“He considered himself a soldier of this revolution without even worrying about surviving it.”
The Catholic mission station is on a 12,000 foot plateau somewhere in the Andes that is something quite out of hell. Cold, dreary, God forsaken and hopeless. Michael Reardon lives there, the representative for a foundation conducting projects of some sort funded by profits from the sale of lipstick. One of those projects is a radio station that broadcasts to the possibly 3,000 radios owned by the local Indians who listen from sunup to sundown to whatever noise is provided without understanding a word.
His work isn’t very demanding, so he spends most of his time driving at random over the plateau. His one attempt to stop, to spend the day reading and picnicking, drives him nearly mad with an undefined fear and anxiety. He won’t do that a second time. Just keep moving. Otherwise, he passes his time drinking with the priests, brothers and nuns, and sometimes just alone, late at night, in a local dive.
A pathetic little revolution is discovered. Well, really more created or imagined than discovered. The revolution brings in the Americans who are convinced that anyone who lives on that plateau must be a communist.
One night that revolution kidnaps Reardon while he’s drinking in his dive. He is taken far into the mountains by horseback but has no idea where. He is surprisingly unruffled because he doesn’t much give a damn. He is the first to meet the 12 sorry soldiers that constitute the revolution and he finds his captives’ purpose, to use him to help capture his own radio station in order to announce the on-set of the revolution, mildly interesting, if potentially tragic.
This kidnapping and the role he and the radio station will play in the revolution makes Just’s story. However, this is more than simply another spy-sort-of-novel. The subtexts, by no means light, almost overwhelm the reader. The most important subtext is the novel’s obsession with philosophy. The plateau is Hobbesian and more than once described in Tom Hobbes’ very words. The missionaries are right out of John Locke, until they go mad, anyway. Reardon is the prototypic existential character. An observer. Uninvolved. And his destiny is exactly existential. He will become. What he will become is less certain, but become, he will.
Without being derivative, A Soldier of the Revolution provokes subconscious images from other great novels to which it is related. Reardon is reminiscent of Mathieu in Sartre’s Troubled Sleep. The utter cultural confusion arising from the meeting of Indians and gringos, priests and soldiers, mestizos and bureaucrats brings to mind Elspeth Huxley’s Red Strangers. Ward’s treatment of the Indians and his left leanings bring to mind B. Traven. His existentialism and treatment of the ‘the foreign’ reminds us that we should reread Paul Bowles. There are flashes of Faulkner and Tolstoy all over the place. The politics machinations are familiar to readers of John le Carre’ at his best. And on and on it goes.
This is another way of saying this is a very serious novel to be enjoyed most by serious readers with strong leanings toward philosophy and familiarity with several insistent literary traditions. But if you’re lacking in these backgrounds, and most of us are, you’ll still enjoy the story. A ripping good yarn, it can be read and enjoyed without reference to its demanding philosophical and literary foundations.
A 1970 copyright raises the question of why PublicAffairs, a well starched publisher, would re-issue the novel at this time. The answer given by PublicAffairs is that Just has become an important commentator, through both his fiction and non-fiction, on our modern state of affairs, but this, his first novel, is not readily available. Right on. A search of major university libraries revealed not a single copy of the book. PublicAffairs therefore justifies reissuing the text: Just’s enthusiasts should have access to this important novel.
Ok, fair enough. But I don’t entirely buy that rationale and venture an alternate suggestion. The novel treats a subject of current political debate: our President’s peculiar enthusiasm for turning many of our social obligations over to ‘faith based’ philanthropic organizations. Reardon works for a well intending foundation that simply has not the slightest idea what is going on. But beyond this, he works in the atmosphere of Catholic missionaries who are almost unbelievably bungling. When the money doesn’t come, nothing happens. When the money does come, nothing happens. Religious services are said before congregations that can’t grasp what they’re all about. Worship becomes just another aspect of the local magic. The nuns approach their jobs with sticky-sweet smiley-faces and leave the first chance they get. The priests and brothers stay around longer, drinking too much until they go insane. Ultimately, they forsake the ministration of religion with which they are somewhat competent for economics and development projects which are utterly beyond their abilities. Do you want a Presbyterian minister teaching your children how to raise hogs? If the answer is no, then why send one to the Andes to teach Indians how to raise llamas?
Do not misunderstand my argument. A Soldier of the Revolution is not anti-Catholic in any sense. Just could be talking as well about Presbyterians or Baptists, Methodist or Moslems, and he is equally unsparing in his criticism of government do-gooders. One of the many messages of this novel, then, is that if we think faith-based social work will accomplish what decades of bureaucratic incompetence have failed to accomplish, we are in for a rude awakening.
Does Ward Just offer us a solution to our situation? No, why should he? Hell, he’s an existentialist and knows we all live in a world where we mumble hymns we only partially understand.