The action takes place in a small Argentine town on the border with Paraguay in the late 1960s – early 1970s. The protagonist is a doctor Eduards Plarr, a political emigrant from Paraguay, from where he left with his mother a fourteen-year-old teenager. His father, an Englishman by birth, a fighter against the General regime (meaning dictator Stresner), remained in Paraguay, and the hero knows nothing about his fate: whether he was killed, whether he died of illness or became a political prisoner. Dr. Plarr himself studied in Buenos Aires, but moved to this northern town where it was easier to get medical practice, where memories of his father were alive, with whom he had parted many years ago on the other side of Parana and where he was away from his mother, limited the petty bourgeois, for whom the main meaning of life consisted in eating countless cakes. The doctor’s mother lives in the capital,
In addition to the doctor, there are also two Englishmen living in the town – the English teacher Dr. Humphreys and the Honorary Consul Charlie Fortnum. In the circle of the main character is also the writer Jorge Julio Saavedra, who writes long, boring novels, full of spirit machismo (cult of male power and valor), an integral feature of Hispanics.
On this day, the doctor does not want to return home – he is afraid that he will call Clara, the wife of Charlie Fortnum, who has long been with him in love and expects a child from him. The honorary consul himself is invited to dinner with the governor to be an interpreter from the honorable guest – the American ambassador. The doctor does not want to see her, because she fears that Fortnum will return home too soon and find them at the crime scene. Having supper with Humphreys and having played two games of chess, the doctor goes home.
At two o’clock in the morning his phone wakes up – the underground workers who have crossed from Paraguay call to decide to seize the American ambassador to exchange him for political prisoners. Among the “revolutionaries” are two doctor’s classmates, whom he informed by friendship about the whereabouts of the ambassador. They ask him to come urgently, because the hostage is on death. Doctors are tormented by bad forebodings.
He is brought to the bidonville, the poorer quarter, where dirt never dries up, there is no drinking water and any comforts, and rickety, malnourished children run around. The hostage is kept in one of the huts. He is unconscious of an overdose of sleeping pills. Entering the patient, the doctor finds out in him the honorary consul of Charlie Fortnum, who was captured instead of the ambassador. When he wakes up, Fortnum also recognizes the doctor. Plurre advises him to let go, but his friends: the former priest Leon Rivas and Aquino Ribera – are afraid to disobey the leader of the group El Tigre. In addition, they hope, in exchange for Fortnum’s life, to demand the release of ten political prisoners, including the doctor’s father (they intended to ask the US ambassador for twenty). In vain, Plurr tries to prove that the honorary consul is too small, so that for him Americans start to quarrel with the General.
Dr. Plarr remembers how he met Fortnum. A few weeks after his arrival from Buenos Aires, the doctor passed by the Italian club – a small restaurant where the Hungarian chef could only cook goulash – and he was called by Dr. Humphries. He needed help to drive the drunken Fortnum home. At first Fortnum was eager to go to the brothel, but then agreed that the doctor should take him to the consulate, and every nonsense chattering along the way, telling, in particular, how one day he hung the British flag upside down, and Humphreys informed the ambassador about him. The doctor from this meeting was an unpleasant residue.
Month after two doctors needed to assure some documents, and he went to the consulate. Fortnum did not recognize him, took a thousand pesos for his documents without a receipt, and said that he was once married, but did not like his wife, although he dreamed of having children; that his father was a tyrant; that as a diplomat has the right once every two years to write out from abroad a car that can be profitable to sell… The doctor prescribes his medicine for pressure and advises to stop drinking.
Two years later the doctor finally ventures to visit the institution of Senora Sanchez. He comes there accompanied by Saavedra, who, after futile attempts to explain something to the doctor about the principles of his work, leaves with one of the girls. Attention of the doctor is attracted by a girl with a birthmark on her forehead, which was just holding the client, but while the doctor struggles with a sense of disgust, she leaves with a new visitor. When the doctor comes back in about a year, the girl with the mole is gone.
Accidentally at the embassy, Plurr learns that Fortnum married, and when he calls the doctor to...
