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Carlos Fuentes 1928–
Mexican novelist, playwright, short story writer, screenwriter, essayist, and critic.
Fuentes creates prose noted for its innovative language and narrative technique. His concern for affirming a viable Mexican identity is revealed in his allegorical and thematic use of his country's history and legends, from the myths of the Aztecs to the Mexican Revolution.
(See also CLC, Vols. 3, 8, 10, 13, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 69-72.)
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Where the Air Is Clear [La región más transparente] is an attempt to extricate a living imagination from the entombed, self-devouring realities of Mexican consciousness, forever mourning its sundered past, incessantly projecting its possible future shapes, and torn between its ill-defined authenticity and the directing pressure of more advanced societies, much as the nineteenth-century Russian mind was caught between panslavism and the cultured West.
Neither a Turgenev nor a Dostoyevsky, Fuentes presses for a transcendence of the quarrel. He proceeds first by a series of bitter portraits of Mexican salon life, where writers, artists and journalists mingle with the nouveau riche and the museum pieces of the older aristocracy, in a brittle Walpurgis Nicht of sensuality, chic French phrases, complaints about boredom, gossip, jockeying for position and interminable discussions about what it means to be Mexican. As set-pieces they are among the most impressive things in the novel.
But Fuentes is only incidentally a satirist, wishing, once that preliminary labor is out of the way, to understand and create images of the metamorphoses that the Mexican soul has undergone, to work his way through old mystiques in search of a more viable one, and finally to emerge at some point where form and experience cohere and cooperate to raise an adequate structure.
A surrogate for the author, one Ixca Cienfuegos (the Aztec and the Spanish; the surname, significantly, means "hundred fires") moves through the novel as a unifying consciousness, a force for the elicitation of truth and a bearer of possible transcendence. He listens to the stories of a dozen characters who are incarnations of Mexican personal history, constituting a typology of moral, psychological and social destiny: the ex-revolutionary turned tycoon; the aristocratic woman frozen in nostalgia and sexlessness; the hard ambitious girl from the provinces; the self-pitying unsuccessful poet; the aged avatar from Mexico's sub-history of dark gods; the lower-class youth itching murderously for some way to feel alive.All of them function simultaneously on another level within the novel's narrative action, so that there is tension between their existence there and the deeper-going truth that Cienfuegos extracts from them. Interlocked, their destinies unfold in extreme violence and debacle; one by one the shameful and spurious routes to selfhood and maturity are blocked off, as their exemplars are made to lead themselves to the wall, while the innocent, the ones who have remained true to themselves, suffer deaths of terrifying meaninglessness. (p. 510)
But it doesn't really come off. The form and the experience don't quite hold together, so that whenever the novel moves from a direct vision of behavior, manners or psychology, it slips into a solipsistic world of manifestoes, occult reveries, private myth-making and over-literary hymns to life that never attain the verbal originality and imaginative coherence that might justify them.
What's more, there are certain thematic elements which I was simply unable to grasp. They have to do with a quest for identity through the truths of parenthood and through sexuality conceived of as a differentiating principle….
Where the Air Is Clear attains to a sense of outrage, if not tragedy, but one so seriously felt and so passionately sponsoring its answering movement, that one ends by respecting its motives and at least part of its substance. (p. 511)
Richard Gilman, "The Self-Conscious Culture of Modern Mexico," in Commonweal (copyright © 1961 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. LXXIII, No. 20, February 10, 1961, pp. 510-11.
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[From every page of "Where the Air Is Clear,"] one hears the passionate voice of a man talking of what is of vital concern to him, and illuminating, as with a sequence of almost continuous flashes of lightning, his whole world of feeling and emotion. With the bravery of a young man, Señor Fuentes has cleared all ideas of what a novel ought to be from his mind and has decided, quite simply, to put what it is to be Mexican, and all of Mexico, into his book…. He has accepted himself, and he writes with the freedom of a man who has never for a moment doubted his right to be omniscient in all that concerns characters of his own invention. He has the best of reasons for being sure that he knows all that there is to be known about them, and they repay him for his confidence in himself by coming alive, vividly and completely…. But Señor Fuentes, while he can produce sharply written naturalistic passages of a very effective kind, leaves the actual construction of the social mosaic to his reader, merely giving him access to the material with which it can be done. His real concern is with what goes on inside the minds of his people, and to set forth the essence of any given place in Mexican society from within. In a succession of brilliant, imaginative penetrations, Señor Fuentes uncovers the burdens of memory and of present feeling carried by each one of these people. (pp. 123-24)
This is not to say that he has deprived his reader of the innocent pleasure of following a story; he has, on the contrary, given him a very good one, dealing with the events leading up to a sudden reversal in the fortunes of a former revolutionary, Robles, who has made himself a millionaire by manipulating credit to support a complex pyramid of speculative enterprises. The story of his ruin is of unfailing interest. The method of telling is a rapid, cinematic movement that cuts nervously from one character to another every time a new life intersects a strand in the cable of Robles' affairs. The focus of attention moves from within one character to give an exterior view of the point of intersection in a brilliantly written narrative passage, and then moves inside the mind of the new character.
