Freedom fight for our times

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 13 February, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 13 February, 1993, 12:00am

THE CAMPAIGN By Carlos Fuentes (Picador, $87) HOW preoccupied was Napoleon by the legendary Josephine during his conquests of various European countries? Or, to put it another way, how do the quixotic motivations of those involved in great moments of history, influence the outcome of these events? I have the feeling that this is one of the main themes underpinning Carlos Fuentes' ambitious trilogy covering Latin America's struggle for independence from its Spanish colonial masters. The Campaign is the first part of what promises to be a marvellously irreverent account of this turbulent period.

The unlikely hero is the young Argentinian revolutionary Balthasar Bustos, desperately searching for a way to make his special contribution to the struggle against the Spanish colonialists.

Nurtured in that well-known school of revolutionaries, the coffee house, he comes up with the madcap idea of snatching the baby of the wife of President of the Superior Court and replacing it by a baby belonging to one of her black servants.

The chubby, short-sighted Balthasar smuggles himself into the house, switches the babies, but before doing so, falls madly in love with the very beautiful Ofelia Salamanca, the Chilean wife of the mighty Spanish judge, the Marquis de Cabra.

In his rush to leave the palace with the baby, he believes he has ignited a fire which consumes the black infant as the entire premises go up in flames.

It does not take long to realise that this will be a rather complex tale with some rather unlikely twists and turns.

However the bizarre figure of Balthasar Bustos is really there to take the reader across the continent of Latin America as he searches for Ofelia Salamanca, along the way joining various insurgent groups battling against the Spanish.

It is hard to distinguish his passion for independence from the passion he has for the mother of the child he has stolen. But driven by this passion, he becomes a legendary figure.

As he moves from Argentina to Peru and onwards in his haphazard search for Ofelia and the means to expel the Spanish, our hero unobtrusively guides the reader through the complexities of the anti-colonial struggle; a struggle led by Creoles, like Balthasar, who had little but contempt for the indigenous Indian peoples of the lands they were trying to liberate.

Carlos Fuentes is far too good a writer to present the struggle in black-and-white terms, his speciality lies in filling in the ambiguities which surround the great campaign for independence, a campaign largely obscured these days by a vast amount of myth and nonsense.

As one of the revolutionary generals explains to Balthasar; first, of course, we have to achieve independence, then our headaches will really begin.

Readers in Hongkong are likely to be struck by certain themes of this book.

The sudden crumbling of the established order; the cynicism with which royalists and advocates of independence change sides and the equal incompetence of both those in authority and those seeking to challenge this authority.

Yes, for those of us living here in these turbulent times, Carlos Fuentes has something to say of considerable contemporary relevance.

Famous for The Old Gringo and Constancia and Other Stories for Virgins, Fuentes' The Campaign joins these distinguished works.