Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1890
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 both direct action and the written word are crucial. The lawyers also die in defense of what they believe. “Thus, the circle of the written closed over its authors, capturing them in the noble fiction of their own inventive powers: the written is the real and we are its authors.” Fuentes repeatedly includes his own book in the sets of words about Spanish-American realities and expands his text to include other familiar contemporary sets of words as well. Varela, the narrator-printer, speaks of having in his hands “a life of the Liberator Simón Bolívar, a manuscript stained with rain and tied with tricolor ribbons, which the author, who called himself Aureliano García, had sent to me, as best he could, from Barranquilla.” (238) This reference to Gabriel García Márquez’ book about Bolívar, El general en su laberinto (1989; The General in His Labyrinth, 1990), with a nod to Aureliano Buendía, a central character in García Márquez’ novel Cien años de soledad (1967;One Hundred Years of Solitude, 1970), is one of many literary jokes, but also makes the serious point that our reality (and our perception of history) includes all the many interpretations of it, and is, in fact, composed of and by these interpretations. Historical reality can be represented only by words. Fuentes speaks of Baltasar Bustos as very aware “that he had written a chronicle of those years—the one I’m holding in my hands right now, which one day you, reader, will also hold in yours—in the stream of letters” he had sent to his friends.
Each chapter, each geographical destination, represents a step in the education of Baltasar Bustos and a set of choices the young man must make. He encounters a series of mentors who explain or show him their perspectives on truth, and he must decide in each case whether or not to follow this guidance. In the chapter on “The Pampa,” Bustos comes to terms with his authoritarian landowner father, who lives among untamed gauchos in a primitive freedom that is doomed, ironically, by the revolution. In “El Dorado,” Bustos is introduced to the world of Indian tradition. He is initiated into sexuality by Indian women and led by an ancient seer, Simón Rodríguez, down into the bowels of the earth into a surreal vision of a city of pure light, a golden, glowing city that may be a vision of either the past or the future. In Simón Rodríguez’ words “today we witnessed only one brief moment of that unending ribbon where truth is inscribed, and we do not know if what we saw is part of our imagination today, of an imagination that precedes us, or if it proclaims an imagination to come.” The revelations of this ambiguous vision, terrible to Baltasar Bustos because they cause him to doubt his rational convictions, are counterbalanced by Bustos’ plunge into physical action in battle on the side of guerrilla fighters who harass and decimate the Spanish forces. Bustos learns about ideological complexity and kills his first man, and Indian, his “real enemy brother,” with whom he exchanges clothing. Mirror images and doubles abound throughout The Campaign, beginning with the two babies (one black, one white) and continuing as Bustos meets versions of aspects of himself at every turn: a gaucho brother who looks just like him, the Indian brother (also named Baltasar) whose death he avenges by killing another Indian brother, and a series of other men who represent facets of himself. Bustos himself becomes two quite separate men: the plump, myopic city gentleman and the lean, tough guerrilla fighter. He alternates between these two selves as he makes his way through the snares of Peruvian and Chilean society, telling and retelling the stories of his dreams, obsessions, and exploits in a gradual process of self- understanding.
Bustos’ involvement with national struggles for political enlightenment becomes more fused with his obsessive search for Ofelia Salamanca as Bustos serves with San Martín’s Army of the Andes and fights in the battle of Chacabuco. The fighting trio of friends (Echagüe, Arias, and Bustos) on the battlefield mirrors the Buenos Aires trio of peacetime theorists. Independence is won, but San Martín utters prophetic words about the difficulties of sustaining freedom and equality and the need for institutions that will promulgate national unity.
When Bustos’ quest for his love takes him on to Venezuela, he is haunted by the popular ballads about his obsession with Ofelia that follow him everywhere. As he travels through the hills where Simón Bolívar’s battles were fought, he feels that “all that was left to him was to bounce from war to war, from south to north and from north to south, to carry out his legendary destiny, which had already been mapped out in popular song.” The Venezuelan backwoods are as surreal as the vision of El Dorado, and as disorienting. It is necessary for Bustos to reconnect with compassion and a sense of shared humanity, achieved only when he accompanies a dying Spanish officer, for him to be able to be rewarded with the final message from Ofelia Salamanca summoning him to join her in Veracruz. In Mexico, in “the final phase of his campaign of love and war,” Bustos meets the last powerful mentor and brother figure, General Anselmo Quintana, the rebel priest who summarizes and symbolizes the progress of the wars for independence in Mexico, the last of the major struggles for freedom from Spain. With Quintana’s lessons, Bustos’ panoramic survey of the Americas in turmoil is complete, and his dual passion for Ofelia and for political renewal reaches the end of line, appropriately fused together. Bustos’ return to Buenos Aires with Ofelia’s son is both a homecoming and a new beginning. Bustos and his beloved have been joined all along, but only at the end does he understand this. In the boy, Bustos has found his true younger brother, and through his experiences, he has connected his theories with his practices and his ideas with his ideals.
In The Campaign, Carlos Fuentes has combined the suspense of a mystery with a dense panorama of historical detail. Bustos’ pilgrimage through the major centers of revolutionary Spanish America creates the opportunity for a historical travelogue that serves as a backbone for clusters of commentaries, prophecies, and vivid images in surreal descriptions of battles, visions, and dreams. It is an epic full of optimism and exhilarating energy, the enthusiasm of political beginnings and the joy of language.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist. LXXXVII, July, 1991, p. 2011.
Chicago Tribune. October 13, 1991, XIV, p. 7.
The Economist. CCCXXI, November 16, 1991, p. 112.
Kirkus Reviews. LIX, July 1, 1991, p. 808.
Library Journal. CXVI, September, 1991, p. 230.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. October 20, 1991, p. 2.
The New York Times Book Review. XCVI, October 6, 1991, p. 3.
Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVIII, August 2, 1991, p. 63.
The Times Literary Supplement. November 15, 1991, p. 6.
The Washington Post. October 31, 1991, p. C1.