The Moral and Magical Political Fictions of Carolina de Robertis

The Moral and Magical Political Fictions of Carolina de Robertis

The Moral and Magical Political Fictions of Carolina de Robertis

The Uruguayan American novelist’s The President and the Frog asks us to consider: What does it mean to be a good political actor?


In 1975, a profoundly disillusioned ex-CIA officer named Philip Agee blew the whistle on his former employer in astounding fashion: He published the diaries he’d kept while serving at the CIA stations in Ecuador and Uruguay. Agee arrived in Uruguay in 1964, not long after the radical labor organizer Raúl Sendic first assembled the group of guerrilla revolutionaries that would become central to Uruguayan history. Agee, whose initial assignment was to deal with Cuban influence, first mentions this group with bemusement, writing on January 15, 1965, that “the name ‘Tupamaros’ [has] appeared at several…recent bombings. Commissioner Otero, chief of Police Intelligence, is trying to find out who these people are.” Eight months later, Agee was confident that Sendic was the leader of the Tupamaros and was encouraging Otero to “concentrate on” them. After two more months, he began fretting that Otero would begin not only detaining but also torturing Tupamaros—a disingenuous concern, given that, by 1965, the United States was already in the habit of exporting police and FBI officers to train the Uruguayan security forces in the latest torture techniques.

Agee makes no mention of guerrilla leaders besides Sendic, who, more than 50 years after he founded the Tupamaros, is, at least internationally, no longer its most famous member. That distinction now belongs to José Mujica, who joined the Tupamaros—also called the Movimiento de Liberación Nacional—as a young flower farmer. Mujica became a movement leader. When the government cracked down on the Tupamaros, he went into hiding; he was eventually imprisoned four times, escaping twice. He was already incarcerated when, in 1973, President Juan María Bordaberry ceded power to Uruguay’s armed forces, inaugurating a civic-military dictatorship that lasted 12 years. Still, the dictators declared Mujica an official hostage, meaning that had the Tupamaros resumed their battle against the government, he would have been executed.

Mujica survived the dictatorship, spending more than a decade in solitary confinement. When he was released after Uruguay’s peaceful return to democracy, he reentered politics, this time as a reform-minded elected official. He served as president from 2010 to 2015, garnering global affection for both his progressive policy-making and his lifestyle: While in office, he drove an old VW, rarely dressed up, frequented downtown hot dog stands, and lived on his flower farm instead of moving into the presidential residence. The non-Uruguayan press has often treated Mujica as a cuddly old lefty, ignoring the fact that he was once a revolutionary who participated in the armed takeover of the city of Pando, was shot six times after pulling a gun on a policeman who recognized him, and once tunneled out of Montevideo’s Punta Carretas prison—now a luxury mall—with 110 other men in what remains the largest prison break in history.

In her loosely biographical novel The President and the Frog, the Uruguayan American writer Carolina de Robertis chronicles the life of a nameless character who she says is “inspired” by Mujica. Her protagonist, not long retired from the presidency, spends the novel’s brief course discussing his political career with a pair of Norwegian TV journalists while privately reviewing and assessing his lifetime efforts to do good. In flashback chapters, he relives his time in solitary confinement, which de Robertis presents using an oddly compelling conceit: Her protagonist clings to sanity via a series of conversations with a (possibly hallucinated) frog, who demands to be told his life story. Each of the novel’s three strands—the journalists, the self-evaluation, and the frog—asks the same fundamental questions: How can a person become as good, politically speaking, as Mujica or his fictional stand-in? And what does it mean to be good, anyway? Neither of these questions is easy; perhaps neither is answerable. But in taking a run at them, de Robertis creates a character study that doubles as both a historical education and a rigorous moral investigation of her protagonist’s commitment to social change.

De Robertis has written before about the Uruguayan dictatorship and its aftermath. Her 2019 novel Cantoras opens in the mid-1970s, when one out of every 33 Uruguayans was a political prisoner. The novel’s five protagonists, all of whom are lesbians seeking freedom wherever they can find it, live in fear of the regime. Still, Cantoras is committed, as befits its feminist ethos, to grounding the political in the personal. The President and the Frog has a very different agenda. It is a thoroughly political book—defiantly political, even. Its protagonist is so devoted to improving the collective lot of Uruguay’s citizens that he barely comprehends the idea of a personal life. When his frog companion asks him to describe his partner Sofía, who is also a Tupamaro leader, the protagonist explains that, when he met her, he’d long since “given up on having a girlfriend or lover ever again. My life was for the revolution, so be it, fine, I’d hand it all over the way monks handed their lives to God.” This statement is a little self-aggrandizing, and yet his “so be it, fine” betrays a suppressed wish to have led a more normal life. He is at once proud of and exhausted with himself, a tension that animates much of the novel. His dedication is sustainable only through a mix of ego and self-abnegation—a tough combination to maintain.

