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.
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.
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.
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.