Fuentes, Carlos: 1928—: Novelist , Essayist

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Carlos Fuentes: 1928: Novelist , essayist

"The novelist takes it upon himself to reinvent in depth a world that must come alive again, for the future only exists if the past does also," Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes told the UNESCO Courier in 1992. That statement might serve as a credo for the complex, challenging works of this master of the modern Latin American novel, the first Mexican writer to appear on U.S. bestseller lists and one of the key figures in the ascent of Latin American fiction to international significance. Fuentes creates a fictional world showing Mexican society in the throes of intense changeyet at the same time in the grip of forces unleashed at many different points of its long history. Primary among those forces has been Mexico's troubled relationship with its colossal neighbor to the north.

It was in the United States, in fact, that Fuentes began to write. He was the son of Rafael Fuentes Boettiger, a top member of Mexico's diplomatic corps. Fuentes was born in Panama City, Panama, on November 11, 1928, but attended school in Washington, D.C., after his father was assigned to a post at the Mexican embassy there. As a boy this later rather nationalistic novelist was a lover of American culture, but he saw its less tolerant side when he was taunted and called a Communist by schoolmates who had heard about the Mexican government's nationalization of American-owned oil facilities.

First Writings in English

In the early 1940s Fuentes lived in Argentina and Chile; he first took up residence in Mexico only at the age of 16. His first attempts at writing had been in English (at age 13 he was already a published short story writer), but in the process of reconnecting with Mexican culture he switched to Spanish. "I wasn't adding anything to the English language," he explained to Publishers Weekly. "I thought I could struggle more with the Spanish language and be on the edge of the precipice. My dreams were certainly in Spanish, my insults were in Spanish, my lovemaking was in Spanish, so I had to write in Spanish finally."

Fuentes wrote for a Mexican weekly called Siempre in the 1940s, but then resolved to follow in the professional path his father had laid down. He enrolled in law school at the National University of Mexico, graduating in 1948 and going on for further study in international law in Geneva, Switzerland. There he was sidetracked by his literary interests. He had already taught himself to read French by sitting down with a dictionary and the novels of Honoré de Balzac, and now he encountered the iconic works of European modernism in several languagesthe Austrian epic-intellectual novelist Thomas Mann, the experimental French poet Arthur Rim-baud, and the expatriate Irish tradition-breaker James Joyce. These influences gave him the tools to express the complexities of his country's cultural backgroundand of his own.

At a Glance . . .

Born November 11, 1928, in Panama City, Panama; Mexican citizen; son of Rafael Fuentes Boettiger and Berta Macias Rivas; married Rita Macedo, 1959 (divorced, 1969); married Sylvia Lemus, 1973; children: (first marriage) Cecilia; (second marriage) Carlos Rafael, Natasha. Education: National University of Mexico, LL.B., 1948; graduate study, Institute des Hautes Etudes, Geneva, Switzerland.

Career: International Labor Organization, Geneva, Switzerland, secretary of the Mexican delegation, 1950-52; Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Mexico City, assistant chief of press section, 1954; National University of Mexico, secretary and assistant director of cultural dissemination, 1955-56, head of department of cultural relations, 1957-59; published debut novel, La región más transparente, 1958; Mexican ambassador to France, 1975-77; Cambridge University, Norman Maccoll Lecturer, 1977, Simon Bolivar professor, 1986-87; Barnard Coll., New York City, Virginia Gild-ersleeve Professor, 1977; Columbia Univ., New York City, Henry L. Tinker Lecturer, 1978; appointed Harvard Univ., Cambridge, MA, Robert F. Kennedy Professor of Latin American studies, 1987; fellow at Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, fellow, 1974; lecturer or visiting professor.

Awards: Romulo Gallegos Prize (Venezuela), 1977, for Terra Nostra; Medal of Honor for Literature, National Arts Club, 1988; French Legion of Honor, 1992; honorary degrees from Bard College, Cambridge University, Columbia College, Chicago State University, Dartmouth College, Essex University, Georgetown University, Harvard University, and Washington University.

Memberships : American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters (honorary).

Addresses: Office 401 Boylston Hall, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA 02138.

From his first novel, Where the Air is Clear (La Región más transparente, 1958), Fuentes experimented with complex narrative techniques: flashbacks, multiple perspectives that suggested the transplantation of cinematic techniques into the novel, fragmentation of the action into small episodes, and other devices. Fuentes has always faced his share of unfriendly literary critics, both in Mexico and the United States, his often critical stances toward both societies and the frequent difficulty of his works have put off some observers. But Fuentes, who has often said that novelists must create new audiences rather than simply giving the public what it wants, has done just that, gaining greater and greater repute over a five-decade career.

