Carlos Fuentes Fuentes, Carlos (Vol. 113) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Los dias enmascarados (short stories) 1954
La región más transparente [Where the Air Is Clear] (novel) 1958
Las buenas consciencias [The Good Conscience] (novel) 1960
La muerte de Artemio Cruz [The Death of Artemio Cruz] (novel) 1962
Aura (novella) 1962
The Argument of Latin America: Words for North Americans (nonfiction) 1963
Cantar de ciegos (short stories and novellas) 1964
Paris: La revolucion de mayo (nonfiction) 1968
Cambio de piel [A Change of Skin] (novel) 1968
Cumpleaños [Birthday] (novella) 1969
Dos cuentos mexicanos (short stories) 1969
La nueva novela hispanoamericana (nonfiction) 1969
Casa con dos puertas (nonfiction) 1970
Todos los gatos son pardos (drama) 1970
El tuerto es rey (drama) 1970
Poemas de amor: Cuentos del alma (short stories) 1971
Tiempo mexicano (nonfiction) 1971
Zona sagrada [Holy Place] (novella) 1972
Chac Mooly otros cuentos (short stories) 1973
Terra nostra (novel) 1975
Cervantes; o, La critica de la lectura [Don Quixote; or, The Critique of Reading] (nonfiction) 1976
La cabeza de hidra [The Hydra Head] (novel) 1978
Burnt Water [Agua quemada] (short stories) 1980
Orquideas a la luz de la luna [Orchids in the Moonlight] (drama) 1982
Una familia lejana [Distant Relations] (novel) 1982
On Human Rights: A Speech (speech) 1984
El gringo viejo [The Old Gringo] (novel) 1985
Latin America: At War with the Past (nonfiction) 1985
Cristóbal nonato [Christopher Unborn] (novel) 1987
Myself with Others: Selected Essays (essays) 1988
Constancia y otras novelas para virgenes [Constancia and Other Stories for Virgins] (short stories) 1990
La campana [The Campaign] (novel) 1990
The Buried Mirror: Reflections on Spain in the New World (essays) 1992
The Orange Tree (novellas) 1994
Diana: The Goddess Who Hunts Alone (novel) 1995
A New Time for Mexico (essays) 1996

∗These works were published in Holy Place and Birthday: Two Novellas, 1996.

David Gallagher (review date 4 February 1968)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Stifled Tiger," in New York Times Book Review, February 4, 1968, pp. 5, 40-1.

[In the following review, Gallagher offers a primarily positive assessment of A Change of Skin.]

In an interview Carlos Fuentes once said that the Latin-American novel was now firmly out of its epic, Manichean stage. Before World War II, the problems depicted by Latin-American novelists looked relatively straightforward. Primitive men confronted primitive nature; oppressors and oppressed were easy to classify; the struggle between good and evil was a clear one. The postwar generation has delved deeper into the life of the continent, investigating Latin-American history with a greater...

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Carlos Fuentes with John P. Dwyer (interview date Fall 1974)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Conversation with a Blue Novelist," in Review, No. 12, Fall, 1974, pp. 54-8.

[In the following interview, Fuentes discusses his approach to writing, Latin American writers and literature, and his place in Latin American literature.]

[Dwyer:] On what project are you working now?

[Fuentes:] It's an enormous novel, over seven hundred pages. I guess one might call it a Medusa of a thousand heads. I hope to be finishing it within a month.

Would you dare to telescope all those pages into a brief outline?

Look, I'll try. I guess that everyone, at least once, has asked himself what he would do if he...

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George Gordon Wing (essay date Summer 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Gallery of Women in Carlos Fuentes's Cantar de ciegos," in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 8, No. 2, Summer, 1988, pp. 217-24.

[In the following essay, Wing examines Fuentes's treatment of female characters in Cantar de ciegos.]

It was José Donoso who first drew my attention to what are central features of the six short stories and the novella that Carlos Fuentes published in 1964 as Cantar de ciegos (Song of the Blind). Donoso finds in them a common theme—"the withdrawal of human beings from basic feelings." Fuentes's characters no longer recognize themselves in traditional concepts such as "love," "hate," "justice," etc. They find...

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Joseph Chrzanowski (essay date Winter 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Patricide and the Double in Carlos Fuentes's Gringo viejo," in International Fiction Review, Vol. 16, No. 1, Winter, 1989, pp. 11-16.

