Had Voltaire been South American, his classic Candide might have come out something like this absorbing and skillful work from the author of The Old Gringo.
The novel, the first volume of a projected trilogy, begins during the 19th-century wars that freed the Americas from Spanish rule. Baltasar Bustos—a naive, ungainly young Argentinean—is compelled to action by his fervid readings of Rousseau. He dedicates himself to establishing justice and equality among the nascent Latin American republics. For his first revolutionary act, Baltasar kidnaps the white infant son of a Spanish judge and his wife (the legendary beauty Ofelia Salamanca) and substitutes a black child. Falling in love with Ofelia, Baltasar then feels obliged to seek her forgiveness.
A second plot concerns Baltasar the patriot. Severing ties with his family—especially his father, a land-wealthy patriarch—he becomes a firebrand. As he fights and spies among rebel Jesuits, Indians, and Spanish captains, Baltasar reveals his varied adventures to his friends through letters he sends them from Peru, Chile, Mexico and other war zones.
Along with a couple of plot twists (yes, the ending is a surprise) there is a variety of literary and philosophical allusions—think Diderot and Dickens—for readers to enjoy. However, what drives this novel is its author's ability to connect fine writing, palpable characters and an intriguing play of ideas to a brisk, engaging and, at times, sardonic story.
This is a work that reaffirms the special magic of Latin American fiction and should add to Fuentes's already considerable reputation as Mexico's modern master of letters. (Farrar Straus Giroux, $22.95)