He first came to international attention with The Death of Artemio Cruz (La muerte de Artemio Cruz, 1962), a novel that seems cut from the fabric of modern Mexican life and that remains one of the best known works in the Fuentes canon. The book depicts the life of a ruthless Mexican millionaire; told from the perspective of his deathbed, it shifts between first-person, second-person (an unusual device cultivated by Fuentes), and third-person narration. The 1967 Fuentes novel A Change of Skin (Cambio de piel, 1967) featured another common trait in the author's output: an intense eroticism that sometimes put him at odds with his predominantly Catholic surroundings in Hispanic countries.

Fuentes showed a new level of literary ambition in the 1975 novel Terra Nostra, an 800-page tome that spans three continents and ranges temporally from the creation scenes of the biblical book of Genesis to the 21st century. "My chief stylistic device in 'Terra Nostra' is to follow every statement by a counter statement and every image by its opposite," Fuentes said in a New York Times Book Review interview quoted in Contemporary Authors. The result was a modern epic that matched the creations of the most stylistically challenging European writers, such as Joyce. Such devices posed readers considerable difficulties in understanding the book. Fuentes, however, believed that he had perfected his literary craft with the novel, and indeed his output since then has been both large and of a consistently high level.

Became Mexican Ambassador to France

Belatedly fulfulling his father's dream in the late 1970s, Fuentes went to Paris and served as Mexico's ambassador to Francewriting novels in his head, he later recalled, as he attended to the bureaucratic details of the daily embassy routine. A slew of novels appeared when Fuentes returned to full-time writing. The most significant Fuentes novel of this period was probably The Old Gringo (El gringo viejo, 1985), which became the first Mexican work to appear on the New York Times bestseller list and was made into a successful film. That novel, as well as The Crystal Frontier (La frontera de cristal, 1995) took up as subject matter the border and the wider relationship between Mexico and the United States.

The author of more than 60 booksfiction, nonfiction, and even several playsFuentes hardly slowed down as he approached and then surpassed his 80th year. His notable works of the 1990s included the semi-autobiographical novel Diana, The Goddess Who Hunts Alone, depicting a romance between a Mexican writer and an American film star; Fuentes was at one time romantically linked with American actress Jean Seberg. Married twice, he made his home in the United States for much of the 1990s but was in reality a globetrotter. In 2001 Fuentes published the novel Inez's Instinct (Instinto de Inez ), a work that returned to a poetic-romantic strain in his writing that had been partially submerged by his series of historical masterpieces.

Selected writings

La región más transparente, Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1958, translation as Where the Air Is Clear, Ivan Obolensky, 1960.

Las buenas consciencias, Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1959, translation as The Good Conscience, Ivan Oblensky, 1961.

La muerte de Artemio Cruz, Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1962, translation as The Death of Artemio Cruz, Farrar, Straus, 1964.

Aura (novella), Era, 1962, reprinted, 1982, translation by Lysander Kemp, Farrar, Straus, 1965.

Zona sagrada, Siglo XXI, 1967, translation as Holy Place (also see below), Dutton, 1972.

Cambio de piel, Mortiz, 1967, translation as A Change of Skin, Farrar, Straus, 1968.

Cumpleaños, Mortiz, 1969, translation as Birthday.

Terra Nostra, Seix Barral, 1975, translation by Levine, Farrar, Straus, 1976.

La cabeza de hidra, Mortiz, 1978, translation as Hydra Head, Farrar, Straus, 1978.

Una familia lejana, Era, 1980, translation as Distant Relations, Farrar, Straus, 1982.

El gringo viejo, Fondo de Cultura Economica, 1985, translation as The Old Gringo, Farrar, Straus, 1985.

The Buried Mirror: Reflections on Spain in the New World (essays), Houghton Mifflin, 1992.

La naranja, translation as The Orange Tree, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1994.

Diana: The Goddess Who Hunts Alone, Farrar, Straus, 1995.

La frontera de cristal, Alfaguara, Mexico City, 1995, translation as The Crystal Frontier, 1997.

Los años con Laura Díaz, translation as The Years with Laura Diaz, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1999.

Instinto de Inez, Alfaguara, Mexico City, translation as Inez's Instinct, 2001.



Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale, vol. 3, 1975; vol. 8, 1978; vol. 13, 1980,; vol. 22, 1982; vol 41., 1987.

Dictionary of Hispanic Biography, Gale, 1996.


America, May 11, 1996, p. 25.

Library Journal, August, 1997, p. 137; August 2001, p. S33.

New Statesman, July 17, 1998, p. 46.

Publishers Weekly, October 25, 1991, p. 42; March 23, 1992, p. 58; February 14, 1994, p. 58; September 18, 2000, p. 85.

UNESCO Courier, January 1992, p. 8.


Contemporary Authors Online. The Gale Group, 2001. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, MI: The Gale Group. 2001. (http://www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC).

James M. Manheim