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The Guerrilla Dandy. The literary and political illusions of Carlos Fuentes, everybody’s favorite Mexican

He speaks all his words distinctly, half as loud again as the other.

Anybody can see he is an actor.
Henry Fielding

In the family album of exiled writers (Conrad, Nabokov, Zamyatin, Kundera), a close-up of Carlos Fuentes reveals something odd about his image. Is he a willing exile from Mexico in the United States, or a reluctant exile from the United States in Mexico? He has become something of a star in North America, where he lived until the age of 12, to the extent that even an American congressman observed that "Fuentes is a great man. He knows so much about his country." The congressman had not read a single book by Fuentes; his opinion, like the opinion of so many others, had been formed by the omnipresence of the writer in the media.

In Mexico, Fuentes has an altogether different image. No one doubts his exemplary passion for literature and his professional attachment to it. He has published novels, stories, essays, drama, and countless articles. And yet for some time now his writings have been arousing irritation and bewilderment. Mexico is a country whose complexity has exhausted several generations of intellectuals, but Fuentes seems unaware of that complexity. His work simplifies the country; his view is frivolous, unrealistic, and, all too often, false.

In a poem by Octavio Paz, a story by Juan Ruifo, or a painting by Rufino Tamayo, Mexican life is the point of departure for the work, and the work participates in that life. Even certain foreign artists have captured what is new, and radically alien, about Mexico; the Mexican pink in Rauschenberg's canvases; the signs hanging on the cantina walls in Lowry's famous novel; the dark women in Viva Zapata walking over rough paving stones; the lighthearted, innocent cruelty in Bunuel's Los Olvidados; the market day in Lawrence's Mornings in Mexico. A reality embodied by Mexicans for foreigners to discover. But Fuentes, a foreigner in his own country, skirts that reality, and lingers over externals. For Fuentes, Mexico is a script committed to memory, not an enigma or a problem, not anything really living, not a personal experience.

There is the suspicion in Mexico that Fuentes merely uses Mexico as a theme, distorting it for a North American public, claiming credentials that he does not have. The appearance of Myself with Others, then, is timely. Its autobiographical pages finally reveal the origins of his intellectual sleight of hand. The book shows Fuentes's lack of identity and personal history. From the very start, it's clear that he filled in this void with films and literature. His real world was his fictional world: a cinematic sequence of authors and works. Lacking a personal point of view and an internal compass, Fuentes lost his way through the history of literature and found himself condemned to the histrionic reproduction of its texts, theories, and personages. The key to Fuentes is not in Mexico; it is in Hollywood. The United States produces actors for movies, for television, for radio, for politics. Now and then it produces actors for literature, too. Carlos Fuentes is one of them.


“This is not a border, it is a scar." This statement by one of the characters in The Old Gringo is excessive as a description of the vicinity between Mexico and the United States, but an accurate epigraph for Fuentes himself. He was a gringo child of Mexican origin, born in Panama, a place where history and geography have indeed left a scar. On the outskirts of the Depression and the New Deal, his placid childhood was spent in the "territorial fiction" of diplomatic life, in a seven-room apartment that was "superbly furnished" and had a view of Meridian Hill Park in Washington, D.C. Myself with Others recalls long summers when "the livin' seemed easy," a good old time when Fuentes learned to prefer "grits to guacamole" and work to idleness ("no siestas for me"), and first dreamed the American dream; that everyone will be famous for 15 minutes.

On his vacations, he visited Mexico. "It was depressing to compare the progress of a country where everything worked, everything was new, everything was clean, with the inefficiency, backwardness, and dirt of my own country." In contrast to the North American past, Mexican history seemed little more than a series of "crushing defeats," beginning with the TTT: the "Tremendous Texan Trauma." Fuentes grew accustomed to seeing Mexico not on its own terms, but refracted through a North American perspective.

No Mexican loses sleep over the TTT, and none would say, as Fuentes does, that "the world of North America blinds us with its energy; we cannot see ourselves. We must see you." Quite the opposite: Mexico has always been a country maniacally obsessed with itself. But Fuentes is a special kind of Mexican. He discovered the existence of his country at the age of ten, in 1938, when President Cardenas decreed the expropriation of foreign oil properties. He suddenly realized that this "nonexistent country" was his identity, an identity that was slipping away from him.

"How I Started to Write" (an autobiographical chapter in Myself with Others) is a good example of the onomastic prose, worthy of a marquee, that is so peculiar to Fuentes. It introduces the veneration of the great names that would populate his life and his writings; Gene Kelly, Dick Tracy, Clark Kent, Carole Lombard, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and a long and indiscriminate etcetera. "When I arrived [in America]," he told an audience a few weeks ago at the National Press Club in Washington, where he had come to help out with the Robert F. Kennedy Book Awards, "Dick Tracy had just met Tess Trueheart. As I left, Clark Kent was meeting Lois Lane. You are what you eat. You are also the comics you peruse as a child." Fuentes's was not exactly a life in exile, but an uprooting whose abrupt reversal in adolescence would leave a scar of ambiguity: "Mexico became a fact of violent approaches and separations in the face of which affection was no less strong than rejection."

The autobiographical pages make it clear that the only early links between Fuentes and his "paternal country" were a nationalism forged less by pride in the Mexican tradition than by resentment of the North American world, and by the determined effort he made throughout his childhood to preserve Spanish as his language. It is no exaggeration to see these links, respectively, as the origin of Fuentes's political and literary attitudes. When Fuentes finally approached "the gold and mud" of Mexico at the age of 16, language had already become "the center of his being and the possibility of joining his own destiny and that of his country into one." Mexico, the "imaginary, imagined country," was not a tangible, historical nation. It was only a victim of imperialism, an instrumental reality, a language.

