Carlos Fuentes died today in his home town of Mexico City. He was 83. Here is a brief obituary in today's Los Angeles Times. His passing means that of that generation of Latin American writers of the "Boom" years of the '60s and '70s, only Colombia's Gabriel García Márquez and Peru's Mario Vargas Llosa are still alive.
Fuentes' work was very important to me early on in my intellectual life, such as it has been, and in my understanding of Mexico's history and how that history has shaped its people. Long ago, I posted a little something about his novel The Death of Artemio Cruz, how back in college it served as my introduction to both Mexico City before my first trip there and, later, via my preparing some notes for students who had been assigned it, something like the work that professors do before teaching something. A few years later, I found myself in Mexico City in a bookstore, staring at brand-spanking new copies of his novel Cristóbal Nonato (translated as Christopher Unborn and bought it without even looking inside the covers. I'd just finished reading García Márquez's Love in the Time of Cholera in Spanish; how hard could this one be? Well: If I'd known that novel was his own Mexican amalgamation of Tristram Shandy and Finnegans Wake . . . Still, struggling through that novel, my three dictionaries often stymied by its slang and invented Spanish, remains one of my favorite reading experiences.
It's safe to say that only Octavio Paz rivaled Fuentes' status as the preeminent man of letters of 20th-century Mexico. More than a novelist, Fuentes was also an accomplished essayist, and even served his country as a diplomat. Like Paz, his subject was Mexico, almost always; he once told me after a reading (in response to my asking about Faulkner's influence on his work), and has also mentioned elsewhere, that Balzac's attempt to document all of French society via his novels was a major source of inspiration for him (Fuentes). But whereas Paz returned in his work, again and again, to Mexico's indigenous civilizations and the Encounter with Spain in his efforts to understand the Mexican psyche, Fuentes looked more to Europe--it was, after all, Europeans who came up with that brilliant, ambiguous term "New World"**--and to Mexico's vexed history (political, economic, cultural) with the United States, and found political inspiration in both the New Deal and (like most every Latin American intellectual, at least for a while, in the Cuban Revolution. Compared to writers like Bolaño, and given Mexico's and Latin America's contemporary promise and problems, Fuentes' (and Paz's) humanist-laden late modernism/post-modernism (despite the tumult of events, he keeps returning to the Americas' intellectual foundations) can seem a bit quaint at times. But don't assume quaintness is tantamount to irrelevancy. One could do worse, still, than prepare for a trip to Mexico City by reading Artemio Cruz along with your Fodors.
**(Wednesday, May 16) Fuentes says somewhere (I couldn't find it last night) that the New World "was doomed to Utopia by the Old World"--that is, he argues, the New World, because it had in a sense always already existed in the imagination of Europeans (whose writing is filled with various Never-Never Lands), has never had a chance to imagine itself . . . until, he argues, García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude begins that process.
I was lucky enough to hear and briefly talk to Fuentes three times back in the '80s and '90s. The first time was in San Antonio in '83 or '84, while I was still in college; Trinity University had hosted a public reading the night before (which I attended; he read "Borges in Action," which I mentioned here a while back), and the next day was a Q&A intended for Trinity folks but which I snuck into anyway. That was the time I asked him about Faulkner's influence on his work (Artemio Cruz seems, in some ways, a latter-day Thomas Sutpen); he said that while Balzac was more important to him personally, Faulkner was important for all Latin American writers, and he signed my copy of Artemio Cruz with "To the ghost of William Faulkner." The second time was again in San Antonio when I was working on my master's. I forget the exact occasion for his being there, but he read the opening chapter of Christopher Unborn. At the book-signing afterward, I told him that I'd read Christopher Unborn in Spanish, and he looked at me with a sort of sad, pitying, "you foolish little man" look (about which he was absolutely right). The third time was at Rice, which I conveniently happened to be attending at the time. This time, he was giving a lecture on U.S.-Latin American relations. At the Q&A afterward, I told him that this was my third time to have heard him speak; without hesitation, he said, "Yes--I remember you."