Robert Newman should get some credit just for the attempt. In The Fountain at the Center of the World, his third novel, he has written a sweeping and unabashedly political book, as concerned with the effects of trade globalization as with the fate of its characters. Roving from a British corporate meeting room to a Mexican town to a Costa Rican fishing vessel named the Jennifer Lopez, the novel harnesses contemporary economics to a Victorian plot, which culminates in the 1999 anti-WTO protests in Seattle.
In fact he did get credit for the attempt, in the form of a BBC documentary that followed Newman as he researched the book in Central America. It’s enough to make you wary, but according to The New York Times that film is pretty entertaining, and the book is too. Newman writes with confidence and often with humor—he was a political comedian in the U.K. before turning to fiction. A biographical note reveals that he “has been politically active with Reclaim The Streets, the Liverpool dockers, Indymedia, Earth First, and People’s Global Action.”
The story revolves around three men: Chano Salgado, a Mexican activist, his long lost son Daniel (named after Daniel Ortega), and Chano’s brother Evan Hatch, who was born in Mexico, adopted by British parents, and now produces PR campaigns for the same companies his brother despises. Evan, a Cambridge-educated flak who drives a BMW, wears fancy clothes, and doesn’t seem to have a friend in the world, has been diagnosed with leukemia. Desperate to find a potential bone marrow donor, he travels to the state of Tamaulipas to try to find the brother he’s never met. Daniel arrives in Mexico at the same time, but Chano has decided—reluctantly—to bomb a pipeline delivering polluted wastewater to his town, which forces him into hiding.
Those are the major characters, but Newman also delights in minor ones, including: a conniving coyote, a Mexican police chief devoted to both NAFTA and yoga, Costa Rican fishermen, a Bosnian ship crew, acid-dropping British trawler pilots, a couple rowing a boat through a flooded British town, African refugees, and activists on three continents. As the title and previous list might suggest, Newman relies on not only the plot but the motif of water—a fountain, an ocean, a flood, a corporate scheme to privatize the world’s water supply—to rope all these people together, prodding his reader (none too subtly) to recall the environmental context that unites humans yet is endangered by human activity.
Newman’s peregrine research shows through, both in the information he relays, sometimes clunkily, about shipping containers and fishing regulations, and in the large amount of traveling done by the three central characters. (At times it almost seems as if a plot point has been introduced in order to give somebody an excuse to take another trip.) Ultimately Newman seems less interested in what happens when father and son find one another, than in their contrasting worlds and their respective displacements: how an ailing, wealthy Brit fares in a small Mexican city; how a Mexican illegal immigrant fares as a dishwasher in Seattle.
“Because it exposes the impersonal claims of ideology to the pressures of private emotion, the political novel must always be in a state of internal warfare,” wrote Irving Howe in Politics and the Novel. “The political novelist… establishes a complex system of intellectual movements, in which his own opinion is one of the most active yet not entirely dominating movers.” A political novel whose lines are drawn too starkly—say, one in which the characters the novelist agrees with are sympathetic and their political opponents unsympathetic—would be tiresome. Newman has for the most part avoided that trap, though it’s never in doubt which side he’s on. He allows ideology to hit up against its opposition and its own failings. There is nuance in his portrait of capitalist Evan, while Chano operates not out of bold conviction but out of resignation. (A brief, unnecessary chapter from the point of view of Madeleine Albright, on the other hand, is not particularly sympathetic to the former Secretary of State.)
As for the clash of ideology and emotion, there is less of it in the book than Newman perhaps intends us to find there, if only because his three primary characters, as well as some of the minor ones, are single men on solo missions, with little opportunity for emotional interaction, other than in memory.
Newman apparently learned Spanish for this novel, and he sprinkles Spanish words and phrases throughout the book—more than is pleasing, as his Englishness seeps through. For instance he has his Mexican characters cursing in Spanish one minute, then referring to weights and measures in pounds and yards the next. Also, maquiladora and maquila are for some reason consistently spelled with two l’s throughout the book.
I once heard someone say about political fiction that, at a minimum, it has to tell you something you couldn’t have gotten just as easily from a news report. Newman clears that hurdle with ease when it comes to the last section of the book: an extended account of the Seattle anti-WTO protests, in which the confusion and excitement and tear gassings and sense of victory are vividly rendered—even if Newman can’t resist taking swipes at easy targets Albright, AFL-CIO president John Sweeney, and protest cops.
The protests give the lie to Chano’s fatalism, by proving that collective action can have a positive effect, but Newman won’t let us get too hopeful. He leaves in doubt the futures of both the water supply and the Salgado family, because the world he’s trying to capture is the politically, ecologically, and personally uncertain one we inhabit.
Former Observer editor Karen Olsson lives in Austin.