Robert Stone: A Flag for Sunrise
Robert Stone’s third novel is his best to date, showing the underbelly of American capitalism in its Latin American client states, mixed in with the usual drugs, revolution, Americans trying to pretend that it all happens elsewhere and does not concern them and, of course, the Vietnam syndrome. The plot this time around is more complicated and involves three plus apparent separate stories which we know will converge, probably in violence.
Holliwell is a university professor who has been scarred by his experience in Vietnam and is now a rambling alcoholic. He is in the fictitious Latin American country of Compostela to give a paper, which he does, but while drunk so that his speech is, for us, remarkably funny but may have been taken the wrong way by his audience. He had been asked, before leaving the USA, to check out a Devotionist mission in neighbouring Tecan, a country which is all set to explode. He declines to do so, though after his speech he decides to go Tecan and ends up at the mission. The mission in question has just two people left in it, the rest having been frightened off by the local military. The two are Justin, a young, beautiful, idealistic nun, and the aging, alcoholic Father Egan, who is writing a book on Gnosticism. The mission is to be closed but Justin has agreed to help the revolutionaries before it closes. The third story concerns Pablo Tabor, a drug addict, who is involved in gun running. All converge at the end as the revolution breaks out and, in the end, we are left with Stone’s usual quota of bodies and scarred survivors.
The plot is much more complex than I have indicated but Stone’s point is clear. The USA is benefiting from the suffering in Latin America and the USA and its nationals either don’t want to know or don’t care or both. Of course, some have accused him of standing on a soapbox and shouting rather than writing a novel but this is unfair. That he has a political point to make is indisputable and he makes it very well. However, he also tells a very good story and carefully examines the motivations of the main characters who, ultimately, may have similar aims, namely to somehow drag themselves away from their doubts and despair and mean something. The fact that they generally fail is, in Stone’s view, how things are.
First published 1981 by Knopf