Revolution business : BOOKS : FICTION

DARK GREEN, BRIGHT RED by Gore Vidal, Deutsch £14.99
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WHEN Gore Vidal first published this book in 1950, he was warned by his publisher that "No novel about - or from - Latin America has ever been a success in the English language." Garca Mrquez and Vargas Llosa have triumphantly proved this prophet wrong since then, and may explain why Vidal's current publishers have taken the decision to reissue Dark Green, Bright Red.

Vidal's third novel, written at the age of 25 and inspired by a trip to Guatemala, relates the story of Peter Nelson, a young American graduate of West Point, who goes to an unnamed Central American republic. Having been court-martialled from the US army for reasons which Vidal keeps up his sleeve for a frustratingly long time, Nelson has befriended the son of the ousted dictator of the country, and plans to help his father, General Alvarez, seize back power. The politics of the country are controlled by a large American-owned fruit company which is backing the General's bid for power, overturning his democratically elected and left-leaning successor.

Straight away, we sense Vidal's interest in writing a thesis about war and revolution, rather than engaging with characters or setting. The fact that the country is unnamed is a symptom of a stereotyped view of Latin America. We hear that the inhabitants "were a bit paler than they'd been before the sixteenth century invasion; many drank coca-cola and all took enormous quantities of aspirin." The prose is dry, elliptical and makes you think how clever Gore Vidal is, though it's a rather depressing, aristocratic cleverness.

There are some comic moments, though. The General is the most rounded character in the book, an amiable monster who justifies his dictatorship by saying that he is "merely anticipating the wish of the people" and complains that he is unfairly tainted by what Hitler and Mussolini have done to the word dictator. He falls on a volume of Thomas Browne and reflects, "About burial ... curious thing to write about. All those English write about death."

During an attack on a town in the north of the country, two middle-aged Ameri-can lady watercolourists are caught up in the fighting. Exhausted after a day of battle, Nelson attempts to explain the principles behind the revolution, using tired clichs about freedom and justice which delight the ladies, one of whom remarks earnestly, "Must be wonderful to have a cause to believe in so wholeheartedly."

It may in part be because the war-mongering characters care little for their lives that we fail to be gripped by their fate. The revolution that the Gen-eral unleashes is without motivation besides a little vanity and a large death-wish, so that the book ends up with none of the page-turning attraction of a thriller, nor the emotional impact of a perceptive study of what one general calls "this revolution business".