Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Carlos Fuentes, 1928-2012

Fuentes, standing in front of the Aztec Sun Calendar at the National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City. Image found here.

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."


R. Sherman said...

Not wasting time getting back in the swing, eh?

Alas, my knowledge of Latin American literature is woefully inadequate. Something else to learn before I cash in my existential chips, I suppose. What's a good introductory reading list?


Nick said...

The ghost of William Faulkner

Now there's a nickname.


Borges, Fuentes and Márquez works are staples in the house; I can't tell you how many times I'e considered, then reconsidedered, tossing dog eared paperbacks of Cholera, Terra Nostra, Collected Fictions or ...a Death Foretold onto the stack of items slated for the (iterative here) garagae sale only to have instead packed them through 7 states and as many abodes over 20-odd years.

As far as that goes, I can't rid myself of Calvino, either, even the lightweight Cosmiccomics. And let's not get started on all those old issues of Lish's Granta. And then there's...

John B. said...

Hey, Randall and Nick. Thanks for stopping by (and apologies for the delay; we just got back from a quick trip to Topeka).

Randall, here's a quick list of essentials:

Jorge Luis Borges, Labyrinths (the anthology that first introduced his work to a wider English-speaking audience)
Juan Rulfo, Pedro Páramo. Something like Absalom, Absalom!, but much shorter and more complicated . . . and it has dead people talking to each other, too.
Carlos Fuentes, The Death of Artemio Cruz. Even after 50 years, Mexico looks a whole lot like this novel.
Julio Cortázar, Hopscotch (A bunch of Argentinean expatriates hang out in Paris, and some mysterious old guy seems to be writing about them. (You may want to pick up a short story collection of his first--lots of these to choose from, and Cortázar was a good short-story writer, but if you run across a copy of We Love Glenda So Much and A Change of Light (now out of print), snatch. It. Up.)
Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude. Still the novel most people my age think of first when they hear "Latin American literature." I think my "buddy" Malick could make a hell of a film out of this novel, too.
Miguel Angel Asturias, The President. There are LOTS of so-called "dictator novels" from Latin America; many people think this one is among the very best of them.
Mario Vargas Llosa, The War of the End of the World. Based on actual events in Brazil: a utopian community gains more power than the Brazilian government is comfortable with.
Roberto Bolaño, 2666.

I hope Renée, my writer/edtor friend in Mexico City, will visit here and suggest a few more contemporary folks.

And Nick, you've described my household (though I also have a couple hundred vinyl albums still waiting to be digitalized). But rather than downsize, I'm contemplating buying another bookcase--I can't seem to part with anything, and the Mrs. is a voracious reader and keeps buying new books. But I figure, so long as my back holds out . . .