BORN: 1928, Panama City, Panama
GENRE: Fiction, drama, nonfiction
The Death of Artemio Cruz (1962)
Terra Nostra (1975)
Burnt Water (1980)
Orchids in the Moonlight (1982)
The Old Gringo (1985)
Carlos Fuentes is widely regarded as Mexico's foremost contemporary novelist. His overriding literary concern is to establish a viable Mexican identity, both as an autonomous entity and in relation to the outside world. In his work, Fuentes often intertwines myth, legend, and history to examine his country's roots and discover the essence of modern Mexican society. Fuentes writes: “Our political life is fragmented, our history shot through with failure, but our cultural tradition is rich, and I think the time is coming when we will have to look at our faces, our own past.” This tradition incorporates elements of Aztec culture, the Christian faith imparted by the Spanish
conquistadors, and the failed hopes of the Mexican Revolution. Fuentes uses the past, thematically and symbolically, to comment on contemporary concerns and to project his own vision of Mexico's future.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Diplomatic Roots, Law School, and International Service Carlos Fuentes, the son of a Mexican career diplomat, was born on November 11, 1928, in Panama City, Panama. As a child, he lived at several diplomatic posts in Latin America and spent much of the 1930s in Washington, D.C. He attended high school in Mexico City and later entered the National University of Mexico. While studying law there, he published several short stories and critical essays in journals. After graduating from law school, Fuentes traveled to Geneva, Switzerland, to study international law and in 1950 began a long career in foreign affairs that culminated in his serving as Mexico's ambassador to France from 1975 to 1977.
The Latin American Literature “Boom” Fuentes wrote throughout his diplomatic career, and in the late 1950s and early 1960s he gained international attention as an important contributor to the “boom” in Latin American literature. Along with such authors as Gabriel García Márquez and Julio Cortázar, Fuentes published works that received international acclaim and spurred the reassessment of the position that Latin American authors held in contemporary literature. Fuentes's work, like that of several writers associated with the “boom,” is technically experimental, featuring disjointed chronology, varying narrative perspectives, and rapid cuts between scenes, through which he creates a surreal atmosphere. For example, in his first novel, Where the Air Is Clear (1958), Fuentes uses a series of montage-like sequences to investigate the vast range of personal histories and lifestyles in Mexico City. This work, which provoked controversy due to its candid portrayal of social inequity and its socialist overtones, expresses Fuentes's perception of how the Mexican Revolution of the early twentieth century failed to realize its ideals. This revolution, which begun with an uprising led by Fransisco I, was a reaction against the politics of dictator Porfirio Díaz and, ultimately, led to a complicated civil war. The frustration of the revolution, a recurring theme in his writing, forms the basis for one of Fuentes's most respected novels, The Death of Artemio Cruz (1962).
Use of the Fantastic In the novella Aura (1962), Fuentes displays less concern with social criticism and makes greater use of bizarre images and the fantastic. Fuentes employs a disordered narrative in A Change of Skin (1967) to present a group of people who relive significant moments from their past as they travel together through Mexico. Fuentes's concern with the role of the past in determining the present is further demonstrated in Terra Nostra (1975), one of his most ambitious and successful works.
Negotiating the Contextual Mexican Identity with Magic Realism Fuentes's later fiction investigates Mexico's relationship with the rest of the world. Distant Relations (1980), for example, involves a Mexican archaeologist and his son who meet relatives in France; on another level, however, this work is about the interaction between Mexican and European cultures. In this novel, an old man relates a tale to a man named Carlos Fuentes, who in turn relates the tale to the reader. Through the inclusion of ghosts and mysterious characters, Fuentes also introduces fantastic events into otherwise realistic settings, a technique prevalent in Latin American literature that is often termed magic realism. In the novel The Old Gringo (1985), which examines Mexican-American relations, Fuentes creates an imaginative scenario of the fate that befell American journalist Ambrose Bierce after he disappeared in Mexico in 1913.
Plays, Short Stories, and Critical Essays In addition to his novels, Fuentes has written several plays, including Orchids in the Moonlight (1982), and has published the short-story collections Los dias enmascarados (1954), Cantar de ciegos (1964), and Chac Mool y otros cuentos (1973). Many of his short stories appear in English translation in Burnt Water (1980). Fuentes is also respected for his essays, the topics of which range from social and political criticism to discussions of Mexican art.
