The Pequod Review:
A Flag for Sunrise is Robert Stone’s masterpiece, one that joins the political depth of his earlier novels with his most intricate and gripping plot. The book primarily takes place in a fictional Central American nation (Tecan) on the brink of revolution, and involves a cast of characters that encapsulate the American influence on the region: Frank Holliwell (an American anthropologist invited to give a lecture at the national university), Pablo Tabor (an ex-Coast Guard member hired to deliver weapons to Tecan rebels), Father Charlie Egan (an aging priest overseeing a Catholic mission in Tecan) and Sister Justin Feeney (a Devotionist nun sympathetic to the rebels).
The book has it all — interesting characters, revolutionary politics, and a thrilling story, all set against the colorful and exotic backdrop of Latin America. It has a scope that recalls Joseph Conrad’s finest work, as it brings together the personal and the political in an extremely effective way. And Stone’s writing has reached new levels of power and intensity:
Rum was making his poisoned leg throb.
There was no reason to get angry. At his age one took things as they were. Despair was also a foolish indulgence, less lethal than vain faith but demeaning. One could not oppose the armies of delusion with petulance.
It was necessary to believe in oneself. Very, very difficult. One was a series of spasms, flashes. Without consistency, protean, infantile — but one would have to do. The loneliness was hard.
In the greening twilight, he thought of the great silence that had settled on the reef. The fear and the muted coral colors hung in his recollection like fragments of collective memory, a primordial dream. Closing his eyes, he could hear again the rhythm of his breathing and feel the panic drugs surging in his blood.
He had no business down there.
Three men carrying firewood came down the road, their bent figures outlined against the aqua and scarlet horizon. Approaching the Paradise grounds they turned off to follow the shore where their passage and their burdens would not worry the nerves of sensitive guests. It was a diorama of toil and poverty, and Holliwell, in his easy chair, felt suitably guilty. B. Traven — but they were all south of cliché, so it was simple reality. Familiar moral frissons qualified as insights. Carrying wood always felt different depending on your health, your state of mind and the time of day; sitting in a resort watching the peons was always the same for people whose education prepared them to do it properly; the final emotion was self-pity.
He had no business under the reef. Nor had he any business where he was, under that perfumed sky.
He reminded himself that he had his business like everyone else. It was as real as anyone else’s and so was he. His business was done in University Park, a perfectly real place though recently constructed. It was to husband and father, to teach, even to inspire, and to endure. These things were not trivial. A monstrous pride might despise them, but honor could not. Because who does one think one is?
At times one has only a slender notion. One is only out here in this, whatever it is.
Whirl. People disappeared and were said to have died, as in war. Or their contexts changed like stage flats leaving them inappropriately costumed, speaking the wrong lines. Some disappeared in place, their skulls hollowed out by corrosive spirits or devoured by parasites.
With A Flag for Sunrise, Robert Stone fully realized the promise of his earlier books and produced one of the finest modern American novels. Highly recommended.