Fuentes's struggle in Mexico to preserve the Spanish language led to the obsession with conquering it. The story of Myself with Others ends in 1950; to reconstruct fully the story of his struggle, one must turn to the testimony of friends, and to other incidental writings by Fuentes. Someone remembers that he became a mimetic being, all tongue and ears, a "brawler" with words. No wonder, because in Mexico the weapons of colloquial language are as sharp as, or even sharper than, real weapons. During those years he had already given up the idea of writing in English ("After all, the English language didn't need another writer"), but his use of Spanish indicated that he was tone-deaf to certain nuances, expressions, themes. He moved from reticence to excess; unexpected "damns," out of place "fucks." In sum, to a linguistic machismo.

Reality, however, was somewhere on the other side of language. In 1950 Mexico City was in the process of taking on the physiognomy of other modern capitals where Fuentes had been. He did not see the need, therefore, to go deeper into the countryside, where the reality of Mexico was more profound. His exploration of the city, although superficial, was incessant and orgiastic. Like a bedazzled and perplexed tourist, he lived the city of leisure, the nocturnal city, the show-biz city. He left out the workplace, working hours, and neighborhoods. Instead, he descended with pencil in hand into "the brash, sentimental, lowdown world of brothels smelling of disinfectant, cheap nightclubs decorated with silver-colored walls, the whores, pimps, magicians, midget strippers, and vaselined singers."

Mexico in the '50s was also defined (the word is Fuentes's) by its Star System: the muralist Diego Rivera and his scaffolding, the eyelashes of Maria Felix, the dancer Tongolele's shock of white hair, and the seal-like face of mambo orchestra leader Perez Prado. To be a writer in the '50s, "one had to be" with the writer stars: Alfonso Reyes and Octavio Paz. Fuentes went so far as to live with Reyes in Cuernavaca. In the winter of 1950, he met Paz in Paris. Paz wrote about the young man who possessed "an avidity to know and touch everything—an avidity that is manifested in charges so intense and frequent that it is no exaggeration to call them electrical." It is significant that Paz speaks of avidity, not of curiosity. Fuentes urgently wanted to appropriate the latest intellectual keys to Mexico; he needed a complete libretto of the "imaginary country," and he thought he had found it in Paz's The Labyrinth of Solitude. His reading of that book was a revelation.

In 1958 he published his first novel, Where the Air Is Clear. Closely following the visual methods of the U.S.A. trilogy ("Dos Passos was my literary bible"), Fuentes took an important step in Mexican narrative: he acclimatized the genre of the urban novel that had been introduced two years before, with fewer literary resources but tellingly and honestly, by Luis Spota in Casi el paraiso (Almost Paradise). His main formal inspiration was Balzac. "I am very Balzacian. ... In The Human Comedy (or, if you prefer, The Mexican Comedy) there is room for many storys." The image is exact. Fuentes envisioned Mexican society as a vertical social and historical stage set. In the basement were the masked, unseen Aztec gods, embodied as faceless beings who carry out their designs.

And above ground were the various social classes: the nostalgic aristocracy, the "Croesohedonic" bourgeoisie, the arriviste middle class, and at the bottom, the common people. Fuentes's first book presaged the character of his entire work. The intellectual itinerary that he had chosen in order to learn about the country was transfigured into a strange confusion of genres. The characters had no life of their own: they simply acted out fashionable philosophical theses. A philosophical poet clearly inspired by Paz appears throughout the novel and dies in a manner that recalls the chapter on death in The Labyrinth of Solitude; the ruined banker does not consult a lawyer but discusses the essence of the Mexican spirit with Paz's alter ego; and so on. The most successful parody is not of the bourgeois class (Fuentes scorned it without knowing it), but of the aristocracy, to which he belonged without really belonging to it: its parties, its snobbery, its dandyism, its uprootedness. But finally Fuentes lacked the practical knowledge of social life that may be found in Balzac, for whom a bankruptcy, the work of a printing house, or the fall of the stock market were concrete realities, not symptoms of the life of a class. And he lacked something even more important. "There, where your shoe pinches, is the touch of Balzac," wrote Harry Levin, In Where the Air Is Clear the common people do not suffer or work; they reflect philosophically on poverty in the setting of an endless and tragic binge.

Fuentes’s first novel does not recall Balzac so much as that great actor of painting, Diego Rivera: immense texts and murals that proceed more by accumulation and schematic juxtaposition than by imaginative connection. Both are painfully rigid in suggesting the inner lives of their themes and characters, both treat them as theses or burden them with a didacticism that grows tedious, both have recourse to allegory. Texts that are murals, murals that are texts. The best of Rivera is the flowering of his forms and colors. The best of Fuentes is in the verbal avalanche of his prose.

The great Cuban poet Lezama Lima wrote that "I have found his novel strong, urgent, abundant, throbbing with symbols and masks," This verbal eroticism was the real substance of the novel, and it limned the central paradox of Fuentes's future work: there was something chimerical in his attempt to write the social novel of a reality he had not lived, something false that was supposed to be disguised by intellectual mimesis and lyrical expansion. But it was not disguised. Language was still the center of Fuentes's being, and Mexico remained an "imaginary, imagined country," His vast reading, diligent but independent of any experience that wasn't academic or folkloric, was never enough to correct his limitation. He never came to know the country that would be the central theme of his work. He thought he could resolve the deafness of his origins by turning it inside out: history, society, the life of the city, would be assimilated to the raging tumult of its voices. Balzac's characters still survive in the literary and popular memory of Europe. Nobody in Mexico remembers the characters of Fuentes.


