Carlos Fuentes Fuentes, Carlos (Vol. 10) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Fuentes, Carlos 1928–

A Mexican novelist, playwright, short story writer, screen-writer, essayist, and critic, Fuentes creates a prose noted for its innovative language and narrative technique. His concern for establishing a viable Mexican identity is revealed in his use of the history and legends of the Mexican past, from the myths of the Aztecs to the Mexican Revolution, which he uses allegorically and thematically in his narratives. (See also CLC, Vols. 3, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 69-72.)

Juan Goytisolo

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

One of the usual tactics of critical terrorism (whether or not it is legitimized by the power of the State) is to create a scarecrow-image, either of the author … or of the work, making it out, for instance, to be an impenetrable, confused, chaotic hodge-podge … so that the potential reader comes to associate it in his mind with the label "unreadable." The ambition, difficulty, and deliberate excesses inherent in Terra Nostra thus make it the ideal candidate for transformation into a scarecrow-image of a work, which is quoted from (in order to tear it to pieces) but not read, and the mausoleum of an author whom the penny-a-liners would like to see interred in it once and for all. But these overeager grave-diggers forget that Terra Nostra belongs to that category of novels that, like Ulysses or Under the Volcano, little by little create, through the text alone, an audience of fanatically devoted readers. (p. 6)

Fuentes alternates the expression of a historical pessimism on the part of his characters and a much more nuanced vision which, while taking into account the repeated failures of the past, nonetheless does not resign itself to fatalism or passivity…. From the point of view of the narrators, the repetition of the cycles of history is not necessarily absolute or inevitable: the need for revolution, for the material and moral progress of mankind continues, as strong as ever, despite the failures, the errors, the blood baths that it has everywhere left in its wake. To call them to mind is not a sign of helpless resignation, but precisely the contrary. As one narrator, Guzmán, remarks: "… nothing is forgotten as quickly as the past, nothing is repeated as often as the past." The awareness of this is therefore an indispensable step to be taken on the steep, arduous path that will one day permit history not to repeat itself. (p. 8)

The ideological debate that runs through the pages of Terra Nostra cannot leave us indifferent, inasmuch as it takes up many problems that those of us who believe in the ideals of justice and progress must necessarily confront. The attentive reader will glimpse between the lines a subtle denunciation of the compensatory mechanisms employed by those who justify today's avoidable evils in the name of imaginary future paradises. Over and against the familiar—and false—assertion that "new worlds are born only through sacrifice" and "that there have always been men who have been sacrificed," there rings out, like a cry of hope, the impassioned invocation of the hic et nunc by the rebel leader: "… my history, neither yesterday nor tomorrow, I wish today to be my eternal time, today, today, today." Justice and freedom here and now, won painfully, step by step, without allowing a single inch of them to be given up in the name of some supreme later perfection; taking as the point of departure the fact that the real, concrete man is irreplaceable; living and glorifying the instant, through the daily struggle for an immediate terrestrial heaven that does not waste and destroy human beings for the well-being of future generations; abandoning the Christian notions of guilt and sacrifice in favor of the reappropriation of the body and the attaining of a social order whose aim is to promote physical, material, and moral well-being for all rather than the conquest and monopoly of power for the benefit of the few…. The historical thought in which the events of the novel are steeped—set forth from the shifting, contradictory points of view of the various characters who alternately take on the role of narrator—appears to oscillate … between two diametrically opposed ideas—the necessity and the failure of revolution—without ever definitely opting for either one. (pp. 9-10)

The novel is above all a cruel and penetrating vision of Spanish history and its prolongation in the New World through the Conquest. Here too the accusations of pessimism and fatalism—reality seen as a "sick dream"—that have been leveled against Fuentes would appear to have some foundation…. According to the novelist's detractors, Fuentes paints far too dark a picture. But let us consider a few examples and judge for ourselves. The history of Spain: "the chronicle of inevitable misfortunes and impossible illusions"; Spaniards: "heroes only because they would not disdain their own passions but rather, would follow them through to their disastrous conclusion, masters of the entire realm of passion but mutilated and imprisoned by the cruelty and the narrowness of the religious and political reasoning that turned their marvelous madness, their total excess, into a crime: their pride, their love, their madness, their dreams—all punishable offenses"; our appointed destiny over the centuries: "to purify Spain of every plague of infidels, to tear it out by the roots, to mutilate her limbs, to have nothing left save our mortified but pure bones"; the ideal of our leaders: "servitude, slavery, exaction, homage, tribute, caprice, our will sovereign, that of all the rest passive obedience, that is our world";… Hispanic America: "the same social order translated to New Spain; the same rigid, vertical hierarchies; the same sort of government: for the powerful every right and no duty; for the weak, no right and every duty."… (pp. 10-11)

When Terra Nostra was published in 1975 the panorama offered by the Spanish-speaking world was not one that inspired much hope…. A national awareness of their wretchedness on the part of the Spanish-speaking peoples is not a recent phenomenon: to limit ourselves to the Hispanic Peninsula, the work of our best writers, from Blanco White and Larra to Cernuda and Luis Martín-Santos is steeped in it and nourished by it. (p. 11)

To scoff at Fuentes's historico-poetic vision as being evasive and unrealistic is to fall into the error of accepting the canons of a shallow and mechanistic realism which continually confuses life and literature, thus demonstrating that it does not understand either of them very well. (p. 12)

