The title of Bernardo Kucinski’s K immediately invokes Kafka, and its content mirrors in many ways his most famous novel, The Trial. “Someone must have been telling lies about Josef K.” is Kafka’s famous opening line, and in K, likewise, lies are more common than truth as Kucinski’s eponymous protagonist, K, probes the workings of the Brazilian state under the dictatorship of 1964-85.

K here is an older Jewish writer and scholar of Yiddish, a long-settled immigrant who arrived in Brazil back in the 1930s, fleeing Nazi persecution in his native Poland where he had been active in Zionist socialism. In São Paulo he has built a rather more sedate life, raising a family and above all immersing himself in literature and conversation with fellow writers. Until one day in 1974 he discovers that his adult daughter, who teaches Chemistry at the university, has disappeared, presumably taken by the Brazilian secret services. The book then traces his patient but increasingly hopeless struggle to track her down, or at least to find out what has happened to her. But all he hears are lies: not so much lies about him, as the lies that everyone is telling to him about his daughter’s fate and whether anyone can ever help him reconstruct it.

Unlike Kafka’s K, moreover, Kucinski’s is not so much caught up within the bureaucratic machinery of the state as consistently shut out from it. He notes that “The State is faceless and impassive, impervious and perverse. Its only weak point is corruption. But sometimes even access this way becomes impossible, on orders from above. And then the State becomes doubly malignant–cruel and unapproachable” (8). Well respected in his community, and even fairly well-known outside of it, K tries to pull whatever strings he can, tirelessly seeking out informers and allies in Brazil and beyond. But if the state is corrupt, it is not so for him.

Indeed, the closest K gets to the state bureaucracy, his “one and only contact with the justice system” (133), is when he is invited to a hearing of the Tribunal of Military Justice to witness the trial of a sergeant who had posed as a general in order to extort money from him for the (false) promise of information. The court comes down harshly on the rogue officer, who is stripped of his rank, jailed, and dismissed from the military on the grounds of “damaging the reputation of the Armed Forces by spreading the false information that civilians were detained in military installations for criminal purposes.” K then jumps up to ask about his daughter, only for the presiding judge to bang his gavel and declare: “The records show that no civilian is held in military installations. As the convicted prisoners’ confession demonstrates, it was all a charade” (136). So the right verdict (the sergeant really was an imposter; he could never have delivered what he claimed) serves only to uphold the much larger injustices of forced disappearance and torture.

The curious thing about the authoritarian state, at least in Kucinski’s account, is that it is both everywhere and nowhere. It is everywhere in that it is unavoidable: K is surprised to learn of the extent of its network of informers who pervade everyday life and include a familiar window-dresser and the owner of the local bakery; he wonders whether they had always been there, and it was just that “when the government was more tolerant it used the informers less” (21). But the state is nowhere in that it seems to keep no records, leave no trace: K notes that “even the Nazis, who had reduced their victims to ashes, had registered the dead. [. . .] There hadn’t been this agony of uncertainty” (14). It is as though the state were some kind of barely visible mist, which saturated social space but could never be pinned down or pictured.

All this raises a problem for the novel: how to represent something that to steadfastly evades representation. Kucinski’s solution to this problem is to give us a montage of points of view: though K is very clearly the key figure, there are also chapters that present the perspectives of his missing daughter (who K soon finds he did not much know, either), her husband, their torturers, the mistress of the chief of the so-called “Department for Political and Social Order” that is responsible for their fate, and so on. In other words, though the author tells us that “everything in this book is invented but almost everything happened” (169), and indeed the case presented here is very closely modelled on the disappearance of his sister, Ana Rosa Kucinski, he uses fictional license to depict what is strictly unknowable. This is perhaps most strikingly evident in the book’s account of a faculty meeting called to fire the daughter (following her disappearance) from her university post for “dereliction of duties.” As each committee member speaks, we are repeatedly told “We don’t know what was going through his mind. We can only guess” (138) or “We can imagine what was running through his head” (139) and so on, at which point the text proceeds to fill the silence, to flesh out the hollow center of inscrutable thoughts and actions around which this entire book revolves.