In 1989 The Old Gringo was adapted as a film starring Jane Fonda and Gregory Peck. In 1994, said to be based on an alleged affair he had with the American actress Jean Seberg, Fuentes published Diana, the Goddess Who Hunts Alone, sparking controversy about the
historical accuracy of the book's contents. Throughout the 1990s and up to present day, Fuentes has steadily published novels, short stories, critical essays on politics and culture, in addition to his academic duties as professor at Brown University; he has taught courses at universities throughout the United States.
Works in Literary Context
Among Fuentes's major themes are the quest for Mexican national identity—influenced by the writings of the Mexican philosophers José Vasconcelos and Samuel Ramos, and by the seminal work on the Mexican national character by Octavio Paz, The Labyrinth of Solitude (1950)—and a continued and profound exploration of the components of that identity: political, historic, social, psychological, and mythic. One of Fuentes's most compelling themes is the world of the gods and goddesses of the Aztec pantheon—especially the god of life and love, Quetzalcoatl—his downfall and self-banishment from the New World, and his supposed return in the form of the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés, examined in Terra Nostra and in his drama Todos los gatos son pardos.
American Influence on Mexico Another theme that appears throughout Fuentes's work is that of the United States and the tremendous social, cultural, and political impact it has exerted on his homeland, Mexico. Fuentes is decidedly ambivalent toward the country viewed in Latin America as the Colossus of the North. He spent much of his life traveling and lecturing in the United States, teaching at major North American universities, and collaborating on Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) projects, such as the one commemorating the voyage of Christopher Columbus in 1492. In his fictional works Fuentes emphasizes the fact that the greatest revolutionary force in Mexico is not the rebellious, ultimately defeated, los de abajo (lower class) but the North American presence. And in Old Gringo, in an attempt to come to grips with the North American–Mexican cultural clash, Fuentes evokes a revolutionary Mexico at the beginning of the twentieth century through North American eyes and from a feminist perspective. Thus the narrator and the most important character is neither the acerbic and misanthropic Ambrose Bierce, to whom the title refers, nor the revolutionary general in the army of Pancho Villa, Tomás Arroyo—who in a fit of rage kills Bierce, ironically granting Bierce the death he has sought in Mexico—but the recluse, Harriet Winslow.
The History and Future of Mexico Fuentes's concern with the role of the past in determining the present is further demonstrated in Terra Nostra. Many critics believe that this novel exceeds the scope of his earlier fiction, extending the idea of history as a circular force by incorporating scenes from the future into the text. Terra Nostra is divided into three sections: “The Old World,” which concerns Spain during the reign of Philip II; “The New World,” about the Spanish conquest of Mexico; and “The Next World,” which ends as the twenty-first century begins. By tracing the evolution of Mexico beginning with the Spanish conquest, Fuentes depicts the violence and cruelty that originated in the Mediterranean area and was perpetuated in Mexico through Spanish colonialism.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Fuentes's famous contemporaries include:
Julio Cortázar (1914–1984): Born in Belgium, Julio Cortázar was an Argentine writer who spent the last thirty years of his life in exile after he vocally opposed the dictatorship of Argentina's Juan PerÓn.
Edward Albee (1928–): American playwright famous for integrating absurdist elements into American theater. A three-time Pulitzer Prize winner, Albee is most widely known for having written the play Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962).
Alejo Carpentier (1904–1980): Cuban novelist who exerted a tremendous influence on contemporary Latin American writers; his writings are considered some of the earliest examples of magic realism.
Gregory Peck (1916–2003): American actor Peck was a major box office draw from the 1940s to the 1960s. One of Peck's last roles was in the film version of Old Gringo (1989).
Jean Seberg (1938–1979): An American actress best remembered for her roles in the “New Wave” of French cinema in the 1960s. Fuentes's fictionalized relationship with Seberg was the subject of his work Diana, the Goddess Who Hunts Alone (1994).
