A Tribute to Carlos Fuentes (1928-2012)
By Catherine Rendón, Savannah, Ga.
This morning I learned that the Mexican novelist, Carlos Fuentes, had died and the news saddened me. In 2009 the beloved Uruguayan writer, Mario Benedetti, died and was mourned the length and breadth of the American continent. In 1998, I was in San Cristobal las Casas when Fuentes’s nemesis, another iconic Mexican thinker, Octavio Paz, died. I was surprised to hear children in a square crying out: “Octavio ha muerto!” (“Octavio has died!) In how many countries would a child be calling an intellectual and Nobel prize winner by his first name? and how many people would know who it referred to? Such is the power of many writers in Latin America. I can’t think of many similar instances where the uttering of only a first name had similar reverberations, although for entirely different reasons. Perhaps, Diana, the Princess of Wales, might share some of this street credibility.
Fuentes (11 Nov. 1928-15 May 2012) embodied the cosmopolitan Latin American as he was as much at home in London as in Paris, Buenos Aires or Mexico City. I first read him as a teenager and found his novels riveting. It was only later that I learned that he had to choose which language to write in. He was equally fluent in English and Spanish and knew French flawlessly. The son of diplomats, and a diplomat himself, Fuentes published his first novel by the age of thirty. He continued to publish novels, essays, and his thoughts on a variety of topics, including a masterful view of Latin American History, The Buried Mirror: Reflections on Spain and the New World (1992), which I sometimes used when teaching about Latin America. His novel, The Death of Artemio Cruz (1962), was perhaps his most powerful as he synthesized the ambivalence and strength of the new Mexico that emerged from the aftermath of that country’s revolution a century ago.
The day before Fuentes died, another Mexican novelist, Joaquín Armando Chacón, wrote to me from Mexico City:
…the writer of narrative (fiction) doesn’t make philosophy (he can’t and shouldn’t). He relates events, situations, lives, adventures, moments, and he does it by ‘imagining’ so that he constructs living personages that exist. I agree with (the Russian novelist) Nabokov who says that a novel is an atmosphere and characters. Sure, the genres of short stories, the account, and as many other forms exist which a narrator needs to use for his condition and work, and the novel feeds from all of these (dialogue, description, poetry, reflection…), but he does all this in his own manner and way of understanding. Why do we choose one path and not another? Why do we tell something about a certain character and tell nothing more about him or her? I don’t know, and I can assure you that no one knows; intuition takes over, it surprises one in the moment, and forces the rhythm and many times so does stubbornness (not necessity, which also has something to do with the business).
What a strange role novelists play. They are magicians and midwives, parents and muses, and above all, they allow us spaces where we can reflect and dream. Fuentes’s many books achieved these goals as he created a palpable geography of worlds with personages that helped us make sense or better understand our circumstances and those of others. Most recently, Fuentes was concerned with the growing drug-related violence that has become endemic to Mexico and the region. He leaves behind a novel with his reflections on the subject which will be published in the autumn of 2012.
From childhood, Fuentes had strong ties with the United States even though he was often critical of this country. As a student I heard him lecture on various occasions (at Columbia and Brown). His lectures were always polished and intelligent, specific and universal. Fuentes was accessible and always open to questions, doubts and speaking with young people. Fuentes recognized that great literature is essential to the psyche of any nation and he contributed a lot through his output to the better understanding of Mexico and Latin America, not only for Spanish readers and speakers but for those in many other languages through his many works. Perhaps we should look on Fuentes as a model for the sort of pan-American individual we ought to hold as an example: a multi-cultural, multi-lingual, open-minded citizen of the world.
During the 1990s I had the opportunity to be present at various events Fuentes organized for the Festival del Centro Histórico. An admirer and friend of the Irish novelist, Edna O’Brian (1930), as well as two future Nobel Laureates, South African writer, J. M. Coetzee(1940), and the Portuguese, José Saramago (1922-2010), Fuentes and Juan Goytisolo brought them to Mexico City for a wonderful literary festival where they discussed “the new geography of the novel.” I briefly met all of them and some of them, like Saramago, espoused the Zapatista cause, whose adherents had recently staged an uprising in the southern state of Chiapas.
In 1995 British playwright, Harold Pinter (1930-2008), a Nobel Laureate from 2005, was in Mexico City for the performance of two of his plays translated by Fuentes: “Moonlight” and “Party Time”. Champagne flowed from one of the great balconies of the massive and opulent Teatro de Bellas Artes as playwrights, actors, producers, writers and friends mingled during the launch party. Pinter had undergone a dry period of not being able to write and “Moonlight” was the first work he had produced in some time but on this evening he was expansive and Fuentes a charming host. Pinter’s wife, Antonia Fraser, a prolific writer of British histories in her own right, was also present, as was Fuentes’s wife, the journalist, Silvia Lemus.
A few nights later I found myself at a dinner at the Fuentes’s residence in San Angel and was able to continue conversing with all of them. Because of his cosmopolitanism, Fuentes was often criticized for not being truly Mexican, or Mexican enough, even though he strongly identified with that country. His independent thinking and his refusal to be easily pigeon-holed also made him unpopular. Fuentes was liberal and open-minded and above all, highly civilized, not just in an erudite fashion but in a way that knew no borders or limitations.
Although Fuentes received many international honors, including the Cervantes Prize, he never received the Nobel Prize. Many believe he deserved it as he was as productive, fearless and as valuable a thinker and writer as many of his Nobel Laureate friends and fellow authors, in particular, García Márquez and Vargas Llosa.
Despite an outwardly successful life, Fuentes suffered the loss of two of his three children. Like many committed artists, he said that work (his writing) was the only thing that helped him cope and make sense of the world. The act of writing gave Fuentes sincere delight and offered him immense pleasure.
Fuentes’s death marks the beginning of the end of one of Latin America’s most prolific literary eras, the so-called “boom”. Although not a magic realist like some of his contemporaries, Fuentes’s vast and broad output reflects his deep concern for the region and his understanding of our interconnectedness with individuals around the world. Fuentes once wrote: "By its very nature, the novel indicates that we are becoming. There is no final solution. There is no last word."
Fuentes will be missed, but his work remains a testament to his talent and times and a possible blueprint for better interaction in this world. On the 16th of May, Joaquín Armando Chacón sent me these words: “Yes, how sad to learn of Fuentes’s passing. I read and admired him and his books taught me a great deal, to the point of considering him one of my teachers. Personally, I knew Fuentes little, (but is there anything more personal than the work a writer creates?) I read him always. He was one of the greats…”