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Germán Espinosa: Sinfonía desde el nuevo mundo [Symphony from the New World]

You would not, perhaps, expect a Colombian novel to start in Paris immediately after the Battle of Waterloo nor would you expect this to be relevant to the story of Colombia, though both are the case with this novel. We meet Victorien Fontenier and André Verdot, two French officers in Napoleon’s army, who have fled he Battle of Waterloo, after the French defeat. Fontenier is wounded and bleeding badly from his arm. As they arrive in Paris, they are overtaken by the Emperor’s coach. Verdot wants to flee but Fontenier says he will go the home of the Fauchards, as they will look after him, which he does. We soon learn that he is engaged to Odile Fauchard. Her father is a successful businessman and is reluctant to have an officer of the defeated army in his house, feeling that it would be bad for business. He favours and predicts the restoration of the monarchy. He is, of course, correct.

However, Fontenier does stay, not least because he is in no condition to travel. As he lies in bed, delirious, the mob is raging outside. Eager to get rid of his prospective son-in-law, M. Fauchard proposes that Fontenier accompany a ship he owns that is sailing from Brest to Jamaica. It is carrying arms for the Haitian rebels. (Haiti has thrown off French rule; part of Haiti is under the control of Alexandre Pétion, who aided Simón Bolívar).

Once recovered, Fontenier is off to Jamaica, where he meets an Englishman, Nathaniel Libby. Fontenier is naturally a bit suspicious of the English but admires them for having got rid of slavery. He will remain a dyed-in-the-wool republican. He is horrified to find that Libby is not planning to use the arms for the Haitian rebels but, rather, to use them for the French colonists so that they can restore slavery in Haiti. Fontenier refuses to hand over the arms, to Libby’s disgust.

He then meets Archibald Gibson, a British civil servant. He is now even more suspicious of the English but Gibson introduces him to two Haitians who are fighting for the Haitians, not for the French or British, and Fontenier is eager to give the arms to them. Gibson says that they do not need the arms but he can introduce him to someone who does. That someone turns out to be Simón Bolívar, who is in dire need of arms and who happens to be in Jamaica.

Meanwhile, Libby has not kept quiet but has contacted Fauchard, complaining bitterly about what has happened. Fauchard has decided to come out to Jamaica to see what is going on. Odile, despite her father’s resistance, is accompanying him, sure that there has been some misunderstanding and that her fiancé will do the right thing.

Fontenier, on the other hand, is heading out to Cartagena (Espinosa’s home town), which is currently under siege by the Spanish who have had enough of the colonists’ intransigence and have sent out a large expeditionary force to bring them back into line. Unfortunately, Cartagena is in a very bad way and about to surrender to the Spanish General Murillo. When the ship carrying Fontenier and his colleagues arrives, a Spanish man-of-war easily intercepts them.

We follow the adventures of Fontenier, of Fauchard and Odile, as they arrive in Jamaica and try to track Fontenier down, and the Bolívar campaign. Espinosa shows that Bolívar was not by any means universally admired. Bolívar supports the ordinary people but many of those against the Spanish occupation want a US-style revolution, i.e. one where the middle-class, i.e. the criollos, those of Spanish origin, take over and run the country in their interest. General Bermúdez, for example, who is in command of the troops defending Cartagena, despises Bolívar, as too revolutionary, while the French naval officer, Airy, who is helping them, calls Bolívar a san-culotte.

Fontenier is our hero so he is on the right side (in Espinosa’s view), fighting for the people and he is determined that it is Bolívar and his men who get the arms, not the French and British who want to restore slavery to Haiti.

I do not think this is a great book but it was clearly important for Espinosa. Fontenier and many of the other characters are fictitious but Espinosa is clearly trying to show, as his title, with a nod to Dvořák, indicates, that the revolutionary fire has passed from Europe, with the overthrow of Napoleon and restoration of the monarchy, to the New World, Latin America in particular. Fontenier is certainly very naive but his heart is in the right place and he keeps on fighting for what his right, with his mulatto girlfriend (wittily called Marie Antoinette) at his side. It is a good story and interesting to learn more about Bolívar and his cause but it is not García Márquez.

The book concludes with an appropriate quotation from John Dryden:

The love of liberty with life is given
And life itself the inferior gift of Heaven

Publishing history

First published in Spanish 1990 by Planeta
No English translation