Christopher Unborn (1987), a verbally extravagant novel, continues Fuentes's interest in Mexican history. This work is narrated by Christopher Palomar, an omniscient fetus conceived by his parents in hopes of winning a contest to commemorate the quincentenary of Christopher Columbus's arrival in the Americas. According to contest rules, the male baby born closest to midnight on October 12, 1992, whose family name most closely resembles Columbus will assume leadership of Mexico at the age of twenty-one. The novel's nine chapters symbolize Christopher's gestation and allude to Columbus's voyage, which Fuentes views as a symbol of hope for Mexico's rediscovery and rebirth. Narrating from his mother's womb, Christopher uses wordplay, literary allusions, and grotesque humor, combining family history with caustic observations on the economic and environmental crises afflicting contemporary Mexico. Christopher Unborn satirizes Mexico's government as inept and its
citizenry as complacent, warning that the country's collapse is imminent without change.
As a key figure in the Latin American “boom” of the mid-twentieth century, Fuentes has exerted a considerable influence on later generations of Latin American writers. Vaulted to international fame and respect, Fuentes and his fellow boom writers loom so large that later writers who followed in their footsteps are called “post-boom.” Writers like Isabel Allende, whom Frederick Nunn has called “a product of the Boom,” are indirectly influenced by Fuentes and his ilk; as a reaction against the thematic and stylistic experiments of the boom, they have returned to a more realistic, naturalistic writing style. Style differences aside, their success and international acclaim are a direct result of the trails blazed by the likes of Fuentes.
Works in Critical Context
In discussing the critical response to the work of Fuentes, accomplished author Octavio Paz illuminates a stark divide in opinions about his work. Paz praises Fuentes's tendency toward extremes and defends him against his harsher critics, of which there are many. He writes, “Novels, stories, plays, chronicles, literary and political essays: Fuentes's body of work is already one of the richest and most varied of contemporary literature in our language…. Fuentes has been and is the main course of many cannibal banquets, for in literary matters—and not only in this, but in almost all social relations—Mexico is a country for which human flesh is a delicacy.” Similarly, critic Earl Shorris echoes Paz's assessment of the place held by Fuentes in Mexican letters. In assessing Fuentes's career, Shorris concludes that he “has been the palimpsest of Mexican history and culture separated into its discrete layers: Indian, Spanish, French, revolutionary, aristocratic, leftist, centrist, expatriate. In this analyzed presentation of the person, this soul shown after the centrifuge, Mr. Fuentes demonstrates the complexity of the Mexican character and the artistic difficulties peculiar to the novelist born in the Navel of the Universe, which is where the Aztecs placed Mexico.”
Fuentes's achievements in the novel genre have been recognized through his being awarded several distinguished prizes including the Premio Alfonso Reyes in 1980. Cambio de piel, one of his most intricate and problematic novels, was awarded the Premio Biblioteca Breve by the Barcelona publishing house Seix Barral. In 1975 Fuentes received the Premio Xavier Villaurrutia in Mexico City and in 1977 was awarded the Rómulo Gallegos prize in Venezuela, both honors for his novel Terra Nostra, which he wrote while a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. In 1984 he was awarded the Mexican Premio Nacional de la Literatura by President Miguel de la Madrid, and in 1987 he received the Spanish Premio Cervantes in Madrid, awarded by King Juan Carlos.
Responses to Literature
- Read Ambrose Bierce's famous short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” which is mentioned in Old Gringo. What does that story tell you about the character of Bierce as Carlos Fuentes portrays him in the novel?
- Fuentes outlines a projection of the future of the Hispanic people in Terra Nostra. Read and analyze this projection. Do you agree with Fuentes's ideas? Why or why not?
- The stories of Carlos Fuentes can range over a wide variety of themes. Contrast two stories that deal with dissimilar themes and analyze their differences.
- Identify and characterize conflicting layers of society in Fuentes's short stories. How do the different elements interact with each other?
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
The works of other authors who, like Fuentes, have explored Mexican national identity include:
The Labyrinth of Solitude (1950), a collection of essays by Octavio Paz. The unifying theme of these works, written by one of Mexico's most respected authors, is an analysis of the character of the Mexican people, particularly the cultural emphasis on solitude and death.
Like Water for Chocolate (1989), a novel by Laura Esquivel. A masterwork of magic realism, this story follows a woman who expresses her feelings, literally, through her cooking; each chapter begins with a Mexican-food recipe.
The Plumed Serpent (1926), a novel by D. H. Lawrence. The title references the serpent-god Quetzalcoatl. This work, written from the perspective of non-Mexican outsiders, explores both contemporary Mexico and its pre-Columbian past
Brushwood, John S. Mexico in Its Novel: A Nation's Search for Identity. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1966.
