Burnt Water

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 15)

The most esteemed Mexican novelist writing today, Carlos Fuentes, is also an accomplished writer of short stories; or, in the Hispanic tradition, of cuentos. To be sure, Fuentes’ achievement as a novelist has outshone his work as a cuentista; however, from the very beginning of his career as a writer he has demonstrated a link with the traditions of folk and oral literature which are so much a part of the cuentista’s art. It is futile here to seek the full relationship between Fuentes the author of short fiction and Fuentes the novelist. Let it merely be said that his efforts in one literary form have influenced and strengthened the other; and if Fuentes is to be lauded as a novelist, his short fiction is of complementary importance. Indeed, his stories are so interrelated that they read like a novel.

His first book of short stories, Masked Days appeared in 1954, much before the successes of Where the Air Is Clear (1960), The Good Conscience (1961), The Death of Artemio Cruz (1962), and A Change of Skin (1968)—the novels which have secured the position of prominence as a contemporary novelist which Fuentes holds. A second volume of short stories, Song of the Blind, was published in 1964 and now in 1980 comes Burnt Water, a collection of some of the stories in Song of the Blind plus several other stories for a total of eleven autochthonous tales which are both timely and timeless. American readers of such publications as TriQuarterly and Playboy will no doubt recognize one or two familiar titles here. Moreover, newly acquired fans of Fuentes’ work as a novelist in the 1970’s, namely Terra Nostra (1977) and The Hydra Head (1979) will be confirmed in their discovery of one of Mexico’s and the world’s master storytellers.

At the age of fifty-three, the one-time Mexican ambassador to France and now Princeton professor Carlos Fuentes seems to have come into his own as a fictionist. Compared, over the years, to such author-heroes of modernism as James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, and Malcolm Lowry, Fuentes—who owes much to their tradition and techniques—could conceivably surpass them all.

In an author’s note, Fuentes explains that Burnt Water takes its title from the births (and slowly sinking deaths) of Mexico City, founded in 1325 by wandering Aztecs and built on a high lagoon surrounded by volcanoes. The “burnt waters” of Mexico City thus function as a paradox, a metaphor—much like the Phoenix which rises out of its own ashes to rebirth—for not only the soothing lagoon and its scorching volcanoes, but also the destructions and recreations of the Spanish conquerors in 1521, and the subsequent cycles of revolutionary uprising and will. As one of the largest cities in the world, what Fuentes regards as the “capital of underdevelopment,” Mexico City (in body and spirit, its squalor and grandeur, its realities and illusions) thus becomes the subject of Fuentes’ stories—combining as they do to offer a biography of place as much as of people.

Fuentes’ own personal house of fiction (he calls it an apartment house) is built in that metaphorical Mexico City of birth and death and is occupied, on the eleven separate floors which are the stories themselves, by the families and individuals whose lives in and outside of the city Fuentes maintains in his mind and brings into being on the page. The biography of place and person which he gives reveals in modes of fantasy and psychological realism exactly how local, how regional and “ethnic,” and yet how universal and human are the life stories—stories of youth and age, gender and occupation, wealth and poverty, morality and depravity—which are portrayed.

Several of Fuentes’ stories have a strain of Gothic horror, an air of chilling fantasy about them which give the reader a glimpse into the abyss of madness. Such is the account of “Chac-Mool,” a parable of a myth turning into flesh, and in the process, it tells the story of an obscure office worker and collector of ancient statues who is driven to insanity and death. As the first story in the book, it serves to establish a mood of Mexico’s mythic past which pervades all of the stories in the volume and, by implication, the lives of all Mexicans—whether knowingly or not. The possibility of the resurrection of pre-Columbian pagan gods in the twentieth century, under the spellbinding talents of Fuentes, becomes an all too convincing anachronism. In terms of the cuento itself, the pervasiveness of the fantastic horror hinges on the testimony of an anonymous narrator who relates how his good friend, Filiberto, after buying a statue of the water god, Chac-Mool, came to greater and greater degrees of irresponsibility on the job, disappeared for a time, and finally escaped to a death by drowning in Acapulco—so vengefully appropriate given the ever wet and humid pursuits of Chac-Mool. By the story’s end, Chac-Mool has taken over Filiberto’s life and house and greets the astonished narrator, who bears his friend’s coffin, at Filiberto’s own door. It is proof to the reader that Chac-Mool’s “unbelievable” metamorphosis into a man is complete. More a Kafkaesque monster than a Christ, Chac-Mool has the autonomy to work further mischief.

“In a Flemish Garden” resurrects a more recent historic past, that of Charlotte the Belgian-born empress of Mexico, and wife of Maximilian of Austria, who spent the final years of her life insane. Following the literary convention of a diary, which Fuentes uses in several stories, a handsome blond friend of Brambila records the day by day realization that he is...

(The entire section is 2347 words.)