By using the subordinate characters as coördinates, Señor Fuentes locates Robles in his social role with unusual precision; his whole life is presented in the terms of what his existence means to others. He has fallen into an irretrievable second-rate pattern, in which he does business for the sake of doing more; his automatism mirrors the loss of purpose that seems to have overtaken Mexicans since the revolution. All the people in the book are tormented by their sense of it…. The present they know does not match the past; history has delivered the wrong future…. Their individual manifestations of discontent, envy, spite, and fury would be depressing in isolation or if they were considered superficially, but Señor Fuentes organizes them and discovers their meaning by making them contributing parts of a lament of great lyric beauty, which voices the true feelings of a people that has suffered terribly and in vain. Behind the lives that make up the book is the common tragedy of a failed revolution, which has once again fallen short of the eternal objective of lifting men up to the level of their dreams. If Señor Fuentes is not the most polished and assured of writers, and if some of his episodes are coarsely imagined and hasty, he is at any rate endowed with the courage and the power to attempt and to achieve a really big thing. It is not blind courage, either, and an important element in making this vigorous and exciting novel what it is is its author's acute intelligence. (pp. 124-25)
Anthony West, "The Whole of Life," in The New Yorker (© 1961 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. 37, No. 3, March 4, 1961, pp. 123-25.∗
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What distinguished Carlos Fuentes's impressive first novel, "Where the Air Is Clear," was precisely his 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. Taking as his material the passionate revolutionary past and critically-poised present of Mexico, he brought to it with the grace of a true novelist an instinct for the decisive point at which personal destiny meets historic circumstance, illuminating history in human terms and making of abstract ideas the vital tissue of dramatic event and encounter. We too often confuse politics with polemics, forgetting that the great masters were in an important sense political novelists and that the genre remains an eminently viable one. Whatever we may think, it is a genre that proposes itself compellingly to writers who are themselves participants—as Fuentes notably is—in their contemporary experience; who are themselves intensely and immediately involved and who see their characters also as "engaged." To them the subjective novel, the novel of "sensibility," may seem an indulgence obscenely more expensive than the bread and wine they require art to be.
In his new novel, "The Good Conscience," Fuentes places his scene in territory that has been conquered over and over again by the novel: the life of the bourgeois family in a comatose and smug provincial capital…. Swiftly, he delineates the history of three generations…. Remote and threatening Mexican history erupts in violence, but almost as a rumor….
"The Good Conscience" seems to be, in intention, a dynastic novel of epic range. Actually, it is not that at all, as quite suddenly it becomes a novel of the sensitive adolescent discovering in his agony the awful gap between the dreams and reality. After the panoramic opening, Fuentes pauses with this boy, who is the last of his line, to tell his story of growing awareness and final defeat. His initiation is a spectacularly full one, including phases that are rather too familiar, as, for example, the set-piece of a brothel scene in which he meets his sententious, pillar-of-society uncle-guardian; but including, also, an incestuous passion and a religious crisis…. (p. 20)
The pattern is that of rebellion and escape, insight and repudiation. Ironically, the author makes of it a novel of mock-rebellion and ultimate acquiescence, reversal and loss, as the boy accepts his fate and patrimony. What Fuentes has written, then, is a novel of the making of a bourgeois, all dreams and hope abandoned, together with love and compassion.
The trouble is that the book cannot support its superb possibilities, failing as it does to seize the dramatic moments and establish a clear dramatic line, being, as it is, excessively panoramic and expository. It is a pity, for the book contains tremendous energy and scope, which remain latent, unabsorbed as fiction. Finally, faced with Fuentes's mixed intentions and shifting design, we feel what he has given us here is a sketch for a large-scale novel of Mexican history and experience seen as defeat and promise. This is the novel Fuentes should write, and did not. (p. 21)
Saul Maloff, "Growing Pains of a Bourgeois," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1961 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. XLIV, No. 50, December 16, 1961, pp. 20-1.
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With his new novel, The Death of Artemio Cruz, Fuentes has tightened his narrative line and made his meaning unmistakable. His purpose is to show, through the story of one man, how the ruling class of present-day Mexico has been shaped in the crucible years from the beginning of the century to the present.
On a spring day in 1959, Artemio Cruz lies stricken by a sudden gastric attack in his house in Mexico City's fashionable Lomas district. Artemio is a fat cat, with a paw in every political and financial pie in the country. (p. 558)
Artemio's story of rape and rapine, greed and lust, brutal infighting and clever string-pulling, is an uncannily accurate view of the robber barons of Mexico….
[For the] evocations of the past, Fuentes uses the third person. There are two other voices, for the present and the future respectively. Artemio speaks as "I" of the pain in physical dying. (p. 559)
Sometimes the "I" becomes an inner requisitory addressed to his self-seeking wife and daughter …, sometimes a passionate bill of particulars drawn up against a God who lets men die and their memories die with them. Word patterns often become a flow of hot lava: baroque, sensual, overwhelming.
Most striking of all Artemio's voices is the "you" that addresses him in the name of the future, an ironic Greek chorus admonishing, warning, calling him back to the real sense of that which he must live once more before he dies. Now Artemio is no longer a despicable coyote but a man like all of us, doomed to pass from la nada vida a la nada muerte. With this litany-like voice, Fuentes' eclectic style—and Artemio's life—are heightened to poetry; rhetoric is anguish fully displayed, with almost Aztec ritual. (pp. 559-60)
At the very end of this damning book, Fuentes lifts us to compassion for the end of life. The mural of Artemio's being, so full of contradictions—cowardice and courage, idealism and treachery, cruelty and tenderness—is complete. The power in him is the power of history itself. How striking, today, to see a portrait in depth of a man of action, with relation to others that are Biblical in their intensity. And a pity to see that Fuentes has not overcome certain faults as a writer: the use of gimmicks, this time the scrambled narrative line which sometimes seems like unnecessary card shuffling, and the recurring reliance on a decorative surface. (p. 560)
Helen R. Lane, "Last Rites for a Fat Cat," in The Nation (copyright 1964 The Nation magazine, The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 198, No. 23, June 1, 1964, pp. 558-60.
