A historical novel set during the years 1810 to 1820, La campana explores the Latin American Wars of Independence from a revisionist perspective. Recent scholarship has focused on the conservative aspect of the revolutions, stressing the fact that for the vast majority of Latin Americans, political independence from Spain did not bring about liberation, but merely a transfer of power. The rich, white criollos who took the reins of government after the wars had their own interests at heart, and were, for the most part, as indifferent as the Spaniards to the needs of the masses of Indians and blacks who had served as cannon fodder in their campaigns.
Narrated by Manuel Varela, one of three Argentine criollo friends who view themselves as progressives, Fuentes' novel embraces the whole of Latin America, from Buenos Aires to the pampa to the campaigns in Alto Peru (Bolivia), Venezuela, and Mexico. Xavier Dorrego, Baltasar Bustos, and Varela represent different elements of Argentine criollos society, but share an enthusiasm for liberal French thinkers (Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot) and for the ideal of independence. They spend their time in cafes philosophizing, gossiping, and debating the future of Argentina.
Bustos, the most audacious of the group, conceives a plan to sneak into the chamber of Ofelia Salamanca, wife of the Marquis de Cabra, the president of the Royal Court in Buenos Aires, and switch her newborn son for the child of a black slave. Guided by a distorted sense of justice, he hopes thereby, to give the poor child a chance to grow up among finery, while condemning the son of the marquis to a life of misery. Symbolically myopic, Bustos trips on his way out, upsetting some candles that surround the crib and setting the room on fire. He manages to save the life of the white baby and hand it over to the black nanny, but the slave's child dies in the flames--a portent of the racial inequity that will continue to plague Lating America.
In the process of preparing this scheme, Bustos spies Ofelia naked in her chamber, and falls madly in love with her. However, he is unable to beg her forgiveness for the wrong he has done because soon after her baby's supposed death, she leaves Argentina for her native Chile. After a trip to his father's estate, during which he reaffirms his contempt for rural life and the primitive ways of the gauchos, Bustos joins the wars of independence. Although he fights in many campaigns (he even meets San Martin)...