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Who shall inherit the earth?

Bruce Allen is a regular reviewer for the Monitor. The War of the End of the World, by Mario Vargas Llosa. Translated by Helen R. Lane. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 568 pp. $18.95.

In the last few years it has become apparent that the Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa is one of the world's best writers - and is getting better. Six previous works of fiction have secured his reputation as a brilliant chronicler of the South American continent's colorful volatility and motley despair. Two novels in particular stand out: his ''Conversation in the Cathedral'' (1975), a complex, fascinating anatomy of political upheaval and family trauma in contemporary Peru; and the recent ''Aunt Julia and the Script-writer'' (1982), a Joycean tale of romantic intrigue and moral growth set in the world of radio soap opera that's one of the most delightful and memorable comic novels within memory.

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Now comes Vargas Llosa's most ambitious book, ''The War of the End of the World,'' the story of a religious uprising that occurred in the northern ''backlands,'' the sertao of Brazil, in the late 1890s, led by a mysterious self-styled prophet known as Antonio Conselheiro (''Antonio the Counselor,'' or, as his followers call him, simply ''the Counselor''). It's a story based on fact , and it was previously memorialized in a classic nonfic-tion account of the struggle between the rebels and the military troops of Brazil's recently formed republic, ''Rebellion in the Backlands'' (1902), by the Brazilian journalist Euclides da Cunha.

The novel begins with the Counselor's first appearances in poverty-stricken towns, and immediately emphasizes his mesmeric hold over the various wretched of the earth - including beggars, prostitutes, thieves, and murderers; the deformed , despised, and outcast - who accept his message of apocalypse (that the world will end by the year 1900, and that heaven will welcome only those who heed his teachings) and follow him to an abandoned cattle ranch, Canudos, in the northern Bahia region, where they establish an independent community (''a society in which marriage and money have been done away with'') and reject the secular solution to their country's miseries offered by political reform: In the Counselor's words, ''the antichrist was abroad in the world; his name was Republic.''

The rebels commit assorted acts of civil disobedience, and repeatedly declare their faith in an apocalyptic overturning of Brazil's tradition of injustice. The Republicans view them as an impediment to progress that must be destroyed; also arrayed against the people of Canudos are the ''retrograde'' landowners (such as the Baron de Canabrava, owner of the ranch they've appropriated) who are themselves, necessarily, mortal enemies of the Republic. The novel becomes an extended account of the successive military raids the Republic initiates against Canudos, climaxing with the destruction of their renegade ''society,'' and also a richly detailed exploration of the lives of people caught up in this maelstrom of sociopolitical and religious conflict.

A present-tense narration, and a masterly handling of structure, give this already highly charged story even greater dimensions of immediacy and tautness. Early on, we learn of the Canudos rebellion through direct omniscient narration, and also experience the life stories - told in marvelous inset miniature biographies - of individuals who, for different reasons, fall into allegiance with the Counselor. A separate focus is placed on the novel's single most striking character, a Scottish radical and freedom fighter, self-named Galileo Gall (after the astronomer who ''explained'' the cosmos, and also Franz Joseph Gall, founder of the ''science'' of phrenology, which he practices) - a rationalist-socialist who means to join the rebels at Canudos, motivated by his conviction that ''revolution will free society of its afflictions, while science will free the individual of his.''

Once the main plot and its oppositions are established, Vargas Llosa employs a fast-paced alternation of recurring parallel subplots and characters: the celebrated Seventh Regiment of Brazil's Army, led by the feared Col. Moreira Cesar, sets out to invade Canudos; the rebels prepare to defend their chosen land, and their leader; Galileo Gall, victimized by a cruel political double-cross and also by his own resurgent emotions, is pursued by a peasant whose honor he unthinkingly traduced; the Republicans scheme to blame their enemies, the aristocrats, for the rebels' crimes - and the landowners themselves look for ways to make the excesses of the Counselor and his followers appear an inevitable outgrowth of the revolutionary spirit.

Near the story's end, the final, successful assault on Canudos is described as it occurs - and, simultaneously, the same story is told in retrospect, to the exiled Baron de Canabrava, by an unnamed ''nearsighted journalist'' who had traveled with the Republic's troops, and now urgently communicates his hard-earned realization that the resolve of these oppressed people constitutes a force beyond the control of political or military entities, whatever their strength in numbers. Indeed, the journalist's perception is underscored by the novel's powerful conclusion, in which the indestructibility of the rebels' faith in their own ultimate victory is unforgettably dramatized.

We might expect such a spacious, complex canvas to enfold and dwarf individual characterizations, but several leap off the page and remain long in the memory. Galileo Gall is both a fascinating study of theoretical revolutionary ardor, and a compellingly fallible and credible human being. Moreira Cesar, much more than an icy martinet, emerges as an authentically driven man of the people, (''I hate the local landowners and the English merchants who kept this region in the dark ages''). The Baron de Canabrava, a sophisticated ironist whose amused judgments on his country's various madnesses are perhaps a bit overdrawn, is nevertheless a strong dramatic figure - seen most memorably when he last appears, in a remarkable erotic scene that boldly images his helpless kinship with the poor and ignorant whom he has always misunderstood and exploited. And among the inhabitants of Canudos there are a dozen or more whose personalities exhibit a specificity that elevates them beyond the compacted mass of humanity they belong to - particularly the shamed Maria Quadrado and the deformed, hydrochephalic ''Lion of Natuba,'' who together finally assume an amazing and daring mystical significance.

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This novel can be read as a prophetic warning to the rest of the world, specifically to citizens of settled and complacent societies who may never comprehend the millenarian zeal and fury that can turn seemingly helpless, ineffectual people into an unstoppable wave of idealistic purpose. Given people's distances and differences, their unwillingness or refusal to understand one another, the book seems to say: Revolution is inevitable, and those who believe they will inherit the earth will fight longest and hardest.

How good is ''The War of the End of the World''? Its battlefield scenes alone offer evidence of a narrative imagination that has not, indeed, often been matched since Tolstoy. But what makes this a truly exceptional novel is its thoroughly convincing interplay between personal conflict and historical purpose: It's a book that shows us action in the process of becoming history. For me, it compares favorably with the best fiction of the last quarter-century - with ''The Tin Drum,'' ''Catch-22,'' ''The Recognitions,'' ''Gravity's Rainbow ,'' ''Lolita,'' ''One Hundred Years of Solitude.'' It is a masterpiece.

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