Unlike in Kafka, then, where the reader is left almost as frustrated and at a loss as the character, Joseph K, here the reader is given the clues at least to reconstruct the history that will forever leave Kucinski’s K guessing (and grieving). It is suggested, for instance, that K’s daughter ultimately committed suicide by biting on a cyanide capsule rather than giving in to torture and giving up her friends. Yet we must accept that this can only be a (more or less) consoling fiction, a lie of sorts, which inadvertently covers up what is truly shocking about K’s story: that it can never really be complete.

Crimes of August


Crisis in Brazil, with politicians up to their necks in corruption and a popular modernizing president forced out amid intrigue, violence, and scandal… Rubem Fonseca’s thriller Crimes of August, though first published (as Agosto) in 1990, couldn’t perhaps be more timely.

But the year is 1954 and the president is Getúlio Vargas, the legendary populist leader and the country’s longest-serving non-royal head of state, in the third year of his second period in power, following elections in 1951. It was in his earlier presidencies that Vargas had done most to reshape Brazil: first installed (in a bloodless coup) in 1930, then establishing a new constitution in 1934 and holding on to power (against that constitution’s provisions) from 1937 to 1945, he had announced the formation of a “New State” (“Estado Novo”) that combined features of a Welfare State, nationalizing key industries and promoting social security and workers’ rights, with a style of government and centralization of power reminiscent of Italian fascism. Indeed, under Vargas in the late 1930s Brazil had flirted with the Axis powers of Italy and Nazi Germany, until ultimately, in part thanks to the influence of Roosevelt’s “Good Neighbor” policy, entering World War Two on the Allied side, and sending a small expeditionary force to the Italian front in late 1944. So Vargas is a complex and ambiguous figure, claimed by Left and Right alike, who is most associated with Brazil’s transformation from a plantation-based economy to an emergent industrial power.

By 1954, however, Vargas’s reformist energies were running out of steam, to some extent a victim of their own success, and he himself was no longer the intimidating autocrat he had once been. Thus though Vargas is nominally at the center of Fonseca’s novel, in that it revolves around his final weeks and a crisis that ends only with the president’s suicide (a self-inflicted gunshot to this chest, in his pajamas, in his quarters in the presidential palace), from the outset of the narrative the president is effectively absent. Very early on in the book, we see his bodyguard, late at night, approach Vargas’s bedroom door and we are told that on the other side, “sitting on the bed, his shoulders bowed, [. . .] was the person he protected, an insomniac, pensive, fragile old man: Getúlio Vargas, president of the Republic” (2). Hearing nothing through the door, however, the bodyguard assumes that his boss is sleeping, and withdraws. Similarly, as the book continues, Vargas is barely visible and almost entirely mute throughout. It is as though he were already one of the “ghosts” that populate the “stupid succession of random events, [the] inept and incomprehensible confusion of falsity, fictitious inferences, [and] illusions” that (we are later told) constitute history (250).

Into this confusion, then, and in lieu of the president as protagonist, Fonseca inserts a fictional creation of his own: Alberto Mattos, police inspector and detective, whose traits include his love of opera and his constant drinking of milk and chewing of anti-acid tablets. Mattos has many cases on his plate (no wonder he has an ulcer!), embedded in an institutional morass at a police station whose cells are overflowing with both presumed and convicted criminals. But his focus here is on the (fictional) messy murder of an industrialist, which turns out to be intricately connected to the (real) killing of an Air Force officer as part of the (again, real) botched assassination of a journalist who is one of Vargas’s most forthright critics. At one point, for instance, Mattos suspects Vargas’s bodyguard of bumping off the industrialist when in fact (spoiler alert!) he is responsible for the attack on the journalist. But there are more enough murderers to go around. At the end of the book (again, spoiler alert!) Mattos has two assassins on his own trail: one gets to him first, but the other is hot on his heels and also takes the credit (and the payment) for doing the job. More generally, just about everyone is complicit in something in some way: politicians, cops, gangsters, businessmen, military officers (and their many women–wives, lovers, prostitutes, madams) are all tightly bound to each other in a densely intimate network of corruption and connection.

