Carlos Fuentes 1928–
Mexican novelist, dramatist, short story writer, scriptwriter, essayist, and critic.
The following entry presents an overview of Fuentes's career through 1996. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 3, 8, 10, 13, 22, 41, and 60.
Fuentes's overriding literary concern is to establish a viable Mexican identity, both as an autonomous entity and in relation to the outside world. In his work, Fuentes often intertwines myth, legend, and history to examine his country's roots and discover the essence of modern Mexican society. Fuentes once commented: "Our political life is fragmented, our history shot through with failure, but our cultural tradition is rich, and I think the time is coming when we will have to look at our faces, our own past." This tradition incorporates elements of Aztec culture, the Christian faith imparted by the Spanish conquistadors, and the unrealized hopes of the Mexican Revolution. Fuentes uses the past thematically and symbolically to comment on contemporary concerns and to project his own vision of Mexico's future.
Born in Panama City, Fuentes is the son of a Mexican career diplomat. As a child, he lived at several diplomatic posts in Latin America and spent much of the 1930s in Washington, D.C. 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. After graduating from law school, Fuentes traveled to Geneva, Switzerland to study international law and in 1950 began a long career in foreign affairs that culminated in his serving as Mexico's ambassador to France from 1975 to 1977. Fuentes wrote throughout his diplomatic career, and in the late 1950s and early 1960s he gained international attention as an important contributor to the "boom" in Latin American literature. Along with such authors as Gabriel García Márquez and Julio Cortazar, Fuentes published works that received international acclaim and spurred the reassessment of the position Latin American authors held in contemporary literature. Fuentes has also served as a lecturer and visiting professor at several universities, and has received numerous honorary degrees and literary awards. He has married twice; he has a daughter with his first wife, Rita Macedo, and a son and a daughter with his second wife, Sylvia Lemus.
Fuentes's work, like that of several writers associated with the "boom," is technically experimental, featuring disjointed chronology, varying narrative perspectives, and rapid cuts between scenes, through which he creates a surreal atmosphere. For example, in his first novel, La región más transparente (1958; Where the Air Is Clear), Fuentes uses a series of montage-like sequences to investigate the vast range of personal histories and lifestyles in Mexico City. This work, which provoked controversy due to its candid portrayal of social inequity and its socialist overtones, expresses Fuentes's perception of how the Mexican Revolution failed to realize its ideals. The frustration of the revolution, a recurring theme in his writing, forms the basis for one of his most respected novels, La muerte de Artemio Cruz (1962; The Death of Artemio Cruz). The title character of this work is a millionaire who earned his fortune through unscrupulous, ruthless means. Using flashbacks, the novel shifts back and forth from depicting Cruz on his deathbed to his participation in the Revolution and his eventual rise in business. Through this device, Fuentes contrasts the exalted aims that fostered the Revolution with present-day corruption. The Death of Artemio Cruz is generally considered a complex work that demands the reader's active participation. In Aura (1962), Fuentes displays less concern with social criticism and makes greater use of bizarre images and the fantastic. The plot of this novella involves a man whose lover mysteriously begins to resemble her aged aunt. Fuentes employs a disordered narrative in Cambio de piel (1968; A Change of Skin) to present a group of people who relive significant moments from their past as they travel together through Mexico. Fuentes's concern with the role of the past in determining the present is further demonstrated in Terra Nostra (1975), one of his most ambitious and successful works. In Terra Nostra Fuentes extends the idea of history as a circular force by incorporating scenes from the future into the text. In La cabeza de hidra (1978; The Hydra Head), Fuentes explores the genre of the spy novel. Set in Mexico City, this work revolves around the oil industry and includes speculations on the future of Mexico as an oil-rich nation. Una familia lejana (1982; Distant Relations) involves a Mexican archaeologist and his son who meet relatives in France. In this novel, an old man relates a tale to a man named