Last Updated on January 19, 2017, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3788
Fuentes, Carlos 1928–
Fuentes is a Mexican novelist, playwright, short story writer, and critic. An internationally acclaimed author, he has proven to be an erudite and highly innovative writer, with the potential to be one of the great writers of the twentieth century. His major drawback, giving some critics reason to pause, is his cosmopolitanism, which can cause his writing to appear too facile or even slick. (See also CLC, Vol. 3, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 69-72.)
The goddesses of myth have had two faces: mother earth, the mother goddess, the creative, on the one side; the seductive devourer and destroyer of men on the other…. [For] Carlos Fuentes, woman is always the second aspect of this duality. Woman is the destroyer, and love is a kind of death.
For Fuentes, love is abnormal, a violation of the innocence of man. His stories are filled with incestuous unions or the desire for them … with endless reworkings and manipulations of the basic theme, and woman always the corrupter. The woman is almost always the older in the union; the man is the one who suffers the loss of innocence.
Age is the second theme that fascinates Fuentes. His heroines are sometimes dual, the same personality existing simultaneously at two different ages, as in the surrealistic novela Aura. In this story the protagonist falls in love with the beautiful servant girl, only to discover that she is a recreation of the past youth of his employer, an ancient, dying widow. Or two individuals are closely related, such as those in his short story, "Las Dos Elenas," in which one man is in love with his wife, a young, liberated woman, and his wife's mother, who evokes the nostalgia for the past.
One of his most telling explorations of the theme of age is in the novel Zona Sagrada (Sacred Zone). The protagonist is an aging movie star, Claudia Nervo, who is possessively attached to her son, already in his twenties, but at the same time repelled by him as a reminder of the falseness of her pretense at youth.
Claudia, who has left her son with his father when he was very small, has returned at some time during the son's young boyhood and stolen him from his school. The feeling of violation along with corruption is heightened by Fuentes's use of the term "Robachicos," child-snatcher, which links her with gypsies, witches, thieves who steal children to make them into tamales to sell at the market. At the same time he emphasizes the son's delight in her smell of perfumed furs and the likeness of her face to the one he had seen in his own mirror. The slow, warm pace of Guadalajara, where he had been living with his father and his grandparents, contrasts sharply with the Mexico City of his adulthood. The woman has brought him out of the womb of Jalisco into the turbulent world of Mexico City.
She has brought him forth to destroy him. Her love must be strangling rather than creating. He is slowly driven mad because he is in an untenable position; he may have no identity because, though she expects filial love and devotion, she cannot acknowledge it or him without risking the loss of what has given her power: her beauty and her youth. Therefore, he cannot be her son or not her son. He has no place, but he cannot be released. (pp. 246-47)
The theme of incest runs throughout,… but with a dizzying number of variations. The mother constantly denies the sexual maturity of her son, calling him "santito," little saint, and denying his masculinity. Nevertheless, she either frustrates his love affairs or possesses his lovers, both male and female, so that he is unable to feel conjunction with anyone and is left isolated, fractionated. He feels the pull between his humanity, his temporality, and her existence as goddess, myth, legend, beyond time. As he is losing his mind, he contemplates a return to the womb, which he feels she has promised, but realizes that it is impossible. He then considers cannibalism…. (pp. 248-49)
Having realized the impossibility of any change, as Claudia is rooted in the present and must exist as a being outside time, eternal, he loses his mind, his sanity dissolved in her myth. (p. 249)
In one of his most successful stories, "The Two Elenas," Fuentes explores yet another sort of unnatural family relationship, that of the man who is his mother-in-law's lover. Pursuing a plot which might easily have become absurd, Fuentes draws the reader slowly into an awareness of the brittle childishness of the liberated wife, the delicate sensuousness of the mother, and the man as a contented cuckold. (p. 250)
Gradually the reader [of the surrealistic novel Aura] comes to realize that Aura and the widow are two aspects of the same personality, as Aura ages from twenty to forty in [a] period of days…. Montero continues to pretend to himself that the widow is holding Aura prisoner with some sort of secret, and he goes to meet Aura for an assignation to discover what the hold may be and to rescue her from it. Seeing a woman in the darkness, he approaches her, fearing that at any moment the widow may return…. The final shock comes when he recognizes in the moonlight the nude figure, not of Aura, but of the old woman, "thin, wrinkled, small and old, shivering lightly because you touched her, you love her, you have returned, too." Aura has been a creation of the widow's will, the will that she had to create children—the will to recapture, through sixty years of widowhood, her lost youth…. (p. 252)
With Aura, Fuentes moves toward his most penetrating but most difficult exploration of the theme of woman, Change of Skin. In Aura the atmosphere is one of magic; in Change of Skin it is one of nightmare and madness. The device of having a madman as the narrator, as well as the alter ego of the major male characters, allows a constant interplay of reality and magic, real events with symbolic and mythical nightmares. These illuminate all aspects of the relationships between the four principal characters…. However, though the characters are well developed as individuals and have distinct backgrounds which are related in flashbacks, the characters often blend into one another until the reader is again aware that he is looking at different aspects of two personalities: archetypical woman and man, at once both victimized and destroyer. It is only in this book that Fuentes admits that man may conspire to destroy himself at the hands of woman, and he explores the capacity for self-destruction which each possesses through the interplay of different aspects of the personality as distinguished by the different names.