Mattos’s most fictional attribute is surely the fact that he is the prototypical “straight cop” who refuses to take payment or bribes while all around him are on the make. But he can never fully maintain his distance when his ex-girlfriend is now married to one of the prime conspirators (who is having an affair with the industrialist’s now-widow), while his current on-again off-again fling is also involved with the middleman for a Japanese syndicate’s political bribery. Mattos is forever trying to do the right thing, declaring that his sole allegiance is to the truth, but it turns out that he gets even one of his simpler cases wrong, inadvertently causing the death of an innocent old man. In response to complaints from the dead man’s son, who had allowed his father to take the blame for the crime, the detective declares that “Things are never the way they are, that’s life” (252). His last act as a policemen is to set all the prisoners (convicted or not) free from their overcrowded cells, as though to abandon any attempt to determine the distinction between guilt and innocence.

When “things are never the way they are,” it would seem that there are few certainties. Except that “Brazil goes on,” says the president himself, in what is quoted as a speech that may or may not be fictional. The lines between history and fiction are inevitably blurred when history is represented as a jumble of falsity, fiction, and illusion that’s incomprehensible even to the most level-headed of investigators. But some things do stay the same, even as everything (also) shifts and blurs: “Don’t think you can change,” another character is quoted as saying, as he invokes the French maxim: “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” (246). So the novel as a whole suggests that Vargas’s “New State” perhaps didn’t fundamentally transform the country; it was unequal and corrupt before, and it remains so still. Moreover, Fonseca’s recourse to this history of political crisis seventy years ago is no doubt designed to indicate that we continue to be somehow stuck with the same issues that confounded both the real Vargas and the fictional Mattos. Hence the novel’s potential contemporary relevance, even though many–such as, here, Mattos’s ex-girlfriend who burns her diary because she would prefer to forget (259)–might not want to make the connections.

But if the ghost of Vargas haunts this book, it also ambiguously and ambivalently haunts the present: he represents the promise of change, even if that promise has consistently been betrayed, and even if it may be the threat of something worse.

Unjustified: Brazil, Politics, and Trade

An edited version of this post was published on the CBC.

“Unjustified: Brazil, Politics, and Trade”


With the election of former paratrooper Jair Bolsonaro to the Brazilian presidency, the far right has taken power in Latin America’s largest and most populous country, with one of the world’s largest economies. How, if at all, should Canada and Canadian business react? A recent report for CBC News charted economic opportunities with this new regime, noting that “a Bolsonaro presidency could open new investment opportunities, especially in the resource sector, finance and infrastructure, as he has pledged to slash environmental regulations in the Amazon rainforest and privatize some government-owned companies.” But diving in for the sake of short-term financial profit would be ethically irresponsible and politically catastrophic. Bolsonaro unashamedly praises the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil for twenty years, from 1964 to 1985. If we proceed as though it were business as usual, we would normalize his breach of a long-standing democratic consensus.

Every economic transaction is always also a political transaction, and this is nowhere more true than in the realm of international trade and foreign investment. Governments have long combined commercial deals with strategic objectives: from the nineteenth-century opium wars, in which the Royal Navy fought to open China to British merchants, to the recent renegotiation of NAFTA, politics and economics go hand in hand. But at least since the Second World War, a sense of politics as more than simply national self-interest has also been part of the discourse around trade. For instance, US post-war economic assistance to Western Europe (the Marshall Plan) was designed to reinforce liberal democracy by ensuring economic recovery and removing the temptation of more radical solutions, i.e. to ward off the Communist threat. This Cold War logic framed international trade for forty years: the Soviet Union provided economic and military assistance to its satellites, while the United States did deals with dictators and other unsavory regimes (in Guatemala, Iran, the Philippinnes…) where it considered it necessary for the broader narrative of protecting the “Free World.”

With the end of the Cold War, the narratives were modified but didn’t disappear. Ethical as well as political considerations came to the fore in arguments either for or against economic engagement. Both Left and Right would sometimes argue that sanctions and embargoes would better effect political transformation (in apartheid South Africa or Communist Cuba) and sometimes claim that integration into international norms was better served by the exchange of ideas and attitudes that accompanies the traffic in goods and services. In the Clinton era, preferential trade relations with China (“most favoured nation” status) were justified, despite concerns over human rights abuses, on the grounds that engagement encouraged openness and increasing liberalization, sidelining hardliners within the regime. Similar arguments have, until very recently, sought to justify economic contracts with middle-eastern states such as Saudi Arabia. Of course, sometimes–often, even–such justifications would be denounced as a cover for economic interests. Few, for example, believe that the Gulf War of 1990/91 was really about freedom for Kuwaitis rather than oil for the US and its coalition partners. But the point is that, however paper-thin they were, those justifications had to be in place. Trade and military intervention alike demanded a broader story of progress or development that went beyond naked self-interest.