As the reader makes his way through [Terra Nostra's] fascinating hall of mirrors that reflect both the world and each other, he never loses sight of real history. Though the novelist has thoroughly assimilated the admirable precept of Goya and put it to striking use, he nonetheless remains scrupulously faithful to the rational and objective vision of the historians. Even though it takes on the appearance of a dream or madness, his historical nightmare never employs these latter as a substitute for real past history. At each step of the way the reader is able to return to real history, and then plunge once again into the novelist's deliberately distorted and often grotesque perception of things. Even in the most delirious and most dreamlike passages—the magnificent scenes, for instance, in the rotting-chamber of the Hapsburgs with the Madwoman, the dwarf Barbarica, and the doltish Prince—there appear, at times as a sort of sudden brief powder-flash, at times in the form of parody or incantation, reminders of a real and specific history with which the novelist—as well as the Spanish reader—is perfectly familiar…. "History shares the methods of science and the vision of poetry," Octavio Paz has written. This fundamental vision or intuition of Castro's has demonstrated its seminal power not only in the field of historiography but also in that of literary creation. When I say this, the first case that naturally occurs to me is my own, but that of Terra Nostra is even more obvious. In no way does the novelist's stimulating and unconventional method of confronting our past, his interpretation of tradition, at once critical and creative …, preclude our interpretation of real history…. (pp. 12-13)


(The entire section is 3200 words.)

Selden Rodman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Carlos Fuentes' … ambiguous [and] wide-ranging historical panegyric, Terra Nostra, is an [easy] read but … inconclusive. There is the Old World (Spain), the New World (Mexico) and the Next World (Revolutionary). All are drawn with poetic license and give no clues to the mechanics of power politics.

History for Fuentes is not linear but circular. He ruminates at length on the mystic number three: father, son and spirit; mother, father, child; white race, black and red; fire, water, air; Moses, Christ, Apocalypse—the third element required to bring unity to the duality of thought and matter. Like the eternal triumvirate, the book is divided into three parts: Past, Present and Future, separated into segments yet melded into one….

Fuentes' characters—incarnated in each of his three worlds with identical names but (presumably) different identities—long for a world free of servitude, illness, sin, and God. They do not really believe, though, that it is attainable. If life is an endless repetition, one cannot hope for improvement. All effort is an exercise in futility….

The book is so full of symbols that the reader may see what he wants, believe what he chooses, or … catalogue symbolisms without drawing any conclusions at all. (p. 8)

[The] Marxist writer comes … to the recitation of his polemic. He idealizes the new world of constant change, sensual awareness, love and solitude, freedom of body and mind, tolerance, doubt, and life. The old world we know (carefully weighted) consists of nothing but changelessness, extermination, ignorance, power, repression, and death.

To an American, the equation of sexual and personal liberty with Communism is an affront to reason. The Communist regimes we know not only deny freedom to the individual but are incredibly puritanical. To a Mexican (or Colombian) intellectual it may make some kind of sense, for their culture identifies the sexual repressions of the Church with the mindlessness of unrestricted capitalism. But the Latin American masses, in the few instances where they have been given any choice, have not been so naïve. Maybe it is time for Latin America's political novelists to stop focusing so relentlessly on the depravity of their rulers and devote some of their admirable talents to analyzing the conditions that support such monstrous tyrannies. (p. 9)

Selden Rodman, in The New Leader (© 1976 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), December 6, 1976.

John Butt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Terra Nostra exploits every possibility in the language to make a truly memorable denunciation of the Hispanity symbolized by the Inquisition, the rape of the New World, the Valley of the Fallen and the Escorial palace, the plunder of Flanders, Philip, Franco and their Latin American inheritors. The central theme is, in fact, how a Roman culture pledged to a murderous unity of faith and obedience has waged war on the notions of diversity and fertility. Caught in a sterile dualism—right/wrong, good/evil, God/Devil—Hispanity, to use the novel's curious language, has failed to come to terms with the unity in harmony symbolized by the number Three, a cabalistic emblem Fuentes uses to express a trinity of life in potential which Imperial Spain has everywhere conspired to destroy….

Only knowledge of what could have been can release us from history's repetitiveness: the fantasy in the novel is designed to show us the infinity of unrealized potential that Hispanity's oppressively single-minded development has neglected. But Fuentes's inexhaustible, cloying exuberance and his encyclopedic knowledge of the paraphernalia of sorcery and mythology submerge the book in a mass of detailed extravagances and horrors which will test the patience of readers incurious about what might have been had reality not been what we all know it was.

Unfortunately, two of the novel's themes hold no water. The black legend beloved by progressives is a caricature: Spanish imperialism is different only in effect and not in spirit or morality from other imperialisms…. The ideal of Threeness, on the other hand ("Three aspire to oneness", an Aztec sage tells us), is never realized artistically, duality never superseded. As a result the novel falls into two bits: powerful historical satire on the one hand and obscure private mythology on the other. It is sometimes said that in novels of this kind language is reality, form is free, the novel discovers its own arbitrariness—why narrate this rather than that? But the real themes of the novel are too concrete and pervasive: no amount of shuffling and blurring and depersonalization of the characters and narrators can conjure the book's links with real life out of existence.

John Butt, "Down with Hispanity," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1977; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), July 15, 1977, p. 849.

Roberto GonzáLez Echev ArríA

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Fuentes is the most ambitious and deliberate of Latin America's "new" novelists, and Terra Nostra is clearly an effort to produce a major work. Whether he has succeeded or not, only time can tell, though I fear that he has not. Fuentes's greatest flaw as a novelist, his intellectualism and hastily gathered erudition, is magnified in Terra Nostra, a huge and unreadable volume that endeavors to recover Mexico's (and by extension Latin America's) Hispanic past.

If readers of Fuentes's earlier novels could find in La nueva novela hispanoamericana (1969) a compendium of his theoretical and literary biases, Terra Nostra...

(The entire section is 526 words.)