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Critical Review by Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria
SOURCE: "Passion's Progress," in New York Times Book Review, October 6, 1991, p. 3.
In the following review, Echevarria provides a highly laudatory assessment of The Campaign, declaring it not only "Fuentes's best novel so far," but "also one of the best Latin American novels of the last 20 years."
Latin America's novelists have been obsessively drawn to their continent's history because it is a grand narrative, with a beginning portentous enough to satisfy yearnings for a sacred origin, yet historical in the sense of being human and secular. The conquistadors themselves, as well as the first historians of the New World, believed that the discovery of America by Columbus was the most significant event since the Crucifixion. It may very well have been the discovery, in fact, that created the modern feeling of being in history.
For this reason, Alejo Carpentier, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Homero Aridjis and Carlos Fuentes, among others, have all written novels that begin at or near that beginning. Of late, however, perhaps saturated by the consecration of that moment, or by its repeated and predictable debunking in this quincentenary year, Latin American novelists have turned to another dramatic historical divide: the wars of independence from Spain in the early 19th century. These conflicts provide a wealth of epic characters and actions, and the founding of new nations a rich, polemical beginning that still has clear repercussions. Thus we have had the novelist and poet Augusto Roa Bastos' I the Supreme, about the 19th-century Paraguayan dictator "Doctor" Jose Gaspar Rodriguez Francia; The General in His Labyrinth by Mr. Garcia Marquez, which narrates Simon Bolivar's final days; the Mexican writer Fernando del Paso's Noticias del Imperio, about the French imperial adventure in Mexico, and now The Campaign by Carlos Fuentes.
It is, in my view, Mr. Fuentes's best novel so far, the one where he has found, after much experimentation, a genuine voice. The Campaign is also one of the best Latin American novels of the last 20 years, possibly destined to become a classic.
It focuses on the decade of the independence struggle from 1810 to 1820, spanning the continent from Argentina to Mexico, with stops in Peru, Chile and Venezuela. It offers a vast social, intellectual and political panorama of the wars, as seen through the lives of three young men in Argentina who are imbued with the ideas of Voltaire, Diderot and Rousseau. Like the political movement in which the three young men are involved, they represent the transition from the Enlightenment to Romanticism. This is particularly the case of the protagonist, Baltasar Bustos, a follower of Rousseau who believes in the efficacy of passion in bringing about a restoration of nature's balance in all realms. Though a bookish man, like his two companions Baltasar makes himself into a man of action in a Quixotic quest to make reality and his readings coincide. The Campaign is in good measure about the impossibility of applying European theories to the American continent, a dilemma constantly faced by Latin American rulers, from Spanish viceroys to Marxist caudillos.
Mr. Fuentes exploits skillfully the dramatic and even comical results of this faulty fit. In contrast to other Latin American historical novels, which can be ponderous and complicated, The Campaign is a very entertaining book, with a finely wrought plot and memorable characters and scenes—all elegantly contrived, unobtrusive self-referential structure.
Carlos Fuentes has been one of the most deliberate and Protean writers of the century. He has been not only a prolific novelist, but also a short-story writer, an essayist, a critic, a playwright, a lecturer, a journalist—everything but a poet. As a novelist he has nearly exhausted the possibilities available in the modern tradition. He has been Joycean in Christopher Unborn, Jamesian in Aura, Faulknerian in The Death of Artemio Cruz, baroque in Terra Nostra, realistic in The Good Conscience, mythical in Where the Air Is Clear and camp in Cumpleanos. As a critic and essayist Mr. Fuentes has reflected, too predictably at times, the shifting ideologies of the last 40 years; he has discovered at one point or another existentialism, psychoanalysis, Marxism and post-structuralism, and it is clear that the Russian theoretician Mikhail Bakhtin is his latest find.
Mr. Fuentes's literary works often betray symptoms of this consuming anguish to be au courant—a very common affliction of us Latin Americans. This is not to say that the earlier novels are not of high quality, nor to imply that they lack a Fuentes signature. The core of Mr. Fuentes's fictional world is a primal story involving the interplay of birth, fate, love and guilt, all cast in quasi-religious terms. This story is genuine in its pathos, aligning him with a powerful Hispanic tradition reaching back to Fernando de Rojas, Cervantes and Calderon in the Spanish golden age. This fable of origins could be either the source or the reflection of Mr. Fuentes's relationship with models and mentors, which inevitably include, early in his career, Octavio Paz.
While it is very much another version of the Fuentes trademark story, The Campaign is so freely narrated, so unburdened by its author's latest readings and so audacious in its approach to quite grandiose themes that it reads like the work of a truly renewed, even reborn, Carlos Fuentes. One could possibly attribute the novel's spontaneity to its theme, to the youthfulness inherent in the story of a young man inspired by Rousseau and driven by an ideal erotic passion to struggle for political justice.
