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A Flag For Sunrise (1998)

A Flag For Sunrise (1998)

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3.84 of 5 Votes: 3
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0330370979 (ISBN13: 9780330370974)

About book A Flag For Sunrise (1998)

“A Flag for Sunrise” is less a novel than an existential exercise in meaning, sacrifice, and cosmic collisions. Set in a fictionalized Nicaragua, the novel simmers over a flame of political intrigue, religious desperation, and maniacal selfishness, until it explodes at the end as all these strands intertwine into a combustible resolution. The plot of the novel pushed way down in the mix and doesn’t really affect the reader in meaningful ways. This of course is good for a review as most reviewers spend half their energy dancing around the plot – trying to explicate the book without talking about the end of the novel: usually the most important part, thematically and otherwise. Robert Stone’s writing style could be seen as Dostoyevsky in the jungle, cueing some reviewers to compare him with Conrad. And while the comparison is apt, Stone lacks Conrad’s stilted formality, his rigged assurance that native equals sinister. Stone is more Tolstoy in this regard, measuring human failing in terms of action rather than race, creating a guerilla War and Peace. This doesn’t mean that the ‘natives’ are well-drawn and as fully figured as the Americans, but this is to be expected from a white male author. The true balance lies in the failings of all characters: from Hispanic to White, young to old, male to female. All try and fill a void, strive to become more than they are - to signal in some larger way the meaning of their personal existence. tThe novel begins with a familiar trope: the alcoholic priest. But Father Egan plays a supporting role, not wanting to abandon his charges in the midst of growing political turmoil. His main assistant is Sister Justin Feeney (it doesn’t bode well that she shares a name with Justin Martyr). Her last name is most certainly taken from Father Leonard Feeney, who was excommunicated in 1953 for disagreeing with the church’s ideas about damnation of non-Catholics (which could be a whole essay in itself). But these namesakes place Justin Feeney as a radical, willing to disobey authoritarian orders, to pursue her personal vision of what salvation is. Both the Father and Justin are ordered to return to the States, but refuse to leave their mission. Rumors then circulate they are involved with radicals. Thus, the CIA (who as per usual is propping up a corrupt dictator all in the hope of quelling the tide of communist revolutionaries) recruits Frank Holliwell, a Vietnam veteran (who as per usual is psychologically damaged by what he had to do in the name of his country) that recluctantly accepts, telling himself the old whopper “if I don’t go they will send someone worse”. Oh and he’s also an anthropologist – the perfect cover, kinda. Holliwell is your standard white American protagonist in that he really wants to be good and yet can never really make the personal sacrifices needed for true goodness (see Frank Bascombe, Rabbit Angstrom –although a debate could be made about whether Rabbit wanted to be good or just wanted people to think he was – and every DFW character minus Mario Incandenza (I would try and make a point about DFW characters regarding perceptive vs. true goodness but that is a thicket I will not enter.)) Holliwell flails around Tecan (our fictional Nicaragua) - drinking to excess (obviously) and making overall poor life choices. Our last corner in this square of human squalor is Pablo Tabor (named after a 15th cent. Heretical movement in the city of Tabor, Bohemia – Stone really pushes the outsider religion theme, or rather finding your own strain of religion and refusing to yield). When we meet Pablo he proceeds to: a) get high on uppers, b) shoot his two dogs as they were “fucking with his head” and c) nearly kill the mother of his child. So yeah, Pablo is so mentally frayed he’s almost not worth the effort of figuring out, even on a literary level. But, I think the point is that Pablo’s impulse is the same as Holliwell’s and Justin’s – all three yearn to prove a meaning to their existence. The difference is Pablo’s frayed faculties make that yearning dangerous and inchoate. Most characters in the novel think Pablo – a mistake some pay for. tThe novel’s title comes from an Emily Dickenson poem; a splendid little piece of literary craftsmanship that combines a desire for a man/wedding with a desire for God/re-birth. This all wrapped in the temporal movement from midnight to daybreak and the spatial movement from West to East. The idea being a rebirth at sunrise (rising in the east at daybreak). Yet the metaphorical imagery can also be a rebirth through Christ (the Bridegroom), and Dickenson, being the wondrous poet that she is, also hints at death preceding the re-birth – with “Angels bustling in the Hall” as “my Future climbs the Stairs”. And at the end when the savior comes she has seen his face – many times actually – when the sun was miraculously reborn every morning. The author takes these same themes and expands them into a larger idea of re-birth through surrender to a larger meaning, yet in Tecan sometimes meaning can only come through sacrifice or death, as each character realizes in her own way. Justin even says “Behold the handmaid of the Lord” in an intense moment of delirium, signaling her deference to her ultimate meaning. This is a mirroring of the Dickinson line “At Midnight, I am but a maid”. The poem continues on, “How short it takes to make a Bride/Then – Midnight, I have passed from thee/ Unto the East, and Victory – “. Using the poem as a key, Justin will transform from ‘handmaid of the lord’ to a bride, just as the day shall pass from midnight to daybreak, and in the east will be re-birth and victory, will be the flag for sunrise.

