Carlos Fuentes Fuentes, Carlos - Essay


(Short Story Criticism)

Fuentes, Carlos 1928-

Mexican novelist, short story writer, playwright, screenwriter, critic, and essayist.

Fuentes is regarded by many as Mexico's foremost contemporary fiction writer. His abilities in the short story genre have been acclaimed by critics, though his short fiction has generally received less attention than his novels. Nonetheless, Fuentes's overriding literary concerns are the same in both genres; in both he explores the issue of Mexico's national character and attempts to more firmly establish the country's cultural identity. To accomplish this, he incorporates myth, legend, and history into his work, probing the past events of his homeland and the essence of modern Mexican society. His short fiction features unusual treatments of time and the use of fantastic, seemingly supernatural, events. He is also known for the ironic twists that he frequently places at the conclusion of his short narratives. His deft handling of this classic short story tool has helped to establish his strong reputation in the genre.

Biographical Information

Fuentes was born in Panama City, Panama, the son of a Mexican career diplomat living abroad. Because of his father's work, Fuentes spent much of his childhood in foreign countries, including the capital cities of many Latin American countries and also Washington, D.C., where he lived for much of the 1930s. 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, thereby launching his literary career. After graduating from law school, Fuentes travelled to Geneva, Switzerland, to study international law, and in 1950 he began a diplomatic career that has included two appointments to Mexico's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the position of Mexican ambassador to France from 1975 to 1977. In 1959 he married Rita Macedo, a film actress. The marriage lasted ten years, and in 1973 he married Sylvia Lemus. Fuentes has three children, a daughter from his first marriage and a son and a daughter from his second. In addition to his writing and his diplomatic assignments, he has served as a lecturer at universities all over the world, including the University of Paris and Columbia University.

Major Works

Los días enmascarados (The Masked Days), Fuentes's first collection of short fiction, appeared in 1954. The book contains two stories that have received significant critical attention: "Chac Mool" and "Tlactocatzine, del jardin de Flandes" (which has been translated as "Tlactocatzine, in the Garden of Flanders" and "In a Flemish Garden"). Both stories reflect the author's fascination with Mexican history and his use of fantastic occurrences to demonstrate the continuing influence of the past. "Chac Mool" takes its title from an ancient rain god sacred to pre-Columbian Indians in Mexico. A statue of the god is obtained by the protagonist Filiberto, a contemporary Mexican who collects native art. After installing the statue in his basement, the Chac Mool seems to come to life, disrupting Filiberto's existence and eventually killing him. Much of "Chac Mool" is related in the form of Filiberto's diary, and this form of epistolary narration is employed in a number of Fuentes's stories. "Chac Mool" also incorporates the commentary of Filiberto's friend who first thinks the tale of the living god is the product of Filiberto's imagination. This theory is brought into question, however, by the story's surprising conclusion. "Tlactocatzine" is also set in Mexico in the mid-twentieth century. A man named Carlos moves into an old house in Mexico City and soon encounters an old woman in the garden of the residence. She turns out to be Cariota, the wife of Maximilian, the short-lived Hapsburg emperor of Mexico in the 1800s. At the story's conclusion, Carlos finds himself trapped in the garden with Carlota, unable or unwilling to return to the present-day realities he finds unpleasant. A similar situation unfolds in the novella Aura, published in 1962. Here, the main character Felipe becomes a secretary to an old woman who lives with her young niece, Aura. Felipe and Aura become lovers but, in the end, the old woman and Aura seem to be one person, and Felipe comes to believe that he is some kind of reincarnation of the old woman's deceased husband, a former Mexican military leader.

Fuentes's second major collection of stories Cantar de ciegos (Song of the Blind) signaled a new development in his short fiction. The narratives show less concern with historical figures and supernatural elements, instead featuring detailed character studies of individuals in contemporary society. "Las dos Elenas" ("The Two Elenas") concerns a mother and daughter who seemingly have different attitudes in many things—the daughter expressing a cosmopolitan openness to new experiences, the mother upholding a more conservative code of behavior. The story's conclusion, however, contains a surprise that shows both women's actions are at odds with their statements. An unexpected conclusion also figures in "La muñeca reina" ("The Doll Queen"), in which the nostalgic narrator attempts to return to his youth by finding a girl he knew when he was a child. When he does track down the woman, the result is more grotesque than idyllic; she is now physically deformed and is kept hidden by her parents who cannot accept her imperfect condition. The theme of compromised ideals runs through many of the stories in the volume. The narratives seem to suggest that those who cling to sentimental notions or espouse sharply defined codes of conduct are prone to ironic twists that leave them disappointed.