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[In The Death of Artemio Cruz] Fuentes's hero-villain, Artemio Cruz—Mexican industrialist, newspaper and land-owner, millionaire—lies on his death-bed while his devoted secretary, his despised and despising wife and daughter jostle around him…. And he lies there in a trance of disgust: disgust with those around him, with his past and, above all, with his own physical presence. Idealism, ambition, passion, and achievement all end in one corruption, the smell of which horrifies him. He reeks in his own nostrils.
Literally so, for by an odd trick of style all Fuentes's most vivid perceptions come in as scents on the air. He is a writer with a nose and no eye. Whenever he piles up visual details, listing the goodies in Cruz's mansions, his grandiose arrays of clothes and mistresses, the writing goes dead; he sounds less like an artist than a compiler of baroque inventories. Only smells seem really to get through to him imaginatively: the smell of his skin, his breath, his faeces, the smell of girls and food…. Like a hunting dog, he sees through his nose. And this has a curious effect: it makes the book, for all its scope, intensely private.
This claustrophobia of the self is emphasized by the form. Cruz's story is told in three persons. "I" is the old man dying on his bed; "you" is a slightly vatic, "experimental" projection of his potentialities into an unspecified future (you know it is experimental because the letters are in lower-case and the punctuation scanty); "he" is the real hero, the man whose history emerges bit by bit from incidents shuffled around from his seventy-one years….
Since Fuentes is a sophisticated writer—at times an over-sophisticated over-writer—the gradual hardening and corruption of his hero is done with a good deal of subtlety and intelligence. He is never allowed to become a monster since the process he represents, though monstrous enough, is also natural…. Fuentes, apparently, is a Marxist yet he is also literate and humane, unwilling to trust the bullies who take over revolutions; hence Cruz remains sympathetic and accepted, despite all his corruption. More important, Fuentes the Marxist is also deeply romantic. In fact, his romanticism is Marxist, and vice versa. For all his worldliness, he yearns for the pure revolution, the pure choice between right and wrong, justice and exploitation. The compromises of political reality seem insufferable. (p. 14)
A. Alvarez, "Mortal Longings," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1964 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. II, No. 9, June 11, 1964, pp. 14-15.∗
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In several of his narratives, Carlos Fuentes focusses on the predicament of the Mexican artist, whom he evokes as facing formidable social and psychological obstacles in developing his craft. Throughout both La región más transparente and Cambio de piel, Fuentes portrays a number of artists—poets, novelists, painters—all of whom either abandon their discipline or decide to remain silent, interiorizing the artistic process, rather than communicating their ideas to a society they judge unworthy of receiving them. There are several factors that militate against the success of the artist in the modern-day Mexico depicted by Fuentes. Some of the adverse conditions are external, such as the dominant bourgeois culture that refuses to take the artist seriously and interprets his scathing social, political and moral denunciation as mere diversion instead of as a force that would impel them to change their lives. Indeed, it is not the artist who reforms a decadent society but vice versa. So powerful is the materialistic, status-striving ethos that many of the artists portrayed by Fuentes cannot maintain their integrity and idealism in the face of it. They finally sell out, prostituting their talent to gain social success and instant wealth. Fuentes also attacks the cannibalistic Mexican literary establishment, denounced for its tendency to destroy not only the artist whom it judges to be a failure, but even the artist whom it has initially elevated. Thus the writer or painter often remains alienated both from the society at large and from his peer group.
Yet, in case after case of the artist manqué, it is not merely external pressures but a weakness of will … that stifles the career of the artist…. In many cases, the aesthetic impulse, instead of achieving fruition in an imaginative work that would delight or edify its audience, becomes perverted. Often the frustrated artist retreats into a hermetic solitude, self-indulgently creating only for his own taste. Failing to achieve distinction in the external world, the artist manqué sometimes devotes himself to the creation of a grotesque and even monstrous private universe in which he can affirm his role as a god.
It is significant that all of the main characters in one of Fuentes' most important novels, Cambio de piel, are artists or potential artists. Javier Ortega, the character on whom the most intensive focus falls, is a poet. Art for young Javier has a very personal meaning. His first volume of poems, in which he records his experiences and aspirations, is the means he utilizes to free himself from the domination of his mother, Ophelia, who desires to mold him into a model bourgeois. At first his art does act as a liberating force, in many ways—psychologically, socially, and financially. The acclaim that he receives results in his being awarded a fellowship to study in the United States and allows him to break out of the sheltered environment in which Ophelia has determined to keep him a prisoner. Yet the course of Cambio de piel records the tragic decline in Javier's creative ability…. [A] projected novel called La caja de Pandora and the magnum opus, the epic poem of modern Mexico to which presumably he is devoting so much of his time and energy as day after day he leaves Elizabeth alone in their apartment as he walks through Mexico City, seeking to understand its complexity and paradoxes, is never written. Javier is finally reduced to channeling his imaginative talent into sterile games, as he compels Elizabeth constantly to rehearse with him experiences—from a past that he clings to and repeats endlessly as the only means of reassuring himself about the future.