“The Old Gringo.” Novels for Students. Eds. Marie Rose Napierkowski and Deborah A. Stanley. Vol. 8. Detroit: Gale, 2000.
Plimpton, George, ed. Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews, Sixth Series. New York: Viking, 1984.
Library Journal (January 1994): 96; (January 1995): 77; (January 1996): 81; (May 1, 1996): 112.
Los Angeles Times Book Review (April 10, 1994): 6.
New York Review of Books (June 11, 1964).
New York Times Book Review, (November 7, 1976); (October 19, 1980); (October 6, 1991): 3; (April 26, 1992): 9; (October 22, 1995): 12.
Times Literary Supplement (June 10, 1994): 23; (September 29, 1995): 27.
Washington Post Book World (October 26, 1976); (January 14, 1979); (March 29, 1992); (October 15, 2000).
Nationality: Mexican. Born: Panama City, 11 November 1928. As a child lived in the United States, Chile, and Argentina; returned to Mexico at age 16. Education: Colegio Frances Morelos; National Autonomous University of Mexico, Mexico City, LL.B. 1948; Institut des Hautes Études Internationales, Geneva. Family: Married 1) Rita Macedo in 1959 (divorced 1966), one daughter; 2) Sylvia Lemus in 1973, one son and one daughter. Career: Member, then secretary, Mexican delegation, International Labor Organization, Geneva, 1950-52; assistant chief of press section, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Mexico City, 1954; press secretary, United Nations Information Center, Mexico City, 1954; editor, Revista Mexicana de Literatura, 1954-58, El Espectador, 1959-61, Siempre, from 1960, and Política, from 1960; secretary, then assistant director of Cultural Department, National Autonomous University of Mexico, 1955-56; head of Department of Cultural Relations, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 1957-59; Mexican Ambassador to France, 1974-77; fellow, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, 1974; Virginia Gildersleeve Visiting Professor, Barnard College, New York, 1977; Norman Maccoll Lecturer, 1977, and Simón Bolívar Professor of Latin American Studies, 1986-87, Cambridge University; Henry L. Tinker Lecturer, Columbia University, New York, 1978; professor of English, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, 1978-83; humanities fellow, Princeton University, New Jersey; professor of comparative literature, 1984-86, and Robert F. Kennedy Professor of Latin American studies, since 1987, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts; president, Modern Humanities Research Association, since 1989. Lives in Cambridge. Awards: Mexican Writers Center fellowship, 1956; Biblioteca Breve prize, 1967; Xavier Villaurrutia prize, 1975; Rómulos Gallegos prize (Venezuela), 1977; Alfonso Reyes prize, 1979; Mexican National award for literature, 1984; Cervantes prize, 1987; Rubén Darío prize, 1988; Italo-Latino Americano Instituto prize, 1988; New York City National Arts Club Medal of Honor, 1988; Order of Cultural Independence (Nicaragua), 1988; IUA prize, 1989. D.Litt.: Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut, 1982; Cambridge University, 1987. D. Univ.: University of Essex, Wivenhoe, 1987. LL.D.: Harvard University. Other honorary doctorates: Columbia College; Chicago State University; Washington University, St. Louis. Member: El Colegio Nacional, since 1974; American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, 1986.
Los días emmascarados. 1954.
Aura (novella). 1962; translated as Aura, 1965.
Cantar de ciegos. 1964.
Chac Mool y otros cuentos. 1973.
Agua quemada. 1981; as Burnt Water, 1981.
Constancia y otras novelas para vírgenes. 1989; as Constancia and Other Stories for Virgins, 1990.
La región más transparente. 1958; as Where the Air Is Clear, 1960.
Las buenas conciencias. 1959; as Good Conscience, 1961.
La muerte de Artemio Cruz. 1962; as The Death of Artemio Cruz, 1964.
Zona sagrada. 1967; as Holy Places, in Triple Cross, 1972.
Cambio de piel. 1967; as A Change of Skin, 1968.
Terra nostra. 1975; translated as Terra Nostra, 1976.
La cabeza de la hidra. 1978; as The Hydra Head, 1978.
Una familia lejana. 1980; as Distant Relations, 1982.
El gringo viejo. 1985; as The Old Gringo, 1985.