Like the great majority of Mexican intellectuals of all political tendencies (Jose Vasconcelos and Octavio Paz, Vicente Lombardo and Daniel Cosio Villegas), Carlos Fuentes celebrated the victory of the Cuban Revolution and interpreted it as an act of Spanish American affirmation: a triumph of Marti, not Lenin. For Fuentes in particular, the revolution had an additional significance: it seemed to resolve, not in language but in history, his latent identity crisis. It seemed to make his scar disappear. Revenge for the TTT, Mexico was still the imaginary country, but suddenly it was no longer necessary to compare it with the dubious paradise of the "cheerful robots" or with the cruel mirror of "crushing defeats." In an article published in March 1959, Fuentes maintained that Cuba had opened the doors of the future when it interdicted all the founding philosophies of the United States: Locke, Adam Smith, Protestantism, the free enterprise system—"weapons that are much too feeble to attack the problems of the 20th century," The nationalist vindication alone seemed to guarantee a happy ending, "One must be Malraux," he had confided years before to a friend, Cuba offered Fuentes the opportunity to play a young, somewhat altered Malraux: the Malraux of a revolution in power. He traveled to Havana, he wrote enthusiastic articles, and with his closest friends he founded El Espedador (The Spectator), which in its short life closely followed the pulse of Cuba and interpreted the problems of Mexico in light of the Cuban experience. In Mexico, the natural effect of the Cuban Revolution was to push its old local homologue to the right, to make the Mexican Revolution seem like a pseudo-revolution.

This occurred, paradoxically, at precisely the time when the economic and social balance of the Mexican pseudo-revolution was not at all bad, whatever the point of comparison—internal or external, the past or the present. (The fundamental problem of the time was the growing insensitivity of the governing class, which blocked the country's political and economic growth.) Very few intellectuals, however, had the wisdom to judge the situation with any equilibrium—the young, influenced by the academic Marxism made fashionable by Sartre, least of all. Democracy, certainly, was not on their horizon. After Cuba, the only horizon was the revolution. In El Espectador, Fuentes asked: "Are we still in time to save the Mexican Revolution from the pitiful stupor it fell into in 1940?" To set it back on course, he thought it necessary to abandon the "impoverishing anarchy of free enterprise" and fight for a "strong State that would assume total control and rational, popular planning of economic development."

Fuentes’s Sartre was C. Wright Mills. Mills visited the University of Mexico in 1960 and taught a course on Marxism and liberalism. He envied the potential influence of the Latin American intellectual, who was, in his opinion, a unique factor for change in underdeveloped countries. For Mills, world competition was not a problem of power, but of prestige: the best model of industrial development would win. As for autocratic governments. Mills saw Leninism as the only way out. El Espectador disseminated Mills's ideas, and Fuentes, who adopted them as if they were a creed, dedicated his second novel. The Death of Artemio Cruz, to Mills, The colophon states the dates and places of its composition: Havana, May 1960; Mexico City, December 1961. An epitaph for the Mexican Revolution, written out of the vitality and hope of the Cuban Revolution.

In The Death of Artemio Cruz, Fuentes attempted to expose the prototype of the Mexican revolutionary, caught up in lies, corruption, and murder. Pursued by the phantoms of his victims—the idealists, the collaborators, the friends—and gnawed by the memory of true love and its abrupt demise, General Cruz, a sort of Mexican Citizen Kane, dies a slow, vengeful death. Outside, on the painted walls and in the empty speeches of the Institutionalized Revolutionary Party (PRI), the revolution was dying with him. The novel was an immediate and unanimous success. It is generally believed to be the best novel that Fuentes has written. It is certainly the most sincere. At a distance of 25 years, one is still struck by the verbal fury of an implacable narrator who, out of the ideological optimism of the early 1960s, censures the impurity of a revolutionary undeserving of the name. The explosion of indignation worked marvelously well in the novel's language, but it made the character of Cruz unbelievable. His villainy was too perfect: he had committed each of the Seven Deadly Sins and violated all of the Ten Commandments,

In the revolutionary narratives of Mariano Azuela, Martin Luis Guzman, and Jose Vasconcelos, you can almost smell the gunpowder in the pages: death is real, made up of terror, hatred, blood, and stench. The characters are buffeted by contradictory and unpredictable wind storms, and their reactions are ambiguous. Almost a half century later, The Death of Artemio Cruz did away with all this ambiguity. The historical revolution lost its real contours. It had become corrupt. There arose before it its own idealized image: Revolution with a capital R. Now the pages smacked of ink, not gunpowder. Fuentes's novel functioned as an indictment by the younger generation of intellectuals who, from the vantage point of a revolution that shone for them, wished to prosecute a revolution that they considered betrayed.

Cuba’s assertion of nationalism in its confrontation with the United States captured Fuentes's political consciousness in a definitive way. The North American world was still "blinding him with its energy," keeping him from seeing Latin American events in their internal variety and complexity. When the Soviet Union made its full-fledged appearance on the Cuban scene, Fuentes did not rejoice, but neither did he rush to the defense of usurped Cuban nationalism. His ideology would remain fixed in a narrow range marked out by the Mexican (Cardenist) Revolution and the Cuban Revolution. The Cuban Revolution's only sin, in his opinion, would be intellectual intolerance.