Franz Jellinek, whom Fuentes in an interview has characterized as Javier's alter ego, also begins his career as an idealist. Desiring to revolutionize architecture, to free it from the tyranny of classic forms, Franz becomes an enthusiastic adherent of the Bauhaus movement. But instead of going on to actualize his ideals of designing structures to serve human needs and aspirations, Franz perverts his creative talent by placing it at the service of the Nazis. (pp. 126-27)
Finally, the Narrator of Cambio de piel, Freddy Lambert, is, like Franz and Javier, an extremely insecure, middle-aged artist who is seeking not only artistic reform but physical and spiritual renewal. Cambio de piel may be interpreted not only as Lambert's confession, but also as his repeated attempts through art to free himself from his old, severely estranged identity. And Lambert's extensive narrative is based, to a great extent, on the experiences, dreams, and rêveries related to him by Elizabeth, who thus becomes herself not only a character in Cambio de piel but a co-author of the narrative. Like the Narrator, Elizabeth too seeks to create herself anew through her fantasies. Yet, ironically, in both cases, imagination as a force of creative expansion finally gives way to one of destruction, as both finally remain incarcerated in their fantasies that degenerate into madness.
The aesthetic ideal against which Javier and all the other artists in Cambio de piel can be judged is the one posited by the Narrator…. His aesthetic is a very combative one. Art is defined not merely as a reflecting or interpreting of reality but as a power to effect a significant moral change, both in that reality and in the life of the artist himself. It is ironic, however, that the artist who most strongly satisfies this demanding standard is but a minor character, the poet Vasco Montero. While Franz may be regarded as the negative side of Javier's personality, Montero is his positive or complimentary double—the genuine, complete artist Javier has the potentiality to become…. Javier grapples with the external world as he wanders through the whole of the city, attempting to capture and transmute it in accordance with his poetic vision. Initially, Javier sees the task of the artist as that of synthesizing the fragments of reality into a cohesive whole, a process which we may surmise is at the basis of his projected epic of modern Mexico. But instead of transcending reality, Javier finally allows himself to be crushed by it. (pp. 128-29)
Javier finally negates the purpose of art as that of establishing a bond between the artist and society, and instead begins to advocate an aesthetic of narcissism, declaring that the whole of the artistic process is within himself. He is afraid to expose his work to public view, afraid his efforts will not measure up to his initial achievements, afraid of being criticized and rejected by the pretentious literary establishment. Thus, instead of creating, he dedicates much of his time to fabricating elaborate justifications for his "aesthetic of silence."… To do this, he twists the meanings of commitment and detachment, going to the extreme of boasting that his failure to create is a noble abstention. (p. 129)
Javier wishes to absolve himself of responsibility for his creative failure. He constantly searches for scapegoats, and blames not only the dehumanizing reality of Mexico, but even Elizabeth. It is ironic that Elizabeth at first should act as a stimulus to Javier's creative talent, because she will finally be perceived by her husband as a strangling force. (p. 130)
The artistic process is one that initially has expelled Javier from the casa-útero and brought him into contact with the outside world. Yet, ironically, Javier's creative impulse more and more is forced back upon itself. Art finally becomes for him an hermetic and a self-defeating process. (p. 132)
In Cambio de piel … the artist is evoked not only in his individual right but as a symbol of Mexico. (p. 134)
Javier's personal revolt against his tradition-encrusted, materialistic family and his quest for an authentic self can also be seen as the metaphor of the national quest for an independent identity. The failure of Mexico to convert its Revolution into a permanent, ongoing process instead of what Fuentes refers to as merely a brief period of rebellion between two extensive periods of the status quo, is paralleled by the course of Javier's life—from a lengthy initial period of repression to a brief struggle for self-actualization to a final renunciation of his personal revolution and a relapse into stultification, this time one that is self-imposed. (p. 135)
The Narrator himself is also an artist manqué. According to Fuentes, Freddy Lambert is a combination of personalities, both historical and literary. As Fuentes pointed out in an interview, the first part of the Narrator's name refers to Friedrich Nietzsche and the second half to Louis Lambert, a character in a novel by Balzac. Thus we see that the anti-Manichean fusion of opposites constantly propounded by Lambert is evident in his own personality and even in his name. Lambert represents the artist as aloof and masterful superwill and, at the same time, the artist as outsider, as alienated victim…. Lambert enthusiastically advocates a universe where all contraries will fuse in a liberating, transcendental synthesis, one that will redeem twentieth-century man from what he calls the "jailer of history" and from the constrictions of rationalism and of the unduly simplified Manichean structuring of the universe. But, at the end, Lambert is impelled into a world in which all contraries—good and evil, reason and madness, masculine and feminine—are resolved only negatively, in the hideous world of Herr Urs. Although at the outset of Cambio de piel Lambert seems to be firmly in command of the novel, the development of the action shows an increasing loss of control by this Narrator, finally levelled from omniscient author to the same victimized state as many of his own character creations. (pp. 143-44)
Lambert's febrile imagination, which parallels that of Javier, is also reflected in the protean structure of Cambio de piel, especially in its multiple and contradictory endings. Nothing is ever resolved in Lambert's fertile but chaotic mind…. The alternative endings also grant the reader freedom to become a collaborator with Fuentes in creating the novel. The reader can grant salvation to the characters or condemn them, depending on his own set of values. Yet this freedom is limited—in no ending of the narrative does Franz survive.