When I started college, I thought I was going to major in "International Studies" or "International Relations" or some such; I could speak French and Spanish and planned to "pick up" other languages (ah, the arrogance!), and basically become, maybe not necessarily a "spook," but someone who worked in many different countries and would be at home in any of them. Not once did I consider the possibility that maybe I would feel at home in none of them. And now, having read stuff like Greene's The Comedians, or The Quiet American, or, now, A Flag for Sunrise, I feel lucky about my little bureaucratic twist of fate (I didn't make it into the gateway course, which picked its students by lottery).Stone's main characters, like Greene's, can be world-weary, sophisticated, and oddly ineffectual, like Holliwell or Mr. Brown. Or, they can be dangerously idealistic and ill-informed, like Sister Justin Feeney or Alden Pyle. Either way, they're not too sympathetic. And these characters are easily the biggest strength of A Flag for Sunrise. I felt the same way about Hicks and Converse in Dog Soldiers; that they were fully realized and quite interesting. But as it turns out, Dog Soldiers and A Flag for Sunrise share all the same flaws, but A Flag for Sunrise is longer, with a larger cast, which magnifies the flaws:(1) Too much buildup. All the characters have their own philosophical axes to grind, and they spend 250 torturous pages doing so before much of anything actually happens.(2) Too little dramatized action. Not that I categorically hate philosophical novels with lots of talking, but that's not really what this is supposed to be, at least not entirely. From the back: "The country is Tecan, an ancient, complex society about to explode--swarming with homegrown terrorists, revolutionaries, and counter-revolutionaries, as well as American spooks and intriguers from abroad." From that, you'd expect some really interesting action-y stuff. But no. Most of it happens off-screen (off-page? I have no good way to say this). We're informed that a certain character has died, usually far after the fact. We never really see any revolutionaries, although we do see some counter-revolutionaries. And the real spooks in the novel are pretty minor characters. The realization of (2) made me feel very disappointed, and also shallowly ashamed of my disappointment.(3) Excess preachiness. There are a lot of ways you can try to divide entertainment-style fiction and literature-style fiction, and none of them are particularly good, although some of them are fun. One is to say that literature-style fiction is the sort of fiction with a moral or message, the sort where the author himself has a philosophical axe to grind. I'm not precisely sure what Stone's is, other than general disillusionment with American interference in foreign affairs, but we hear most of the main characters spout variations on this theme for the aforementioned first 250 pages of the book, and then sporadically from then on. Really, Mr. Stone, give it a rest.