Fuentes wrote several pieces of political journalism more notable for their pamphleteering enthusiasm than for their spirit of objectivity. One of them, for example, was the result of a trip through Michoacan with Gen, Lazaro Cardenas. For 30 years the general had been involved in the development of the region. In 1938 he had created a union of community collectives. The sad truth was that the project was a failure from the very start. The community collectives had stopped cooperating with each other; the land was subject over the years to leasing, individual distribution, and foreign investment; the state banks and corporations used the campesinos as political capital. Fuentes did not hide this reality, exactly. He simply saw another one, its very opposite, the reality of his revolutionary idyll:

Here the detractors of community collectives are refuted. Here individualist and greedy ideas have not made their appearance. Here disputes, confrontations, and exploitation do not exist. The collectivists cooperate with each other, they distribute their harvests and collect their profits in the oldest spirit of al)—one that, when it has been lost and forgotten, seems brand new: the spirit of fraternity.

Later, in early 1961, Fuentes was a correspondent for the Mexican magazine Política and for the Nation at the meeting of the OAS at Punta del Este, Uruguay, where the incompatibility of the Cuban regime with democracy was noted, and Cuba was expelled from the organization. Two months after Punta del Este, however, the good student of Mills drew the natural conclusion:

True representative democracy is socialist democracy, because in an underdeveloped country, only socialism can effect the structural changes capable of creating the real conditions of democracy. By declaring the incompatibility with democracy of the only Latin American government that is truly compatible with concrete democracy, the American states, paradoxically, have declared their own incompatibility with the future and with history.

In the days when he edited Revista Mexicana de Literatura (Mexican Review of Literature), in 1955 and 1956, Fuentes's intellectual hero had been Camus: "See nuances and understand, never dogmatize and confuse." Seven years later Camus was dead, and Sartre was king. To be an engaged intellectual was not to be engaged with truth, but with the truth of revolutionary power. In political terms, the Revista had favored a third option: "neither Eisenhower nor Khrushchev: new forms of life and human community," But Cuba had been Fuentes's road to Damascus. The pale nuances of the third way, of the democratic option, for which so many of Castro's comrades were still desperately searching in 1962, could wait.


Many other Mexican and Latin American intellectuals bad followed the same ideological route, but very few had Fuentes's charm, his brilliance, his command of genres. The library of every self-respecting young radical reserved a space for Where the Air Is Clear and The Death of Artemlo Cruz. They functioned as mirrors of academic thinking, brimming with good historical and moral consciousness. The image they reflected was as seductive as their narrative techniques and their prose.

But the long-awaited revolution decided not to arrive; what was left was the consolation of verbalizing it. There is an old tradition, in Mexico, of leftist multimillionaires, but the new hypocrisy was less elitist: one didn't need millions, only a bourgeois lifestyle and an anti-bourgeois ideology. Pierre Cardin and Che Guevara. From the start, Fuentes had understood the possibilities of the Guerrilla Dandy. Now he took on that character in all seriousness, although not without some cynicism, in a country where the true writers of the left (Jose Revueltas is the greatest example) were suffering persecution and imprisonment.

"When you have a strong literary vocation," Fuentes declared,

you soon find yourself facing the wall of bourgeois society that undermines and isolates the artist. For its own comfort, its own permanence, the bourgeoisie supposes that art and literature are innocuous, that they have nothing to do with practical life. ... That is why there can be no rightist authors, authors who are accomplices of the status quo that denies all validity to their work. This is when the struggle begins between the writer and the bourgeoisie.

Never mind that so many among the bourgeoisie had bought his books. Fuentes felt undermined and isolated. He chose to live in Europe. He would never again take up permanent residence in Mexico. "The novelist goes through the world in search of his characters' identities," writes Fernando Benitez, in the introduction to the first volume of Fuentes's Obras completas (Complete Works), published in Spain in 1973. "We collected cities, sounds, smells, people, cathedrals, theaters." (And museums, cafes, provincial countrysides, concentration camps, islands in the Mediterranean.) The volume contains several Conde Nast-like photographs: "Carlos, stylishly dressed, seems to belong to that ambience of exuberant plaster goddesses, crystal candelabras, and old servants in tails." The autobiographical data prepared by Fuentes also testifies to his huge collection of friends, none of them obscure, almost all of them well-known figures in art, literature, politics, especially film. There are shots of the author with Joseph Losey, Jean Seberg, Passolini, Friedrich Durrenmatt, Arthur Miller, Candice Bergen, Buñuel.

Before he left Mexico, Fuentes published Aura, a small masterpiece of magic realism on the theme of love enduring through time. (The aura of Aura paled somewhat because of its direct debt to The Aspern Papers; in Myself with Others, Fuentes attempts to diminish the influence of Henry James, proposing a variety of inspirations for Aura.) During 1965 and 1966, he wrote Zona sagrada (Holy Place), the novel that links the greatest star of Mexican films, Maria Felix, and her loving son, an unfortunate Oedipus metamorphosed into a dog. This time the Mexican critics were not so enthusiastic. The misgivings centered on the artificiality of his characters, on their reduction to verbal or verbalizing entities. But by then Fuentes had already freed himself from characters, that "old humanistic category," "that sentimental fetish of the bourgeoisie." In the structuralism of Foucault, Sollers, Barthes, and the Tel Quel group, he had found his literary Cuba. Enough of Aschenbach, Bovary, Nostromo, Pedro Paramo, Dedalus: of "psychologizing subjectivity." Characters should be "transformers of the language, resistors to the language that runs through them and empties them." The novel was to be its own object, a linguistic structure valid in and of itself, where language meets the criticism of language.

