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by Bamber Gascoigne

Carlos Fuentes (1928-2012 )


Mexican novelist, journalist, playwright, and essayist, who made his international breakthrough with The Death of Artemio Cruz (1962). Major themes in Carlos Fuentes's work are the limitless power of fantasy, the dilemma of national identity, and the promise and failure of the Mexican revolution. Fuentes was frequently mentioned as a candidate for the Nobel Prize for literature

"I tighten my face muscles, I open my right eye, and I see it reflected in the squares of glass sewn onto a woman's handbag. That's what I am. That's what I am. That old man whose features are fragmented by the uneven squares of glass. I am that eye. I am that eye. I am that eye furrowed by accumulated rage, and old, forgotten, but always renewed rage." (from The Death of Artemio Cruz)

Carlos Fuentes was born in Panama City, but his parents were Mexican, and he later became a Mexican citizen. Fuentes's father, Rafael Fuentes Boettiger, loved books and movies. He was a career diplomat and travelled all over the world. At the age of twenty-five, he married the eighteen-year-old Berta Macías Rivas, Fuentes's mother, who was not so liberal-minded as his father.

As a child Fuentes lived with his family in the United States, Chile, and Argentina. Berta insisted that the family spoke only Spanish at home, but after education in Washington, Fuentes became bilingual from an early age. At home his father made him read Mexican history, which Fuestes saw as a history of crushing defeats compared with the United States. "I learned to imagine Mexico before I ever knew Mexico," Fuentes once said.

Fuentes's upbringing was privileged. He received a cosmopolitan education in private schools. It was not until when Fuentes was sixteen he returned to Mexico, where he attended the prestigious Colegio de México. As a posture of rebellion, Fuentes decided to be a writer, but eventually followed the advice of Alfonso Reyes: "You must become a licenciado, a lawyer; then you can do whatever you please, as I did." Fuentes entered the School of Law at the National University of Mexico, receiving his LL.B. in 1948. He also studied economics at Institut des Hautes Études Internationales in Geneva.

During his university years Fuentes adopted Marxist ideals and joined the Communist Party. In 1959 Fuentes married the famous Mexican actress Rita Macedo; they had a daughter. Macedo, "dark-skinned, with large, almond-shaped eyes and prominent cheekbones," as Fuentes described her, appeared in the last scene of Luis Buñuel's film Exterminating Angel. The marriage ended in divorce in 1966. In 1973 Fuentes married Sylvia Lemus, a journalist; they had two children. 

From 1950 to 1952 Fuentes was a member a of the Mexican delegation to the International Labor Organization. Returning to Mexico in 1954 he was appointed assistant head of the press section of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and from 1957 to 1959 he was head of Department of Cultural Relations. Fuentes also worked as secretary, then assistant director of the Cultural Department at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. From 1959 Fuentes devoted himself to writing.

During the 1960s Fuentes lived mostly in Europe. Due to his ties to Cuba, he was twice denied an entry visa to the United States. In 1971 he broke from the Castro regime, when the poet Heberto Juan Padilla was imprisoned for criticizing the government. He had an affair with the actress Jean Seberg, who later inspired his novel Diana o la Cazadora Solitaria (1996). Seberg left no account of her acquaintance with the Mexican writer. Fuentes was also romantically linked to the film star Jeanne Moreau. His third major novel, Cambio de piel (1967, A Change of Skin), which depicted a group of people on a journey from Mexico City to Vera Cruz, won a prestigious prize in Barcelona, Spain. However, the book was criticized as "pornographic, communistic, anti-Christian, anti-German and pro-Jewish," Censors did not allow its publication in the country.