Carlos Fuentes, who in turn relates the tale to the reader. Through the inclusion of ghosts and mysterious characters, Fuentes also introduces fantastic events into otherwise realistic settings, a technique prevalent in Latin American literature that is often termed "magic realism." In the novel El gringo viejo (1985; The Old Gringo), which examines Mexican-American relations, Fuentes creates an imaginative scenario of the fate that befell American journalist Ambrose Bierce after he disappeared in Mexico in 1913. Cristóbal nonato (1987; Christopher Unborn), a verbally extravagant novel, continues Fuentes's interest in Mexican history. This work is narrated by Christopher Palomar, an omniscient fetus conceived by his parents in hopes of winning a contest to commemorate the quincentenary of Christopher Columbus's arrival in the Americas. The novel's nine chapters symbolize Christopher's gestation and allude to Columbus's voyage, which is presented as a symbol of hope for Mexico's rediscovery and rebirth. Narrating from his mother's womb, Christopher uses wordplay, literary allusions, and grotesque humor, combining family history with caustic observations of the economic and environmental crises afflicting contemporary Mexico. Christopher Unborn satirizes Mexico's government as inept and its citizenry as complacent, warning that the country's collapse is imminent without change. Fuentes returned to the historical novel with La campana (1990; The Campaign). Set in early nineteenth-century Latin America, this work chronicles the adventures of Baltazar Bustos, the naive, idealistic son of a wealthy Argentinean rancher, who becomes embroiled in the revolutionary fervor then sweeping the region. The novel Diana: The Goddess Who Hunts Alone (1995) revolves around the love affair of a Mexican novelist and an American film actress. In addition to his novels, Fuentes has written several plays, including Orquideas a la luz de la luna (1982; Orchids in the Moonlight), and has published the short story collections Los dias enmascarados (1954), Cantar de ciegos (1964), and Chac Mool y otros cuentos (1973). Many of his short stories appear in English translation in Burnt Water (1980; Agua quemada). Fuentes is also respected for his essays, the topics of which range from social and political criticism to discussions of Mexican art. In his essay collection A New Time for Mexico (1996), Fuentes, according to Walter Russell Mead, "[Combines] impressionistic accounts of the Mexican national soul with remarkably lucid summaries of Mexican history, snippets of literary autobiography, policy prescriptions and personal journals." In this manner, Fuentes provides a detailed account of the political, economic, social, and cultural crisis faced by Mexicans following the 1994–1995 failure of the policies of former Mexican president Carlos Salinas de Gotari to bring about the positive changes promised.
Fuentes's works have generated much controversy and widely varying critical opinions; some critics have impugned Fuentes for the sexually explicit nature of some of his work, particularly A Change of Skin, and for disjointed, obscure narratives, while other critics have praised him for daring to present topics such as sexuality in a frank, direct manner, and have applauded his narratives as technically masterful and artistically brilliant. Saul Maloff concluded that the success of Where the Air Is Clear as a novel is due to Fuentes's "ability to manage firmly and sensitively—always as an artist, never as an ideologist—the kind of packed and turbulent social scene that is so often the undoing of the 'political' novelist." Many critics have echoed these sentiments in discussions of Fuentes's other works; these commentators point to the author's exceptional capacity for presenting simultaneously the atmosphere and physical details of the setting and events and the thoughts of the characters in such a way that all elements of the narrative are illuminated for the reader. In reviewing The Old Gringo, Michiko Kakutani commented: "[Fuentes] has succeeded in welding history and fiction, the personal and the collective, into a dazzling novel that possesses the weight and resonance of myth." In assessing Fuentes's career, Earl Shorris concluded that he "has been the palimpsest of Mexican history and culture separated into its discrete layers: Indian, Spanish, French, revolutionary, aristocratic, leftist, centrist, expatriate. In this analyzed presentation of the person, this soul shown after the centrifuge, Mr. Fuentes demonstrates the complexity of the Mexican character and the artistic difficulties peculiar to the novelist born in the Navel of the Universe, which is where the Aztecs placed Mexico."