They meet in the studio of photographer Gruber, and the doctor buys her expensive glasses. After that, he invites her to her, and they become lovers.
… In the morning after the kidnapping, the doctor goes to visit Clara at Fortnum’s estate. There he meets the police chief Colonel Peres. In answer to the questions of the colonel, the doctor is so clumsily lying that he risks incurring suspicions. The policeman guessed that Fortnum was kidnapped by mistake.
Later, the doctor recalls his first meeting with classmates who became fighters with the Paraguayan regime. Akuino talked about the torture that he had to endure – on his right hand he lacks three fingers. The underground fighters managed to repel Akuino when he was transported from one police station to another. The doctor agreed to help them in the hope of learning something about his father.
When he regains consciousness, Charlie Fortnum tries to find out what awaits him. Feeling a priest in Leon, he tries to pity him, but in vain. Desperate to persuade the kidnappers to let him go, Charlie Fortnum tries to escape, but Aquino hurts him at the ankle.
Meanwhile, Plurre asks the British ambassador to help liberate Fortnum, but the ambassador has long dreamed of getting rid of the honorary consul and only advises the doctor on behalf of the English club of their city to turn to the leading newspapers of England and the USA. Colonel Perez skeptically looks at this idea: just a bomb exploded from a terrorist bomb, one hundred and sixty people were killed, so who after that will begin to worry about some Charlie Fortnum?
Plurr tries to persuade Saavedra and Humphreys to sign his telegram, but both refuse, Saavedra, who recently received a negative response in the press, wants to attract public attention and offers herself as a hostage instead of Fortnum. With this news, Plarr goes to the central newspapers.
Returning home, he finds Clara, but her confession of love interrupts the arrival of Colonel Peres. During his visit, Leon calls, and the doctor has to come up with explanations on the go. Colonel says that from the point of view of common sense it is illogical to save such an old man as the doctor’s father, and hints that, by making a demand for his release, the kidnappers pay the doctor for some help. He is also interested in how the kidnappers could learn the program of the American ambassador’s stay in their town. However, after finding out that Clara is here, at the doctor’s, the colonel interprets his actions in his own way. Only just before he leaves, he says that in fact the father of the doctor was killed while attempting to escape, which he undertook together with Aquino.
When Leon calls again, the doctor in the forehead asks him about his father, who admits that he died. Nevertheless, the doctor agrees to come and make Fortnum bandaging, but he is also left a hostage. The situation is heating up – no one took seriously the offer of Saavedra; The British government hastened to disown from Fortnum, saying that he was not a member of the diplomatic corps; Diego, one of the “revolutionaries”, gave up his nerves, he tried to escape and was shot by the police; a canon helicopter overflew the cannonball… Plarre explains to Leon that their venture has failed.
Leon is going to kill Fortnum, otherwise the hostage-taking will never work on anyone else, but while they are in constant discussions, a voice amplified by the speakers of Colonel Peres’s voice is heard in the courtyard. He offers to surrender. The consul should be the first to leave, then all the others take turns; Anyone who comes first, besides the consul, is waiting for death. The kidnappers again begin to argue, and Plarr goes to Fortnum and suddenly finds out that he heard him talking about his connection with Clara. At this dramatic moment, Plarr realizes that he does not know how to love and that the pitiful drunkard Fortnum in this sense is higher than him. Not wanting Fortnum to be killed, he hoped to talk with Peres out of the house, but he was mortally wounded. As a result of the police action, everyone dies, and only Fortnum remains alive.
At Perron’s funeral, Perra says that the doctors killed the “revolutionaries”. Fortnum tries to prove that this is the work of the police, but nobody wants to listen to him. A representative of the embassy informs Fortnum that he is being sent to resign, although they promise to reward him.
But most of all Fortnum infuriates Clara’s indifference: it’s hard for him to understand why she does not experience the death of her lover. And suddenly he sees her tears. This manifestation of feeling, even to another man, awakens in him tenderness for her and for the child whom he loves, no matter what.