Set during the exciting and tumultuous revolutionary years between 1810 and the early 1820’s, when Spanish America fought for its independence from Spain, The Campaign interweaves many connected stories and themes into an ingeniously complex novel.
The Campaign is the first volume of a trilogy about the era from 1810 to the Mexican Revolution of 1910, and it is about the beginnings of Spanish America’s quest for modern identity and self-definition. The novel is both a vigorous tale of action and a series of commentaries about the purpose of this action, about the implications of freedom and equality, and about the role of language itself. The story begins and ends in Buenos Aires, but the intermediate chapters describe the travels of the main character, Baltasar Bustos, as he journeys to the interior of Argentina, to Upper Peru, to Lima and Santiago, Maracaibo and Veracruz in pursuit of both a revolutionary ideal and the great erotic passion of his life. The Campaign is an account of the education of this young man, who symbolizes his times, who participates in the major events of the foundational decade that began in 1810, and who reflects at length upon the ramifications of this experience.
The story begins with melodrama: On the night of May 24, 1810, the very eve of the declaration of independence, Baltasar Bustos, then a young law clerk, kidnaps the newborn son of Ofelia Salamanca, wife of Marquis de Cabra, president of the superior court for the viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata. In the baby’s place, he leaves a black infant, son of a prostitute who has just been publicly flogged. For Baltasar, this is a revolutionary act of justice: an insistence upon racial equality. The results of this impulsive, idealistic action are played out through the book, against a backdrop of a continent aflame with revolutionary fervor. Unexpected and chance occurrences determine subsequent events. Baltasar intends to put into practice the theories of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Voltaire, and Denis Diderot, whose books he and his close friends, Varela (the book’s narrator) and Dorrego, have been discussing, but an accidental fire erases the traces of his baby substitution, and Baltasar’s life is transformed by his glimpse of the white baby’s mother, the beautiful Ofelia Salamanca. Ofelia becomes for him not only an irresistible sexual attraction but also “what he most desired: an unattainable ideal, the pure bride of pure desire, untouched.” The Campaign is the story of Bustos’ double quest for the love of Ofelia and for the success of the American rebellion against the forces of Spain, crucially weakened at home by defeat by Napoleon Bonaparte’s army.
The story eventually provides resolution of Bustos’ dual passions as well as a reconnection with the misplaced white baby, who comes to symbolize the revolutionary rebirth and hopeful future of the American republics. Within this unifying framework of Bustos’ multiple quests, a series of adventures and insights along the way are arranged in loosely associated order. Fuentes’ narrative technique is kaleidoscopic: Each new chapter (set in a new geographic location) recombines and reiterates already familiar elements but rearranges these elements into a new pattern. Time spins forward and backward, including extensive historical background for the independence movement and circling ahead in prophecies and commentaries to comprehend present retrospective knowledge of the years that followed the idealism of 1810.
Baltasar Bustos’ educational journey takes him from his circle of friends in Buenos Aires on a tour of the centers of revolutionary ferment. The continuity of a Buenos Aires perspective is maintained by the narrator, Bustos’ printer friend Manuel Varela, who tells the story based on Bustos’ letters to him. Attention is frequently drawn to the artifact of the written or printed word. Society is measured against the words of Rousseau, Voltaire, and Diderot. Bustos’ letters try to describe the realities of revolution, but language often fails, just as it does in Upper Peru when Bustos makes an emotional speech about freedom to an Indian audience that does not understand his Spanish. The relationship of legal declarations and documents to social realities is often debated. Sets of words may represent or change perceptions, but they may also falsify them. Lawyers fight for independence with words, writing up declarations and “a splendid series of laws that abolished slavery, that restored lands to communities, and that guaranteed individual rights.” Bustos, the law clerk from Buenos Aires, sees that...
(The entire section is 1890 words.)