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The “magical reelism” of Carlos Fuentes

12 November 2008

Although yet to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, Carlos Fuentes (born 11 November 1928) , remains at the top of anyone’s list of major Mexican writers, Latin American writers, late 20th century writers… writers.

Fuentes, like Elena Poniatowska, was the child of a diplomat and spent the first several years of life outside Mexico (Fuentes was born in Panama, not living in Mexico until he was a teenager).  Perhaps the foreign childhood was essential to their clear-headed embrace of their people, and their city.  La región mas transparente (in English, Where the Air Is Clear) is, as Amazon reviewer “A. Reader” wrote:

Considered by many to be Fuentes’ all-time masterpiece… a roller-coaster tour of post-revolutionary Mexican urban history. It’s all there, from roughneck taxi drivers and prostitues trying to make their daily bread, to bored members of a fading aristocracy, of which only the double-barreled names remain. The novel’s diverse characters meet and unmeet in a bizarre range of social situations, ever-observed by the Spanish-Indigenous hybrid Ixca Cienfuegos. Cienfuegos, a type of Greek Chorus character who watches the ups and downs of the novel’s cast like a mad-scientist doing an experiment, doesn’t hesitate to drop in for a chat to the characters, provoking them to pour out their hearts in sometimes tedious monologues. If you have a basic grasp of Mexico’s history you’ll understand this novel better, although if you don’t know the history, a stack of not too subtle symbols will help you out. … If you want to see how the thinking behind Octavio Paz’s Labyrinth of Solitude would work, applied to a TV mini-series, and have a few days to spare, give it a go.

I would have said “telenovela” instead of “mini-series” — something developed the same year La Region was first published and destined, with their interlocking stories of social class conflicts, coincidence and recurring themes, to be the defining Mexican style of story-telling.

Like La muerte de Artemio Cruz (1962) or the 1999 complimentary novel (featuring some of the same characters) Los años con Laura Díaz, Fuentes writes of the Mexican Revolution and its aftermath — the triumphs, tragedies and ironies of the nations’ always uncertain modernity with a filmmaker’s — or telenovelista’s — eye.

Regrettably only “The Old Gringo” (El viejo gringo) has made it to the big screen, but that novel deals with a minor incident of the Mexican Revolution (the disappearance of Hearst correspondent, Civil War veteran and short story writer Ambrose Bierce) and — probably making Fuentes cry all the way to the bank — was only made because the Italian producers could use well-known Hollywood actors and could deal in Mexican stereotypes. And, two of the three protagonists are gringos.

Gachupines and Gringos have caught Fuente’s eye in the last few years.   As a companion piece to a television series on Latin America’s Hispanidad, he wrote El espijo enterrada (The Buried Mirror), his reflections on Spanish colonialism.  “His black comedy “Eagle’s Throne” tells the story of a futuristic “war on drugs” with U.S. President Condaleeza Rice resorting to magic to manipulate the election to replace multi-term President Vicente Fox.  A 93-year old Fidel Castro still holds power in this novel, set in 2020.   In 2006, he wrote “Contra Bush” — which is what you’d expect from a Mexican, though Fuentes is a bit further to the right than most of his contemporaries and the  main current of Mexican intelligencia.  Like many others, he backed Vicente Fox and the conservative PAN party’s attempts to break the stranglehold PRI had on the presidency in 2000.  Unlike the others, he continued to support the Fox administration, though with some distaste, now — as in his childhood — viewing his country from abroad.

Perhaps best able to view his people and his city, like the God Tezacatlipolco, only through a smoky mirror… or though a foggy one.  Fuentes lives in London.

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