In his essay “How I Started to Write,” Fuentes wrote, memorably, that his political coming of age was also his literary genesis: “I discovered that my father’s country was real. And that I belonged to it.”
For more than five decades, Fuentes was Mexico’s best-known, most decorated writer of fiction. He won several of the world’s most important literary prizes, including the prestigious Cervantes Prize. Said to be short-listed often for the Nobel, he never won; that honor went to fellow countryman, poet and essayist Octavio Paz, with whom Fuentes broke in a celebrated rift.
His first novel, Where the Air Is Clear (1958), was a controversial smash. A surreal, trenchant social satire, cutting across all strata of Mexican society, it depicts a postwar Mexico in search of an identity, torn between an ancient heritage and the urge to join the modern world. Presented in a series of character studies, the book was a dagger thrust at the uncaring rich. We meet Aztec deities roaming Mexico City looking for blood sacrifice, decadent rich folks who like to party, prostitutes, and the poor.
The Death of Artemio Cruz (1962) remains his best-known work. Cruz, a powerful businessman and landowner, lies on his deathbed, reflecting on his life. As a young man, he fought for the Mexican revolution, and afterward, he grew wealthy and corrupt, betraying the principles of that very revolution.
Luis Gonzáles del Valle, chair of the department of Spanish and Portuguese at Temple University, calls it “a novel about the impact of the revolution on the people and mind-set of Mexico.” It stands as a lament on the tragic failure of democracy to fulfill its own promise.
Artemio Cruz showed Fuentes the master experimenter. Sometimes, we’re in the familiar third person. At others, we switch to second person, in which Cruz is apparently addressed: “[Y]ou look around you and the incompetence, the misery, the filth, the languor, the nakedness of this poor country that has nothing, all seem intolerable to you.” Sometimes Cruz takes the “I” of the first-person narrator. Near the end, the three persons merge.
That helps us understand what made Fuentes Fuentes. He was not a “magical realist” but rather an orchestrator of new ways of telling a story, making myths and characters, remaking language.
Many were the later highlights. Terra Nostra (1975) was a thick, sweeping panorama of 2,000 years of Western and Mexican history. The Old Gringo (1985) was made into a 1989 movie staring Gregory Peck.
Christopher Unborn (1989), one of his best, is a savage, hilarious look at the problems of Mexico in the “odious ’80s,” seen by a child who, while not yet born, has wisdom enough to see the problems of a polluted, dysfunctional, bankrupt, corrupted, lovable country. Fuentes the wordsmith had a romp with this one. A resort is named Acapulcalypse. A new god arises: Opepsicoatl. Slogan: “Long live the Opepsicoatl Generation!”
Fuentes was among several Latin American writers, including Márquez and Peru’s Mario Vargas Llosa, who became mainstays on the public stage, writing reams of op-ed pieces, magazine articles, and speeches on politics at home and abroad. Although a supporter of socialism, Fuentes honored ideas rather than parties. He championed human rights, women’s rights, and minority rights throughout his life.
His high principles sometimes clashed with a personal life that included a troubled first marriage and the deaths of two of his children before they reached 30. His feminism was ironic for such a notorious womanizer, whose affairs may have included actresses Jeanne Moreau and Jean Seberg.
“Over lunch one time,” says del Valle, “I said to Carlos, ‘In your writings you are a socialist, but in your life you are a bourgeois.’ He said, ‘You don’t understand. When I write, I can be a leftist, and in my personal life, I can belong to the middle class.”
In Mexican Time (1971), Fuentes took direct aim at U.S. culture and its effect on Mexico. He wrote The Buried Mirror as a companion to a BBC television series on cultural ties between Spain and the New World; while much is broken and much corrupt, the seeds of the new lay in the old. Latin America is that headbanging paradox, a vigorous culture bound to a moribund political life: “Why have our artists and writers been so imaginative and our politicians so unimaginative?”
(He didn’t just talk the talk. Fuentes was a diplomat for Mexico from 1965-1977, resigning his ambassadorship to France in political protest.)
On the day of his death, his last column, “Long live socialism! But ...,” appeared in the periodical Reforma. Fuentes celebrated the French election, but warned that “socialism, in power, must present itself as a partnership that concerns not just business or labor, but rather society as a whole.”
Politics could lead to friction with other intellectuals and artists. His friendship with poet Paz fell apart over Fuentes’ support for socialist causes such as the Sandinista uprising in Nicaragua, and the two literary eminences, who had been friends as young men, refused to back down or rapproche.
A celebrated orator, Fuentes was not without bombast, self-consciousness, or self-importance, and his often resonant Spanish sometimes came across as wooden English. At his best, he told fascinating stories with mythical characters, wreathed round with surging, creative language. He evidently wrote quickly and easily. As he remarked in “How I Started to Write”: “You start by writing to live. You end by writing so as not to die.”