Cristóbal nonato. 1987; as Christopher Unborn, 1989.
La campaña. 1990; as The Campaign, 1991.
Todos los gatos son pardos. 1970.
El tuerto es rey. 1970.
Las reinos originarios (includes Todos los gatos son pardos and El tuerto es rey). 1971.
Orquídeas a la luz de la luna. 1982; as Orchids in the Moonlight(produced 1982).
Pedro Paramo, 1966; Tiempo de morir, 1966; Los caifanes, 1967.
The Buried Mirror (on Christopher Columbus), 1991.
Poemas de amor: Cuentos del alma. 1971.
The Argument of Latin America: Words for North Americans. 1963.
Paris: La revolución de Mayo. 1968.
La nueva novela hispanoamericana. 1969.
El mundo de Jose Luis Cuevas. 1969.
Casa con dos puertas. 1970.
Tiempo mexicano. 1971.
Cervantes; o, La crítica de la lectura. 1976; as Don Quixote; or, The Critique of Reading, 1976.
Cuerpos y ofrendas. 1972.
High Noon in Latin America. 1983.
Juan Soriano y su obra, with Teresa del Conde. 1984.
On Human Rights: A Speech. 1984.
Latin America: At War with the Past. 1985.
Palacio Nacional, with Guillermo Tovar y de Teresa. 1986.
Gabriel García Marquez and the Invention of America (lecture). 1987.
Myself with Others: Selected Essays. 1988.
The Buried Mirror: Reflections on Spain and the New World. 1992.
Editor, Los signos en rotación y otra ensayos, by Octavio Paz. 1971.*
"Fuentes: A Bibliography" by Sandra L. Dunn, in Review of Contemporary Fiction 8, 1988; in Mexican Literature: A Bibliography of Secondary Sources by David William Foster, 1992.
Fuentes by Daniel de Guzman, 1972; The Archetypes of Fuentes: From Witch to Androgyne by Gloria Durán, 1980; Fuentes: A Critical View edited by Robert Brody and Charles Rossman, 1982; Fuentes by Wendy D. Faris, 1983; Fuentes: Life, Work, and Criticism by Alfonso González, 1987; "Postmodernity and Postmodernism in Latin America: Carlos Fuentes's Christopher Unborn " by Ricardo Gutierrez-Mouat, in Critical Theory, Cultural Politics, and Latin American Narrative edited by Steven M. Bell, Albert H. Le May, and Leonard Orr, 1993; "Nation as the Concept of "Democratic Otherness": Christopher Unborn and the Plea for Hybrid Cultures" by Ineke Phaf, in Encountering Others: Studies in Literature, History and Culture edited by Gisela Brinkler Gabler, 1995.* * *
Carlos Fuentes's reputation transcends linguistic boundaries both for his long and short fiction. His diplomatic family lived in Santiago, Chile, Buenos Aires, Washington, D.C., and Geneva, affording a universal perspective few writers have. Nevertheless, preoccupations with Mexico and its "national unconscious" constitute motifs throughout his oeuvre.
Los días emmascarados (The Masked Days), his first collection of short stories, enunciates prehistoric, indigenous Mexican themes and other enduring characteristics such as the amalgamation of past and present, the supernatural, relativism, his past as a Mexican, and the human condition. While Fuentes cultivates technical virtuosity and experimental fiction, his urge toward conventional resolution entices the reader along fictional paths requiring a suspension of reality and a leap into the supernatural. The six stories in this collection develop fantastic themes ranging from the gruesome to the ludicrous and employ a first-person point of view.
"Chac Mool," the title story of a 1973 collection, underscores Fuentes's fascination with his Aztec roots by introducing the ancient rain god. Filiberto's diary, discovered by a friend, recounts baffling events. The protagonist's drowning is partially explained by the discovery that his home has been usurped by Chac Mool. The pre-Columbian rain god's corruption by contemporary decadence in Mexico appears in his using lipstick, make-up, and cheap lotion.