De Robertis emphasizes her protagonist’s pompous tendencies more than his self-sacrificing ones. She can expect her readers to know that Mujica is a good guy and to assume her protagonist is, too. If she belabored that point, though, the novel would quickly slide into hagiography, which would undermine its moral search. Instead, she focuses on her protagonist’s flaws. In the book’s present, he can be grouchy, distracted, and self-justifying; in the flashback chapters, he can be an obstinate jerk. He resists introspection, behaves like a sexist asshole at Tupamaro meetings, and is rude to his companion the frog. Worst of all, he claims to see society as a “long unending conversation,” and yet, until he meets Sofía, he has no idea how to listen—which is, of course, a trait common to ideologues. In his guerrilla years, the protagonist seems constantly to be convincing himself of his own correctness. This habit can become irritating and repetitive, but it serves a clear purpose: He can sustain his militancy only with ceaseless reminders of how much urgent work there is to be done.

In prison, these reminders turn into painful, guilt-laden questions, which de Robertis uses to give the novel its momentum. At first, a reader unfamiliar with Uruguayan history might wonder why the protagonist spends his time in solitary confinement worrying that his fellow citizens will hate and blame the Tupamaros for their actions. Slowly, de Robertis adds detail to this fear: Her protagonist goes from asking vaguely if the Tupamaros were right to attempt revolution to admitting that their violent tactics, which included bombings and kidnappings, “may have played some part in the collapse.” Although he knows—as books like Agee’s prove—that the Tupamaros “were crushed, the Yankee Empire sent its henchmen and destroyed us,” he still suffers deeply from the knowledge that his freedom fight might have been a bloody, costly mistake. In one of the book’s most affecting scenes, he recalls the debates in which the Tupamaros opted for armed struggle, then admits to the frog, “We weren’t prepared.” In his later life, his reformist politics are plainly animated by his twin desires not to have been wrong in his guerrilla years and to atone if he was. Because he sees himself as tainted and imperfect, he keeps working to be good; because he knows how badly efforts to be good can backfire, he finally learns to listen to voices other than his own. He becomes, as he puts it, a dreamer, but not a purist.

The rejection of purism is fundamental to The President and the Frog. De Robertis appears to argue that goodness over time requires not just compromise but also contradiction. The complexity of goodness requires accountability, a willingness to change, and total persistence; it also, perhaps most of all, requires a deep comprehension of your own fallibility. Any decision, no matter how well you analyze it or how perfectly it conforms to your political beliefs, could turn out to be a mistake. In his old age, de Robertis’s protagonist knows this well. He reminds himself constantly of past errors large and small, imagining what he could have done better. Still, he never regrets taking action. To him, and to de Robertis, it is impossible to be good without working for change—in the world and in yourself. Accepting the status quo, or passively commenting on it, is a moral failure here.

On this front, I agree with de Robertis. Still, I sometimes found myself wishing she had rooted The President and the Frog more deeply in the status quo that her protagonist worked so hard to change. She rarely describes the troubles plaguing mid-20th-century Uruguay, which included inflation and a rising cost of living, unemployment, and terrible agricultural labor conditions. In a 1970 New Left Review essay, Marysa Gerassi quotes an anonymous Tupamaro explaining, “Our country is bankrupt. A capitalist development plan aimed at increasing production of export goods, were it feasible, would give meagre results and only in a long range. In other words, people will continue to tighten their belts for many years.” The failure to depict these stark conditions slightly undermines de Robertis’s commitment to complexity: Life on the ground, after all, is more complicated than life in revolutionary or reformist rhetoric.

Still, The President and the Frog achieves a considerable feat. It turns the tools of literary fiction—free indirect discourse, deep character study, weird conceits like a talking frog—into a call to political, moral, and historical attention. Its jacket copy suggests that the novel “invites us to reimagine what it means to lead, to dare, and to dream.” I would propose a rephrasing: The President and the Frog asks its readers to think seriously about the weight of taking political action, then suggests that they take it. I hope it also spurs readers to learn more about the conditions that drove the Tupamaros to revolutionary action. Context, as the saying goes, is king.

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