In any discussion of the role of the artist manqué in Cambio de piel, Elizabeth also must be included. Javier begins with reality and struggles to transmute it into artistic image. Elizabeth on the other hand fabricates illusions and takes cinematic images and identities and seeks to convert them into a reality…. Although she is really Mexican, Elizabeth poses as a North American…. [As] compensation for her drab, inconsequential life, one bereft of professional goals and even of a clearly defined system of values, Elizabeth retreats into the world of the cinema. Once her romantic relationship with Javier has been destroyed, she can regain it only vicariously, through projecting herself into the role of the emancipated woman, Monica Vitti. It is extremely ironic that the only love relationship in Cambio de piel that does not result in the dehumanization of one or both partners is this cinematic romance. As Elizabeth attacks the Mexican males in the audience who have jeered the film because of its enlightened viewpoint toward women, and condemns the audience members for their machista attitude, she is really reproaching Javier for his unwillingness to treat her as anything more than an artistic illusion, rather than as a real flesh and blood woman…. (pp. 144-46)
Like almost every other aspect of Cambio de piel—a narrative replete with ironies, paradoxes, and frequent twists in the fates of the characters—cinematic space, which for a time acts as a means of vicarious freedom and self-actualization for Elizabeth, finally becomes a trap not only for her but for the Narrator as well. (p. 146)
[Fuentes] breaks with the tradition of writing a novel with a plot, character development, a single point of view, and a linear time sequence, as well as a definite resolution of the conflicts presented, and instead creates a narrative in which the Narrator-author becomes a character and in which several of the main characters become creators, a narrative that presents many theses only later to undermine and discredit them, that kills off its characters and later resuscitates them…. Cambio de piel expresses a very fatalistic vision of reality. Yet [it affirms the imaginative power of its author to transcend conventional reality and to create its] … own uniquely fictional universe. (p. 149)
The emphasis … on the world of the mind and of the emotions—the constant use of settings that symbolize the inner states of the characters—is … [apparent] in Fuentes' work. Prague, the city where Franz spent his youth, is evoked almost exclusively with reference to art and dream. Evocations not only of streets and buildings but even of the natural world—the desolate landscape of Mexico, or the fertile, joyous New England world cherished by Elizabeth—serve either to foreshadow the denial of redemption to the characters or to exteriorize their desperate longings and aspirations. And, finally … Cambio de piel breaks down the boundaries between the artistic work and its audience…. [The] viewer or reader is drawn into a world that at first seems to be "real" and yet is finally shown to be the product of the imaginings of a madman…. [The] audience must collaborate with the artist in order to resolve the ambiguities at the end. (p. 150)
Lanin A. Gyurko, "The Artist Manqué in Fuentes' 'Cambio de piel'," in Symposium (copyright © 1977 by Syracuse University Press), Vol. XXXI, No. 2, Summer, 1977, pp. 126-50.
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Although the technique of the double is sometimes viewed as a facile device of melodrama, in the hands of a skillful and sophisticated writer such as Carlos Fuentes, it can offer a wide range of interpretative possibilities. Reflecting the inherent psychic duality of human nature, be it expressed in terms of logos-eros or reason-instinct, literary doubles tend to assume a patently antithetical configuration. That is, writers often "either juxtapose or duplicate two characters; the one representing the socially acceptable or conventional personality, the other externalizing the free, uninhibited, often criminal self." In part, "Las dos Elenas" falls into this stereotype pattern.
The beginning of the story finds the two Elenas and their husbands united for a customary Sunday family dinner. The opening paragraph, which constitutes the narrative's first logical division, centers on the older Elena's negative reaction to her daughter's liberated ways. (pp. 6-7)
The conflictual situation arising from the conservative mother/liberated daughter antithesis thus established, Fuentes takes the reader into the recent past and dedicates several pages to a pointed but vivid character portrayal of Elena, the daughter. It quickly becomes evident that her audacious suggestion of a "ménage à trois" is consistent with an inclination to be independent and modern in thought, word, dress, and behavior…. [The daughter's activities] imply a degree of nonconformity which, particularly in the context of contemporary middle or upper class Mexican mores, explains her mother's indignation.
The daughter's character reinforced to this degree, the author brings us back to the present, and shifts the narrative focus to Elena, the mother. Elaborating on his initial description of her, Fuentes depicts her as the epitome of the conservative Mexican bourgeois wife, whose every action strikes a harmonious chord with the dictates of society…. (p. 7)
By establishing the dichotomy between restraint (relative to reason) as reflected in the mother's sense of social propriety and traditional moral standards, versus the license (relative to instinct) manifested in the daughter's rebelliousness, Fuentes is clearly employing the technique of doubling by division: "the splitting up of a recognizable, unified psychological entity into separate, complementary, distinguishable parts represented by seemingly autonomous characters." At this point in the story, such conventional stereotyping of the ideal wife as opposed to the restless libertine, while interesting in itself, promises little beyond an interpersonal confrontation.
To Fuentes' credit, however, he enhances "Las dos Elenas," psychologically and aesthetically, by allowing his characters to break out of their molds in an unexpected and ironic conclusion. [He reveals that the mother is romantically involved with her daughter's husband and that the daughter has rejected an amorous proposition.] (p. 8)
The unexpected departure of both women from their stereotyped roles, while still maintaining intact the device of the double by division, adds a new dimension of psychological depth to the story and implies a further thematic ramification. The initial psychosocial polarization of mother-daughter, suggesting the universal themes of social conformity versus rebellion, and the conflict of generations (both revolving around the question of fidelity), suddenly becomes a characteristic commentary by Fuentes on the hypocrisy of the Mexican bourgeoisie as symbolized by both Elenas. (p. 9)
[It might also] be inferred that in addition to presenting the endopsychic problem of reason versus instinct (as reflected in the contrasting social and moral behavior of the two women), Fuentes has also anticipated one of the more discussed topics of the seventies: the predicament, mutually shared by both Elenas, of the contemporary woman who is ever more conscious of society's demands on her as wife and woman, and her own instincts and individuality. Both Elenas have been influenced by, and are products of, the same culture and society. The mores and behavioral norms of that society and culture demand a high degree of conformity and absolute marital fidelity. Both Elenas make concessions that evidently run contrary to their individuality: the mother, in her complete formal adherence to the social proprieties of her class; the daughter, in her continued faithfulness to her husband and her observance of the family tradition of Sunday dinner…. Finally, each rebels in her fashion, the mother through infidelity, the daughter through an open life-style that has one significant limitation: sexual freedom. (pp. 9-10)
Joseph Chrzanowski, "The Double in 'Las dos Elenas'," in Romance Notes, Vol. XVIII, No. 1, Fall, 1977, pp. 6-10.