The works in Fuentes's later short fiction collections have received less critical attention than his early stories. He has continued to experiment with the genre, however, focusing primarily on novellas and extended narratives. Constancia y otras novelas para vírgenes [Constancia and Other Stories for Virgins] again employs elements of the supernatural while presenting characters that are obsessed by past events, both historic and personal. The Orange Tree takes a panoramic view of history, using five novellas to address such topics as the conquest of Mexico by Hernán Cortés, Columbus reconsidering his discovery of the new world, and Roman rule in ancient Spain.

Critical Reception

Fuentes's short fiction has been well-received. While his novels have sometimes been criticized for being inaccessible and overly intellectual, the stories have received nearly universal acclaim, partly due to their brevity and the classic short story mold that Fuentes employs. At the same time, the unusual mix of bizarre occurrences, social commentary, and mythological allusions have given critics much to puzzle over. "Chac Mool" has been analyzed as a prime example of fantastic literature, and surreal eruption of the past into the present in this and other stories has invited many critical explanations of the author's intent. Several studies have linked Fuentes's characters to various archetypal figures, including those of the Great Mother and the witch, with Aura being the focus of many of these analyses. The depiction of females in the stories has also generated a fair amount of criticism; several observers have praised Fuentes's work for making transparent the power struggles which create inequalities between the sexes. Of the few negative comments about the stories, the one most often heard is that Fuentes occasionally places too much emphasis on making satiric political statements. Because of this, some critics claim, certain stories become less effective as fiction. Complaints of this kind are rare, however. Fuentes has assumed a respected position among contemporary short story writers.

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

Short Fiction

Los días enmascarados [The Masked Days] 1954

Aura (novella) 1962

Cantar de ciegos [Song of the Blind] 1964

*Dos cuentos mexicanos [Two Mexican Stories] 1969

†Chac Mool y otros cuentos [Chac Mool and Other Stories] 1973

†Agua quemada [Burnt Water] 1980

Constancia y otras novelas para vírgenes [Constancia and Other Stories for Virgins] 1989

The Orange Tree (novellas) 1994


La Región más transparente [Where the Air the Air is Clear] 1958

Las buenas consciencias [The Good Conscience] 1959

La muerte de Artemio Cruz [The Death of Artemio Cruz] 1962

Cambio de Piel [A Change of Skin] 1967

Zona Sagrada [Holy Place] 1967

Cumpleaños [Birthday] 1969

Terra Nostra 1975

La cabeza de hidra [Hydra Head] 1978

Una familia lejana [Distant Relations] 1980

El gringo viejo [The Old Gringo] 1985

Cristóbal nonato [Christopher Unborn] 1987

La Campaña [The Campaign] 1990

Other Major Works

The Argument of Latin America: Words for North Americans (nonfiction) 1963

Pedro Paramo (screenplay) 1966

Tiempo de morir (screenplay) 1966

Los caifanes (screenplay) 1967

Paris: La revolución de mayo (nonfiction) 1968

La nueva novelo hispanoamerica (criticism) 1969

Casa con dos puertas [House with Two Doors] (nonfiction) 1970

Todos los gatos son pardos (play) 1970

El tuerto es rey (play) 1970

Poemas de amor: Cuentos del alma (poetry) 1971

Tiempo mexicano [Mexican Time] (nonfiction) 1971

Cervantes; o, La crítica de la lectura [published as Don Quixote; or, The Critique of Reading] (nonfiction) 1976

Orquídeas a la luz de la luna [Orchids in the Moonlight] (play) 1982

High Noon in Latin America (nonfiction) 1983

On Human Rights: A Speech 1984

Latin America: At War with the Past (nonfiction) 1985

Gabriel Garcia Marquez and the Invention of America (criticism) 1987

Myself with Others: Selected Essays 1988

The Buried Mirror: Reflections on Spain and the New World (essays) 1992

*This volume is made up of two stories originally published in Cantar de ciegos.

