In Sentencing Canudos: Subalternity in the Backlands of Brazil, Adriana Michéle Campos Johnson examines how the community of Belo Monte became Canudos, how Canudos became a basis upon which to construct the nation, and why Euclides da Cunha’s canonical text relating the wonder and horror of the sertão gained such a status. Campos Johnson analyzes narratives written about the Belo Monte community and the Canudos conflict to demonstrate how both were sentenced to history by the discourse and the political culture surrounding them. Canudos, Campos Johnson tells us, can never return to simply being the peaceful community of Belo Monte. By the power of representation, intellectuals condemned Canudos – sentenced it – to history. Campos Johnson engages with postcolonial theory, especially that of subaltern studies, and analyzes varied sources, including novels, Euclides da Cunha’s field notebook, newspapers, cordel literature, and correspondence. She re-frames the importance of Canudos as indicative of a breach in the relationship between late nineteenth-century notions of democracy and the early Republican government’s inability to represent “the people.” This divide, according to the author, created the need for intellectuals to see, hear, represent, and speak for the people. By bridging the gap between people and nation through representation, Os sertões survives as the emblematic account of what “really happened” in Canudos, regardless of the existence of sources that provide differing perspectives.
The author begins with an inspection of the canonicity of da Cunha’s Os sertões. The canonical reading, according to Campos Johnson, assumed that da Cunha stood in for the people of Canudos “as proxy and portrait,” representing and re-presenting (in Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s terms) their reality. On one hand, readers of Os sertões viewed da Cunha’s representation as a transparent and unfiltered account of what really happened in Belo Monte. On the other, his words re-created his particular vision of the sertanejos. Campos Johnson moves through theories of representation and democracy, postcolonial theory, [End Page 142] and historical studies to demonstrate that Os sertões represented the people of the hinterlands at a moment when representation was a necessary tenet of the new democracy, yet one that the Republican government did (or could) not provide. She returns to this subject in the fourth chapter, comparing da Cunha’s notebook with his early newspaper articles and Os sertões, ultimately asserting that “Although da Cunha might have criticized the errors of the new republican government . . . he both articulates and embodies a modern nation state project,” leading his work to canonical status (119).
Campos Johnson begins to decentralize da Cunha’s account in her second chapter. She examines letters exchanged between religious and secular authorities alongside the letters of Cícero Dantas Martins (the baron of Geremoabo) emphasizing that neither religion nor anti-monarchism were of concern to the letter writers. Instead, the priests emphasized hierarchy instead of heresy and the landowners considered Antonio Conselheiro’s community to be “anti-economic” for drawing away local labor (60). Indeed, it was not until the third military expedition (out of four) to Belo Monte that Canudos began to become part of the national imaginary and reality. In newspaper and cordel, the “prose of counterinsurgency” — a term Campos Johnson borrows from Ranajit Guha — is reproduced, creating an irrational, anti-Republican, and dangerous Canudos, a Canudos that needed to be destroyed to give way to the Republic. In this way, Canudos becomes a “surface for inscription” upon which other tensions of the burgeoning nation-state are etched.
In her third chapter, Campos Johnson addresses how several scholars since the 1960s have made a point of finding the ordinary in Canudos. Instead of emphasizing the exceptional, these authors have stressed how Canudos was just like any other town in the sertão “in terms of ethnic composition, hierarchical structures, economic activity, and popular culture” (80). This ordinariness has two effects: first, it makes the town more recognizable and comprehensible to those that read about it; second, it emphasizes the government response as...