The two women, Elizabeth and Isabel, are more clearly aspects of the same personality than are the two men…. Javier is the link between them—married to Elizabeth, but lover to Isabel, who has been one of his students. Javier is also both victim and victimizer; he and Elizabeth destroy each other, and he seduces and shames Isabel. The links between the two female characters are many. It is no accident of Fuentes's writing that Isabel is the Spanish for Elizabeth. Javier finds pleasure with them only by calling them both Ligeia, again associating them with a female archetype and denying them separate identities. (pp. 252-53)
Javier, Elizabeth, Isabel, are all at once victimizers and victimized; each relationship between two people is that of "Two tiny animals. Each wrapped around the other and each quietly, patiently, eating the other alive…. We can still hear the whimpering, the tiny moans, the choking sounds." (p. 254)
Change of Skin, through the interplay of characters and times, is a novel about love and death. As Javier says, "Ligeia will be beside me, forcing me to understand that in loving all life we also loved all death." Love is a dying, a humiliation, a release of self which is always destructive of the individual. The woman, by desiring permanent union, possession, is desiring the destruction of the lover, and to submit to love requires a relinquishment of the self which Fuentes calls dying. Thus, for Fuentes, woman symbolizes a cycle of love, humiliation, and death; and submission to her will mean disaster. Woman, though destroyed, remains always the destroyer.
However, Change of Skin goes beyond this theme of Fuentes's earlier works to involve man in his own destruction. Relationships of love are seen as destructive, not because of the malevolence of woman, but because of their inherent nature. Moreover, Change of Skin shows both men and women as self-destructive (through the interplay of the two aspects of each personality, Isabel and Elizabeth, Javier and Franz) as well as destructive in their inter-relationships. Thus, Fuentes has moved from a condemnation of woman as evil to a pessimistic statement about the nature of man and woman and the possibilities for human love. Though his characterization of women in his novels has become more sophisticated and understanding, love remains a kind of death. (p. 255)
Linda B. Hall, "The Cipactli Monster: Woman as Destroyer in Carlos Fuentes," in Southwest Review (© 1975 by Southern Methodist University Press), Summer 1975, pp. 246-55.
The year Columbus first landed in America, say the history books, was the same year Ferdinand and Isabella, soon to be titled "the Catholic Kings" by Pope Alexander VI, conquered the last of the Moorish kingdoms of Andalusia and expelled the Jews from Spain. One act opened a new world; the other two, argues Carlos Fuentes in [Terra Nostra, his] massive, brilliant and frequently grotesque novel, destroyed a civilization and assured that the order later transplanted from Spain to the new realms would be rigid, sterile and suffocating….
Terra Nostra is no more a historical novel than Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow is a World War II adventure yarn. Throughout it, the fantastic becomes commonplace and history is altered….
What Fuentes has created here is another history, a hidden, occult, symbolic history in which past, present and future converge in hallucinatory splendor. The time separating epochs melts, the barriers between continents disappear….
The outcome of this other history, however, is ultimately the same as our own….
Fuentes,… has been building to [a] confrontation with the heritage of Tenochtitlan and El Escorial ever since his first book, a collection of short stories called The Masked Days, was published in 1954. That book took its title from the last five days of the Aztec calendar, nameless days in which time was suspended and activity ceased; later, in Where The Air is Clear, he was to create Ixca Cienfuegos, whose very name joins Mexico's Spanish and Aztec strains. And in Change of Skin, his last novel before Terra Nostra, four modern travelers journey to the pyramid of Cholula—where, in 1519, Cortes massacred thousands of Montezuma's priests and warriors.
But in Terra Nostra, Fuentes probes more deeply into the origins of Mexico—and what it means to be a Mexican—than ever before. That inevitably takes him beyond Mexico and even beyond Spain. Egyptian, Greek and Roman prophecies, the mystical doctrines of the Hebrew Kabbalah, Zohar and Sephirot, and the rites of the heretical Christian sects of the Middle Ages are all a part of … "arithmythic," the peculiar brand of numerology that unites the new world, the old world and the other world and permits characters to slip from one time and place to another.
