Celebrating 93 years since his birth, we pay tribute to Mexican narrator and essayist Carlos Fuentes, one of the most important writers of Spanish literary history and of what was known as the Latin American Boom. In this article, we review part of his life and work and share some of his best books.
Through a strong exploration of Mexican history and identity and innovation with experimental forms and avant-garde resources, Carlos Fuertes made a place for himself among the most outstanding writers of what was known as the Latin American literary boom, together with Gabriel García Márquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, Juan Rulfo, Julio Cortázar and authors such as Elena Garro, Clarice Lispector, María Luisa Bombal and Rosario Castellanos.
Of Mexican parents, Carlos Fuentes Macias was born in Panama on November 11, 1928. However, as his father was a diplomat, he had the opportunity to live in different cities around the world and in an intensely intellectual environment. He lived in Santiago de Chile and Buenos Aires, where he was influenced by notable cultural personalities. At the age of 16, he arrived in Mexico to begin high school, where he forged his entire literary career and his own identity. Although he studied law at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, literature was his passion and treasure.
Influenced by authors such as James Joyce and William Faulkner, he used many of their literary strategies (a plurality of points of view, chronological fragmentation, ellipsis, interior monologue, etc.) to create a work that, in turn, would strike a deep chord in Mexican culture. And he became known as a writer at the age of 26. Los días enmascarados (Masked Days, 1954) was his first book of short stories, which was well-received by critics and the public. In these stories, some say that many of his concerns that he would also address in many of his other books were already evident.
In this regard, biographers Tomás Fernández and Elena Tamaro commented: "Thematically, Carlos Fuentes' narrative is fundamentally an inquiry into Mexican history and identity. His examination of recent Mexico focused on the ruinous social and moral consequences of the betrayed Revolution of 1910, with special emphasis on the criticism of the bourgeoisie; his search for the Mexican immersed itself in the personal and collective unconscious and would lead him, going even further back in history, to the intricate world of cultural miscegenation that began with the Spanish conquest".
And they added: "His success began with two thematically complementary novels that traced the critical balance of fifty years of Mexican "revolution": La región más transparente (The Most Transparent Region, 1958), whose urban setting represented a change of orientation within a novel that, like the Mexican novel of the 1950s, was eminently realistic and rural; and La muerte de Artemio Cruz (The Death of Artemio Cruz, 1962), a brilliant exploration of the life of a former revolutionary and now powerful man in his death throes. Both works use a panoply of experimental techniques (simultaneity, fragmentation, interior monologue) as a vehicle to capture and reflect a complex vision of the world".
His novels and short stories gave Carlos Fuentes a central place, during the 1960s, within the so-called Boom of Latin American literature. A place he shared with other greats of Latin American literature, such as the Colombian Gabriel García Márquez, the Argentines Jorge Luis Borges, Ernesto Sábato and Julio Cortázar, the Peruvian Mario Vargas Llosa and the Uruguayans Juan Carlos Onetti and Mario Benedetti. Fuentes also taught literature at various Mexican and foreign universities and, like his father, was also a diplomat. He wrote not only short stories and novels, but also plays, essays, and film scripts. Some of his critical texts were compiled in La nueva novela hispanoamericana (The New Latin American Novel, 1969) and another dedicated to Miguel de Cervantes, Cervantes o la crítica de la lectura (Cervantes or the Criticism of Reading, 1976). In that same decade, he also collaborated in different literary publications and founded, together with Emmanuel Carballo, the Revista Mexicana de Literatura.
Some say that his experimental narrative, with time, was waning. And this became noticeable in some of his books, such as Diana o la cazadora solitaria (1994), inspired by his relationship with actress Jean Seberg. However, he always maintained quality and commitment. Thus came Constancia y otras novelas para vírgenes (1990), El naranjo o los círculos del tiempo (1993) and La frontera de cristal (1995), among others. In 1987 he was awarded the Cervantes Prize; in 1994, the Prince of Asturias Award for Literature, and in 2008 he received the Grand Cross of the Order of Isabella the Catholic, among many other distinctions and several honorary doctorates from important educational institutions around the world, such as Harvard and Cambridge.
On May 15, 2012, at the age of 83, he died in Mexico City due to a gastric ulcer. After cremation, the ashes were deposited in the Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris, where the remains of his children he had with journalist Sylvia Lemus (Carlos and Natasha), who died in unclear circumstances, at the ages of 25 and 31 respectively, rest. Cecilia Fuentes Macedo, the author of the biography Mujer en papel, is his only living daughter, the fruit of his marriage to actress and producer Rita Macedo. Below, five of his most notable books are featured.
La región más transparente (The Most Transparent Region)
Considered the founder of the Latin American Boom, this first novel by Carlos Fuentes was the one that opened all possible doors for him. An inventory of Mexican society, it is also a sort of avant-garde version of the human comedy, in which, through a curious map of lineages, intertwined worlds and underworlds are represented. Mexico City emerges in its modern complexity, and the writing provides us with a cartography of the social network that this world weaves.
La muerte de Artemio Cruz (The death of Artemio Cruz)
On his deathbed, during his last half-day, the aged and ailing Artemio Cruz remembers that he was not always that sad sack of bones and bodily ferments; he was once young, daring, and vigorous. And he had ideals, dreams, and faith. To defend all that, he even fought in a revolution. But rapacity, greed, and corruption extinguished his fire and annihilated his hope. Perhaps that is why he lost the only woman who truly loved him. A reflection on the Mexico that emerged from the Mexican Revolution, but also on such universal and permanent issues as loneliness, power, or lack of love.
An evil garden surrounds a large house in which time jumps, abruptly, from the ordered linearity of the clocks to the ferocity of bewilderment. Inhabiting this enclave are elements such as the labyrinth, the double, and the spectral line between life and death that, when blurred, brings out the ominous and generates an aura populated by ambiguous shadows and dank silences. Alejandra Acosta's collages intensify the contrasts, highlight the decadence of Victorian splendor, and give tangible form to that mirage in the form of an oasis that takes us into its shifting sands.
El naranjo (The Orange Tree)
In this book, Carlos Fuentes plays with various myths -the conquered conquistador, the timelessness of history- and runs through the typical obsessions of his literature. El árbol del naranjo ("The Orange Tree") is not only the guiding thread of the five short stories or novels that make up this volume, but also a synthesis of Fuentes' work and, at the same time, the book that closes the narrative cycle that he has called "La edad del tiempo" ("The Age of Time"). Fuentes himself said of his book: "El naranjo brings together my most immediate sensual pleasures - I look, I touch, I peel, I bite, I drink - but also the most ancient sensation: my mother, the wet nurses, the tits, the sphere, the world, the egg...".
La gran novela latinoamericana (The great Latin American novel)
This essay proposes a journey through the evolution of the novel in Latin America, from the discovery of the continent to the present day. Those who undertake this route will find in it the great figures of the Latin American novel and its constant themes: wild nature, social conflicts, the dictator and barbarism, the epic of disenchantment, the magical world of myth and language, but above all its vocation to cannibalize and carnivalesque history, turning pain into celebration, creating literary and artistic forms that intrude on each other, as are those of Borges, Neruda, and Cortázar, without respect for rules or genres. Literature of borrowed, permuted, mimic, clownish texts. Blank texts, astonished between the challenge of the space of a page, language that speaks of language, from Sor Juana and Sandoval y Zapata to José Gorostiza and José Lezama Lima.