One might have thought that the novel seeks a specific form of knowledge, that it is a genre in which composition matters. But Fuentes said that his novels are like "cancerous growths" preceded by total, instantaneous knowledge:

There is a magical moment when the mind is an Aleph, a Borgesian Aleph. Everything you want to say is there. It is like a constellation in which all the elements coexist: they are words, nouns, verbs, adjectives. And they are images and they are sounds—and they are all the senses—forming a marvelous, magical totality.

Fuentes never speaks about the content of his words. In interview after interview, he insists that literary exploration is an exploration of language, inside language. Fuentes has very little intellectual curiosity. He looks for the script in an author or an ideology, and with that as a starting point, without reworking or conceptualizing it, he invokes the demons of language. In his hands, though, those demons often amount to no more than a cunning catalog of names. Thus, in the Aleph of A Change of Skin, which appeared in 1967, there are intersections of unconnected beaches and bullfights, crematoria and Aztec sacrifices, Theresienstadt and Cholula, Nazis and Jews, gringos and Mexicans who just want to get even; all things are the same thing, an optical illusion of "pulverized identities," as one critic put it. Thirty, forty names per page. (Hals, Klee, Capri, Dietrich, Lorre, Garbo, Cuauhtemoc, Milan, Singapore, and Cole Porter are all on page 150.) An abundant inventory of streets, magazines, cities, book titles, song lyrics, and above all films ("Not Greece, not Mexico, the world is called Paramount Pictures Presents"). Never has a novelist been so possessed by the noun.

The reader of Myself with Others can verify not only Fuentes's propensity for making catalogs, but also that his essays are as theatrical and derivative as his novels. His procedure may simply be an imitation of a popular writer (Kundera rediscovers Diderot, Fuentes rediscovers Diderot rediscovered by Kundera); a presentation of a popular theory (the odd avant-garde reading of Don Quixote); or an awkward attempt at a fiction based on other people's fictions ("Borges in action"). When the devices disappear, and Fuentes views the "others" from an independent "myself," the result may be a faithful and moving portrait, as in "Bunuel and the Cinema of Freedom." But this almost never happens. In the name of his right to experiment, Fuentes writes works without a center: vast, confused, formless, and oppressive literary happenings, parodies of novels that he or others have written, or parodies of themselves.

In 1968 Fuentes went a step further. He saw reality literally impersonating fiction. With novelistic opportuneness, the Revolution—the show of shows—returned to Paris. Fuentes saw words by Breton, Marx, Rimbaud, etc., on the walls, he recalled Alexander Nevsky, he listened to the young people talking about a European Moncada, he heard Sartre compare students to workers and praise the "admirable" pragmatism of Castro. On the basis of these images and sounds, Fuentes wrote "Paris: The May Revolution." This time the Aleph (in an illumination that made him feel like Borges, and Whitman) showed Fuentes the end of the Affluent Society. He saw a tide of change that would reach as far as Moscow and Washington, he saw the general will expressed with rocks and not with ballots, he saw strikes at Anaconda Copper, barricades in Arequipa, corrupt leaders in Mexico, he saw "the death of God and his privileged Western creation: white, bourgeois, Christian man."

A year later, when Fuentes returned to Mexico, he hung a huge photograph of Zapata in his study, he let his own mustache grow longer, and he paraphrased Daniel Cohn Bendit, one of the leaders of les evenements: "We are all Zapatists." And he had more visions. He saw that Latin America had lived four centuries of "sequestered, unknown language," he saw that our works should be works of disorder, that is, of an order contrary to the present one, he saw that the Latin American intellectual sees only with the perspective of the revolution: "To write about Latin America, to be a witness to Latin America in action or in language, means more and more a revolutionary act." In sum, he saw the novel in power, and power in the novel.

For the Guerrilla Dandy, there is no frontier between reality and fiction. Many years later, Fuentes revealed in an interview that he has always wanted to be a poet: "Richard III gave his kingdom for a horse. I would give all my books for a line by Eliot, Yeats, or Pound." It is only natural that in the optical illusion of his identities he has not seen himself for what he really is: a lyric poet lost in the novel and the essay, a spirited and abundant poet, though a little deaf to the beauty of the language. A macho, a stud, an Artemio Cruz who treats words like whores. His cherished need to impregnate everything with the sentimentality and the rhetoric of a lyric poet is the source of his problems as a novelist. In fact, Fuentes's old obsession with language ties him to a time, and to a rhetoric, that will pass very quickly. This novelist has run against the current of the novel's development. The author has not disappeared behind the text (as he was supposed to, after Flaubert, the Russians, Musil, Broch, Kafka, Nabokov, Faulkner); the text, instead, has disappeared behind the author.


One may forgive the hallucinations of 1968. What happened later, however, was decisive. In Mexico, after the student massacre of October 2, 1968, in Tlatelolco, real revolution, armed revolution, seemed the only way possible to many young people. While Fuentes was "loading his words with dynamite," the guerrillas in the Sierra de Guerrero were moving from words to dynamite. Would he join them? Would he offer critical opposition to the authoritarian and anti-democratic regime? No, something had changed.

Some interpreted the significance of 1968 as a profound affirmation of civil society in the face of Mexico's political system, and aimed to consolidate spaces for independent criticism. But most intellectuals, Fuentes among them, chose to subordinate their vision and influence to the power of the new president. The first group was seeking the endlessly postponed alternative of freely choosing what kind of Mexico it wanted. The second believed that they already knew what kind of country their society wanted. Artemio Cruz was dead. The Mexican Revolution was coming back to life, they believed, and playing the role of a "new Cardenas" was the President Luis Echeverria.