Masterful in his manipulation of history and legend, Fuentes is no less accomplished in his manipulation of language and narrative. Though a torrent of words, translated faithfully, descends on us in Terra Nostra, the book is not overwritten. The subject itself is rich and immense, demanding verbal invention and structural experimentation….
It may well have been Fuentes's intention to make Terra Nostra the supreme, all-embracing piece of modern Spanish-language fiction: the Great Latin America Novel, as it were. That is certainly the impression conveyed by the apocalyptic finale of Terra Nostra, in which characters lifted from novels by Cortazar, Garcia Marquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, Jose Donoso and Alejo Carpentier sit around a table in Paris ("all good Latin Americans come to Paris to die") on December 31, 1999, playing "C.I.A. Poker" ("I have five of a kind: United Fruit, Standard Oil, Pasco Corporation, Anaconda Copper and I.T.T.") while they await the end of the world.
If that was indeed his aim, then Fuentes has come very close to succeeding. Terra Nostra is at once savage and erudite, as complex and contradictory as Latin America itself, and Fuentes's audacity in appropriating for his book the figures who symbolize the best writing of an entire continent is fully justified.
Larry Rohter, "A Vision of Justice, A Vision of Tragedy, A Vision of Decadence," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), October 26, 1976, p. F-1.
Deep within, while writing ["Terra Nostra"], Carlos Fuentes seems to sense that he might be making a mistake. "Terra Nostra's" axial event is the construction of the Escorial, Spain's 16th-century monastic palace and royal mausoleum near Madrid….
Fuentes clearly does not himself believe in such grand ambitions….
Yet, sooner or later, the irony must have hit him: he was himself into just such an undertaking. "Terra Nostra" is a colossal 350,000-word opus, a kind of panoramic Hispano-American creation myth…. [Like the Escorial] the book seems largely to have been a labor more of duty than of love.
Carlos Fuentes is a world-famous author, serious, provocative, controversial even, inventive, widely considered Mexico's most important living novelist, maybe the greatest ever—but the world is full of doubters and perhaps Fuentes wished to silence them once and for all, burying them under the sheer weight and mastery of his book. More likely, though, it is the familiar case of a committed and conscientious writer being overtaken and captured by his own metaphor. From his earliest stories, Fuentes has always aspired to instructive all-embracing overviews, especially historical and mythical overviews (he is as much a Hegelian and a Jungian—not to mention a Cleanser of the Temple—as a Marxist) that might explain once and for all what it means to be a Mexican; and he has always been willing to take any risk. So, if the ultimate metaphoric set occurred to him, how could he refuse to pursue it?
Most of the predominant elements in "Terra Nostra" are present in his earliest work. His first novel, "Where the Air Is Clear," published nearly 20 years ago, is an expansive, vivid, densely populated, kaleidoscopic portrait of mid-20th-century Mexico City, brash and ruthless yet highly lyrical, something like a surrealistic "Manhattan Transfer." It established Fuentes immediately as an extraordinary new voice in Latin American fiction, and, after a conventional dues-paying second novel, his third, "The Death of Artemio Cruz," projected him upon its publication in 1962 into the front rank of the world's best-known avant-garde novelists. Though he has written other novels since then—as well as stories, essays, experimental theater pieces, filmscripts, and journalism—it is "The Death of Artemio Cruz" that people still tend to remember him by 14 years later.
Much more tightly controlled than his first novel, "The Death of Artemio Cruz" draws a kind of time-line, as it were, through the spatial plane of the earlier book, capturing in the retrospective details of one man's life the essence of the post-Revolutionary history of all of Mexico. Both books make use of experimental narrative techniques (especially variations on person and verb tense), propaedeutic sex, Aztec mythology, long interior monologues, and the themes, among others, of betrayal, cultural determinism and a national way of life that is, as he is to say later in "Terra Nostra," "nourished by the arts of death." (p. 3)
The plot, or mythos, [of "Terra Nostra"] … is a kind of hortatory dialogue and revelation in the style of the Hermetic Magi of the Renaissance.
There is no room in this review to discuss … the Magi…. But suffice it to say, their impact on this book has been enormous, providing—or at the very least reinforcing—most of its binding images: all the numerologies, the circles, the transformations and interlocutions, such conceits as Cities of the Sun and Theaters of Memory, the invocation of demons, the colors, archetypes, dreams, pilgrimages, beasts, exhortations, mirrors, magic, even the furores of eroticism, scatology, murder and blasphemy.
The writings of the Magi commonly took the form of a dialogue between Magus and Adept, and similarly these are the two principal characters—indeed virtually the only characters—of "Terra Nostra." They have many names throughout the book … but ultimately they are all engaged in the same exercise, even taking turns at playing the two roles: interrogatus and respondit, ancient and pilgrim, chronicler and hero. They all seek through dialectic to pierce what [is called] in the book that "veil drawn across a world moving rapidly and silently from some unknown center, issuing from some subterranean force," and thence to apprehend the true reality behind the tear, the Ideas behind the Shadows, the demonic flow of Life beneath the world's mausoleums, charnel-houses, sacrificial altars and other holy debris.