"In Defense of the Trigolibia" parodies the political essay, slyly subverting the values fostered and supported by two superpowers: Nusitanios (United States) and Tundriusa (the former Soviet Union). Fuentes satirizes both countries at a time when intellectuals usually accepted Marxist doctrine. "In a Flemish Garden," a precursor to Aura, employs a diary format. Moving into an old, sumptuous mansion from days of the French Intervention, the diarist describes the architecture and garden. But the supernatural appears: the odor of the flowers in the garden is "mournful," crypt-like, and the garden's flora and appearance suggest an alien climate. An old woman appears, leaving the message "TLACTOCATZINE," then a letter. Later he sees her on the garden bench, but upon approaching discovers only the cold wind. Reentry proves impossible: the sealed doors trap him in the garden as the woman calls him Max and speaks in Aztec. Clues link the woman with the ill-fated French "empress" Carlota, perhaps driven mad by Aztec gods. Tlactocatzine was the name given to Carlota's husband, Maximilian, by the Mexicans, and this, plus the old woman's ravings in Aztec, implies that the diarist has somehow vaulted into the past and has been transformed into Maximilian.
Cantar de ciegos (Songs of the Blind) contains stories that have appeared in English in several collections. Burnt Water incorpo-rates stories from Los días emmascarados and Cantar de ciegos. "Las dos Elenas," narrated in the first person, introduces young Elena who, after watching the French film Jules et Jim, consults her husband Victor about a ménage à trois, arguing that "if morality is everything that gives life, and immorality everything that refutes it," making three people happy could not be immoral. Elena's mother, the elder Elena, criticizes her daughter's amorality and "modern" thinking, as reported by Victor, the narrator, without subjective intervention. The ending reveals that Victor is having an affair with his wife's mother. Again Fuentes employs the dichotomy of reality vis-à-vis illusion. Initially the modern, liberated wife seems more likely to have an affair than the old fashioned, conservative, Hispanic matron. Traditional values and morality are questioned by juxtaposing the two Elenas: are age-old deception and betrayal more acceptable then honestly examining the reasons for marital boredom and proposing unorthodox alternatives?
Constancia and Other Stories for Virgins first appeared as Constancia y otras novelas para vírgenes in 1989. The five stories range in length from 44 pages to almost 100, explaining the use of novelas in the Spanish title. The title story, "Constancia," reiterates the supernatural, exploited previously in Aura, "In a Flemish Garden," "Chac Mool," and other tales. The narrator-diarist of "Constancia," a surgeon in his late sixties, practices in Atlanta three days a week, living in Savannah the remainder of the time. In Seville in 1946 he married reclusive Constancia Bautista, beginning a lonely existence. His only acquaintance, a Russian emigré, lived across the street. One day the Russian, Plotnikov, informs him that since he is about to die he has come to say goodbye. The doctor later investigates Plotnikov's house, to find a photograph of Plotnikov, Constancia, and a child. One bedroom contains a baroque coffin with the Russian emigré holding the skeletal remains of a two-year-old child. Returning home to obtain an explanation, he learns his wife has disappeared. Checking records later in Seville, he discovers that his wife, the Russian, and a 16-month-old child were murdered by Nationalist troops in 1939 after having immigrated in 1929 to Spain from Russia to escape the revolution. Enigma begets enigmas when he returns home after a month absence to discover that a man, a woman, and a child have taken refuge in his house, claiming they escaped from El Salvador and entered the United States illegally. Henceforth he devotes his life to them, instructing them what to do if arrested, ignoring the beckoning lights illuminating the emigré's house nightly. Fuentes stresses the will to live, which in this story overcomes the natural, allowing the uncanny to prevail.
Fuentes characteristically stresses the human condition and its need to prevail, to overcome death and aging, to surmount the norm instituted by a society, revealing (to paraphrase Fuentes) that art is the most precious symbol of life.
—Genaro J. Pérez
Carlos Fuentes (born 1928) was a Mexican short-story writer, novelist, essayist, and political writer whose works are a mixture of social protest, realism, psychological insight, and fantasy.
Carlos Fuentes was born on Nov. 11, 1928, in Mexico City. As the son of a Mexican diplomat, he went to school in Washington, D.C., where he became proficient in the English language. He held a law degree from the National University of Mexico and also studied at the Institute of Advanced International Studies in Geneva. He served in the Mexican diplomatic service and traveled in Cuba, Europe, the Soviet Union, the United States, and Latin America.
His first book, Los días enmascarados (1954; The Masked Days), consisted of a series of six stories in which the real world is mingled with the disquieting world of fantasy. He formed and directed, with Emmanuel Carballo, the Revista méxicana de literatura (1955-1958; Mexican Review of Literature). During 1956-1957 he held a scholarship at the Mexican Center for Writers.