During the first months of the Echeverria administration (1970-76), Fuentes published Tiempo mexicano (Mexican Time), a collection of his best essays and journalism of the previous ten years, along with an interpretation of the recent past and of the regime (which he thought promising) of his friend the president. The book reiterated Paz's old idea that the revolution is also a fact of myth, not only a fact of history: "Mexico broke its masks only with the Revolution. ... In [it] the face of Mexico is the mirror of Mexico." And what Fuentes saw in the mirror was almost an occupied country: "We are a dependent, semi-colonial nation. Our maneuvering room is no greater than Poland's."

The basic facts of Mexico's prostration seemed very clear to him: a foreign debt of $4 billion, an oppressive rate of inflation, and so on. "Development for the sake of development" was useless. The solution lay, as he had written in 1962, in abandoning the "holy immobility of the center" and fighting for the energetic intervention of the state in economic life.

Fuentes considered it natural that the enterprises created by the state would be sufficiently numerous, broad, and productive to relegate ancillary functions ("tobacco stands and little grocery stores") to private enterprise. He remembered Mills's commandment: intellectuals and university students should be the agents of change. But instead of going to the mountains with a rifle, or even worse, "into their father's little business," young people should board the train of the revolution turned into a government, and there become the "vanguard" that Lenin described. Because the state embodied the revolution, the state, too, could be worshiped. "Mexican socialism," Fuentes realized in 1973, when he was living again in Paris, "will be the result of a process of contradictions ... of confrontation between the national state and private enterprise, between the nation and imperialism, between the workers and the capitalists. Marx foresaw it all."

Point by point, Echeverria implemented the political program of Fuentes's intellectual generation as it was summarized in Tiempo mexicano. He swelled the power and the size of the state by adding tens of thousands of university students to the payroll. Wallet in hand, he corrected inequalities by increasing the foreign debt, which amounted to $26 billion at the end of his administration. The bureaucratic "vanguard" grew by almost two million people. By the end of his term, the "new Cardenas" had become one of the richest men in Mexico, a Third World Artemio Cruz. And for the first time in a half century, the country that Echeverria was supposed to have raised from its prostration knew the effects of true inflation: the combined loss of real wages, financial health, economic growth. The practical result of the populist program against "developmentism" and dependence, then, was to hinder development, to deepen the dependence and the debt.

In politics, the performance of the government was even worse. On June 10, 1971, there was a reprise of Tlatelolco, in which hundreds of students were massacred in the streets by official paramilitary forces. The president vowed to investigate, and never mentioned it again. Then the public learned that Echeverria, a former minister in the government of Diaz Ordaz, was himself implicated in the repressions of '71 and '68. This time Fuentes did not see what everyone saw, he saw what no one saw: "All the forces of Mexican reaction plotted to set a trap for Echeverria, stigmatize the new regime, discredit the difficult, carefully considered democratic option with which the new president tried to overcome the deep crisis of '68."

Fuentes was not the only intellectual, of course, who believed in Echeverria and took part in his parody of revolution, but his support reached grotesque extremes. Shortly after June 10, he maintained that the intellectuals who did not support Echeverria against the "real" culprits (the invisible forces of the right) were committing a "historic crime." The
Mexican intellectual Gabriel Zaid responded that "the only historic criminal is Luis Echeverria," and later admonished Fuentes: "You have used your international prestige to put pressure on the executive instead of putting pressure on independence in its confrontation with the executive. ... You have made independence more difficult." For Fuentes, however, independence was a bourgeois value, a clamoring for "a model of democracy that was parliamentary, pluralist, British: I cannot help smiling at this Anglo-Saxon perspective." True independence was shown, rather, by the president, in the face of imperialism and its "lackeys" in the private sector. Thus, in 1973, Fuentes praised the way in which Echeverria had made the bureaucratic apparatus more "dynamic," had fought (if "only verbally") against private enterprise, had managed public funds "with absolute honesty."

In January 1975 Echeverria named Fuentes his ambassador to France. In July 1976 the president orchestrated the coup against the management of Excelsior, the country's leading newspaper. Everyone knew the details of the president's support of the coup. Everyone except Carlos Fuentes, who defended Echeverria publicly: "Is it conceivable that a man as politically astute as Echeverria could be the author of his own discrediting?" Yes, it was perfectly conceivable. All you needed was to break away from the idolatry of the state and the revolution, and open a window to concrete facts. But that was never the intellectual intention of Fuentes, for whom objectivity is both "impossible and undesirable."


A word haunted Fuentes during those years: totality. He had been a "Joycean before reading Joyce." In A Change of Skin, one of his characters is possessed by a frustrated longing for the absolute: "to fix the past forever, to devour the present immediately, and to take charge of all imminence of the future." The fragmentation of reality seems vulgar to him. Years later, in an orgy of Joycification, his real self fulfilled his experimental dream: he wrote Terra nostra.

Obsessed by the mechanisms of power in Latin America, he had proposed to capture in a single vision the collective time of the founding of Ibero-America. In an essay written in 1973, "Cervantes o la Critica de la lectura" (Cervantes, or The Criticism of Reading), he had explained in detail the historical dimension of his project. He wanted to capture the Spain of the Counter-Reformation: monolithic, vertical, dogmatic, severe. Its perfect representation was the Escorial, Philip II's living tomb. Opposed to this fortress, and corroding it from within, was the other Spain, full of Arab sensuality, Jewish industry. Renaissance Utopias, the Spain dreamed of in 1520 by the rebellious communards of Castile: democratic, pluralistic, tolerant, respectful of individual existence and local autonomy, watchful of the king—the Spain of Erasmus. The idea could not have been more ambitious. The novels theme is the phantom, the dream, the desire for liberty in the walled cloister of the Counter-Reformation.

