Analysis of Carlos Fuentes’s The Campaign

Beginning in 1958 with Where the Air Is Clear, Carlos Fuentes (1928–2012) has written several major novels, short stories, plays, screenplays, and numerous critical essays. With The Campaign, Fuentes recounts the history of the Americas and, more important, the origins of Hispanic culture. The Campaign is the first novel in a series of three planned works. The Campaign begins where Terra Nostra (1975) leaves off: at the height of Spanish America’s struggle for independence. The story in The Campaign unfolds via letters written by the protagonist, Baltasar Bustos, to a friend, Manuel Varela, who lives in Buenos Aires and whose manuscript becomes the text of this novel.

The setting encompasses a large geographical swath of what is modern-day Bolivia, Chile, Peru, Colombia, and Veracruz, and the novel spans the years from 1810 through 1920. Baltasar is young man deeply influenced (some would argue that he is seduced) by several facets of the Enlightenment and the Romantic periods. Baltasar is motivated by the writings of Voltaire, Rousseau, and Diderot; however, he is most intrigued by Rousseau’s works. Baltasar believes that in order to rectify imbalances in all things, human desire and passion are integral factors in order to return to a state of perfect harmony.

Carlos Fuentes's The Campaign

Carlos Fuentes at home in Mexico City in 2001.Credit…Henry Romero/Reuters

As the son of a wealthy Argentinean landowner, Baltasar is a highly likeable character; he is romantic, passionate, insightful, and highly idealistic. Some critics argue that Baltasar’s caring and idealistic nature make him vulnerable and thus fickle in the ideals he chooses (or chooses not) to believe. However, as philosophical as Baltasar is, he is also equally grounded in reality. His desire to correlate the philosophical ideals he gains from his readings and apply them to what is actually going on in his life makes him a complex thinker. Some critics, however, think of Baltasar as too much of an idealistic dreamer, akin to something like Cervantes’s title character in Don Quixote. Some readers might also inquire whether or not Baltasar is actually certain what his ideals are and whether or not he is actually fighting for what he truly believes in. Other critics argue that the objectives Baltasar forms are never truly realized, despite his constant ruminating over them.

As philosophically inclined as Baltasar is, he is greatly moved by the teachings of the Catholic Church. However, this religious background directly challenges many of the ideals he has adopted from the Enlightenment school of thought. This collision of philosophies challenges Baltasar’s existence, but it also functions as a method of explaining Fuentes’s notion that everything in this novel—the characters, the incidents, even actual historical times, places, and events—represents a collective metaphor of ideas. These ideas do not exist separately; they exist simultaneously and function as a complementary text to the foundational makeup of Latin America’s historical and cultural existence.

The Campaign can be regarded as a text detailing Latin America’s development from a series of separate provinces to that of a complete yet still fledging republic. The contradiction of ideals and beliefs is central to very early Spanish-American formative thought principles. As Baltasar attempts to redeem both himself and the cause for which he is fighting, a newly developed consciousness is formed. Fuentes’s account of Baltasar’s campaign to remedy the contradictions and pacify the struggles regarding Spanish America’s fight for independence is one that mirrors actual historical Spanish American historical struggles.

Fuentes has often regarded the large body of his fiction as one continual and total entity, and with The Campaign he embarks on what critics call his el tiempo romántico, or third cycle. This is the only novel by Fuentes focusing on Latin American countries other than Mexico; yet The Campaign still regards the search for truth and meaning in all Latin American countries. Existentially, truth is found within the school of Enlightenment thought, yet Baltasar still grapples to ascend to a greater plane of awareness because he is also torn by religious thought. This conflict functions as a way to not only help the readers define the central character but also to reinforce the idea that Fuentes’s characters do not merely represent composites of reality, they represent ideas central to the earliest beginnings of Latin American independence and their subsequent newly formed republics.

A major theme of The Campaign is that of an ideal society, a utopic existence; yet this objective is in direct contrast with reality. This is similar to Baltasar’s attempts to correlate the idealism he discovers in the writings of Rousseau and Voltaire to the reality of his present. Although an ideal and romantic endeavor, this is a highly unlikely outcome when one recalls the chaos and near-anarchy during the fall of the Spanish empire. However, since Baltasar represents the idealism and fervor that determinism affords, even in the face of impossibility, readers cannot blame him for remaining faithful to the hope that the destruction of war will raise the possibility of a better future.

The Campaign is a novel that lauds the philosophical and spiritual essence of the Enlightenment period; it supports the idea that reason can advocate the (re)evaluation of generally accepted ideas and institutions, and it begs to question the blind acceptance of that which is perceived as truth. When one regards Baltasar in this light, it is easy to see him as a positive figure and forgive his tendency to hope that a utopian reality transcends impossibility. The Campaign heralds the independent spirit of a new republic and posits the idea that a newly formed government can withstand the dystopic realities that inevitably challenge the best of man’s intentions.

Helmuth, Chalene. The Postmodern Fuentes. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1997.
Langford, Walter M. The Mexican Novel Comes of Age. South Bend, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1971.
Van Delden, Maarten. Carlos Fuentes, Mexico and Modernity. Nashville, Tenn. Vanderbilt University Press, 1999.

Categories: Literature, Novel Analysis, Spanish Literature

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