Fiction special - Life of sacrifice. Alice O'Keeffe finds inspiration in the story of a true revolutionary by

Otto: a novel

Lisa St Aubin de Teran <em>Virago,</em> <em>512pp, £15.99</em>

ISBN 1860497578

Otto, or Oswaldo Antonio Barreto Miliani, was an unlikely revolutionary. He was born in 1934 to a right-wing, middle-class family in San Cristobal, a small town in Venezuela. As a boy, he was physically frail and unusually hairy and he had a penchant for sissy poetry. From an early age, however, he wilfully landed himself in the shit with any figure of authority who crossed his path. Expel-led from various schools, his family home and eventually his homeland, he spent his life criss-crossing the globe, either in pursuit of revolution or in flight from the series of powerful enemies he had made along the way.

Miliani passed through Cuba, where he became an adviser to Fidel Castro; Chile, where he nearly saved the life of Salvador Allende; and Iran, where his wife was jailed for 19 years for leading the Kurdish rebellion. In Algiers, he smuggled arms and became a confidant of Che Guevara. In Paris, he witnessed a massacre and nearly died after a prostitute bit his nipple. In short, there is enough material here for a dozen dif- ferent novels.

Lisa St Aubin de Teran weaves all the colour and adrenalin of Otto's adventures into an intensely human story. The real Oswaldo Barreto Miliani, upon whose life the novel is based, is a long-standing friend of hers, and the book must be a result of decades of conversation between them. His voice as he narrates is wise and real, each of the hugely diverse settings observed with an anthropologist's eye for detail. Otto's heroism is always carefully balanced with his mistakes and regrets. "What I cannot tell," he says, "is whether the people I left behind, the women I left, the love I spoiled and the pain I caused them was justified. More and more, I fear it was not."

What makes someone capable of sacrificing so much for a cause? A series of chance events turned the young Otto into a guerrilla - for him, it was never a conscious choice. "Things just happened," he says. "Sometimes I don't know if that is my particular fate, or if it is that of 20th-century man in general." In the stultifying surroundings of 1940s Venezuela, it did not take much to fall foul of the precariously balanced social order. Otto joined the communists almost by default and found himself forging his identity in their exciting, brutal and hierarchical world. Even after he witnessed communist tyranny in Cuba, China and eastern Europe, it took him years, and a bitter struggle, to let go. "I went round in circles lugging a decaying ideology around," he puzzles. "Why? No matter how much I ask that question, I really don't know the answer."

The grubby, frustrating and ultimately pointless guerrilla war that he and his ragged group of revolutionaries waged in Venezuela made a mockery of Otto's sacrifices. "There's a big gap between the idea of saving the world and the blisters and bickering of the everyday reality while you trudge through thick undergrowth to do it."

He spends his hours in the monte studying the insects that plague his every waking hour and cursing the egomaniacal commander who marches them up and down the same mountain for weeks on end. After years of planning and physical deprivation, he is forced to admit that "the people did not want a revolution; they wanted to be left in peace". This admission is Otto's most truly heroic act.

Teran creates such a consistent voice for her narrator that it is tempting to read the novel as if it were a real autobiography. It is tantalisingly unclear how close it is to the truth. Is it true that in 1965 Che Guevara "didn't come across as some- one who had lost his nerve, but (at least in private) he did come across as someone who was beginning to lose his faith"? Did Castro really subject a roomful of jet-lagged communist leaders to a nine-hour monologue, by the end of which they were all sound asleep? In a literary sense, it does not matter whether or not he did - this is a beautifully written, utterly convincing novel. It is to the book's credit that the question of authenticity lingers. You want to hear it all from the real Otto.

Teran's own life has also been extra- ordinary, as readers of her memoir The Hacienda will know. Her story is inextricably linked with that of Otto. The Hacienda described her marriage, at the age of 17, to a fugitive Venezuelan aristocrat, Don Jaime, and her life on his ancestral farm. In Otto, a priggish English schoolgirl called Veta marries Otto's cousin - also called Jaime. Veta and Otto initially hate one another, but he takes on the task of educating her and a mutual respect develops. If this part of the story is true, it is nice to think that Otto is a product of that education - a book written by Teran, but cultivated by Otto himself.