The private sector started telling similar tales. Most notably, the tech entrepreneurs and start-ups of Silicon Valley, at the same time as they amassed unheralded fortunes (and showed a marked disinclination to pay corporate taxes), marketed their activites in terms of social change: Apple adverts featured images of figures such as Mahatma Ghandi and Martin Luther King alongside the slogan ‘Think Different”; Google’s slogan was “Don’t be Evil”; and Facebook tells us that its mission is to “give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.” In the face of evidence of the effects of their rampant destruction of environments and livelihoods on vulnerable populations and an ever more vulnerable planet, even behemoths of an industry such as resource extraction have followed suit: British Petroleum adopted a green and yellow logo suggestive more of horticulture than oil wells; mining giants everywhere spoke of community benefits and their need to secure a “social license to operate.”

All this is now changing. Countries and corporations increasingly dispense with such exculpatory formulas. The key figure is doubtless Donald Trump, who more than anyone has reinforced the centrality of trade to politics, whether domestic or international, but no longer in the service of any narrative of liberal progress. His mantra “Make America Great Again” inverts the age-old adage of “private vice, public virtue” to assert that the only political rationale necessary is self-interest. It is in this context that Brazil’s lurch to the right can be welcomed as an investment opportunity, and its environmental and political consequences be cast to the wind. The sense that some broader narrative or political justification is required has faded.

In much of Latin America, the overarching political narrative of the past thirty years has been “Never Again.” Just as post-war European politics has been marked by the collective decision never to return to the internecine conflict (and horrors such as the Holocaust) of the First and Second World Wars, likewise the ground of political debate and policy in the Southern Cone (Argentina, Chile, Brazil) and elsewhere has been a social consensus, shared by all parties and sectors, that a return to the authoritarian regimes of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s should be unthinkable. “Never Again” (“Nunca Más” in Spanish; “Nunca Mais” in Portuguese) was the title of the reports on human rights abuses published in Argentina and Brazil. But with his open praise of the dictatorship, and in dedicating his vote in favor of impeaching his elected predecessor, Dilma Roussef, to a colonel convicted of human rights abuses including torture and forced disappearances, new president Jair Bolsonaro is dramatically breaking that pact in favour of democracy. In the absence of any other narrative, then, Canadian engagement (political or economic) that takes advantage of his election for short-term gain inevitably becomes complicit in this broader story of democracy’s decline.

The Problem with Silver Linings

An edited version of this post was published in The Tyee.

“The Problem with Silver Linings: The CBC and Jair Bolsonaro”


How should Canada respond to this week’s election in Brazil? How should our media report it? An article (and tweets) on CBC, seeking good news for Canada on what many agree is a dark day for Brazil, has sparked fierce criticism. And rightly so. It was parochial, insensitive, and cynical, portraying a troubling break in Latin America’s democratic consensus as though it were business as normal.

The election was one of the most momentous in Brazil’s history: a reversal of the previous election (of 2014), which had brought the country’s first woman president, Dilma Rousseff, to power at the head of the left-wing Worker’s Party. In her youth, Rousseff had been active in armed resistance to the military dictatorship in place from 1964 to 1985. In 1970, aged 23, she was captured, detained, and repeatedly tortured over a three-year period. Now, four years later, Brazil has a president, Jair Bolsonaro, who openly supports torture, praises the dictatorship, and promises to go back to throwing leftists in jail. Not to mention his racism, sexism, and self-described homophobia. Even the Economist (hardly a journal of the Left) describes Bolsonaro as “a threat to democracy”.