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In his play, Todos los gatos son pardos, Carlos Fuentes interprets the Spanish Conquest of the Aztec Empire as the acting out of two opposite mentalities. The archetypes, Hernán Cortés and Moctezuma, represent not only two historical cultures but also the origins of the present-day, mestizo trauma of the Mexican mind. Fuentes clearly intends a political and psychological relevance to contemporary México….
Two levels of introspection are supposed to operate during the play—that of the actors of history contemplating their dilemmas or thinking out their decisions, and that of the spectators (preferably Mexican) relating their own problems to those of the archetypes. Fuentes closely associates his work to the whole school of Mexican introspection—and especially to Octavio Paz. (p. 25)
Thus, in the driving willpower of Cortés, we can see the individual ultimately frustrated by the hierarchy of an empire. Moctezuma's doubts about his own divinity and the destiny of his empire, his indecision toward the Spanish threat, can suggest a cultural uncertainty, a fatalism toward defeat, a loss of dignity. The key passage to Mexican introspection in the play, however, is given by Malinche when she gives birth to the first Mexican, the first mestizo.
The characters of a play, unlike those of a novel, cannot reflect upon themselves through the use of a silent, interior monologue. Their inner thoughts must be externalized on stage: this is the central problem that Fuentes must solve in staging introspection…. True—the revealing gesture, and the psychological realism which it usually assumes, are both absent from the play. True, also, that there are many stylized enactments and declarations which take on a ritualistic air of ceremony. But to what extent is introspection itself expressed through ritual, and its basic elements, myth and symbol?
Moctezuma's dilemma in submitting to fate and to the arrival of the new, apparently divine powers—the Spaniards—brings to a crisis the paradox within his mind of being a god and a mere man. At first, this duality is expressed by the staging of two very different rituals. In the beginning of Act Two, some humble subjects of the Aztec Empire are overcome by a blinding light which forces them to cover their eyes. The Aztecs comment that it represents Moctezuma's divinity; custom dictates that he cannot be looked upon or he will cause blindness. Fuentes dramatically evokes the Aztec faith in the mythical power of their ruler. The audience, too, is forced to feel their fearful respect through the lighting effects.
This symbol of the Aztec ruler's divine power, by contrast, heightens the effect in the following act when we see the humiliating image of Moctezuma as a servile man. He is naked except for a loin cloth, sweeping slowly…. Other augurs continuously verbalize images of Aztec omens while the ominous sounds are actually heard. All this evokes the oppressive fatalism felt by Moctezuma—felt, but not yet declared by him. The rituals of his sweeping and crawling on the ground—to be repeated several times in the play—function as omens of his future servitude to the Spaniards as well as symbols of his present confusion and impotence in facing the challenge. His inner doubts and his external omnipotence have both been ritually visualized before the dilemma has been verbalized.
Fuentes then dramatically ritualizes the inner conflicts in Moctezuma's psyche as stemming from the Aztec cosmology—the divinities representing opposite but equal forces of nature. This is brilliantly staged with the transformation of the augurs into various Aztec gods. They cast off their white robes, reveal the dazzling, symbolic garb of the gods before the eyes of Moctezuma, and then proceed to ritually haunt him with their conflicting messages. History is stylized by the imagination of Mr. Fuentes here: the divining priests did, in fact, exert great power over the Aztec ruler through their interpretation of the gods' desires and the future. A power at once religious, psychological, and political. (pp. 26-8)
Introspection of origins is symbolized in the play with the contemplation of the phallus which has been ripped off Quetzalcóatl…. The contemplation of one's phallus and face are complementary; it implies the introspection of one's origins and procreation. For Quetzalcóatl, the mythic creator of men, the subconscious voice of Moctezuma, it means that the gods are absolutely, incomprehensibly different from men…. For Moctezuma, this suggests his supposed divine omnipotence in conflict with his human limitations as the servile executor of the gods' will.
For the contemporary Mexican audience, with all the sexual overtones in the ritual, it is intended to suggest the psychological complex of mestizaje…. The racial implication becomes more obvious in retrospect, once Malinche's laments for her mestizo son have been heard toward the end of the play. Before this conscious, final clarification, Fuentes is reaching out to the subconscious of the Mexican audience.
The Mexican mestizo's uncertainty of his origins, Moctezuma's uncertainty about what to do with his omnipotence and whether he has it at all: these two levels of introspection in the play reinforce Octavio Paz's idea that the reflective character of the Mexican has come from his Indian ancestry.
