Carlos Fuentes

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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

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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...

(This entire section contains 3200 words.)

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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)

It goes without saying that the novelist can allow himself to take a number of liberties with the past that would be unthinkable in the case of the historian. Hence Terra Nostra's author performs sleight-of-hand tricks both with chronology and with the real-life existence of historical figures. (p. 13)

For Fuentes history and literature become one: history can be read as literature and literature as history. By weaving the fabric of his novel with threads from both, the novelist demonstrates to us "his wish to use, with no exceptions and no scruples, all of reality as a work tool."… The liberties that Fuentes takes with our cultural patrimony are the sign of an omnivorous creative appetite. His imaginary museum impartially houses novels and chronicles, paintings, legends, sciences, myths. But these liberties are much less gratuitous than they might appear to be at first glance. The normal relation with history, we repeat, is always present as a point of reference, in the form at times of what would seem to be the most trivial novelistic details…. All the precepts of realism are applied with great felicity in the novel, though they are incorporated and juxtaposed in such a way as to be unrecognizable to those who refuse to stray from the well-worn path of tired literary convention. Fuentes' meticulous reconstruction of historical reality takes as its point of departure not only chronicles and annals but also literary texts and above all certain major or minor Spanish, Flemish, and Italian paintings. We will find the best example of this "unreal realism" … in the extensive passages in the novel devoted to the necropolis of the Escorial and the hallucinatory cortege of the specters of kings and queens of the dynasty and the fierce, monstrous, or ridiculous figures in their retinue.

The cult of death, the fatalism disguised as serenity of spirit, the stiffness of movement, the frozen, motionless ceremonial in which the Hapsburg dynasty slowly immures itself, are described by Fuentes with the pen of a master…. [What] might be taken to be a lugubrious invention of the novelist is in fact the literary expression of a historical reality. (pp. 13-14)

[The] Spanish past frequently defies all reason and surpasses our powers of imagination. The monarchs of the Hapsburg dynasty appear to have had a secret obsession: to build "a hell on earth" in order "to ensure the need of a heaven" to compensate themselves and their wretched subjects for the paralyzing horror of their lives…. We thus discover that as in Goya's painting of Charles IV and María Luisa, Fuentes has not used too dark a palette at all: sheer fidelity to reality has permitted both painter and novelist to enter the realm of the fantastic and the hallucinatory. (p. 15)

Fuentes' historical imagination is not simply an oneiric game that masks reality and perpetuates myths, as our incorrigible defenders of a superficial, one-dimensional reading have written of García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude. Many crimes have been committed in the past, are being committed today, and will be committed in the future in the name of ideology, and perhaps the gravest and most infamous of them lies in the fact that—just as patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels and the priesthood frequently that of fools—it is used as a shield or a bunker by zombies in order to conceal from the eyes of the public their abysmal lack of ideas and their insufferable lack of sensibility.

Fuentes' creative imagination—like that of Lezama in Paradiso—is often nourished by a vast imaginary museum of oils, frescoes, engravings. Some of these are readily identifiable: El Greco's "Dream of Philip II," Signorelli's "Last Judgment," Hieronymus Bosch's "Garden of Delights," Goya's "Royal Family of Charles IV." Others belong to that common heritage or store of memories shared by all of us whose daydreams or reconstructions of our history were first inspired by the plates and reproductions that customarily illustrate grammar-school textbooks. Once again, the novelist's pen, sketching in as it does a wealth of minute detail intended to create an "unreal realism," succeeds in portraying a series of unforgettable scenes in which the prose appears to take on the concrete texture of a fabric, becoming a canvas saturated with color, light, movement, sensuousness. (pp. 16-17)

Fuentes' pictorial prose, his appeal to the visual memory of readers are particularly noticeable in the hunting scenes and in his many evocations of a bestiary whose plastic values are once again mindful of the genius of Lezama: portraits of the mastiff Bocanegra lying at the feet of the Lord and Master; of a pack of famished hounds, "a river of glistening flesh, with tongues glowing like sparks"; of the Lady's mind-haunting falcon: "Such is the union of the avian feet with the woman's gloves that the birds's talons appear to be an extension of the greased fingers of the gauntlet." In other passages, the phantasmagorial discourse of the narrator transports us to the canvases of Velázquez and El Greco, to Goya's caprichos, and to Buñuel's films…. (p. 17)