[In the following essay, Chrzanowski analyzes Fuentes's use of the "double" or "doppelgänger" literary device as well as the theme of patricide in El gringo viejo, and asserts that the author's employment of both "has imbued his novel with remarkable structural coherence and has touched upon human issues which transcend history, geography, and culture."]

In reading Carlos Fuentes's Gringo viejo, (1985; The Old Gringo) one is struck by the masterful way in which he has conjoined fictionalized...

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Denis Donoghue (review date 8 April 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Safe in the Hands of the Uncanny," in New York Times Book Review, April 8, 1990, p. 15.

[In the following review of Constancia and Other Stories for Virgins, Donoghue notes Fuentes's ability to present bizarre, extraordinary elements in his fiction in a manner that is "at once objective and arbitrary."]

The long short story is a form of fiction Carlos Fuentes cherishes, and here we have five new instances of the genre: "Constancia," "La Desdichada," "The Prisoner of Las Lomas," "Viva Mi Fama" and "Reasonable People." Each of them is bizarre, a tale lingered over by the teller to the point at which, if he were to stay with it a moment longer, he would...

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Maarten Van Delden (essay date Fall 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Myth, Contingency, and Revolution in Carlos Fuentes's La región más transparente," in Comparative Literature, Vol. 43, No. 4, Fall, 1991, pp. 326-45.

[In the following essay, Van Delden explores Fuentes's treatment of the "nature of the self and its relations to history and the community" in La región más transparente, and also examines some of the author's other works.]

La región más transparente (1958), Carlos Fuentes's first novel, oscillates between two different perspectives on the nature of the self and its relations to history and the community. On the one hand, the novel outlines a view of the self that derives primarily from...

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Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria (review date 6 October 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Passion's Progress," in New York Times Book Review, October 6, 1991, p. 3.

[In the following review, Echevarria provides a highly laudatory assessment of The Campaign, declaring it not only "Fuentes's best novel so far," but "also one of the best Latin American novels of the last 20 years."]

Latin America's novelists have been obsessively drawn to their continent's history because it is a grand narrative, with a beginning portentous enough to satisfy yearnings for a sacred origin, yet historical in the sense of being human and secular. The conquistadors themselves, as well as the first historians of the New World, believed that the discovery of America...

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Nicolas Shumway (review date 26 April 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "In the Embrace of Spain," in New York Times Book Review, April 26, 1992, p. 9.

[In the following review, Shumway offers a mixed assessment of The Buried Mirror.]

In 1856, Argentina's first great historian, Bartolome Mitre, published a collection of short biographies titled Gallery of Argentine Celebrities. In the foreword he wrote: "Argentine history has been rich in noteworthy men…. The glory of those men is the Argentine people's richest heritage; rescuing their lives and qualities from obscurity is to gather and use that heritage, for our honor and our improvement." Mitre's affirmation of Argentina's greatness came at a time of serious crisis. Two...

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Maarten Van Delden (essay date July-December 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Carlos Fuentes' Agua Quemada: The Nation as Unimaginable Community," in Latin American Literary Review, Vol. XXI, No. 42, July-December, 1993, pp. 57-69.

[In the following essay, Van Delden surveys Fuentes's handling of the identity of Mexico as a nation in his works, particularly in Agua Quemada.]

George Orwell claimed that politics gave him the sense of purpose he needed to write good prose. What politics was for George Orwell, Mexico has been for Carlos Fuentes, with the difference that for Fuentes it is not so much good writing as writing tout court that appears to have been enabled by the possession of a literary polestar. Consider the fact...

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Merle Rubin (review date 20 April 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Fuentes's New/Old World Mirror," in Christian Science Monitor, April 20, 1994, p. 17.

[In the following review, Rubin offers synopses of the novellas collected in The Orange Tree.]

In the midst of his long literary career, Carlos Fuentes, Mexico's most famous living writer, also served as his country's ambassador to France from 1975 to 1977. The author of Terra Nostra, Distant Relations, The Death of Artemio Cruz, and much more, Fuentes has pondered the urgent questions of social justice and the underlying complexities of the interrelationships among different cultures.

The Orange Tree, his latest work, consists of five...

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Michael Kerrigan (review date 10 June 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "In Realms of Gold," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4758, June 10, 1994, p. 23.

