by Robert von Stein Redick
Conquistadors is a story of love, political violence, and the cost of self-knowledge. It occurs in a time of terror and a place of spectacular beauty—namely 1977 Argentina, at the height of that country's so-called "Dirty War." Arthur Weston is a young man deeply estranged: from his birthplace of Buenos Aires, from his adopted Virginia home, and from the volatile diplomat parents who wrench him from one place to the other. At age twenty-four he meets Malcolm O'Brien, an eccentric British travel writer, who enlists him in a disastrously ill-timed return journey to Argentina. O'Brien is attempting the breakthrough-book of his career—a natural history memoir of the South American country. As the highlight of this project, he intends to rediscover the giant river otter in the jungles of northeast Argentina, defying local opinion that the animal is already extinct.
Early in their travels the foreigners meet Sara Fiameni, a young field biologist who has lost both parents to the Junta, and perhaps her sanity as well. Convinced that her mother at least may still be alive, Sara is pursuing dangerous leads within the armed forces. Arthur falls hard for the lovely, explosive Sara, even as O'Brien reveals his own growing fixation—on Arthur himself.
Ensnared by these conflicting obsessions, the three are nearly blind to the political meltdown occurring around them. Sara is particularly threatened due to the advances of a brilliant and ruthless colonel, a man implicated in her mother's disappearance. But all of the characters wrestle with the potentially deadly consequences of their wants: as the foreigners close in on the otter, O'Brien's thirst for fame tempts him to sacrifice both friends and morals. At the same time Arthur's pursuit of Sara threatens to collide headlong with the colonel's own. The result is a vortex of desire, denial and fear—but not, it should be emphasized, despair. Violence and death do stalk these characters, but it is Sara’s gift in particular to resist the horrific logic of the State with a near-fanatic optimism.
Because these characters are thinkers, what is produced is also a vortex (hence, a novel) of ideas. Arthur confronts death in rawest form, but also the death of his moral certainties, and that of the identity he has relied upon. In the end the reader experiences both a harrowing adventure and a meditation on the limits of possession—whether of fame, brute power, or love.
An excerpt from Conquistadors appeared in the 40th Anniversary Issue (summer 2005) issue of Puerto del Sol (under the book's previous title, Wilderness)
The complete novel is available upon request.