Indeed, introspection is seen as Moctezuma's tragic flaw. The augur transformed into the god of war blames it for the Aztec emperor's fatal indecision…. The conflicting voices of his priestly advisors, of the gods, of his inner conscience all operate to make Moctezuma feel psychologically oppressed—the impotent slave of other voices. This introspective anguish is physically expressed on stage by sight and sound, ritual and symbol…. (pp. 29-30)
The symbol for omnipotence, the blinding sun, is eventually transferred to the Spanish conquerors. It is done literally as the reflection of Moctezuma's fears. Again, symbolic objects are used to visualize a subjective concept. An ominous, dead bird is brought as an offering, and in its head Moctezuma sees a mirror. While he is blinded by an intense light, he sees in the mirror … the reflection of his own fatalistic thoughts. Magically, as Moctezuma describes what he imagines, the whole entourage of the Spanish conquistadores is illuminated in different parts of the auditorium. Suddenly surrounded, the spectator should feel astonished, like Moctezuma.
Through its somewhat gimmicky correlation to the mirror, then, Moctezuma's introspection has foreseen, indeed conceived, the external reality of the theater. This dramatizes the evocative power of the mind; it is, literally, theater as enactment of the mind. (p. 32)
The play is sometimes structured to reveal the impact of historical events on such religious and psychological susceptibilities. Let us consider an example. Moctezuma is reciting a lyrical monologue of introspection almost two pages long. If the spectator audience has not yet turned its attention elsewhere, it will note that Moctezuma has fathomed new depths of indecision in the mirror of deceptions…. Moctezuma has feared that he only deceives others with his supposed divinity; now he considers that Cortés is doing the same. At this moment, there is an intrusion—the message of an incredible military victory by the Spaniards. Stunned, Moctezuma reverts totally to fatalism. Thus, by structured timing, the playwright makes his point; Moctezuma's introspective nature makes him totally susceptible to defeat.
The inner conflicts of the Aztec emperor's cosmology … now take on a more mundane and more decisive personification. Two contending relatives of the emperor, Cuitlahuac and Cuauhtemoc, argue over alternatives in facing the Spanish threat: diplomatic conciliation vs. war. The paralysis originating in Moctezuma's mind has become fully external in the form of conflicting dramatis personae and the paralysis of the empire.
The elaborate and usually effective staging of Moctezuma's introspection finds a disappointing counterpart in Cortés' introspection. Why? Cortés is the archetypal man of action. Sheer individual will power. How, then, can this non-introspective temperament convincingly spin so many rhetorical lines revealing his inner thoughts? Moctezuma's mind, in contrast, lends itself to ritual dramatization by the fact that there is inner conflict which can be transformed into external tension. More important yet, Fuentes can draw on a wealth of Aztec symbolism, ritual, and myth to express Moctezuma's introspection. Cortés' introspective speeches, on the other hand, are unrelieved by spectacle—no symbolic lighting, no staged rituals or myths. Even the Catholic rituals are set aside by this Renaissance man who relies only on himself.
Yet Fuentes insists on penetrating Cortés' driving ambition, his origins, his motivations, his destiny, etc., through the character's own vocalized thoughts or through dialogue which is really monologue with a foil. For example, the audience must sit through four pages of almost uninterrupted autobiography which Cortés tells to Malinche…. Such soliloquy could be effective even witout external dramatization if it were used sparingly. Shakespeare uses soliloquy only occasionally, always well—balanced with action, and he keeps the speech alive with the magic of his original imagery—a talent Fuentes cannot claim.
Todos los gatos son pardos could be characterized as having three parts in its nine acts: a fascinating dramatization of Moctezuma's introspective dilemma in the first three acts; a long middle part, dominated by Cortés, that sags; and a shocking exposure of three anguished minds in the final act. The problem in the sagging middle part goes beyond the difficulty of staging the introspection of a non-introspective man like Cortés. Besides penetrating archetypal minds, Fuentes also tries to give a fairly accurate historical interpretation of the Conquest. Rational monologues and dialogues unfold very often without a theatrical function, primarily to infer one historical generalization after another. Rather than distort the facts, Fuentes has avoided the unrestricted creation of characters and situations in that sagging middle part. (pp. 33-5)
A few conclusions can then be drawn about the possibility of staging introspection. First, the excesses in Todos los gatos son pardos suggest that introspective speeches in straight monologue or dialogue should be used only sparingly—in critical moments of self-awareness, for example. Secondly, Fuentes also demonstrates that introspection can be successfully taken outside the mind of contemplation and externalized. Inner conflicts are animated on stage to create a visual theater of the mind, thanks to ritual, myth, symbol, staging, lighting, desdoblamiento, symbolic timing, and introspective foreground against dramatic background.
So much for the theatrical possibilities of exposing inner thoughts of a few archetypal and historic figures. Fuentes has suggested in his prologue that, by doing so, he intends to bring out into the open the Mexican introspection of a contemporary audience. The play's contemporary relevance is most inescapable in the fnal moments of the final act, when the actors of the Conquest perform a charade of corresponding roles in modern Mexican society. For example, Cortés, the foreign, white conqueror, becomes a U.S. general; the Aztec ruler who betrayed his country to the foreigners, Moctezuma, becomes the Mexican President. The parallels are worthy of pondering, but how effectively is the message brought across in that final parade? I suspect that, in a live performance, many correspondences would be lost simply because the audience cannot identify all the faces in their previous roles. For example, one secondary character, the youth sacrificed in Aztec ritual, could hardly be recognized behind the clothes of the modern university student. Lost is the parallel that both have been the bloodied victims of oppressive governments, in 1500 as well as in 1968: the recent massacre at Tlaltelolco in Mexico City is too subtly implied. (pp. 38-9)
Let us not forget the psychological implications about mestizaje in the very title of the play—Todos los gatos son pardos. The psychoanalysis of a contemporary racial schizophrenia is far more apparent throughout the entire course of introspection in the play than is the exposé of a twentieth-century political oppression….
