A tale of youth and idealism in Latin America's Wars of Independence

October 27, 1991|By Anne Whitehouse


Carlos Fuentes; translated from

the Spanish by Alfred MacAdam.

Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

246 pages. $22.95.

Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes' new novel, the first of a projected trilogy titled "The Romantic Time," is set during the decade of Latin America's Wars of Independence, from 1810 to 1820. Mr. Fuentes brings his erudition, his synthesizing intelligence and his love of intricacy to this story of Baltasar Bustos, the Creole son of a ranch owner in the Argentine pampas. The novel is narrated by Bustos' friend, a printer and clock collector named Manuel Varela. Together with Xavier Dorrego, they are a triumvirate steeped in Enlightenment philosophy. Followers of Rousseau and Voltaire, they are rebels against the hierarchical powers of Church and crown.

The novel begins in Buenos Aires in 1810, where Bustos, seeking to put his principles into practice, kidnaps the newborn son of the Marquis de Cabra, the royalist president of the Superior Court, and replaces the infant with the baby of a black prostitute. While committing this act under the secrecy of night, Bustos glimpses the marquise, Ofelia Salamanca, a young, beautiful Chilean, and instantly falls in love with her.

After his departure, a fire breaks out in the president's quarters. Bustos blames himself for having knocked over one of the candles around the crib. The black baby is burned beyond recognition. Remorseful, Bustos repents of his rash act, but the prostitute and her sister already have fled with the marquise's child.

Thus is set in motion an odyssey that will last 10 years and will take Bustos through the South American continent and into Mexico. At first, disconsolate and fearful, Bustos returns home, where he argues with his conservative father and his frustrated, hateful sister. There he receives word from friends that the revolutionary junta has taken over the Argentine government, and the marquis and his wife have returned to Chile. Through his friends' intervention, Bustos becomes a lieutenant in the revolutionary army.

As a romantic hero, Bustos is a comic creation: pudgy, myopic and sedentary by nature. He is an innocent and an idealist, who preserves the exalted passion of his unconsummated love for the mysterious Ofelia throughout years of military campaigns. In the struggle between the Spanish, the revolutionaries and the guerrilla warlords in the Andes highlands of Peru, he is powerless to enforce his enlightened doctrines of justice.

Mr. Fuentes vividly depicts the clash of competing ideas and the dramatic circumstances in which Bustos finds himself. He is recruited by a band of guerrillas and escapes with a sentence on his head. He encounters the Marquis de Cabra in the doomed aristocratic court of Lima, Peru, and infiltrates the royalist circle of Santiago, Chile, as a republican spy with San Martin's Army of the Andes.

He finds no lack of mentors and prophets along the way. They include the aged mestizo who reveals to him the troubling, light-filled vision of the true El Dorado, the Jesuit tutor of his boyhood and, most prescient of all, General de San Martin himself, who predicts that "soon he would see not the faces of friends dead in a just cause and in the glory of the battle for independence but the faces of brothers killed in fratricidal wars for power." "We forget," says San Martin, "that beneath the cupolas of certainty and the columns of law there is a dream of rocks, vermin, and quicksand that will put the equilibrium of the republic in danger."

Following a trail of rumors, Bustos pursues without success the elusive Ofelia, who is said to be a cruel seductress and a murderess for the royalist cause. Still under her spell, he resists the love of the young actress Gabriela Coo, another beautiful Chilean whom he meets in Santiago.

Bustos' quest leads him to Venezuela and finally to Veracruz, Mexico, where he encounters Quintana, an excommunicated revolutionary priest who, foreseeing his own assassination, pleads with Bustos for the need of religious faith. For 10 years Bustos has cherished the image of the beautiful Ofelia. At last the doomed priest brings Bustos face to face with the reality.

In the closing pages, the last of Mr. Fuentes' intricately constructed smoke screens is blown away and the reader learns the truth about Ofelia and her son. That an essential secret is being withheld is alluded to when Lutecia, once a beauty of Lima's salons, now living in a Maracaibo, Venezuela, brothel, tells Bustos, "There is always something not known or left unsaid. . . . We keep things in reserve . . . to say or do them when the occasion presents itself."

"The Campaign" is supplely translated by Alfred MacAdam. It is a witty and enthralling tale of headstrong youth and romantic idealism, at once playful and profound, by one of our most distinguished writers.

Ms. Whitehouse is a writer living in New York.

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