Carlos Fuentes is perhaps Mexico's most celebrated writer. Across more than twenty novels, he writes of the passions and politics of a nation perpetually in turmoil. He also served as Ambassador to Paris, a time he eludes to fondly, before returning to Mexico City.
The Death of Artemio Cruz"  is the best known of the translated fictions, a portrayal of a powerful, and largely corrupt, man on his deathbed as he imagines the past and rails against death. In this novel, Fuentes wrote the first of many graphic depictions of sex, including an odd characterization of Christ in sensualized circumstance, and in one of his later novels "Diana: The Goddess Who Hunts Alone"  he once again uses the bedroom as a place where personal and political clashes are won and lost.
The plot line is skimpy, the novel largely philosophical rambling on political upheavals and cultural struggles, and these reflections are the best part of the book. As the sixties come to a close, a successful adulterous writer is drawn into an unusually intense affair with an American actress. As they come to each other and resist each other with equal force, he contemplates the pretense of Hollywood versus lost souls in his own country, including his own, and the inability of humans to connect in a meaningful way through time. Like the goddess Diana, the actress is equal parts pretense, desire and weakness.
"The young people of Paris, in May 1968, had rebelled against what they vaguely called the tyranny of consumption, a society that exchanged being for seeming and took acquisition as a proof of existence. A Mexican, no matter how much he travels the world, is always anchored in a society of need; we return to the need that surrounds us on all sides in Mexico, and if we have even the slightest spark of conscience, it's hard for us to imagine a world where you can get everything you might want immediately, even pink toothpaste. I've always told myself that the vigor of Latin American art derives from the enormous risk of throwing yourself into the abyss of need, hoping to land on your feet on the other side, the side of satisfaction. It's very hard for us - if not for us personally, then in the name of all those around us."
Diana responds at another point that "There are forces that present themselves once and never again. Forces, she repeated, sleepily nodding several times, staring at the polished nails of her bare feet, her chin perched on her knees. Forces, not opportunities. Forces for love, politics, artistic creation, sports, who knows what else. They come by only once. It's useless to try to recover them. They're gone, mad at us because we paid them no mind. We didn't want passion. Then passion didn't want us either."
Fuentes often seizes an opportunity to decry the "gringo" effect on his country and suggests that migration northward has been stimulated as much by the needs of the American people, even as they scorn immigrants, as a failure of his own government to improve quality of life in his homeland.
I hung on every line and enjoyed playing voyeur as these two souls marched towards their own demise. Few surprises in this novel full of elegant thoughts. The book is hard to find, mostly used copies, and worth the search. Fuentes passed away in 2012 but his passions live on.
I'll leave you with this great passage: "New Year's Eve. This passage from 1969 to 1970 was worthy of celebration because it marked the end of one decade and the beginning of a new one. But no one agrees about what that final zero means at the end of a year. Were the sixties coming to an end and the seventies beginning, or were the 1960's demanding one more year, a final agony of partying and crime, revolt and death, for that decade replete with major events, tangible and intangible, guts and dreams, cobblestones and memories, blood and desire: the decade of Vietnam and Martin Luther King, the Kennedy assassinations and May 1968 in Paris, the Democratic convention in Chicago and the massacre in Tlatelolco Plaza, the death of Marilyn? A decade that seemed to be programmed for television, to fill the sterile scheduling wastelands of blank screens but leave them breathless, making miracles banal, transforming the little electronic postage stamp into our daily bread, the expected into the unexpected, the facsimile of reality that culminated, even before the 1970's had begun, in mankind's first step on the moon. Our immediate suspicion: was the flight to the moon filmed in a TV studio? Our instantaneous disenchantment: can the moon go on being our romantic Diana after a gringo leaves his shit up there?"
If you want to learn more about Latin American writers, join educator Nancy Rayl and I on September 28th at 3:00 PM at Laguna Beach Books for the first of a quarterly salon on international literature.