About 400 jagunços, women and children taken prisoner at the end of the Canudos War, in October 1917. Photo: Flávio de Barros / Canudos Virtual Canonical Album / Moreira Salles Institute Collection / Museum of the Republic

“Canudos did not surrender.” The phrase, of enormous impact, is on the penultimate page of The Sertões. By now, the reader is holding his breath, listening to the angry roar of five thousand soldiers. Of the huge community that emerged around Antonio Conselheiro, only four remain, including an old man and a child. All the others were massacred, not without first offering a resistance never seen in history, which humiliated the republican army.

Euclides da Cunha witnessed only the last days of the Canudos war, as a journalist sent by the newspaper The State of S. Paul, commissioned as attaché to Marshal Macedo Bittencourt. But it was enough to move her to the point of reviewing all his convictions. The result of this experience, a series of reports that would only be put together in a book many years after his death, would serve as a basis for him to write The Sertões, a masterpiece without equal in world literature, comparable only to books the size of War and peace e Iliad. A work that the author called “an attack”. Its objective was explicit: to denounce the fratricide perpetrated by the military and to hold the federal and Bahian governments and the Church accountable (as Roberto Ventura well notes).

The new edition, the first release of the nascent Ubu publishing house, alongside Edições Sesc, lives up to the visionary work of Euclides da Cunha (1866-1909). First, because it reproduces, in a separate volume, the exhaustive work done by the critic and professor Walnice Nogueira Galvão to collect the approximately ten thousand variants existing between the first edition, from 1902, and the third, from 1905, determined by the author himself, a obsessed with minor questions of style; second, because it adds 12 articles by major literary critics, also selected and edited by Walnice, along with reproductions of the author's field book and the famous photos by Flávio de Barros, showing the marks of destruction and the miserable state of the combatants.

Among the articles, the first three texts stand out, as they were written in the heat of the moment, as soon as The Sertões was released. The great critic of the time, José Veríssimo, for example, sums up the work well (so difficult to define), saying that “it is at the same time the book of a man of science, a geographer, a geologist, an ethnographer; of a man of thought, a philosopher, a sociologist, a historian; and of a man of feeling, a poet, a novelist, an artist, who knows how to see and describe, who vibrates and feels both the aspects of nature and the contact of man, and trembles all over, touched to the bottom of his soul, moved to tears in the face of human pain.”

In a 1943 essay, Gilberto Freyre also extols, with his characteristic leafy style, the unusual talent of Euclides, highlighting the way in which he revealed, for wealthy southerners, a reality hidden in deep Brazil: “The artist interpreted them [the sertões] in words full of force to hurt the ears and shake the soul of the pale bachelors of the coast with the sound of a young and sometimes hard voice, crying out in favor of the misunderstood desert, the abandoned sertões, the forgotten sertanejos.”

Antonio Candido, in turn, writes in 1952, with precision and poetry, that there is in the book “a tragic vision, so to speak, of social movements and the relationship between the personality and the environment – ​​physical and spiritual. Tragic, in the classical sense, of an agonizing vision in which human destiny appears directed from above. The Euclidean man is the man guided by telluric forces, engulfed in the vertigo of collective currents, garroted by biopsychic determinations: – and, nevertheless, rising to fight and compose life in the confluence of these fatalities”.

One of the most complete texts is that of Franklin de Oliveira, published in 1982, in which he addresses Euclides' internal conflict and defends his intellectual honesty: “Before visiting Canudos, he saw sertanejo tragedy from a reactionary angle. He considered it a monarchic reaction pure and simple. He joined in with those who advocated its crushing. After witnessing the struggle of the sertanejos, knowing their living conditions, knowing that they were outlaws of civilization, social reprobates, he radically changed his position. And he wrote the avenger book.” He affirms that the writer founded the Brazilian mimesis and fervently emphasizes the strength of his style: “It is not a loose, thin, base verbalism, from someone who has nothing to say and inflates the sentence. It is a verbal plethora of those who have a lot to say and, due to the expressive pressure, needed to violate classical standards, subvert norms, innovate, renew, revolutionize. Or do the opposite: resurrect archaisms, in search of the unusual.”

And in fact, contrary to the current idea that it is better to read the book from the third part onwards, The fight, naturally the most exciting, the first two, The Earth and Man, bring moments of great verbal imagination. From a purely literary point of view, it is even possible to say, in chorus with Walnice Nogueira Galvão and the writer Marcelino Freire, that the beginning of Os Sertões is its high point. When describing a horse hit in the fray, the author comes up with a paragraph that impresses by its evocative beauty and that, in addition to merging the various elements of nature in the same living picture, shows the strength of art in the face of finitude: “Apart from the mount of a brave man, Ensign Wanderley, and he had fallen, dead along with the knight. As he slipped, however, scrambling badly, down the steep slope, he fell ahead, halfway up the slope, wedged between boulders. He was almost on his feet, with his front paws firmly on a ledge of the stone… And there he stopped like a fantastic animal, upright on the slope, in an almost curve, at the last throw of the paralyzed load, with all the appearances of life, especially when, at the the harsh gusts from the northeast passed, its long waving manes waving…”

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