The narrator, Freddy Lambert, is a Nietzschean visionary and a madman, who has both appalled and fascinated critics. His name has been connected to a character in Balzac's La Comédie humaine, Louis Lambert, "a man of ideas," who goes insane after devouring too much knowledge. (Critical Passions: Selected Essays by Jean Franco, p. 164) In a New York Times Book Review Fuentes was branded a Nazi apologist. Due to his support for the Cuban revolution and anti-imperialist views Fuentes considered persona non grata in the United States and forbidden in 1969 to enter Puerto Rico. He once described the United States as "the Jekyll and Hyde of our wildest continental dreams: a democracy inside, an empire outside." ('Prologue,' in  Ariel by Jose Enrique Rodó, 1988, p. 16)

Before the Olympic Games in 1968 Fuentes protested the Mexican government's brutal repression of student revolution in Tlatelolco Square and was exiled in Paris. With other leftist intellectuals and labor leaders he attacked in 1971 the dominant Partido Revolucionario Institucional, or PRI. From 1974 to 1977 Fuentes served as the Mexican ambassador to France. In addition to his career as a writer, he worked a teacher and fellow at various universities, including Columbia University, New York, the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Princeton University, New Jersey, and Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts. In A New Time For Mexico (1994) he described President Carlos Salinas de Gortari's economic policies as "archaic, savage capitalism, concentrating wealth in a minority and waiting for the impossible miracle of trickle-down." In the 1990s Fuentes converted to neoliberalism and started to support NAFTA. With Bill Clinton he had more than one dinner in Martha's Vineyard. 

"I believe in the concept of the university," Fuentes wrote in This I Believe: An A to Z of a Life (2002). "The university does not divide, it unites. It acknowledges and recognizes, it neither overlooks nor forgets. Universities are a meeting place for things that have survived, things that are present, and things that are yet to come in terms of culture." A very dark vision of today's world was presented in La voluntad y la fortuna (2008, Destiny and Desire), in which the moral voice of the story claims, that the "great drama of Mexico is that crime has replaced the state."

Fuentes' several awards include Villaurrutia Prize (1975), Gallegos Prize (1977), Reyes Prize (1979), Mexican National Award for Literature (1984), Cervantes Prize (1987), Darío Prize (1988), New Order of Cultural Independence (1988), Prince of Asturias Prize (1994), Grinzane Cavouch International Prize (1994), National Order of Merit (1997). In 1972 Fuentes was elected to the Colegio Nacional. His welcoming address was delivered by Octavio Paz. Fuentes died on May 15, 2012,  in Mexico City.

Fuentes started his writing career in the late 1940s. Along with Emmanuel Carballo and Octavio Paz he founded the review Revista Mexicana de Literatura in 1954. He edited El Espectador (1959-61), Siempre from 1960, and Política from 1960. Fuentes's first collection of short stories, Los días emmascarados, came out in 1954. La región más transparente (1958, Where the Air Is Clear) was Fuentes's first novel. It gave a panoramic picture of Mexico City and has been compared to John Dos Passos's novel Manhattan Transfer (1925), set in New York City. The central character is an Indian, who has a double personality as an avatar of the Aztec God of war and a trickster.

From the late 1960s, myths and legeds began to take a more prominent place in Fuentes's narrative than in the early fiction. The dense and complex Cumpleaños (1969, Birthday), his first novel in which the events takes place outside Mexico, drew from European history and myth. At the time of its publication, the book received relatively little attention. Many readers found it difficult, because Fuentes abandoned normal chronology and in some scenes made no clear distinction between the identity of his characters, making them appear as one being. It has been suggested that much of the action is a dream.

Although his novels featured fantastic and archetypal figures, such as the Mayan rain God (in the short story 'Chac Mool') and the pilgrim (in Terra Nostra), Fuentes was not interested in the work of the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung. "My intuition of the mythical must be a priori; a posteriori, any ideas I now have about the subject are very much due to Lévi-Strauss," Fuentes wrote in a letter. ('Carlos Fuentes, Cumpleaños: A Mythological Interpretation of an Ambiguous' Novel by Gloria Durán, in Latin American Literary Review, Vol. 2, No. 4 (Spring, 1974) He was often paired with the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges, the original master of magic realism, of whom he has also written. "... he seemed to be literally looking inside himself, as if this were the only thing that counted in matters of sight," Fuentes said in 'Borges in Action,' "seeing outside being a totally frivolous affair." When Borges uses history as a basis for pure fantasy, Fuentes maintained a realistic stance of power and politics in Latin America – magical elements, myths of the past and wide range of cultural references are combined with historical knowledge and social critique. Fuentes also adopted experimental techniques familiar from the nouveau roman and postmodern fiction. In later novels Fuentes dealt with the question of Mexican identity and its relationship to other cultures.

