Politics, revolution and violence are the mainstays of this ambitious novel about power and corruption in a Latin American country called Mayapan.
But having said that, let's get to the real nitty-gritty of this sprawling tale that bounces from the intellectual framework of Columbia University to the steamy jungles of a backward nation and right on to the Oval Office of a fictitious U.S. President for an all-night drinking and flirting session. This is a story about love, romance and sex.
A child named Camila is forced into exile when her journalist father is killed by an evil dictator. She lands in New York with rich but indifferent guardians who depart for Europe the moment she turns 16, leaving her in the care of an elderly, lecherous poet who sexually abuses her in graphic detail for a few years (and in some inexplicable way thereby becoming a lifetime temptation which she tries to resist).
At the ripe but by then scarred age of 20, Camila is rescued from her tormentor by the dashing Ferdinando Lorca who is only twice her age instead of thrice. Never mind, Ferdinando is terrific in every way: svelte, strong, tender and brilliant. Not only that, he has endured torture at the hand of the same dictator who killed Camila's father, and Ferdinando is determined to return to Mayapan and overthrow the oppressor by staging a revolution.
Also in love with Camila is a homely middle-aged Catholic priest whose chief function in the plot is to elaborate on the spirituality of Camila, to fight off his own baser instincts toward her, and to eventually promote her toward sainthood.
Camila has such a conglomeration of personal characteristics that it is hard to imagine her in reality: strong but fragile, petite and blond, self-assured, witty and outspoken, captivatingly sensual, a charismatic leader of her people, yet frail and pliant in love, all capped by that ethereal and somehow holy glow that makes her a candidate for sainthood. A ghost of "Evita" hovers, unmentioned, somewhere.
The politics of revolution get good play here, even to having the rebels contact a Madison Avenue ad agency to design them a slogan. And there's a sort of epic sense in the bloody battles between the mercenaries, "strung-out professional suicides," and the armed forces in power. The U.S. President is described as an ex-jock and a "born-again capitalist with a Chamber of Commerce mentality." The CIA and the Vatican take a few shots, too, what with gun-running, espionage and sneaky international wheeling and dealing.
There are some dazzling scenes, especially those in which Camila heads for the back country of Mayapan to stir up support for the revolution. Camila is, after all, mainly a symbol. One wants to believe. She inspires the simple people, because she is brave and unself-conscious and beautiful. And as visions crumble and the revolution rots into a new round of terror and oppression, she has the grace to die young. I have not given away the plot. They are both dead as the story begins. That's how it is in those poor, sad countries full of jungles and faith.