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tA Flag for Sunrise is the story of four very different people who are brought together by the growing revolutionary conflict in a Central American country that seems very much like Nicaragua nine years before the Sandinista Revolution ousted Anastasio Somoza and broke an eighty year chain of U.S.-backed dictatorships. t• Holliwell is an American academic who spent time in Vietnam before going to Honduras to speak at the university. He is drafted by a pair of CIA agents to come with them to the fictional country of Tecan.t• Pablo Tabor is an awol, drug-addled Coast Guardsman who joins up with a group of gun runners who are heading to Tecan.t• Sister Justin is a beautiful young nun who works in a mission on the Caribbean coast of Tecan. She questions not only her faith, but her reasons for staying in a country where she is not wanted.t• Father Eagan is an elderly priest who works in the mission with Sister Justin. He’s driven to madness after seeing the frozen body of a young woman who was killed by a psycopath who roams the beaches of Tecan. tRobert Stone has written a story that is at times brilliant and mystical, at times unfathomably abstract. He beautifully portrays the lives of four people suffering from the disillusionment and drift that infected so many post-Vietnam Americans. This is not an uplifting book. By the end, the reader is left with the same sense of despair and emptiness that consumes all four characters.
—Frank O'Neill

”A scorpion comes up to a buffalo on a riverbank. Please, sir, says the scorpion – could you give us a ride across? No way, says the buffalo. You’ll sting me and I’ll drown. But the scorpion swears he won’t. Why would I, he asks the buffalo, when if I did, I’d drown along with you? So off they go. Halfway across the scorpion stings the buffalo. And the poor Buffalo says, you bastard, you killed us both. Before they go under, the scorpion says – it’s my nature.”It is the late 70s. America is reeling from a Vietnam hangover. And burnouts from that war go looking for some foothold. They descend, or wash up, on Tecan, an invented Central American cauldron. Father Egan, a drunk and dying priest. Justin Feeney, a nun and nurse, who will laicize if she gets out. Frank Holliwell, an alcoholic anthropologist, asked to give a lecture. And Pablo Tobar, a Coast Guard deserter driven by Benzedrine. There is revolution in the air, but that is simply a tableau for the literary flailing of American purpose. It is all of a piece, Stone writes: child murderers, right-wing dictators, American interests. Wait, whaaaat? There’s a very rubbishy sort of American loose on the world these days.Robert Stone is self-aware if not self-debasing. He understands he is being cinematic:Movies are movies, Oscar. This is your life.And:It’s a Walt fucking Disney true life adventure, sweetheart.Stone writes thrillers, sort of. The amoral, drug-fueled violence is surely meant to be metaphorical. Like Cormac McCarthy, but with less talent and, oddly, less hope. So, Holliwell is haunted by his unspecified spook-work in Vietnam. Pablo serves as that legacy. Father Egan is a drunken oracle. Justin is either the American kindness which can not be allowed to survive, or maybe just a convenient too-hot-to-be-a-nun character so at least someone can get naked, damnit. What A Flag for Sunrise is not, however, is a clash of cultures. Nothing like Matthiessen’s At Play in the Fields of the Lord. ‘Tecan’ is a fictitious country, so, apparently, there’s no real need to create a Tecanese people or culture. The natives are props against which the Americans can be ugly adventurers. We lost our soul in Vietnam, he says, and never got it back.Stone reworked this theme to much better artistic success in Outerbridge Reach. But AFFS is thematically and metaphorically accessible, deeper than its plot, even if disagreeably so. Stone sums things up for us: it was not easy to watch all the world’s deluded wandering across the battlefield of a long-ago lost war. One had to close the heart to pity – if one could. The truth was a fine thing, but it had to be its own reward.A man has nothing to fear…who understands history, Stone concludes. That would be hopeful, Robert, had we not been cast as scorpions, damned by our nature.

Robert Stone expertly blended the lives of six main characters and a number of minor characters together to bring them all together in a Latin American country on the brink of rebellion. Using third person omniscient, he gave each character's thoughts, wants, and needs. Each story had a beginning, middle and ending, and each character got what they wanted in the end, although the reader wasn't sure what was wanted until the ending. I don't read a lot of political intrigue, but I just couldn't put this one down, and I will look for more books by this author.
—Carol Stowe

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