The Death of Artemio Cruz is told in the first, second, and third person. Artemio Cruz is a poor peon and supporter of revolutionary ideals. He gains wealth and becomes a corrupt, ruthlessness business magnate, a symbol of international capitalist greed. As he lies on his deathbed, Fuentes follows his fragmented thoughts and images wavering between past and present. The haunting novella Aura (1962) is told in the second person narrative. Thus the reader and the fictional protagonist are united in a story which deterministically leads to change of identities. A young historian, Felipe Motero, starts to complete the memoirs of General Llorente in a strange, old house. He fells in love with the beautiful young Aura. She is the niece of his employer, Señora Consuelo, the widow of the general. Eventually Felipe finds his reincarnated identity and Consuelo tells him that Aura is the projection of her younger self.  Octavio Paz has said that "It is not strange that Fuentes is obsessed with the wrinkled and toothless face of a tyrannical, insane, infatuated old lady. She represents the old vampire, the witch,  the whiite serpent of Chinese stories. the old lady of murky passions, the outcast." (Carlos Fuentes: A Critical View, ed. by Robert Brody and Charles Rossman, 2011, p. 95) Fuentes began to write the novel in Paris, which he has called a double city. In the story Fuentes recreated a girl he had met as a child in Mexico and years later again in Paris: "She was another, she had been another, not she who was going to be but she who, always, was being."

Terra Nostra (1975) was Fuentes's major novel on Spanish and Latin American history. Fusing history and myth, it moves freely in time from ancient Rome to the apocalyptic end of the 20th century. "Time is the subject matter of all my fiction," Fuentes once said. One of the main settings is the 16th century Spain, where Philip II constructs the monastery-palace of El Escorial. El gringo viejo (1985, The Old Gringo) was a triangle drama of an American woman, Harriet Winslow, Tomás Arroyo, a general, and the American journalist and writer Ambrose Bierce, who disappeaed during Pancho Villa's revolution in 1913. "She sees, over and over, the specters of Tomás Arroyo and the moon-faced woman and the old gringo cross her window. But they are not ghosts. They have simply mobilized their old pasts, hoping that she would do the same and join them."

The book was filmed by Luis Puenzo in 1989, starring Jane Fonda and Gregory Peck. In Instinto de Inez (2001) Gabriel Atlan-Ferrara, a symphony conductor, realizes at the age of 93, that the future means for him death but in the past are love and Inez, the eternity. Like Artemio Cruz at the end of his life, Garbriel studies the choices he has made in his life. At the center of the story is a mystic crystal seal which unites space and time. Fuentes dedicated the book to his son Carlos Fuentes Lemus, who died in 1999 from complications associated with hemophilia. Fuentes' daughter Natasha Fuentes Lemus died in 2005 after a cardiac arrest

For further reading: Carlos Fuentes by Daniel de Guzman (1972); Nostalgia del futuro en la obra de Carlos Fuentes by Liliana Befumo Boschi and Elisa Calabrese (1974); Carlos Fuentes: A Critical View, ed. by Robert Brody and Charles Rossman (1974); The Achetypes of Carlos Fuentes by Glorian Durán (1980); Los disfraces: La obra mestiza de Carlos Fuentes by Georgina Garciá Gutiérrez (1981); Carlos Fuentes by Wendy D. Faris (1983); Carlos Fuentes: Life, Work, and Criticism by Alfonso Gonzáles (1987); Interpretaciones a la obra de Carlos Fuentes, ed. by Ana María de López Hernández (1990); The Writings of Carlos Fuentes by Raymond Leslie Williams (1996); The Postmodern Fuentes by Chalene Helmuth (1997); Carlos Fuentes desde la crítica, ed. by Georgina Garcia-Gutierrez (2001); Carlos Fuentes' the Death of Artemio Cruz, ed. by Harold Bloom (2006); Fuentes, Terra Nostra, and the Reconfiguration of Latin American Culture by Michael Abeyta (2006); Carlos Fuentes: A Critical View, ed. by Robert Brody and Charles Rossman (2011); The Narrative of Carlos Fuentes: Family, Text, Nation by Steven Boldy (2011); After the Nation: Postnational Satire in the Works of Carlos Fuentes and Thomas Pynchon by Pedro García-Caro (2014); Pensar América Latina desde la literatura: imagen y memoria en Terra nostra de Carlos Fuentes by Myriam Jiménez Quenguan (2020); 'Carlos Fuentes and Neoliberalism' by Alejandro Enríquez, A Contra corriente: Una revista de estudios latinoamericanos, Vol. 20, Num. 2 (Winter 2023)   