†These collections contain stories published in previous volumes.

Joseph Sommers (essay date 1966)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Cantar de ciegos, in Books Abroad, Vol. 40, No. 1, Winter, 1966, pp. 69-70.

[Sommers was an American educator and critic whose books included After the Storm: Landmarks of the Modern Mexican Novel (1968). In this review of Cantar de ciegos, Sommers praises the "wide ranging variety" of the stories in the collection.]

One of Mexico's most accomplished young writers (born in 1928) confirms his admirable penchant for experimenting, almost always successfully, with new themes and styles, in this second volume of short stories [Cantar de ciegos].

Equidistant between earlier fictional works—the novel La...

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Richard M. Reeve (essay date 1971)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Carlos Fuentes and the New Short Story in Mexico," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. VIII, No. 1, Winter, 1971, pp. 169-79.

[Reeve is an American critic and educator and the author of An Annotated Bibliography of Carols Fuentes (1970). In the following essay, Reeve traces the trajectory of Fuentes's short fiction, noting his preoccupation with Mexico's colonial past.]

If asked to list the important Mexican short story writers of today, one would no doubt call to mind the names of the dual deities of short fiction. Juan José Arreola and Juan Rulfo, who during their heyday in the mid-fifties represented the universal-fantasy tendency on one side and the...

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Richard J. Callan (essay date 1971)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Jungian Basis of Carlos Fuentes' Aura," in Kentucky Romance Quarterly, Vol. XVIII, No. 1, 1971, pp. 65-75.

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Anthony Julio Ciccone (essay date 1975)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Supernatural Persistence of the Past in Los días enmascarados [The Masked Days] by Carols Fuentes," in Latin American Literary Review, Vol. III, No. 6, Spring/Summer, 1975, pp. 37-48.

[In the following essay, Ciccone focuses on three of Fuentes 's stories from Los días enmascarados in order to discuss the author's treatment of temporality and the supernatural]

Carlos Fuentes, the brilliantly successful Mexican author, is a novelist, playwright and short-story writer. In the period of fifteen years, 1949-64, he wrote seventeen shorter narratives. Besides his two collections, Los días enmascarados (1954) [The Masked Days] and Cantar...

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Evan Connell (essay date 1980)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Burnt Water, in The New York Times Book Review, Vol. LXXXV, No. 42, October 19, 1980, pp. 9, 34, 36.

[Connell is an American novelist and author of short stories and nonfiction whose books include the novels Mrs. Bridge (1959) and Mr. Bridge (1969), as well as the collected short story volume St. Augustine's Pigeon (1980). In the following review of Burnt Water, he praises Fuentes for his ability to fully describe the destitution of the working class near Mexico City, though he finds certain stories in the collection to be less successful than others.]

Reading these 11 stories is somewhat like watching people on a...

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Gloria B. Durán (essay date 1980)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Aura and its Precedents in Fuentes's Earlier Works," in The Archetypes of Carlos Fuentes: From Witch to Androgyne, Archon Books, 1980, pp. 43-63.

[Durán is an American educator and critic. Here, she presents a survey of critical responses to Aura and offers her own analysis of the novella. Durán finds that Fuentes uses the figure of Aura/Consuelo as an archetypal witch or, more accurately, a sorceress. The critic argues that this figure encompasses both creative and destructive elements and serves to address the human need to transcend space, time, and identity.]

Aura: The Plot

Aura is a fairy tale...

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John S. Brushwood (essay date 1982)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Los dias enmascarados and Cantar de ciegos: Reading the Stories and Reading the Books," in Carlos Fuentes, A Critical View, edited by Robert Brody and Charles Rossman, University of Texas Press, 1982, pp. 18-33.

[Brushwood is an American critic and educator specializing in Mexican, Mexican American, and Spanish American literature. In the following essay, he examines the reading experience of two Fuentes story collections and proposes a new ordering for the stories so that would make the volumes more effective. In the process, he analyzes the narrative techniques employed by Fuentes.]

Several characteristics of Carlos Fuentes' fiction vie for...

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Wendy B. Faris (essay date 1983)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Short Fiction and Theater: Magical Realism, Symbolic Action," in Carlos Fuentes, Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., Inc., 1983, pp. 69-100.

