The Last Grand Master by John Manchip White

The Tennessean, May 1985 (exact date and page unknown)

THE LAST GRAND MASTER. By John Manchip White. Countryman Press. $13.95.

UT Professor Crafts Fine Novel
Explores the Politics of South America

Reviewed by JOHN BETHUNE

In less than two centuries, the people of Bolivia have suffered through nearly 200 usually violent changes of government.

From the Bolivian point of view, existence must appear at once tragic and banal—a tiresome apocalypse.

It is no doubt this paradoxical perspective that has attracted John Manchip White to the subject of his new novel, The Last Grand Master.

By trade a professor of English at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, White has written a polymathic diversity of novels, travel books, histories, and biographies. He is a practiced archaeologist and anthropologist and, to judge from this novel, he is intimately familiar with the unhappy course of South American history.

White’s topic in The Last Grand Master is one American readers commonly associate with such great South American writers as Gabriel Marcia Marquez and Mario Vargas Llosa.

In the inevitable comparisons, White’s book will come in second best. But, if not a masterpiece, The Last Grand Master is nevertheless an accomplished novel.

By focusing on the last few days of life of Zenon Cardona Casas, White addresses both national and individual dilemmas. Zenon Cardona is both former marshall of the army and grand master of the Order of Chuquisaca, a small honorary society that is the repository of the high ideals on which the nation was founded.

Awakened in the middle of the night at the request of his president, Leandro Rivas Melgarejo, the elderly and dying man finds himself drawn into the turbulence of a failed and bloody palace coup. The manipulative and corrupt Rivas manages to turn the unsuccessful coup into a humiliating ordeal for Zenon Cardona.

It is as grand master that Zenon Cardona is particularly vulnerable to Rivas, who is as eager to be admitted to the order as he is unqualified.

By holding hostage the grand master’s own son and other members of the order, Rivas hopes to force his way into the society that will ultimately accept him on no other terms.

The values and meaning of the order [are] the fundamental issue of White’s novel. Unlike Rivas, who covets membership for the increased power he believes it will bring him, Zenon Cardona values the order because it is essentially useless and so above corruption.

“Its entire reason for existing,” he believes, lies “in its very pointlessness.”

In his mind, the order is inseparable from the disinterested ideals it embodies.

But Rivas brings the Grand Master to question his faith both in his order and in himself. As their president readily demonstrates, the venerated founder of the order, Simon Bolivar, was scarcely disinterested and certainly ruthless.

Zenon Cardona himself, despite his high ideals, has committed horrible atrocities. The order, Rivas contends, is no better than its members.

Ultimately, Zenon Cardoza must decide whether to debase the order by handing it over to Rivas, or to destroy it absolutely. In the course of deciding, he comes to recognize his own terrible guilt and his own contribution to the hopeless state of his country.

White’s telling of his story is predominantly realistic, but, reflecting his protagonist’s illness and advanced age, he intersperses scenes with feverish visions and lengthy retrospection

The amount of exposition such a tale requires is enough to sink all but the best prose styles, and White is not wholly immune to its effects.

His characterization of the hero suffers as well. Zenon Cardoza is a sympathetic figure, but finally too stolid to be altogether memorable.

But my objections amount to no more than quibbles.

The Last Grand Master is a compelling story that presents an unsettling vision of an all-too-typical South American country.

It is puzzling that the author of this novel, who has written 13 others, is not better known.

He deserves to be more widely read.

John Bethune is a Sewanee, Tenn., free-lance writer.