Selected works:

  • Los días emmascarados, 1954
  • La región más transparente, 1958
    - Where the Air Is Clear (tr. Sam Hileman, 1960)
  • Las buenas conciencias, 1959
    - The Good Conscience (tr. Sam Hileman, 1961)
  • La muerte de Artemio Cruz, 1962
    - The Death of Artemio Cruz (tr. Alfred J. Mac Adam, 1964)
    - Artemio Cruzin kuolema (suom. Margareta Konkka, 1967)
  • Aura, 1962
    - Aura (tr. Lysander Kemp, 1965)
    - Aura (suom. Sari Selander, 1997)
    - Film 1966, La Strega in amore / Strange Obsession / The Witch / The Witch in Love, dir. by Damiano Damiani, starring Rosanna Schiaffino, Richard Johnson, Gian Maria Volontè
  • The Argument of Latin America: Words for North Americans, 1963
  • Whither Latin America, 1963
  • Cantar de ciegos, 1964
    - Film 1965, Un Alma pura, dir. by Juan Ibáñez, screenplay by Carlos Fuentes, starring Arabella Arbenz, Enrique Rocha, Veit Gentry, Leonora Carrington
  • Las Dos Elenas, 1965 (screenplay)
    - Films: 1965, dir. by José Luis Ibáñez, starring Julissa, Enrique Álvarez Félix, Beatriz Baz, Ángel Fernández; TV film 2001
  • Pedro Paramo, 1966 (screenplay, based on Juan Rulfo's novel)
    - Film 1967, dir. by Alfredo Leal, starring John Gavin, Ignacio López Tarso, Pilar Pellicer, Julissa
  • Tiempo de morir, 1966 (screenplay)
    - Films: 1966, dir. by Arturo Ripstein, written by Carlos Fuentes and Gabriel García Márquez , starring Marga López, Jorge Martínez de Hoyos, Enrique Rocha, Alfredo Leal; 1985, dir. by Jorge Alí Triana, starring Gustavo Angarita, Sebastián Ospina, Sebastián Ospina, María Eugenia Dávila
  • Los caifanes, 1967 (screenplay)
    - Film dir. by Juan Ibáñez, story by Juan Fernando Pérez Gavilán, strarring Julissa, Enrique Álvarez Félix, Óscar Chávez, Ernesto Gómez Cruz, Sergio Jiménez
  • Zona sagrada, 1967
    - Holy Place (tr. Suzanne Jill Levine, 1972)
  • Cambio de piel, 1967
    - A Change of Skin (tr. Sam Hileman, 1968)
  • Paris: La revolución de mayo, 1968
  • Cumpleaños, 1969
  • El mundo de José Luis Cuevas, 1969
  • La nueva novela hispanoamericana, 1969
  • Casa con dos puertas, 1970
  • Todos los gatos son pardos, 1970 (play)
  • El tuerto es rey, 1970 (play)
  • Tiempo mexicano, 1971
  • Poemas de amor, 1971
  • ed.: Los signos en rotación y otra ensayos, 1971
  • Los reinos originarios, 1971 (includes Todos los gatos son pardos and El tuerto es rey)
  • Cuerpos y ofreadas, 1972
  • Chac Mool y otros cuentos, 1973
  • Obras completas, 1974 -
  • Terra Nostra, 1975
    - Terra Nostra (tr. Margaret Sayers Peden, 1976)
  • Cervantes, o, La crítica de la lectura, 1976
    - Don Quixote; or, The Critique of Reading (tr. anonymously, 1976)
  • La cabeza de la hidra, 1978
    - The Hydra Head (tr. Margaret Sayers Peden, 1978)
    - Lohikäärmeen pää (suom. Matti Rossi, 1980)
  • Una familia lejana, 1980
    - Distant Relations (tr. Margaret Sayers Peden, 1982)
    - Tarina Heredian suvusta (suom. Matti Rossi, 1982)
  • Agua quemada, 1981
    - Burnt Water: Stories (tr. Margaret Sayers Peden, 1980)
  • Orquídeas a la luz de la luna, 1982 (play) [Orchids in the Moonlight]