One of the most striking and most successful devices is the abrupt shift in narrative point of view (at times without the unwary reader's even noticing), passing from first-person narration to second, and even to a personal narration (since in the final analysis that is what the recounting of events from the point of view of the novel's "he" is equivalent to), and simultaneously rendering objective and subjective reality in one and the same passage with patent scorn for the rules of discourse that ordinarily govern expository prose…. (pp. 17-18)

[This] pluridimensional narrative that situates us simultaneously inside and outside the consciousness of the characters … achieves its greatest success and reaches its high point in the pages devoted to the rebellion of the comuneros—a multidimensional space in which different voices come together and speak in turn, assuming one after the other the task of relating events from different perspectives…. The multiple perspective, the story that reflects itself and appears to contemplate itself brings us back once more to Velázquez, whose seminal influence is transparent in one of the most highly charged and meaningful moments of the book—the sequence entitled "Todos mis pecados" ("All My Sins"), devoted to the contemplation of a painting from Orvieto (in reality Signorelli's "Last Judgment")…. The novel, like the friar's composition in the style of Valázquez, is a hall of mirrors in which the intruder—the reader—is reflected and lost in the vertigo of an infinite duplication of his own image. (p. 18)

The rich repertory of narrative resources that Fuentes sets before us with such bravura is almost never employed gratuitously: the novelist does not dissociate what (for mutual understanding though with little conceptual rigor) we ordinarily term "form" and "content" by resorting, as do so many mimetic avant-garde writers, to the use of complex narrative devices to express simplistic ideas devoid of either daring or vitality. Terra Nostra is a synthesis, achieved by a form of writing that makes no distinction between the two terms: a work that emerges and takes shape, as Pere Gimferrer notes in his discerning review [in Plural, July, 1976], through the active intervention of a literary architect of a new type: the voyeur, the intruder, the reader….

Fuentes' ambitious novelistic exercise is a deliberate exploration of the literary space opened up by Cervantes. The man from La Mancha, Fuentes reminds us, is not only a hero in a novel born of the reading of novels of chivalry: he is also the first character in fiction who knows that he is read and who changes his behavior as a function of this reading. (p. 19)

Like Paradiso, Three Trapped Tigers, and other works that are clearly descendants of Don Quixote, Terra Nostra contains numerous references and statements of the author regarding the structure of the novel that he is writing—a characteristic which, as we have said elsewhere, distinguishes literary language from everyday language governed by norms that we automatically obey…. The narrative space of Terra Nostra is a free space, open to dialogue and the intervention of the reader aware of the fact that "nothing is beyond belief and nothing is impossible for poetry, which relates everything to everything." Like García Márquez and the authors of novels of chivalry, Fuentes believes in the pleasure of improbable fantasies…. Metamorphoses, transformations, anachronisms that instead of controverting the order of the real, confirm it and enlarge it—a "total" realism, in the sense in which Vargas Llosa employs the term: objectivity and subjectivity, acting and dreaming, reason and miracle. (p. 20)

Fuentes engages in a systematic "sacking" of the whole of Spanish culture. For one thing, he borrows entire phrases from Fernando de Rojas, Cervantes or the chroniclers of the Indies and incorporates them in his own narrative (a trick typical of the author of Don Quixote); for another, he transforms the world of the novel into an imaginary museum in which the paths of all manner of disparate literary characters meet and diverge (thus bringing us back once again to Don Quixote)…. In his literary voracity, Fuentes does not scorn the use of age-old devices characteristic of storytelling in all times and places, but—and herein lies the difference as compared to conventional novelistic narration—he employs them to weave a radically new overall pattern, a sort of dizzying summa of storytelling. Manuscripts found in a sealed bottle are used, for just one instance, to interpolate a story of the same type as … inserted by Cervantes in Don Quixote; and above all there is Fuentes' vast gallery of story-tellers, whose function consists of extending to infinity the Chinese-box technique of the story within a story within a story….

