response to the impoverished conditions in the Brazilian northeast, the rebellion at Canudos stirred a national hysteria because it was perceived as a threat to the young republic. Refusing to pay taxes and calling the government of the republic “the law of the hound,” the rebels were in turn accused of plotting the return of the monarchy. An ardent republican, Cunha at first supported the government’s efforts to crush the rebellion, but as he witnessed the backlanders’ heroic resistance, he developed a growing sympathy for them. In Rebellion in the Backlands, Cunha denounces the events at Canudos as a national crime caused by a complete lack of understanding of the reality in the backlands and the rebels’ true motives. Despite Cunha’s initial difficulty in finding a publisher, the book became an overwhelming success and led to the author’s election to the Brazilian Historical and Geographic Institute and to the Brazilian Academy of Letters in 1903.
Cunha spent the last seven years of his life in a variety of public posts, including those of surveyor of frontiers and professor of philosophy. In 1906, he published Contrastes e confrontos (contrasts and comparisons), a collection of essays dealing with historical, political, and ethnological topics. Appointed to the chair of logic at Colégio Pedro II, a distinguished public institution in Rio de Janeiro, Cunha delivered his inaugural lecture on July 21, 1909, less than a month before he was murdered by the lover of his estranged wife. His second collection of essays, À margem da história (on the margin of history), was published posthumously in late 1909.
Rebellion in the Backlands is unquestionably Cunha’s most important and original work. The first two parts–“The Land,” a geographic treatise on the region, and “Man,” a study of the ethnic origins of the backlanders, the psychology of Conselheiro, and the social organization of the village–give Cunha the opportunity to display his solid grounding in a variety of fields, including geology, botany, and ethnology. The third part, “The Battle,” an account of the bloody conflict viewed as determined by the ecological, ethnic, and biological conditions described in the first two parts, is the culmination of the book. Written in a fast-paced narrative style, it has the rhythm and scope of a great work of fiction. Thus, despite attesting Cunha’s vast scientific knowledge, Rebellion in the Backlands is first and foremost the work of a literary master, one who does not hesitate to go beyond the strict confines of science to convey a personal vision. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the paradoxical depiction of the backlander. Although Cunha subscribed to the deterministic scientific theories of the time, according to which the population of the backlands was doomed to extinction by the weakening effects of miscegenation and harsh climate, he portrays the backlanders as brave survivors perfectly fitted to their harsh environment. By means of an original interweaving of scientific vocabulary with figurative language and myth, Cunha elevates the backlanders to a heroic status and turns the conflict at Canudos into a battle of epic proportions.
Rebellion in the Backlands belongs to a long tradition of literary works dealing with the issue of national identity, one which dates to the Romantic period, when, in their effort to establish a separate identity from the Portuguese colonizers, Brazilians developed a mythical view of themselves as the harmonious synthesis of the white, black, and indigenous races that constituted their nationality. Cunha calls this myth into question by proposing an interpretation of Brazil that underscores the country’s unresolvable differences.
Rebellion in the Backlands has been influential both inside and outside Brazil. Although it did not inaugurate a literary treatment of the backlands, it definitively changed the representation of that region by stressing its harsh conditions of life and by turning it into a symbol of the “other” Brazil. Cunha’s approach inspired a number of Brazilian writers, particularly in the 1930’s, as well as many of the Brazilian filmmakers who created the New Cinema movement in the 1960’s. Cunha’s masterpiece has also been the source of important works outside Brazil, including R. B. Cunninghame Graham’s A Brazilian Mystic: The Life and Miracles of Antonio Conselheiro (1920), a study of the career of the Canudos leader, and Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa’s acclaimed novel La guerra del fin del mundo (1981; The War of the End of the World, 1984).