The CBC knows all this. Bolsonaro has made no secret of his views. Yet alongside reporting the Canadian government’s clear disdain for this turn of events, our national broadcaster decided to put a positive spin on things: Canadian business might benefit! Senior Writer Chris Arsenault tells us: “A Bolsonaro presidency could open new investment opportunities, especially in the resource sector, finance and infrastructure, as he has pledged to slash environmental regulations in the Amazon rainforest and privatize some government-owned companies.” The CBC liked this analysis so much that it highlighted it (repeatedly) on Twitter: “Critics have lambasted the former paratrooper for his homophobic, racist and misogynist statements, but his government could open new investment opportunities”.

The CBC has since apologized (sort of), for presenting what should have been tagged as “analysis” as “news.” For his part, Arsenault has suggested that his article was a kind of satire: ” The purpose of the report is that markets are amoral”, he tells us. But not many, if any, of his readers saw this. Reaction to his article and (perhaps especially) to the tweets has been outraged: “Have you lost your minds?”; “Wtf”; “a shame”; “a journalism fail”; “irresponsible”; “gross”; “nauseating”; “awful”. A friend of mine said he was “hoping the account has been hacked”.

But let’s take Arsenault’s article at face value. What’s the problem? Doesn’t every cloud have a silver lining? Even the most monstrous regimes have their benefits: trains run on time, and so on. And why not respect the democratic will of the Brazilian people, recognize that Bolsonaro won, and “get over it”? Canada happily trades with plenty of countries (Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, China…) accused of human rights abuses and/or anti-democratic practices. Isn’t economic engagement better than sanctions or isolationism?

Here’s the problem. First, the article and tweets demonstrate a stunning parochialism. They remind me of the apocryphal headline said to have run in a Scottish newspaper following one of the twentieth century’s most famous disasters: “Titanic Sinks! Dundee Man Feared Lost!” Whatever one thinks of Bolsonaro, this narrow-minded Canadian take on the impending transformation of Latin America’s largest country likewise spectacularly misses the real story, which is not really about us at all. If we want to think in hemispheric terms (and we should), it would be better to consider the broader narrative of the region’s mixed response to a history of state violence and the now imperilled fortunes of its more recent efforts to redistribute wealth and opportunity.

Second, the focus on advantages to be gained by select Canadian businesses (above all, in resource extraction) shows a worrying insensitivity. Brazil has 210 million inhabitants. Arsenault’s parochial preoccupation with Canadian economic profit leads him to disregard the impact the new regime will have on this diverse mass of humanity, not least women, the poor, and the 100 million who have some African ancestry (and make Brazil also the world’s second-largest African country). All these are merely collateral damage, as are, perhaps more worryingly still, the country’s vast and priceless ecological riches, upon which global climate and biodiversity depend. Arsenault signs off breezily that “losses for the Amazon rainforest under Bolsonaro could spell big gains for Canadian investors.”

Third, the article and the CBC’s Twitter feed indicate breath-taking cynicism (even if Arsenault is now disclaiming it). They make no attempt to defend Bolsonaro from his critics. They take for granted that he is everything they say: “homophobic, racist, and misogynist”; a threat to indigenous people and the environment; a leader who will increase repression as he seeks to “hew closer to Latin America’s past military leaders.” When we trade with other countries whose political vices we claim to denounce, we usually resort to the argument (justified or not) that these are societies that are misunderstood; that they are moving in the right direction; that international engagement encourages moderates and liberalizers, while embargoes embolden hardliners. With Bolsonaro, these claims don’t work, as Brazil is clearly becoming less moderate and less liberal. Scandalously, the CBC doesn’t care.

Fourth, the CBC is here not merely reporting events. This is not even “analysis.” It is actively making the news. Not only because this article has entered public discussion, becoming an object of understandable incredulity. An article like this also normalizes a state of exception. The long-standing consensus in Latin American countries such as Brazil (or Argentina, Chile, Uruguay) that emerged from authoritarian rule in the 1980s and 1990s has been that there is no turning back: left or right, no mainstream politician would countenance breaking that democratic pact. But we now see a president willing to praise dictatorship. That would have been unthinkable just two years ago; no self-respecting news outlet should pretend that it is no big deal. No journalist should encourage us to tolerate cynicism. Doing so makes the CBC complicit in the erosion of democracy.