Fuentes's first great novel, La región más transparente (1958; Where the Air Is Clear), caused a real sensation in literary circles and definitely established him as one of the best young writers. It portrays many grave social problems in contemporary Mexico City in a tone of bitter and violent protest. The structure is developed by continuous juxtaposition of scenes from different social levels and from different epochs. Fuentes uses interior monologue and portrayal of the subconscious mixed with pages that resemble an essay more than a novel. His second novel, Las buenas conciencias (The Good Conscience), appeared in 1959. It undertakes a clarification of Mexican life in greater depth and broader perspective. It is a moral drama of Mexican society in which everyone appears both as victim and accomplice.
During 1959-1960 Fuentes edited El espectador (The Spectator). Aura (Dawn), a short novel, appeared in 1962, and that same year he saw the publication of La muerte de Artemio Cruz (The Death of Artemio Cruz). In this work Fuentes covers half a century of Mexican life, portraying the class which predominated in Mexico at the time, as represented by a man who took part in some of the skirmishes of the Revolution and, beginning in 1920, started to make a large fortune and acquire immense power. The death of this man and his 12 hours of agony constitute the theme of this novel. It was translated into numerous languages.
Fuentes's second volume of short stories, Cantar de ciegos (1964; Song of the Blind), is a synthesis of his literary worlds: magic, realistic, and humorous. In 1967 he won the Premio Biblioteca Breve, offered by the Seix Barral publishing company, for his novel Cambio de piel (Change of Skin).
Fuentes continued to write short stories, novels, plays, and essays which usually address political or social concerns of Mexico and central America. He was also an historian, of sorts, incorporating important figures of Mexican history into his fiction. Fuentes did this because it revealed Mexico—both past and present—to the world. He explained this view to George Kourous in Montage, "Mexico … made me understand that only in an act of the present can we make present the past as well as the future: to be a Mexican was to identify a hunger for being, a desire for dignity rooted in many forgotten centuries and in many centuries yet to come, but rooted, here, now, in the instant, in the vigilant time of Mexico."
Fuentes critical success reached new heights in 1975 with the release of Terra nostra. This novel about the evolution of Mexico earned Fuentes the Mexican Alfonso Reyes Prize. Fuentes's next fictions explored the spy novel and Mexico's place in the world. In 1985 Fuentes published El Gringo Viejo, a novel in which he combined an historical figure (American journalist Ambrose Bierce) with the supernatural, and Fuentes received some of the best reviews in his extensive literary career. Jane Fonda and Gregory Peck starred in a movie adaption of this novel.
Readers and critics both admired and despised Fuentes. Many critics cited his political views as a distraction to his literary talents; others wished he would focus only on writing fiction instead of exploring political commentary. Octavia Paz, one of Mexico's most recognized poets, was often an outspoken critic of Fuentes. However, his detractors did not prevent him from continually winning literary awards, including the Premio Cervantes in 1988.
In an interview in Booklist in 1996, Fuentes lamented the fact that in Mexico, "literature remains a minority affair." He was disappointed that culturally, the value of literature as its own entity does not exist. In 1997 in World Press Review, Fuentes claimed that Mexico had become the scapegoat for all of the problems in the United States. Throughout his career, Fuentes wrote his views and his opinions, not caring who he pleased or who he offended. Through all of this, the only consistent classification he has earned is the reputation as a master narrator. Fuentes himself challenged his critics, "Don't classify me, read me. I'm a writer, not a genre. Do not look for the purity of the novel according to some nostalgic canon." According to Fuentes, the canon, the collected body of prized literary works, needed to include more multicultural authors and texts. Because of his contributions to journalism, fiction, and non-fiction, Fuentes became an influential Hispanic writer who has expanded the literary canon.
Chalene Helmuth, The Postmodern Fuentes, Bucknell University Press, 1997, provides a contemporary analysis of Fuentes's work. Raymond L. Williams, The Writings of Carlos Fuentes: History, Culture, and Identity, Unviersity of Texas Press, 1996, provides a more complete overview of the writer. Fuentes was interviewed in Publisher's Weekly, October 25, 1991; Montage, September 1994; and Booklist, September 15, 1996. □