Baltasar's pilgrimage through war-torn Latin America, from the peaks of the Andes to the frivolous salons of Santiago de Chile, where he is a spy for the revolutionaries, is told in confessional-style letters to his friend Manuel Varela, a printer and publisher in Buenos Aires who is the novel's narrator. The elusive object of Baltasar's lust is Ofelia Salamanca, the wife of the Marquis de Cabra, the presiding judge for the Viceroyalty of the Rio de la Plata. He ogles her magnificent alabaster body through a window as she dresses, unaware of the voyeur, who will be fatally smitten by her beauty and as a result become the protagonist of significant political acts. Baltasar kidnaps her child and puts in its place a black baby during the momentous night of May 24, 1810. Before the substitution is discovered, however, the black baby is burned in a fire accidentally started by Baltasar, and its charred body is taken for that of Ofelia's child. Meanwhile, the white baby is lost by Baltasar's accomplices in the confusion of the blaze and the tumultuous events following the installation of a junta—without the viceroy—the next morning.
The return of Ofelia's child is not the only treat the narrator has in store for us at the end of his Fielding-like romance, but I will not give away the plot. Suffice it to say that the final disclosures are akin to those in Agatha Christie's thriller The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, and that they loop together neatly mysteries about the paternity of Ofelia's child and the genealogy of the text itself. I am sure that the fake foundling will play a significant role in two more novels which, Mr. Fuentes has announced, will make up, with The Campaign, a trilogy about Latin American independence.
Ofelia's child is reborn, as it were, the night before the May Revolution of 1810 in Buenos Aires, an event that robs him of the privileges he acquired by his first birth. It is as if this white baby represented the new freedom sought by the revolutionaries: unburdened by the past, a fresh new world in which to build a new polity. In this, as well as in the story of Baltasar's strained relations with his father, the owner of a large estate in the Argentine pampa, as well as in many other details, Mr. Fuentes seems to be flirting with allegory. The characters and their actions, in other words, come to embody abstract notions such as freedom, authority, the Spanish past. This tendency seems to be a paradoxical habit of political romances of this kind; while revolutionary in theme and intention, they assume the most conventional and even reactionary of literary forms, which depend heavily on received knowledge and the tritest of symbols. Mr. Fuentes has avoided the solemnity inherent in allegory and its implicit submission to authority by the very ironic, novelistic form that the transmission of the text feigns: letters that we never read completely (the narrator sometimes quotes from them), but that are recast by the narrator so that their significant implications in the story are not revealed until the end. The thriller style that brings about closure can only be taken with a grain of salt.
The freshness of The Campaign could also be due to the fact that it covers the struggle for independence in Latin America and the initial moments of republican life, when, despite disagreements among the young revolutionaries, there is hope that their efforts will bring about not only freedom, but equality. The desire for political renewal and the expectation of a perfect society is one of the undying topics of American literature—North and South. One of the central themes of The Campaign is the premonition of an American utopia. This is highlighted in one of the most remarkable scenes of the novel, when Baltasar, led into caves in the Andes, has a vision of El Dorado, in this case a marvelous Inca city that is resplendent with purity and wealth. (He also catches a tantalizing glimpse of Ofelia's inviting body in a dreamlike sequence that blends erotic and political desires.)
The end of the novel does not bring about a loss of this hope. This is in sharp contrast with The General in His Labyrinth by Mr. Garcia Marquez. Mr. Fuentes playfully underscores the difference when he has the printer write: "While I waited for authors of our own to emerge, I already had before me a life of the Liberator Simon Bolivar, a manuscript stained with rain and tied with tricolor ribbons, which the author, who called himself Aureliano Garcia, had sent to me, as best he could, from Barranquilla. It was a sad chronicle, however … I preferred to go on publishing Voltaire and Rousseau (La Nouvelle Heloise was the greatest literary success in the entire history of South America) and leave for another time the melancholy prophecy of a Bolivar as sick and defeated as his dream of American unity and civil liberty in our nations."
But The Campaign contains enough prophecies of its own about battles to come among the divisive groups that brought about independence, and about the fragmentation of Latin America after the Spanish departure. In this the novel is very topical, for it seems to allude to the struggles fostered by present-day nationalism and the resultant splintering of large political units.
Reading The Campaign creates the illusion of returning to that heady moment (the time of the Congress of Vienna in Europe, the Congreso de Angostura in Latin America) when, in the turbulent wake of the Napoleonic wars, modern nations were created. The contrast between political projects and subsequent history is, needless to say, ironic. But the young men in the novel, particularly Baltasar, are caught up in the enthusiasm of beginnings. They argue vehemently about how to achieve equality as if their intellectual jousting could really realize their Utopias. For Latin Americans, particularly in the current time of ideological breakdown and forced pragmatism, their fervor cannot be but exhilarating, and even the cause of a bit of nostalgia. More generally, The Campaign seems to evoke promises and projects of the Enlightenment at a time when they appear most bankrupt and unattainable. Perhaps this is a call for a new beginning. Despite a labored and at times inexact translation, The Campaign is a pleasure to read—for its plot, the richness of its historical setting and the political issues it raises. I had never before finished a Fuentes book wishing for more, but after reading The Campaign I look forward eagerly to the next volumes of the trilogy.
This section contains 2,002 words
(approx. 7 pages at 300 words per page)