`Political travelogue' of life in Nicaragua

Where is Nicaragua?, by Peter Davis. New York: Simon & Schuster. 349 pp. $18.95 Peter Davis wrote ``Where is Nicaragua?'' in the genre described by historian Richard Hofstadter: ``...part narrative, part personal essay, part systematic empirical inquiry, part speculative philosophy.'' For the reader, however, the book is less than the sum of its parts.

Using the skills that won him kudos as the producer of a film essay about Vietnam, ``Hearts and Minds,'' Davis tries to sift daily life of Americans and natives in Nicaragua until he winnows out some fresh insight.

In this book, as in his film, Davis is fascinated with human contradictions and our inability to understand each other. Yet after we have sat in on the interviews with President Daniel Ortega Saavedra, United States Ambassador Anthony Quainton, businessmen, opposition leaders, US peace activists, and a variety of Nicaraguans in the street, the misunderstandings are clear but the road to resolution is still dark. We are not much closer to answering the questions Davis poses in his first pages: Is Nicaragua our enemy? Is it a threat to our security?

Perhaps Graham Greene refers to these questions in a jacket blurb when he says of Davis, ``He asks the right questions.'' But those beginners are obvious questions. Too often Davis leads us close to more fruitful, if more limited, questions, then seldom asks and seldom distills observations into answers.

The gap between faithful observation and informed skepticism is painfully evident when he interviews President Ortega. He captures Ortega's earnestness, his sternness, and his boyishness, then tells us we can ``count on Daniel Ortega to say what he means.'' Ortega certainly attacks the US head on, but anyone who has heard his roundabout criticism of Nicaraguan workers or his declaration that freedom of speech means expressing ``thoughts that are with the revolution'' would find Davis's credulity naive.

Sometimes Davis misleads us because of gaps in his knowledge of the country. When a member of the National Committee on Human Rights derides the Sandinistas' critics, the reader is entitled to know that the committee is a body created by the Sandinista Party to blunt criticisms levied by the independent Permanent Commission on Human Rights.

Davis brushes the central question to the political debate when he interviews Enrique Dreyfus, a prominent businessman. Dreyfus tells him, ``It's a question of values. How do you define freedom and democracy?'' That is an important question, but Davis does little more than lament that no one is answering. By interviewing so many average citizens and necessary celebrities, Davis may have missed the most interesting thinkers.

Davis's time in Nicaragua was short: a brief trip in 1983 and a follow-up in 1986. Perhaps he has adopted a necessary persona, the naive traveler, all ears and eyes, willingly suspending disbelief so that readers of all stripes might travel in vicarious comfort. This book is not Hofstadter's new genre, but actually a travel book. It is, however, a relatively new kind of travel book, a sub genre that might be called political travelogue.

The goal of the political travelogue is to give us the lay of the political landscape, to tell us who's who, deliver vivid portraits, record memorable local commentary, tell us how other travelers get along, and offer enough history to anchor the scene in a comprehensible sequence of events.

Like most travel books, this one shows us the famous sights we expect and takes us into unusual and mysterious corners. Unlike so many books on Nicaragua and Central America, it does not drift into the author's own interior political landscape.

The reader who wants to know what Nicaragua feels like, from the Intercontinental Hotel's bar to the war at the border, will find this a reliable book. Readers who have any doubt about the difference between a political travelogue and professional political reporting would do well to read Shirley Christian's ``Revolution in the Family'' (Vintage, 1986). Davis's book is the lesser achievement, but important in its immediacy and breadth. These two are, in fact, a useful, and perhaps necessary, pair.

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