The Laredo Mystery

Pivotal to Che’s Last Embrace, Nicholas Hasluck’s fourteenth novel, is the marvellously elusive figure of Marvic Laredo. Descended from a group of Australians with utopian dreams who settled in Paraguay in the 1890s, Laredo, as one of the “boy soldiers” in the Chaco War between that country and Bolivia (1932 to 1935), had gained the moniker “el Australiano”. More importantly, Hasluck assigns him the role of propagandist and journalist for Che Guevara during the attempt to radicalise Latin America during the 1960s. Further to this, we are told that thirty years after Guevara’s ultimate ambush and subsequent death at the Bolivian village of La Higuera in 1967, Laredo had written a commemorative article devoted to the revolutionary leader. There also exists an unpublished draft of his account of Guevara’s last days and final hours. This is of particular interest since it suggests a revolutionary force weakened and divided. It also hints at betrayal.

Fast forward to Bolivia in 2017—the fiftieth anniversary of Guevara’s death—and the figure at the forefront of Hasluck’s narrative is Ian Thornton, an Australian-born, partly English-educated archaeologist. He has read both the commemorative piece and the unpublished work primarily because his half-sister, who has made a couple of cursory visits to Bolivia, has become familiar, to a degree, with the Laredo legend, and it has set her mind ticking. Anita, a member of an art collective in Sydney, is intent on winning an acquisitive sculpture prize, sponsored by the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Having returned home, she has figured that a work which references a mix of Laredo’s Australian heritage, the original idealism of the Paraguayan plan, in combination with Guevara’s rebellious spirit, and his quest for a new egalitarianism, might just have the necessary audacity to win such a prize. It follows that she asks her amenable half-brother to assist in the research. “Art and politics! In counterpoint!” This will be the impetus of her submission, Laredo will be the focus, and Thornton will do the leg-work. In her own words: “A win by an avant-garde female artist with a big theme of that kind would be just what’s needed.”

Thus, the novel becomes a tantalising quest for the real Laredo. Could he have been knowledgeable of CIA strategies? What was his exact role in the proposed Bolivian revolution? Is he still alive, and if so, where? What can one key La Paz resident tell? What might she alone know? What measures must be taken to gain an audience with her? The desire for answers to these questions drives the story forward, and before long, Hasluck has us hooked.

The whimsical figure of Kurt Meissner, Thornton’s philosophical and archaeological mentor, and known locally as “the Maestro”, imbues the narrative with the spirit of Latin American “magical realism”, while Carlos Quirigo, Thornton’s sometime and somewhat hapless go-between, is reminiscent of some of the memorable characters of Graham Greene. That Bolivia was once a place whose common bandits took turns in pretending to be Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is at once amusing and an example of the sort of local colour with which Hasluck’s book is redolent. Guevara himself had been able to successfully pose as a balding Uruguayan businessman in Bolivia, and in Thornton’s time it remains a place where the slightest unrest is enough to prompt a mob to take to the streets. Those of us without chameleon-like skills must keep our guards permanently up. Hasluck’s portrayal of his setting is convincing, and his extensive knowledge of South America, its history, and cultural nuances, is evidenced throughout.

A page-turner and a rollicking read, yes, but Hasluck also offers us a paradigm for the nonsense that can pass for intellectual thinking in current Australian culture. Back in Sydney, Anita and her closest ally Kim, who for most of the novel remains non-gender-specific (Thornton grasps that to inquire by email whether Kim is male or female would be construed as socially incorrect—and so, yes, there is humour in this book as well), will become totally absorbed in their need to firstly create, and then venerate the sort of heroic figure that will suit their cause. By necessity, the first part of such a process is self-serving (otherwise what would be the point?), and the purpose of the second component is to create what will become a widely-believed truth. It matters not, if myth is the basis of this supposed truth, and it is ironic that it will be the doubters who are more likely to find themselves labelled as falsifiers of reality. The question of truth-telling lies at the heart of Hasluck’s novel and is unquestionably its major theme. In Anita’s correspondence with Thornton, he is told: “We’ve been making our own enquiries, joining the dots. The chaotic events surrounding Che’s final hours after the ambush at La Higuera seem to have left things up in the air. Created a vacuum.” It is the art collective that has every intention of filling that space.

Clearly there is much to be had here in what by novelistic measures is a slim volume. This is further testament to—as many critics have previously observed—Hasluck’s perspicacity as a writer. Thirty or so pages in, “the Maestro” sees reason to paraphrase Jorge Luis Borges. The revered philosophical fantasist had apparently observed that “the solution of a mystery is often less memorable than the approach to it”—worthy of thought, yes—but then “the Maestro” continues: “On this occasion, however, I’m looking forward to reaching an answer to the riddle. What went wrong? Why wouldn’t they publish Laredo’s draft? Did he say too much or not enough?”

It is difficult to imagine any reader unwilling to join Hasluck on such an entertaining journey.

And Anita and Kim? How will they get on?

Che’s Last Embrace
by Nicholas Hasluck

Arcadia, 2022, 184 pages, $32.95

Barry Gillard, a frequent contributor on literature, lives in Geelong

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