  • High Noon in Latin America, 1983
  • Juan Soriano y su obra, 1984
  • On Human Rights: A Speech, 1984
  • El gringo viejo, 1985
    - The Old Gringo (tr. Margaret Sayers Peden and the author, 1985)
    - Vanha gringo (suom. Matti Rossi, 1989)
    - Film 1989, dir. by Luis Puenzo, starring Jane Fonda, Gregory Peck, Jimmy Smits, Patricio Contreras
  • Latin America: At War with the Past, 1985
  • Palacio Nacional, 1986 (with Guillermo Tovar y de Teresa)
  • Gabriel García Marquez and the Invention of America, 1987 (lecture)
  • Cristóbal nonato, 1987
    - Christopher Unborn (tr. Alfred MacAdam and the author, 1989)
  • Myself with Others: Selected Essays, 1988
  • Valiante mundo nuevo, 1990
  • La campaña, 1990
    - The Campaign (tr. Alfred Mac Adam, 1991)
  • Constancia, y otras novelas para vírgenes, 1990
    - Constance and Other Stories for Virgins (tr. Thomas Christensen, 1990)
  • El espejo enterrado, 1992
    - TV mini-series 1994, The Buried Mirror: Reflections on Spain and the New World, dir. by Peter Newington, prod. Michael Gill
  • El naranjo, 1993
    - The Orange Tree (tr. Alfred Mac Adam, 1995)
  • Geografía de la novela, 1993
  • Tres discursos para dos aldeas, 1993
  • Nuevo tiempo mexicano, 1994
    - A New Time for Mexico (tr. Marina G. Gutman and the author, 1996)
  • Frontera de cristal, 1995
    - The Crystal Frontier (tr. Alfred J. Mac Adam, 1997)
  • Diana o la Cazadora Solitaria, 1996
    - Diana: The Goddess Who Hunts Alone (t. Alfred Mac Adam, 1995)
  • Por un progreso incluyente, 1997
  • Los años con Laura Díaz, 1999
    - The Years with Laura Diaz (tr. Alfred Mac Adam, 2000)
  • Mexico, 2000 (documentary)
    - Dir. by Lorena Parlee, written by Carlos Blanco Aguinaga, Carlos Fuentes
  • Instinto de Inez, 2001
    - Inez (tr. Margaret Sayers Peden, 2002)
    - Inez (suom. Tarja Härkönen, 2002)
  • Machado de la Mancha, 2001
  • En esto creo, 2002
    - This I Believe: An A-Z of a Writer's Life (tr. Kristina Cordero, 2005)
  • La Silla del Águila, 2003
    - Eagles's Throne (tr. Kristina Cordero, 2006)
    - Kotkan istuin (suom. Tarja Härkönen, 2004)
  • Contra Bush, 2004
  • Todas las familias felices, 2006
    - Happy Families: Stories (tr. Edith Grossman, 2008)
  • La voluntad y la fortuna, 2008
    - Destiny and Desire (tr. Edith Grossman, 2011)
  • Políticas educativas de la educación básica y media de Centroamérica: 2006-2007 (ed. Claribel Andino Pérez)
  • Adán en Edén, 2009
  • Vlad, 2010
    - Vlad (translated by E. Shaskan Bumas and Alejandro Branger, 2012)
  • Carolina Grau, 2011
  • Gran novela latinoamericana, 2011
    - The Great Latin American Novel (translated by Brendan Riley, 2016)
  • Federico en su balcón, 2012
    - Nietzsche on His Balcony (translated from the Mexican Spanish by Ethan Shaskan Bumas and Alejandro Branger, 2016)
  • El siglo que despierta / Carlos Fuentes y Ricardo Lagos en conversación, 2012
  • Cuentos completos, 2013 (edited by Omegar Martínez)
  • Conferencias políticas: educación, sociedad y democracia, 2018

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