Carlos Fuentes, man of letters, died on May 15th, aged 83
May 19th 2012 | from the print edition
EVERY summer holiday when he was at school, Carlos Fuentes would stay with his grandmothers, one in Veracruz, on the steamy Gulf coast, the other from Mazatlán, near the badlands of Sinaloa on the Pacific. The women told the young boy stories, tales of Mexico, of revolution, of peasants who were leaving the land to make great cities, of bandits, of love and lust, of feud and food, of Indians, of Spaniards and baroque Spanish towns in America. He took these stories back with him to Washington, to Santiago, to Buenos Aires, to wherever his father, a Mexican diplomat, was posted (Carlos himself was born in Panama). The solitude of this peripatetic childhood turned the boy into a writer: he began to publish his stories when he was 11, and never stopped until the day he died.
The routine was always the same. He rose early and wrote, in longhand on the right-hand page of large blocks, later correcting on the left-hand page. E-mail he did not use, not even a computer. He was, in the old-fashioned sense, a man of letters. There were some 60 books, novels mainly but plays and essays too, as well as much political commentary and journalism. Afternoons and evenings, whether in Mexico City or London, where in recent decades he lived for part of each year to escape celebrity, were for reading (his tastes were wide, including Wordsworth), the cinema (a lifelong passion), for seeing friends and for seduction, at which he was a master. He was always elegantly dressed, his suits as sharp as his conversation; his verbal thrusts were often delivered with a wicked twinkle in his eye.
A dandy, his detractors said, but women loved that in him. He claimed that his conquests included Jean Seberg and Jeanne Moreau, and perhaps they did.
Clearing the air
So prolific was his output that it was inevitably uneven. Some of the early novels will last the best. They are panoramic, richly-textured reflections on Mexican history, its underlying contradictions of world view between Indian and Spaniard and their sometimes awkward melding in mestizaje and in the country’s revolution of 1910-17. “La Región Más Transparente” (translated as “Where the Air is Clear”), his ambitious debut novel set in Mexico City, reflects on the challenge to Mexican identity posed by modernity. “The Death of Artemio Cruz”, published in 1962, chronicles the descent from the idealism of revolution to the cynicism of the long rule of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) through the life of a politician and newspaper tycoon enriched by graft.
The creative antagonism of the relationship between Spain and America was an obsession for Mr Fuentes, recurring in “Terra Nostra”, a sprawling historical fantasy, and “The Buried Mirror”, an extended essay. The narrator in “Artemio Cruz” imagines in a baroque church
the façade of the Conquest, severe yet jocund, with one foot in the dead Old World and the other in the New, which did not begin here but on the other side of the ocean: the New World arrived when they arrived; façade of austere walls to protect their avaricious, sensual, happy hearts. You will enter the nave, where all that was Spanish will be conquered by the macabre smiling lavishness of Indian saints, angels, and gods.
Mr Fuentes was a leading figure in the Latin American literary boom of the 1960s and 1970s, a friend of both Gabriel García Márquez and Mario Vargas Llosa (as well as of Octavio Paz until their relationship was destroyed by an intemperate attack on Mr Fuentes in Mr Paz’s literary magazine). Many thought it unjust that he alone of these four did not receive the Nobel prize.
He was no magical realist. His inspirations were Cervantes and Borges. His language was complex. He employed multiple voices and styles. His upbringing in two cultures, Latin American and Anglo-Saxon, made him both a Mexican and a universal writer.
He was a man of the left, but a democratic one. He was initially enthusiastic about both the Cuban revolution and the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, but later criticised their authoritarianism. He had no time for Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, calling him a “tropical Mussolini”.
His later years were marked by personal tragedy. Both his children with Silvia Lemus, his second wife who was a television presenter, died before him, one of complications from haemophilia and the other from drug addiction. As Mexico descended into drug-related violence, his later novels became darker. “La Voluntad y La Fortuna” (“Destiny and Desire”) begins with the musings of a severed head, floating in the Pacific. He dismissed Enrique Peña Nieto, the PRI candidate and front-runner in Mexico’s presidential election, due on July 1st, as a lightweight, unequal to the country’s problems.
Mr Fuentes was at home in Europe, New York and Mexico. But he still felt the pull of Veracruz, where Cortes and the Spaniards first landed. When asked in 2009 to write an article about his favourite museum for Intelligent Life, our sister magazine, he instantly offered to return to the Museum of Anthropology in Xalapa, the state capital, with its colossal Olmec stone heads and laughing figurines, the union of the sacred and the human. Veracruz, he declared, was “where I belong”.
from the print edition | Obituary