Fuentes could deal with the torments of the flesh in the Escorial, but the torments of faith escaped him: the novel recounts them ad nauseam, but it does not re-create them. The reason is clear. In Terra nostra he avoided throwing himself into the ring with his characters. He narrated the bullfight from an intellectual box. Or even less: he narrated a narration about the bullfight in the opacity of 800 pages, expressly accumulated in order to impose his majestic self on the reader: "I never think about the reader. Not at all. Terra nostra is not made for readers. . . . When I wrote it I was absolutely certain that nobody would read it, and in fact I wrote it with that in mind. . . . I gave myself the luxury of writing a book without readers." Joyce condemned the reader of Finnegan's Wake to spend as much time in reading the book as he had spent in writing it. Fuentes surpassed Joyce in Terra nostra, with its facile paraphrases and pastiches, and its transcriptions of encyclopedias and catalogs. The novel's real theme is its author's fascination with absolute power, not with the other Spain, the one that invented the word "liberal."
The democratic values of the communards seem more alien to Fuentes than a Miuran bull. Ultimately, the book gives the feeling of a pathetically closed space: of totality that leads to asphyxiation.

In fragmentary passages, Terra nostra reads marvelously well, but its essay-characters do not really live their desires and their ambitions. In Fuentes, there is no existential exploration. His novels (Terra nostra most completely) are intra-literary—sometimes only intra-verbal—exercises more akin to French structuralism than to anything Joycean. This lack of existential anchoring is the decisive difference between the actor and his model, but not the only one. Joyce worked at an extremely slow and steady pace, in careful and complex reflection. Fuentes proceeds by inspiration:

I can write in a plane, in a bus, in a hotel room—anywhere I am—with ease. ... There are writers who work very slowly because they are painfully looking for that adjective, that verb. I prefer to privilege the cataract: I will let everything rush through me and over me like Niagara Falls with a sort of confianza, a confidence. I give in to the abundance of language because I am ... like a Bernini statue. I am abundant.

Then, suddenly, briefly, Fuentes removed the makeup, came down from the stage, turned out the lights, and walked out incognito to wander through Mexico City. A line by Paz concerning the mythic destruction of the Aztec city came to mind; burnt water. In Burnt Water, which appeared in 1980, Fuentes plays no one but himself. It is not written by himself as a personage, but by himself as person. These four perfect stories show, again, that his calling as a writer is the authentic investigation into the tragic fate of the city he loved. Suddenly, in a kind of parenthesis in his career, Fuentes is not afraid to create "psychologizing subjectivity," characters who dare to feel tenderness, filial love, pity, and the most bestial hatred.

A poor old woman, surrounded by street mongrels, remembers the ancient palaces in ruins, and an invalid child listens to her. A native aristocrat clings to the decorative world of his house now situated amid decay and drug violence, a nest of rats that do not conquer him: they devour him instead. And in "The Son of Andres Aparicio," there is the life story of a lumpen turned bodyguard. Here the city is not unreal or purely visual. It is a visceral city, a city in pain. Here the extraordinary recreation of language is not the end, but the means. There are no useless names, no social or political didacticism, no reflections on the nature of the Mexican spirit, no sentimental lyricism. There are only four fragments that touch the Mexican soul of Carlos Fuentes.

This parenthesis of real feeling was closed, however, in the 1980s, when Fuentes definitively established himself in the country of his childhood and allowed himself the luxury of writing a nationalistic Western for American readers. The Old Gringo is a minor work. The book's explicit subject—Ambrose Bierce—is its least striking thing; Fuentes gives the basic facts, but he fails to penetrate Bierce's hallucinatory life. The Old Gringo is important, rather, because it reveals Fuentes's methods of appropriation and distortion with devastating clarity. The beginning of the novel is derived, for example, from Memorias de Pancho Villa (The Memoirs of Pancho Villa) where its author, Martin Luis Guzman, narrates the twofold death of the English rancher Benton at the hands of a Villista. Who would notice? Nobody in the United States knows Guzman. Then, along with Bierce, the novel presents an opaque, enigmatic Mexican general named Arroyo, and a God-fearing Methodist school teacher who eventually succumbs to the transfiguration, to the sexual, telluric strength of the general; and the similarity to Cipriano and Kate in D. H. Lawrence's The Plumed Serpent is certainly remarkable. As Fuentes has written, "Is there any book without a father?"

After liberating himself from the imaginary need to imagine, Fuentes goes on to rearrange completely the history of the Mexican Revolution. In The Old Gringo, briefly, Zapatism becomes Viilism. Fuentes transports the peasant revolution of indigenous southern Mexico to the northern border. He situates his story in Chihuahua, where there were no problems concerning land, no conflicts between haciendas and communities, no peasants in ponchos, no people drinking mezcal. It was easier that way, because he could imitate Jesus Sotelo Inclan's book about Zapata, which no one in the United States {except John Womack's readers) would know. In 1971 Fuentes wrote that "literature says what history covers up, it forgets or mutilates." Many Mexican readers of The Old Gringo, however, found themselves convinced of precisely the opposite.