As in Don Quixote once again, the one possible reading offered by traditional works of fiction is superseded by alternative or multiple interpretations that preserve our freedom of choice and judgment, thus conferring on what would appear to be merely an esthetic undertaking a profound moral justification that quite obviously goes beyond the limits of literature. (p. 21)

The beginning and the end of Terra Nostra … represent the working-out of a curse or a prophecy whose fulfillment is at once the cabalistic key of all of history and the organizing principle of the novel. I am here anticipating the outcry that will be forthcoming from ideologues who cling to the certainty that time is progressive, linear—as they have a perfect right to do. But to scornfully dismiss the "circularity" imposed upon real history for the purpose of constructing a work of literature that "bites its own tail"—an artistic convention likewise employed most effectively by García Márquez in the final pages of One Hundred Years of Solitude and by the author of the Divine Comedy long before him—as simply an attempt to "erase from the reader's mind all recollection of reality" and to "perpetuate ignorance and myth," as has been written of the Colombian novelist's work, is to be hopelessly blind to the distinction between reality and novelistic technique….

As Carlos Fuentes says by way of one of his characters: "… every human being has the right to take a secret to the grave with him; every storyteller reserves the right not to clear up mysteries, in order that they may remain mysteries; and anyone whom this displeases may ask for his money back." (p. 24)

Juan Goytisolo, "Our Old New World," translated by Helen R. Lane, in Review (copyright © 1976 by the Center for Inter-American Relations, Inc.), Winter, 1976, pp. 5-24.

Selden Rodman

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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

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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

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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 comes with a companion volume all its own, Cervantes o la crítica de la lectura. This latter book concludes with a bibliography to cover both works, but the reader need not get that far to find that the volume is a combination of apology for and explanation of Terra Nostra. As criticism, Cervantes o la critica de la lectura is as thin as La nueva novela hispanoamericana. If in the earlier book Fuentes attempted to capitalize too quickly on structualism, in the more recent one Derrida appears to be his latest discovery. But it is a Derrida too lightly read and adapted to some of Fuentes's old hobbyhorses about "original words" and improbably mixed with Juan Goytisolo's recent efforts to draw political blood by wielding Américo Castro's theories on Spanish history. Fuentes, it seems to me, misses the point completely about both the Quijote and Finnegans Wake. There is no rejoicing in origins in those works, but a gleeful celebration of their demise. This crucial misunderstanding is at the core of Terra Nostra, giving it the solemn, massive verbosity of a funeral rite, not the gaiety of Joyce's Wake. Terra Nostra is a stony monument to that original word which never quite comes to life in 800 words of effort….

As an intellectual venture, Terra Nostra, with its effort to approximate the Spanish Baroque and the modern tradition, is the culmination of efforts begun by Hispanic writers in the twenties. I am thinking not only of the Spanish Generation of '27 poets, but of more recent works by Alejo Carpentier and Severo Sarduy. Terra Nostra is in this regard not only a culmination but also a compendium. The most original contribution of the book in this regard is to make Rojas's Celestina the origin of this trend in a more explicit manner than Sarduy's Cobra…. Fuentes's error is to privilege Celestina as origin, not to take into account that she is the very negation of origins, given that precisely her major occupation is to restore virginities, to offer the new as patchwork.

Perhaps Fuentes intended this to be the point of his work and the Latinate title is to be taken ironically to mean that there is no earthly mother in the textual world, but only the indiscriminately disseminating old whore who presides over his novel. Still, the voluminous, erudite, trite and solemn nature of his work nearly buried this reviewer. (p. 84)

Roberto González Echevarría, in World Literature Today (copyright 1978 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 52, No. 1, Winter, 1978.


Fuentes, Carlos


Fuentes, Carlos (Vol. 113)