Aura by Carlos Fuentes, 1962

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by Carlos Fuentes, 1962

Aura, one of Carlos Fuentes's most characteristic novellas, evinces extensive acquaintance with mythology and number symbolism. Fuentes's use of the occult, archetypes, and witches are significant. Equally important are phases of what Robert Graves calls "the White Goddess," the triple deity of birth, love, and death manifest in the new, full, and waning moon. Her cult subsumes that of her consort (son/husband), a sacrificial hero-god periodically slain then reincarnated in a successor.

Aura 's young male protagonist (like the hero of Fuentes's story "In a Flemish Garden") enters a strange, unnatural, magic house or garden with its own climate and remnants of the past (signifying a different, independent temporal dimension), meets the goddess first as hag and then as maiden, and is ultimately unable to leave the place whose tomblike aspects represent death-in-life. Water or dampness, seasonal change, witchcraft, the cave, night, fertility, vegetation, and the numbers three and five all have primal significance in lunar myths where the moon provokes lunacy or obsession, connoting the evil potential of the feminine principle. All appear in Aura, Fuentes's recreation of the mythic White Goddess and her dying/reviving consort.

Felipe, a struggling 27-year-old history teacher, answers an advertisement for a man versed in French to edit, complete, and publish the memoirs of Consuelo's late husband. The job requires living in an old, decaying, aristocratic section of Mexico City in the moldy, crumbling mansion of the ancient widow. Convinced after meeting the beautiful "niece" Aura, he plunges into the surreal, dreamlike, diabolic [under]world of night, full of rotting plants. The cavelike house and night reveal Hecate, the hag (final phase of the triple goddess), incarnate in Consuelo, who predictably possesses powers of magic and witchcraft. Votive lights in her bedroom reflect off silver objects and a mirror, both associated with the moon. The white rabbit on the bed, Consuelo's white hair, her dress, and pallor evoke the White Goddess. The "worn-out red silk of the pillows," the only other color associated with the widow, symbolizes the second lunar phase (love goddess). Aura's green eyes and dress evoke water, the sea, and Venus. (In Hispanic literature green denotes eroticism.) The room assigned to Felipe repeats red in the rug and red velvet chair, green in the leather desk top.

Despite a working light switch Aura repeatedly appears holding a candelabra (identifiable with its functional equivalent, the torch, an attribute of Hecate), subtly underscoring the identity of Aura/Consuelo. The single menu—liver and onions, wine, broiled tomatoes—invariably served at every meal, obviously transcends mere nourishment. Tomatoes belong to the same family as other plants Aura cultivates in the damp, dark patio, including henbane, belladonna, and deadly nightshade, whose narcotic or poisonous effects as Felipe recalls include weakening the will (overcoming his will to survive) and reducing pains of childbirth (i.e., Consuelo's pangs in producing Aura). The bell Aura rings to summon Felipe to dinner symbolizes creative power and may function magically to maintain Aura in the "real" world. The repetitive motif of the keys—another attribute of Hecate—symbolizes mystery, enigma, or a task to be performed (the obvious relevance of the key to the general's papers, entrusted by Consuelo to Felipe).

Hecate's symbols—which include dogs, goats, mice, and torches—all appear in Consuelo's Black Mass celebration and paraphernalia (which reinforces identification with the devil) as well as the dog's head doorknocker. The garden yew and brambles—not native to Mexico and therefore contrived (like the climatological manipulations in "In a Flemish Garden")—are discussed by Graves as significant in Druidic rites. The yew, a death-tree throughout Europe, was sacred to Hecate in Italy and Greece; the bramble was sacred to the Triad and Pentad of seasonal goddesses. (Its leaves on a single stalk vary between three and five.) Cats, traditionally associated with witchcraft, populate the general's memoirs, which mention Consuelo's torturing a cat, and Felipe has a fleeting glimpse through the skylight of several writhing, burning cats. Given the general's special fondness for cats, their death could symbolize his "spirit death," an essential prerequisite to reincarnation in Felipe. Felipe's last name, Montero ("hunter") evokes the consort of the huntress, Diana (one of many names of the White Goddess). Felipe symbolically assumes the general's identity upon agreeing to complete his memoirs/autobiography; they share mutual interests in history and French, and—after Felipe's second night in the house—the same woman. The aging photographs of Consuelo and her husband make the dualities unmistakable, as Felipe identifies the youthful Consuelo as Aura and has only to cover the general's beard and imagine black hair to see himself. One photograph of Consuelo/Aura suggests the nymph. ("Aura with her green eyes, her black hair gathered in ringlets, leaning against a Doric column.")

The house—labyrinth, womb, and tomb—is Felipe's inescapable destiny. His obsessive dreams evince unconscious realization that remaining means death, although Aura's nocturnal visits submerge his survival instincts in a torrent of eroticism. Discovery of Aura beheading a kid in the kitchen follows shortly after espying the old woman in an ecstatic, orgiastic dance; both acts belong to the cult of Artemis (Diana). When the narrator first meets Aura she appears about 20 years old. The second time Felipe makes love to her she is a mature woman (the full moon) whose age he estimates at 40; she is Demeter, the mother (explaining her "maternal" treatment of the lover). Consuelo's appearance the following day in an ancient, yellowed bridal gown—no mere senility—follows the sacrilegious, parasacramental exchange of vows between Aura and Felipe the previous night with Aura's profanation of the Host. Maiden, nymph, and hag, Consuelo/Aura is the triple goddess of past, present, and future: in the darkened room Felipe embraces the woman he believes to be Aura as a moonbeam reveals the toothless gums and withered, naked body of the old woman. Sacrificing his youth he renounces his former life, becoming the reincarnation of the dying/reviving consort of a modern Mexican Diana/Hecate.

—Janet Pérez