Rites of passage in Nicaragua

Wednesday, July 24, 1996

Desperadoes Flamingo
By Joseph O'Connor
Harper-Collins, 1995, 426 pp., $14.95
Reviewed by Tony Smith

An indisputable sign of special talent in a writer is the ability to juggle several complex themes simultaneously. On those grounds alone, Desperadoes establishes Joe O'Connor's credentials as one of the foremost novelists of the '90s.

Frank and Eleanor Little are an estranged Irish couple who arrive in Nicaragua to identify and perhaps repatriate the body of their only son Johnny, killed in a Contra attack on a northern village. The besieged Sandinista government has broad and sometimes bitter experience of outsiders, most of whom are yanqui.

Impatient, Frank and Eleanor locate some of Johnny's friends — a rock and roll band called "Desperadoes" and join in their travels to the town where Johnny met his fate. They travel in Claudette, a psychedelic "van" (which is not accurately depicted on the book's cover), and which becomes even more bizarre when they strap a coffin on top next to the surfboards.

The journey is an adventure in mishaps which challenge the resolve and resourcefulness of this mixed group. As with most tales of this genre (from Conrad's Heart of Darkness to Carey's Oscar and Lucinda), the "rites of passage" extend beyond the boundaries of geographical progress, as each must confront his/her own beliefs. Is Johnny alive or dead? What personal odyssey brought him here? Has the revolution made a positive impact on the lives of the people? Have outsiders any business here?

As they travel, the stories of the individuals are coloured in. For Frank's memories of his relationship with Eleanor, and with Johnny after Eleanor loses a battle with alcoholism and leaves them, O'Connor adopts a style of narration reminiscent of the language of fairy tales. Overlying the details is a theme of different styles of loving and adaptation to adversity.

Ireland underwent its own revolution some seven decades earlier than Nicaragua, and contemporary generations are still struggling to understand what it meant then and what faithfulness to its ideals today implies.

The Irish diaspora has linked many lands into that question. It seems to be increasingly common that medical missionaries to the poorest African communities speak with Irish accents, and Irish nuns have suffered violent ends alongside the oppressed in places like San Salvador.

So the presence of the Littles and the Desperadoes in Nicaragua is far more significant than the mere coincidence of a search for a lost son. O'Connor dabbles in the concept of revolution, its ownership and meaning. The Littles are expelled following a trial on Revolution Day.

Outside, people are dressed in ways which reflect the country's history, for the Nicaraguans are conscious that they are participating in history. A revolution is not a specific event stuck in the past, but must continue. Like peace, it is a way of travelling. Any Australian who thinks that the British dispossession of the Aboriginal people happened two centuries ago might find this book disturbing.

There are few laughs in Desperadoes, laden as it is with guilt, conflict, despair and frustration. Yet the characters have a kind of humour which comic writing could not supply. And they have a consistency of action and attitude which few novelists today seem capable of rendering in their creations. The reader cannot help but admire O'Connor's craft.