But is there a silver lining in the mini-catastrophe that is the CBC’s bungling of this story? The mythical Scottish newspaper headline told us more about Scotland than about the Titanic. Similarly, however unhelpful Arsenault’s article is about Brazil, it does give Brazilians (and the world) insight into Canada. We like to think we hold ourselves and our media to higher standards. This can lead others to call us smug. But we are smug no more. Canadian elites expose their brutal cynicism by dispensing with ideology, jettisoning the pretence that our international relations and trade policies stem from any desire to improve the world. This is another nail in the coffin of Canadian exceptionalism. From Toronto to São Paulo, Recife to Winnipeg, we are all in the same boat now, and that’s as good a basis for solidarity as any.

Coup in Brazil, Protest at LASA


At the annual Latin American Studies Association Congress in New York. This year is the Association’s fiftieth anniversary, and as part of the celebrations they planned a special event in which former Brazilian president Fernando Henrique Cardoso would discuss democracy in the region.

But in Cardoso’s own country, democracy is in trouble, as President Dilma Roussef of the Worker’s Party (PT) has been impeached in circumstances that are dubious at best. And as Perry Anderson notes, in his essential article “Crisis in Brazil”, Cardoso doesn’t exactly have the cleanest of hands in the mess:

Due to preside over the case against Dilma on the Supreme Electoral Tribunal was Gilmar Mendes, a crony Cardoso had appointed to the Supreme Court, where he still sits, and who has never made a secret of his dislike of the PT. But Dilma was lesser prey. For Cardoso, the crucial target for destruction was [former PT President] Lula, not simply for reasons of revenge, however much this might be savoured in private, but because there was no telling, given his past popularity, whether he might be capable of a political comeback in 2018 – when, if Dilma survived till then, [Cardoso’s party] the PSDB should otherwise be able to count on steering the country back to a responsible modernity.

There’s more, much more. Read the whole article. (David Miranda offers a rather briefer sketch in The Guardian.) But the point is that Cardoso is hardly the person to be lecturing anyone about democratic process.

So various petitions were circulated, calling on LASA to withdraw its invitation. Rather than doing so (and defending its decision on the grounds that it “cannot endorse a particular side”), the organization apparently simply changed the title of the session. But in any case, for whatever reasons of his own, a couple of days before the congress was due to begin, the former president indicated that he was no longer able to attend.

Still, the banners had already been painted, the t-shirts printed, so a brief demonstration took place nonetheless, as the photo above indicates. “FHC Golpista” translates as something like “Cardoso, coup-mongerer.” In some ways it’s a shame that Fernando Henrique ultimately chose to decline his invitation; it left the protest a little at a loss. More generally, though, as the Left is in crisis throughout the region (voted out in Argentina; impeached in Brazil; in meltdown in Venezuela) it’s good to remember that, whatever the undoubted failures of left-wing parties and leaders, there are always external forces looking for their chance to pounce.

Sentencing Canudos

Adriana Johnson, Sentencing Canudos

Within Latin American Studies, people sometimes treat subalternism as a movement that is done and dusted: as though the break-up of the Latin American Subaltern Studies group over a decade ago had meant the end of that particular road. But a book such as Adriana Johnson’s Sentencing Canudos reminds us that this is far from true, and indeed that in some respects we have barely begun the project to re-read the Latin American archive with an eye to the mechanisms of subalternization and resistance.

Canudos, the object of Johnson’s focus, was a settlement in the dry backlands of Bahia, Northeastern Brazil, founded in 1893 by the followers of a charismatic preacher and mystic, Antônio Conselheiro. Viewed as a threat by a range of authorities, from the local church to (eventually) the national government, it was the object of a series of attempts at military pacification, each of which were fiercely resisted. Despite their portrayal as uncivilized savages, its inhabitants managed to embarrass the nascent Republic (established in 1889) by repelling two expeditionary forces of the Brazilian army until, finally, in October 1897 they were overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of men and resources devoted to their extirpation.