[Faris is an American critic and educator. In this excerpt from her book-length study of Fuentes's work, she comments on the elements of magical realism that she detects in Aura and in Fuentes's short fiction collection Burnt Water.]

Fuentes has always been fascinated by what he calls "the world of the second reality": "I have always attempted to perceive behind the spectral appearance of things a more tangible, more solid reality than the obvious everyday reality." He claims that this continuing interest stems from...

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Cynthia Duncan (essay date 1986)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Carlos Fuentes' 'Chac Mool' and Todorov's Theory of the Fantastic: A Case for the Twentieth Century," in Hispanic Journal, Vol. 8, No. 1, Fall, 1986, pp. 125-33.

[In the following essay, Duncan attempts to place Fuentes's story "Chac Mool" within the tradition of "fantastic" literature as the term is defined by the critic Tzvetan Todorov. While Todorov reserves the genre for certain writings of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Duncan believes that "Chac Mool" and the work of other Latin American writers also fit Todorov's definition of fantastic literature.]

Tzvetan Todorov, in his landmark study The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary...

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Janet Perez (essay date 1987)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Aspects of the Triple Lunar Goddess in Fuentes' Short Fiction," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 24, No. 2, Spring 1987, pp. 139-47.

[In the following essay, Perez examines how Fuentes uses the ancient myth of the "White Goddess" or "Mother Goddess" in his short fiction.]

Any reading but the most superficial will reveal the special, symbolic nature of female figures in Fuentes' works. Few of his women characters can be classed as mimetic portraits of individuals drawn from life, although there is usually a mixture of elements drawn from reality with ingredients of the mythic, magical or occult. The real tends to give way before the unreal at the story's end,...

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M. E. de Valdes (essay date 1988)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Fuentes on Mexican Feminophobia," in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 8, No. 2, Summer, 1988, pp. 225-33.

[In the following analysis of the story "Mother's Day, " Valdes describes how Fuentes portrays masculine characters who stereotype the females in their lives, allowing the women only one of two roles, that of the virgin mother or that of the whore. The critic concludes that Fuentes 's story effectively portrays the emptiness and violence that are related to these stereotypical views.]

"Mother's Day" is a long short story (thirty-three pages) by Carlos Fuentes included in a collection of his short stories with the title Burnt Water translated by...

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Amanda Hopkinson (essay date 1994)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Out of Juice," in New Statesman & Society, Vol 7, August 26, 1994, pp. 37-8.

[In this review of The Orange Tree, Hopkinson finds Fuentes's ideas "predictable" and "tired" and declares that the book is only partially redeemed by its humor.]

Carlos Fuentes needs little introduction. The hype on the covers of his novels, plays and essays lists his prizes and awards, his global scattering of posts as Mexican ambassador and as professor. It was during his post at Cambridge in 1992—the quincentennial of Columbus' landings—that he delivered the lectures that form the nucleus of these five novellas: perhaps that is why they have a familiar, not to say a...

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Carlos Fuentes (essay date 1996)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Son of Scheherazade," in Book World—The Washington Post, Vol. XXXVI, No. 17, April 28, 1996, pp. 1, 8.

[In the following essay, Fuentes describes his perceptions of the short story and his literary influences in the genre. In the process, he discusses his desire to mesh the "realistic" with the "fantastical" and how this desire resulted in the stories "The Doll Queen," "Chac Mool, " and "A Garden in Flanders."]

The novel is an ocean liner; the short story, a sailboat hugging the coast. Writing a novel requires an Olympic team. Singular as he or she may seem, the novelist is a team of painters, city planners, gossip columnists, fashion experts,...

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Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


Reeve, Richard M. "An Annotated Bibliography On Carlos Fuentes: 1949-69." Hispania, Vol. 53 (October 1970): 595-652.

Focuses on criticism published primarily in Mexico and the United States with less attention paid to works from other areas of Latin America and Europe.


Carter, June C. D. A review of Burnt Water. Latin America Literary Review IX, No. 19 (Fall-Winter 1981): 66-8.

Favorable review that finds the book to be "public evidence of Fuentes' meritorious skill in short fiction writing."

Chrzanowski, Joseph. "The Double in 'Las Dos Elenas' by Carlos...

(The entire section is 684 words.)