Moreover, Fuentes seems to share with the Hermetics (whom he perhaps discovered during his acknowledged research into the Renaissance art of memory) a belief in cyclical history….
To press home his lessons, Fuentes has everybody repeat them, revise them, work variations, etc., and though this chorus can be impressive, it is not often very moving…. Even moments of vivid action seem, often as not, to get turned into mere vehicles for extended rhetorical monologues and dialogues, such that the plot, though elaborate in its conception, becomes static and pictorial in the telling: just the opposite of that free open-ended flow the book is supposedly celebrating.
The book itself is closed, circular and tightly structured. Devoted as it is to the creative and synthetic power of the number three, it is quite naturally divided into three major sections; the Old World, the New World, and the Next World (an unfortunate mistranslation and hardly the only one in this largely trustworthy but pedestrian and sometimes downright quaint translation—it should be the Other World). The middle section is the young Pilgrim's tale of his voyage through the New World…. This pilgrimage is a kind of blend of the likes of the Gilgamesh and Percival stories with the exotic imagery of Aztec mythologies, though all the characters in it seem to be interchangeable with those of the Old World.
Rippling outward from this central pilgrimage are circles of past, present and future time, with fore and aft parallel images, rituals, narrative devices, thematic variations, numerologies and so on, all carefully balanced. (pp. 48-9)
[If] "Terra Nostra" is a failure, it is a magnificent failure. Its conception is truly grand, its perceptions often unique, its energy compelling and the inventiveness and audacity of some of its narrative maneuvers absolutely breathtaking …, the variations on themes and dreams, the interweaving of rich, violent, beautiful, grotesque, mysterious, even magical images—not without reason has this book been likened to a vast and intricate tapestry. (p. 49)
Fuentes's second person is not one overheard on a stage: the book itself, rather than the author or a character, becomes the speaker, the reader or listener a character, or several characters in succession…. The reader, then, becomes—together with the author—the Adept, playing the roles within the story that help them to learn together, watched by the book that reads them…. I know of [no other writer] who so intimately activates the otherwise dead space between page and reader. (p. 50)
Robert Coover, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 7, 1976.
[In] ways impossible to illustrate in brief (or even in fairly lengthy) quotation, Terra Nostra really is an Old Novel. Nightmare or not, Fuentes's Spain is too scrupulously fixed and predictable. If Donoso and García Márquez are like Dostoevsky, say, writers in a fever, seeking to catch us up in a plausible hysteria, then Fuentes and Vargas Llosa are like the Flaubert of Salammbô, naturalists of the dream, so that Fuentes's sixteenth-century Spain becomes less fantastic than Fuentes's modern Paris, and the Peru of Vargas Llosa's novels is merely everyday Peru broken up by technique.
This is intentional, of course, an artistic and no doubt a temperamental choice. But it does turn the writer back toward that always dying animal, the novel grounded in the seen world and public experience. All good stories are slow stories, Thomas Mann said, but one of the implicit rules of phantasmagoria seems to be that it must move fast, however long it takes. And Terra Nostra moves like a pavane. When phantasmagoria reproduces not the feel of material reality but only its remorselessly stable appearance, then the liberation proposed by the New Novel is rejected, and we are back sleeping in the nightmare within which, at least, it had seemed possible to be awake. History, that is, can be confronted or evaded, but there is very little to be said for converting an evasion into a prison more confining than the one you've just got out of.
But this, in the end, is Fuentes's point. Terra Nostra is about escapes which can only be longed for, about a new world which is merely a grimace of the old, about flights into time which are simply flights into predetermination. (p. 60)
Insistently, throughout the book,… Fuentes insists on the promising properties of the number three, which will save us from the strife represented by the number two. Yesterday, today, tomorrow are more than mere past and present; life, death, and memory (for which another name might be fiction) are more than living and dying. The city founded by triplets will be spared the devastations that come upon cities founded by twins. And in anticipation, perhaps, Fuentes has divided his book into three parts: the old world, the new world, the other world. But the book, like reality, keeps sliding back into warring pairs: then and now, old and new, men and women, memory and oblivion. And it is the solidity of these pairs, the purely wishful quality of the liberating trinities, that gives the novel its final flatness, as well as its moving last chapter. It is flat not because Fuentes can't imagine a way out of time and history, and not because history congeals to such thickness in his hands, but because Fuentes, in spite of his own good intentions, really does seem to prefer the tidiness of despair to the disorder of faint hope. (pp. 60-1)
Michael Wood, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1977 NYREV, Inc.), January 20, 1977.
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