Intelligence, cynicism, leadership, and a passion for an exceptionally healthy widow link opposing officers in a coup-ridden Latin American country. Here, Packer, who wrote The Second Death of Samuel Auer (1979) and The Sons of Saintly Women (1981), tackles major themes with charm and humor. Major Mark Chernin has been inserted by Soviet intelligence into the jungles of Santa Cruz to fiddle with the politics of that wretched nation in the last days of the Soviet Union. Ordered to attach himself to the local insurgent guerrillas, Chernin finds his mission is bent from the beginning as he immediately loses his political watchdog and then discovers that his rebel clients have deposed the leader he expected to meet to replace him with a fool. At the edge of the jungle, Col. Rafael Chocano, an honest and capable army officer reporting to flamboyantly corrupt generals, shapes a force capable of beating back the insurgency. In so doing, the big, gauche Chocano captures the imagination of the masses and makes himself a political force in spite of his distaste for the fabulously corrupt local politics. Both Chernin and Chocano are plagued to distraction by the jealousies and foolishness of the men around. They are the only two men in the country capable of appreciating each other's talents, but they never meet—despite numerous murderous clashes between their forces and despite their common fascination with a handsome and canny peasant woman. For all their skill and intelligence, their fates are, of course, governed by the parade of idiots, thieves, and liars who run the country, but each finds at least a modicum of valor in his troops. A splendid and surprising work that covers considerable ground without ever rambling or preaching. Philosophy, economics, history, social commentary—all are tucked in, pleasantly disguised as style.
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