[In the following review, Kerrigan offers a favorable assessment of The Orange Tree.]

Carlos Fuentes established his international reputation over three decades ago, with The Death of Artemio Cruz (1962). That novel goes in search of the identity of a protagonist who is modern down to his Volvo, and Mexican down to the parasites in his gut, but the quest ends up taking in a past of conquest and revolution, and looks far beyond Cruz's native Veracruz to the shores of the Mediterranean. Like the stars Cruz sees overhead—"only the ghost of the light that began its journey...

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Kenneth E. Hall (essay date Spring 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Old Gringo and the Elegiac Western," in University of Dayton Review, Vol. 23, No. 2, Spring, 1995, pp. 137-47.

[In the following essay, Hall examines Fuentes's handling of the female perspective in The Old Gringo and illustrates parallels between the novel and "elegiac Western" films "which are characterized by a quality of lament for the passing of the hero, and by extension, of the heroic age of the American West."]

The opening of The Old Gringo (1985), by Carlos Fuentes, sets in place the chief organizing principle of the novel, the narrated memories of Harriet Winslow, an unmarried schoolteacher from Washington, D.C., who, the...

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Paul Theroux (review date 22 October 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "An Affair She Seems Not to Have Remembered," in New York Times Book Review, October 22, 1995, p. 12.

[In the following review, Theroux responds negatively to Diana: The Goddess Who Hunts Alone.]

Sexual postures can look so funny and vulnerable that the very notion of the distinguished author of this inch-from-the-truth novel, Carlos Fuentes—the Mexican Ambassador to France from 1975 to 1977, winner of the Biblioteca Breve Prize, the Romulo Gallegos Prize and the Miguel de Cervantes Prize—engaged in buccal coition with an American actress in a hotel in Mexico City is irresistible to the point where it is almost possible to overlook the book's excesses and...

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Walter Russell Mead (review date 23 June 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "In the Shadow of a Colossus," in Washington Post Book World, June 23, 1996, p. 5.

[In the following review, Mead provides a generally positive appraisal of A New Time for Mexico.]

"We turn on the television sets of the Mexican mind," writes Carlos Fuentes in A New Time for Mexico, "and every night we hear the same evening news. Top of the news: THE SPANISH HAVE CONQUERED MEXICO. Second item: THE GRINGOS STOLE HALF OUR TERRITORY. After that, murders, arson, kidnappings and, five-legged cows."

The murders and five-legged cows have been coming thicker than usual since the policies of former Mexican president Carlos Salinas de Gotari...

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Peter Canby (review date 11 August 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Betrayed by the Revolution," in New York Times Book Review, August 11, 1996, p. 14.

[In the following review, Canby provides a mixed assessment of A New Time for Mexico.]

Carlos Fuentes is many things: a diplomat and self-described "transopolitan" who wears Savile Row suits and didn't live in Mexico until he was 16; a "leftist" who was banned from entry into the United States under the McCarran-Walter Act during the 1960's but who, inside Mexico, is regularly derided for his gringo mentality; an accomplished novelist who is perennially nominated for the Nobel Prize; and, finally, an interpreter of Mexico to the United States and of the United States to Mexico....

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Sidney Weintraub (review date 18 August 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Fuentes: Mexico's Smoldering Volcano," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, August 18, 1996, p. 4.

[Below, Weintraub offers a predominantly negative review of A New Time for Mexico.]

The focus of this collection of essays [A New Time for Mexico] is largely on events during the last two full calendar years—the breakdown of Mexico's economic fabric in 1994 and the calamitous depression that followed in 1995. The discussion is personal and idiosyncratic—how Carlos Fuentes views what happened and what are his Ten Commandments for the future.

Fuentes is a person of considerable distinction, and his writings therefore merit the attention of...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Dunn, Sandra L. "Carlos Fuentes: A Bibliography." The Review of Contemporary Fiction VIII (Summer 1988): 150-52.

Brief primary bibliography of Fuentes's works through 1988.


Bradfield, Scott. Review of Diana: The Goddess Who Hunts Alone. Times Literary Supplement, No. 4826 (29 September 1995): 27.

Negative assessment of Diana: The Goddess Who Hunts Alone.

Faris, Wendy B. "Desire and Power, Love and Revolution: Carlos Fuentes and Milan Kundera." Review of Contemporary Fiction...

(The entire section is 366 words.)