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La campana.

A historical novel set during the years 1810 to 1820, La campana explores the Latin American Wars of Independence from a revisionist perspective. Recent scholarship has focused on the conservative aspect of the revolutions, stressing the fact that for the vast majority of Latin Americans, political independence from Spain did not bring about liberation, but merely a transfer of power. The rich, white criollos who took the reins of government after the wars had their own interests at heart, and were, for the most part, as indifferent as the Spaniards to the needs of the masses of Indians and blacks who had served as cannon fodder in their campaigns.

Narrated by Manuel Varela, one of three Argentine criollo friends who view themselves as progressives, Fuentes' novel embraces the whole of Latin America, from Buenos Aires to the pampa to the campaigns in Alto Peru (Bolivia), Venezuela, and Mexico. Xavier Dorrego, Baltasar Bustos, and Varela represent different elements of Argentine criollos society, but share an enthusiasm for liberal French thinkers (Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot) and for the ideal of independence. They spend their time in cafes philosophizing, gossiping, and debating the future of Argentina.

Bustos, the most audacious of the group, conceives a plan to sneak into the chamber of Ofelia Salamanca, wife of the Marquis de Cabra, the president of the Royal Court in Buenos Aires, and switch her newborn son for the child of a black slave. Guided by a distorted sense of justice, he hopes thereby, to give the poor child a chance to grow up among finery, while condemning the son of the marquis to a life of misery. Symbolically myopic, Bustos trips on his way out, upsetting some candles that surround the crib and setting the room on fire. He manages to save the life of the white baby and hand it over to the black nanny, but the slave's child dies in the flames--a portent of the racial inequity that will continue to plague Lating America.

In the process of preparing this scheme, Bustos spies Ofelia naked in her chamber, and falls madly in love with her. However, he is unable to beg her forgiveness for the wrong he has done because soon after her baby's supposed death, she leaves Argentina for her native Chile. After a trip to his father's estate, during which he reaffirms his contempt for rural life and the primitive ways of the gauchos, Bustos joins the wars of independence. Although he fights in many campaigns (he even meets San Martin) and infiltrates Spanish society to spy on the enemy, Bustos is motivated by his love for Ofelia more than by his political convictions. He follows her to Chile and then to points north. When he begins to fall for the lovely actress Gabriel Coo, he abandons her in order to remain faithful to his cause: Ofelia. The marquise always stays a step ahead of him. Known for her beauty, seductiveness, and cruelty, she leaves behind a trail of rumors and folksongs that turn her into an almost mythological figure. When at last he catches up with her in Mexico, however, he finds her to be radically different from what he had imagined, and yet, the culmination of his quest is in some ways even more gratifying than he had hoped.

The political campaign is also Bustos' personal campaign. As he searches for Ofelia and also for her child, whom he believes to have doomed to a life of poverty, he acquires a deeper understanding not only of Latin America but also of himself. He begins to grasp the difficulties of the task of building new republics. When he spouts his platitudes about equality and fraternity to the Indians, he realizes that they do not understand him; they speak no Spanish. The Andean area is divided into republiquetas, each run by a caudillo. The revolutionaries are motivated by greed or vegeance, not by political ideals. San Martin predicts that once the independence has been won, factions will fall to fighting among themselves. There is little prospect of social justice. The leaders on both sides are white; the soldiers are Indian or black. In spite of his professed ideals, even in war Bustos cannot bring himself to kill a Spaniard because it would be like killing a brother. Instead, he kills--almost ritualistically--an Indian. Having lost two close friends in battle, Bustos, still in pursuit of Ofelia, makes his way to Maracaibo, where he befriends a dying prostitute and assists a wounded Spaniard in the local hospital. Bustos is maturing, learning to serve others.

Significantly, in view of the fact that Fuentes is Mexican, it is in Mexico that Baltasar finally meets a man who incarnates the true spirit of revolution. Father Anselmo Quintana is a wild, womanizing, defrocked insurgent priest who, in spite of his dispute with the Church, is a deeply religious person whose devotion to the ideals of the revolution border on the mystical. Unlike the squabbling caudillos Bustos met in the Andes, Quintana is a visionary who preaches unity and equality. He understands the bonds of language, religion and history, and as a mestizo, represents the fusion of cultures that can make Latin America great. He also epitomizes the rebelliousness and virility that are fundamental to the Latin American temperament. While he respects Baltasar's rationalism, he knows that reason alone will not transform the new nations, for a deep spirituality borne of three hundred years of Spanish rule and thousands of years of native culture are the bedrock on which any authentic Latin American identity must be built.

Although his vision is not particularly original, Fuentes weaves an interesting tale full of unexpected turns. It is an important reminder that the key to the present is buried in the past.
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Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Mujica, Barbara
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1991
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