The Central American crisis and the Reagan presidency opened the second chapter of a historical drama begun in 1959. It was natural that Fuentes, living now in the States, should become passionately interested in the conflict, but the similarity between his attitudes of the early '80s and his attitudes of the early '60s is disconcerting. By now, to be sure, it is a commonplace among the liberal left in Mexico to criticize Cuba, to let slip some slight doubts about internal affairs in Nicaragua. (Its own experience taught the Mexican left not to scorn "formal" democracy.) But Fuentes is humming the same old tune. He has said that Cuba is a colony, and that Marxism is intellectually facile; but he only demands of Castro "a little more glasnost and perestroika." His support for the Sandinistas has been complete.

Still, he has also experienced a good amount of intellectual confusion; it is difficult to serve truth and power at the same time. In his commencement address at Harvard University in 1983, and in various articles and conferences, Fuentes has referred to "the constant battle with the past" that Latin America is waging, a past of theocracy, centralism, paternalism: the fortress of the Counter-Reformation still imprisons us with its dogmas and hierarchies, its confusion of public and private rights, "its faith in ideas over facts." Fair enough. But then Fuentes is immediately enamored of precisely those closed political systems that are the heirs of the Counter-Reformation.

Fuentes sees clearly the mental prison of these countries, but he does not quite lament it, or see himself enclosed in it. His reading of the Central American conflict grows out of his old fascination with totality, with unity, with order. Reading him seriously can be a twisted adventure in dialectic. Consider his defense of the Sandinista revolution. At times he achieves a certain distance: "There is a sacred element to the revolution: that is why it does not tolerate opposition." But he also joins the faith: "The total history of a community is revealed in the dawn of the Revolution."

The political imagination of Fuentes seems frozen in the commonplaces of 1962, which not even the latest speechmaker of the PRI could repeat without blushing: "All of us in Mexico exist and work thanks to the Revolution." An eternal 1968, Fuentes's revolution is not only sacred, it is universal and inevitable as well. Speaking of the revolution,
Fuentes the iron historicist reminds the North Americans that "their republic was also born out of the barrel of a gun." Speaking of democracy, however, Fuentes the tolerant relativist invokes "cultural contexts": every country should come to its own version of it. Unlike democracy, the revolution does not recognize frontiers or cultures. It is always the same—1648, 1776, 1789, Mexico, Havana, Managua. When it comes, it demands patience. Violence—Marx dixit— is the midwife of history. That is why the Arias plan took him by surprise. Arias's democratic legitimacy does not mean much to Fuentes: democracy does not reveal the total history of a community, only the fragmentary will of its citizens.

There is something even older and more frozen in the moral imagination of Fuentes: his old scar of identity. The love/hate he feels for the United States cuts him off from the possibility of any intrinsic understanding of Latin American phenomena. ("We cannot see ourselves, we must see you.") In response to the obligatory question regarding the need for democracy in Central America, Fuentes always has his ready-made answer: "Why does the United States worry about democracy in Nicaragua and not in Chile?" As a question, it is valid. As an answer, it is not. It defers the establishment of a democratic order until the United States stops being hypocritical, which is to say, until the cows come home. In Fuentes, there is a dependence on dependence.

We can all agree that the relations of the United States with the Caribbean, Central America, and Mexico are marked by a vast historical outrage assiduously carried out by North America long before a Cuban headline at the beginning of the century announced that "hatred of the North American will be the religion of the Cubans." It is an outrage made up of incomprehension, inattentiveness, prejudice, racism, exploitation, stupidity, disdain. Its greatest mistake was not to recognize, and to support intelligently, the liberal regimes of this century, trusting instead in "our bastards." And Reagan's bravado, his references to "freedom fighters" and to the "backyard," keeps the outrage alive.

But granted that all this is true, what is the responsibility of the Latin American intellectual? Once again, Camus: "To see nuances and understand, not to dogmatize and confuse." To point out endlessly, if you like, the historical responsibility of the North Americans, but to take note as well of the contribution that the revolutionaries themselves have made to the disaster. The struggle of the Miskitos has nothing to do with the adventure of William Walker. Fuentes reproduces Reagan-like illusions when he believes that the Sandinistas are the real "freedom fighters," struggling in the name of history, revolution, and destiny against the only enemy, which is imperialism. In Nicaragua, where he was becoming known as "the tenth comandante," Fuentes had the same idyllic visions of 1962, 1968, and 1976, and he exclaimed: "There will be foot-stamping and tail-thrashing by the dinosaur—the United States—but the relationship will change." An elemental, resentful, rhetorical nationalism, one that excludes all other values, is the sum total of Fuentes's political ideology.

After Fuentes's visit to Nicaragua early in 1988, Pablo Antonio Cuadra, the poet and the managing editor of La Prensa, wrote:

I have been a friend of Fuentes, and I admire his literary work; but I never thought that he would take up again the old Spanish American rhetoric that has caused so much harm and confusion, in order to polarize concepts and reduce the very serious Nicaraguan problem to a struggle between David and Goliath in which, of course, one must be on the side of David. And what of the brutal Russian Goliath? ... It is a great shame and a great responsibility, because the influence of men like him should serve to balance the scales. He should have seen that our poor America is exhausted by those great concepts that cost blood and misery ... and all for nothing. Men like him could exert influence on fanatics to make them sane again, to make them think, to turn them once again toward objectivity and realism. Many of the comandantes are not Castros, but imitators who could be saved if so many intelligent people did not play their game.

Carlos Fuentes has not even recognized his own uprootedness as a problem. His politics are elemental and dogmatic. His literature is brilliant and insubstantial. He has created only one extraordinary character: Carlos Fuentes.

Translated by Edith Grossman

The New Republic

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