The War of Canudos is best-known today thanks to its documentation in a classic text, Os Sertões (1902; translated into English as Rebellion in the Backlands), by Euclides da Cunha, a journalist who had covered the conflict for a São Paulo newspaper. But the story has been told by others in a range of genres, from novels to films, perhaps most notably by the Peruvian Nobel Prize-winner, Mario Vargas Llosa, in The War of the End of the World. And as Johnson observes, Canudos has been taken up by contemporary theorists such as Ernesto Laclau and Slavoj Zizek, who terms it “forever the model of a liberated space, of an alternative community which thoroughly negates the existing state space” (qtd. 80). What happened over a century ago in this remote, impoverished corner of South America seems to have something to say to us not only about the traumas attending the formation of the Brazilian nation state, but also about the perils of political and aesthetic representation in Latin America and about the limits of sovereignty as a whole.

For all the scrutiny they have received, just about everything about Canudos and the violence it provoked is contestable and uncertain: from the size of the settlement or the manner of Conselheiro’s death to whether the Conselheristas’ protest should best be described as political or pre-political, religious millenarianism or atavistic monarchism. Johnson is not so much concerned to establish the truth of Canudos, though she persuasively argues that the community is best seen as a response to an intensification of governance, a “second conquest” whose resultant tensions were inscribed upon the transition from Empire to Republic. She is more interested in the ways in which it has been represented, in terms of a “prose of counter-insurgency” that casts its inhabitants as liminal figures–neither fully belonging to nor fully beyond the national community–in short, as subalterns. She is also interested in the ways in which those representations, above all da Cunha’s, have themselves been received and represented. What explains the success of Os Sertões, its canonization as a model of both insight and judgement?

Johnson dwells at length on the problematics of representation, in its double meaning as portrait and proxy, as aesthetic depiction and political mediation. Likewise she explores the ambivalence of the notion of the “sentence” that provides her work with her title: both linguistic form and juridical decision. She aims to challenge the finality of the sentence, the way in which the Canudenses have been “sentenced to history [. . .] inscribed in history, overtaken by it, condemned to take part in it, turned into its subjects” (163). There’s perhaps no better instance of this than the way in which da Cunha insists that there were no survivors of the conflict, that the rebels were eliminated to the very last man, woman, and child. On the one hand, in his guise of voice for the “voiceless,” he intends both to praise the stubborn resistance of the vanquished and to condemn the excessive force of the victors. But on the other hand, and especially once we note that in fact several scores of the prophets followers emerged alive from the final conflagration, it is as though he himself desired to write out the event more emphatically than even the army had: “By killing off the inhabitants, da Cunha effectively isolates Canudos in time [. . .]. Nothing comes after it, other than his own book, the lullaby to lay them to rest” (167).

The book’s best chapter, however, is the central one on “The Event and the Everyday.” Here Johnson really advances the cause of Subaltern Studies–whereas elsewhere she sometimes comes close merely to repeating and recapitulating the prior work of Ranajit Guha and other South Asian scholars, if now on Latin American terrain. Her point is that subalternization is not only a matter of condemning others to the past, to history (by means of a “denial of coevalness”), or of casting them out spatially, to the margins (the backlands, the borders of the nation state). Subalternity is also about denying ordinary everydayness, which eludes any possibility of hegemony

If [the subaltern’s] everydayness escapes, as happens in the case of Canudos, this happens not simply because the everyday is so banal and familiar as to be unperceived [. . .] but because it has become too unfamiliar to be perceived. This everyday cannot be seen because the ‘forms’ of society are no longer legible there. (86)

Both too familiar and unsettlingly unfamiliar for the forms of literary or state representation, the ordinary everyday is always already posthegemonic.

Here, then, habit comes to the fore: habit as both the structured repetition of daily activities and what resists any attempt to give structure to what is every day slightly different. For habit is a mode of repetition in which what returns or is done again is never precisely the same; it encodes a certain lag, a friction that incarnates an innate heterogeneity. Habit is always opposed to the grid, to precise measurement or to chronometric time. Habit is a domain that has to be “conquered, transformed, and rendered commensurable” (91) by an expansive nation state and market society, even as its regularities and repetitions also subtend and enable structures of exchange and equivalence that are never quite as homogenous as they are made out to be.

