Carlos Fuentes first became well-known in the English-speaking world with the publication in 1964 of the translation of his novel, The Death of Artemio Cruz (originally published in Spanish as La Muerte de Artemio Cruz in 1962). Distant Relations (originally published in Spanish as Una familia lejana, 1980) is his eighth novel to appear in English. Although it is quite different in style and technique from The Death of Artemio Cruz and from Fuentes’ extraordinarily complex Terra Nostra (1977), its concerns are similar to those evident in all of Fuentes’ novels. The Comte de Branly in Distant Relations reconstructs an elaborate story that evokes his entire life experience. In similar fashion, Artemio Cruz remembers his life as he dies, drawing together all the experiences and cultural influences in a narrative that parallels the changing states of awareness of the dying man. Terra Nostra develops a vast interpretation of Hispanic culture through a fantastic manipulation and re-creation of the history of Spain from the seventeenth century to the eve of the year 2000. In each of Fuentes’ novels, there is an attempt to derive from the cultural heritage a key to an understanding of human experience.
In Distant Relations, this heritage is the Mexican pre-Colombian and colonial experience, with the influence of the Spanish and the French reflected in the principal characters—the Mexican Creole Hugo Heredia, the French Victor Heredia, and the aristocratic French Branly. As in most of Fuentes’ fiction, the relationships are not clearly delineated. There is a strange continuity to human experience that defies complete understanding, yet which emerges gradually from the intricate genealogy of the Heredias and the Comte de Branly.
The bloodlines lead back to the early nineteenth century in La Guaira, where Mademoiselle Lange, the daughter of an enterprising French merchant, married Francisco Luis de Heredia, a Spanish colonial hidalgo, each thinking erroneously that the other had money. From that unhappy marriage based on deception was born a son. Subsequently, Heredia delivered his French wife to the local brothel, where she conceived another son by the captain of a French force passing through Mexico. The story that Branly relates to the narrator, based on his experience in the home of the French Victor Heredia and in spite of the century and a half since the La Guaira incident, is that the son born to Heredia and Mme. Lange is the French Victor Heredia, while the son of the French captain and Mme. Lange is Branly himself. As several characters had earlier replied to Branly when he proclaimed that all this was impossible, “we have no memory but what we recall.” What is remembered is what is true.
Branly’s testimony is an elaboration of the concept that the limits of experience are determined by what is remembered, and that rationality imposes its own limits on what the mind will recall. Thus, the complex irrational relationships that surface throughout the novel are rejected and suppressed. Hugo Heredia and his son Victor play a game of searching in the telephone book of each city that they visit for someone with their same name. As they do, they uncover the irrational “distant relations” that create a maze of parallels and coincidences. The Heredia whom they meet in Monterrey, who promises Hugo the return of his dead son and wife, is reincarnated in the Victor Heredia whom they find in Paris. The portrait of the woman in white in the Paris mansion is at once Mme. Lange and Lucie, the dead wife of Hugo. Hugo Heredia, married to the French woman Lucie, is Francisco Luis de Heredia married to Mme. Lange, and their son Victor is the Victor Heredia of the Paris mansion, or his son André. The mysterious detainment and abuse that the French aristocrat Branly suffers at the hands of André and the two Victor Heredias is an ironic inversion of the colonial experience of the Mexicans at the time of the French occupation.
The entire experience that Branly reconstructs in his afternoon of talking to the narrator is a kind of game. As Hugo and his son lure Branly into the trap set by the Heredia in Monterrey, they create a scenario...
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