Entertainment, Insight

UA prof Ron Terpening's research and timely topic make 'Tropic of Fear' worth a read

Wouldn't you know it: Just as the critic had buffed her claws to take a little swipe at this novel, she opened a newspaper to find an article relating directly to one of its fictional premises. That information/food-for-thought thing was enough to make her regroup and reconsider what readers actually go to a novel for, anyway. And then to retract the nails.

There's more to attract one to reading than high literary gloss.

UA Italian professor Ron Terpening's last novel, League of Shadows, would take hits in a creative-writing workshop, but there was historical insight to be gained--as well as entertainment--by reading the book. League of Shadows dealt with fascists in World War II Italy and contemporary remnants in South America; Tropic of Fear deals with a malignant confluence of internal and external forces in contemporary Paraguay ... and it has its own fascist resonance.

Tropic of Fear opens with Yale German-language professor Diane Lang arriving in Asunción, Paraguay, to research a Mennonite community. Nursing a migraine, she immediately runs into a bigger headache than she'd ever expected, in the form of secret police head Col. Hector Ibarras. Picked up for no clear reason, intimidated and threatened with torture or worse, Diane experiences what Terpening is apparently identifying as the M.O. of dictatorial military--read Latin-American--regimes.

Co-protagonist Walter Stanek soon shows up in Asunción as well. He starts out in Tucson, though (in a Sam Hughes house; he also parks in the UA administration high-rise lot, giving us locals a little ownership). Stanek is a UA hydrogeologist trying to focus on work on sabbatical when he gets an offer he can't refuse. For a (nonacademic) handsome sum, he would spend a month in Paraguay consulting for an engineering firm, evaluating the effects of natural or human-caused disasters related to a hydroelectric dam project.

It doesn't take much to figure out when Diane and Walter clash when they first meet--in a restaurant their respective first nights--that they'll end up an item. Terpening draws both Diane and Walter as naïfs stepping into a culture of institutionalized corruption shored up by greedy international collusion.

Politically, the country is being run by army Gen. Enrique Zancon (dubbed "El Tigre"). Power is uncomfortably shared between the army and the police, however, with secret police of torture-fond temperament. Underground revolutionary forces, composed of labor unions and encouraged by radical clergy, support the rights of the people. As the book opens, the makings of a military overthrow are underway, with Diane's eyeball-chewing interrogator, Ibarras, as instigator. In the wings as a liberation force is the imprisoned leader of the people, Francisco Rojas de Alquinjana ("El León").

Walter's assignment provides complications with thematic heft. Believing he is participating in an authentic dam-disaster simulation, he's surprised to find himself in the company of representatives of the corporate establishment, more concerned with repressing the people than serving or saving them. That the locals are supported by powerful multinationals further taints the situation. And implications of U.S. government complicity round it off.

Inevitably, politics and business intertwine, and Diane and Walter catalyze some serious fraying.

Terpening, the professor, has once again done his research. His descriptions of the country are vivid--from the city-street delicacies and flower fragrances to the unfolding patterns and colors of the Paraná River. While it doesn't include a formal bibliography, the book is lent credibility by the works in its acknowledgments.

The problems with the novel lie in the chiseling of the narrative out of the mass of material, and in the writing craft itself, which suffers from a sort of muddiness. Characters feel in service to an idea and to the need for movement, rather than informing the idea and motivating the action. The shifting point of view and irregular distance from conflict create an almost-ambiguous story line. (Somehow, we get cropped out of the revolution, but one's already glazed over with too much going on.) Terpening may have intended to create an atmosphere of chaotic unpredictability, but what results is a loss of focus, unconvincing plot twists and contrived final action

That said, the setting and the premise provide rich fictional lodes. As the book suggests, and as news agencies report, there's constant change afoot in Latin America. Terpening himself finishes his acknowledgements with "The campaign continues." To take a fictional ride through the murky complexities of our hemisphere neighbors is reason enough to read this novel.

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