No wonder, then, that as Johnson shows both Canudos and the “Quebra-Quilos” riots of a couple of decades earlier had habit–or the tension between the heterogeneity of habitual repetition on the one hand and the homogeneity of standardization and chronometric regulation on the other–at the center of their respective conflicts. Quebra-Quilos (“Smash the Kilos”) “often involved the destruction of the scales used to weigh goods in the marketplace” and even “included the deliberate destruction of house numbers” (86). Canudos likewise expressed a resistance to “new processes of governmentalization” (94) from taxation to civil marriage that were perceived as an encroachment on what Peter Linebaugh (in The London Hanged) discusses in terms of the criminalization of customary rights and the imposition of the wage relation. In other words, not only does da Cunha’s “prose of counter-insurgency” function to eliminate the everyday in its account of Canudos: the struggle itself was at heart part of a massive effort to transform or transmute everyday rituals into the regularities of life under the modern state. Ultimately, Johnson claims, it is not that the settlement’s inhabitants were protesting their abandonment by the state (as some have suggested); theirs instead was a plea for autonomy.

In sum, Sentencing Canudos, in leveraging Subaltern Studies so as to go beyond the stale narratives of transculturation and/or deadening solidarity with the poor that have dominated Latin American cultural studies, begins to make visible the ordinariness that is at stake even in the most extraordinary events such as the destruction of Canudos, and even in the most canonical of texts such as da Cunha’s Os Sertões. From the ruins of the past (such as the remains of Conselheiro’s church, featured on the book’s front cover), it aims to produce not a new totality or a “noble unity” (168) but the possibility of new habits of reading and thinking at odds with the ordering devices of would-be hegemonic projects.


Boa Vista is not far from the site of Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Lost World,” and at times it feels that way. The capital of Roraima State in Brazil’s far north, near the border with Venezuela and Guayana, is a tropical backwater.

Down by the Rio Branco, the river on whose banks the city sits, there is a small complex of restaurants, bars, and cafes, but even on Saturday night half of them were closed and the other half were almost empty. Two solo guitarists, singing Brazilian popular hits, competed for what little attention that there was. A few couples lounged around, either at the outside tables or on the benches of the park alongside. A small child running around provided what little life that there was.

Earlier in the day there had been some kind of festivities on the other side of town, part the “Festa Junina,” celebrated throughout Brazil in honor of the Summer Solstice and the Saints Anthony and John. Stalls and playgrounds had been set out, and loud music blared. But by five o’clock things had already wound down, tables were being cleared and chairs stacked.

The architecture, and the history that that architecture reflects, probably doesn’t help. Boa Vista is quite clearly a planned town, with wide avenues radiating from a large (but quite unfrequented) central park. From above, or rather from Google Maps, it looks rather like the “arched window” from Play School.

Though there are a few older buildings down by the waterfront, mostly (with the exception of a beautiful church, painted in strident yellow) in a state of some disrepair, the town is now characterized by broad expanses dotted with the occasional modernist monument. The cathedral, for instance, is composed of sweeping concrete curves. A stadium further out shows similar attempts to make an architectural statement. The tallest structure in town (and no doubt the only one from which a “good view” can be found) is a concrete tube whose purpose is not immediately evident. Overall, it’s as though Boa Vista had been envisaged as some kind of mini-Brasilia, a means to impose order on an otherwise dauntingly vast landscape of forest and plains.

But Boa Vista’s history goes back further than Brasilia’s. The small cluster of older buildings has been supplemented by a concrete, three-dimensional mural commemorating the pioneers and their “courage and hope” that founded the city back in the early to mid nineteenth century. It depicts a mounted settler who is leaping out of a canoe, his arm thrusting forwards, only to land on the shoulder of an oversized, naked indigenous youth.

For this is also the territory of Macunaíma, and so in some ways of some of Brazil’s founding mythology. Macunaíma, here represented as the first inhabitant of the Rio Branco, is the eponymous subject of Mário de Andrade’s 1928 novel, which traces the young man’s journey from the jungle to Rio and São Paulo and back again, in the process uniting ancient and modern, indigenous and white, interior and coast in the image of a single if diverse national culture.

In such narratives (and there are many other similar ones–the successful film Central Station comes to mind, for instance) backwaters such as Boa Vista are recreated less as the site of a lost world than as the place where Brazil finally finds itself.

Perhaps no more. When I asked at my hotel’s reception how to get to the town center, I was directed neither to the historic nor to the modern centers, but to what turned out to be a huge supermarket some blocks from either. Are Brazilians, too, now lost in the supermarket?