Although somewhat pretentious in casting the playwright as today's psychoanalytic priest, Carlos Fuentes does interestingly point back to the origins of theater in religious rites. Once the drama of beliefs, in the twentieth-century it becomes the drama of doubts in the introspective mind. (p. 40)
A. John Skirius, "Mexican Introspection in the Theater: Carlos Fuentes," in Revista de Estudios Hispánicos (reprinted by permission of The University of Alabama Press), Vol. XII, No. 1, January, 1978, pp. 25-40.
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Reading [the stories in "Burnt Water"] is somewhat like watching people on a carousel—individuals you won't see again…. Two or three or four return long enough to be recognized, then almost at once they curl out of sight.
What remains after you close this book? More than anything else a sense of turbid, vital, gamy, rhythmic human life in Mexico City. Those people who seemed so distinct and unforgettable as they rode by—laughing, waving, shouting, rising and descending with the motion of the gilded wheel—how quickly they dismount and walk away, leaving behind not the singular imprint of personalities we have come to know but an irregular communal web of tracks. Maybe this is as it should be. Possibly this is what the author intended.
In a prefatory note Carlos Fuentes states that he owns an imaginary apartment house in the center of Mexico City whose tenants are the characters we meet: "True, some have fled to the countryside, others are living abroad, some have even been evicted and now wander in the internal exile of the 'belt of misery' surrounding this great, cancerous stain of a smog-ridden, traffic-snarled metropolis of seventeen million people."
So the apartment house, Casa Fuentes one might say, has been designed to function as does a ship, or the plague, or the remote country estate in murder mysteries—that is, by isolating the characters it unifies the story. Now in some cases such a narrative device can be useful, even obligatory, but here it makes very little difference. Toward the end we recognize Luisito, General Vergara and others who spoke their lines earlier, but these cameo reappearances seem gratuitous rather than integral, as though Fuentes felt obliged to demonstrate the truth of his preliminary note. The genuinely unifying factor—the authentic apartment house—is Mexico City itself. (p. 9)
Mr. Fuentes has an uncommon ability to dislocate your stomach. Fortunately he does not depend on this talent. He does not spiral above such putrescence with the ghoulish fixity of a buzzard; if he did, he would be unbearable because his writing is almost humorless. He understands, of course, when something is absurd, but this knowledge does not cause him to laugh. Indeed, he seems reluctant to smile.
His narrative style—with few exceptions—relies on the irruption and juxtaposition of different kinds of awareness, a technique perhaps derived from the methods popularized by Joyce. As a result, he is sometimes labyrinthine, though not so tortuous that one gets impatient. Now and then, as in "The Cost of Living," he switches to a flinty style reminiscent of Ernesto Hemingway…. It's a good story and the staccato prose is not objectionable, only a bit self-conscious. His elliptical sentences flow more naturally.
Mr. Fuentes is least effective when trying to generate a mood of horror, as in "Chac-Mool" where a government clerk buys a pre-Columbian stone idol which he puts in the cellar. Slime develops on the base of the idol, moss covers it, gradually the stone becomes fleshy, and we realize that Chac-Mool is turning into some sort of Mexican Dracula. (pp. 34-5)
[Mr. Fuentes'] intention is to establish more than one level, and in this case he wants to evoke—along with the horror—the sound of Mexico's ancestral voices. So, if you are not satisfied with the dénouement, at least you can reflect on the immanence of prehistoric gods….
Carlos Fuentes is a skillful writer with an original mind, so that even his Gothic stories are worth reading; but he writes better and more memorably when he lets go of the monkey's paw.
"The Old Morality," concerning Alberto's liaison with his aunts, is told with understanding and affection for all of the characters, even the desperate, prissy middle-aged women….
It's a delightful story showing Mr. Fuentes at his most lighthearted.
At his deepest, or most tragic, he abandons the ambulatory stone idols and ghostly old ladies in order to describe what truly touches him: the belt of misery around Mexico City where men hunt rabbits and toads to eat, where a temporary job as a flute player with a little band seems like a miraculous stroke of luck, and a woman's most valuable possession is an old photograph in which her husband—who was a stablehand—may be seen standing not far from President Calles. Here, among these cardboard and corrugated tin shacks on the grease-wood plain, beneath a noonday sun which Mr. Fuentes likens to a yellow chili pepper, boys and girls discover what they are, as well as what they can never be; and it is enough to make you understand, perhaps for the first time, why there are revolutions. (p. 35)
Evan Connell, "A Brazilian Novel and Mexican Stories," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1980 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 19, 1980, pp. 9, 34-5.∗
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Rising in a malignant mist or squatting silently in impenetrable darkness, the Aztec god Chac-Mool presides over [Burnt Water, an] impressive collection of stories about the inhabitants of Mexico City. A symbol of the paradoxes that beset modern Mexicans, he is at once worldly and unknowable, dangerous and faintly ridiculous, real and imaginary. The central question—whether he is alive or dead—is also paradoxical, reflecting the burnt water of the title, for "the Mexican character never separates life from death." Thus Fuentes's eleven tales are full of mystery, the mystery of how to live in the midst of death.
As usual, Fuentes is in full command of both form and language, slipping effortlessly from realism to fantasy and from the casual to the profound. Some of his stories are less weighty than others—for instance, the sardonic "The Old Morality," in which a young boy learns the dubious pleasures of hypocrisy—but all are firmly grounded in real character and the everyday attempts of people from all levels of society to get on with the business of life. And some, such as the calmly beautiful "The Pure Soul," are truly chilling. Carefully balanced between humor and pathos, grimness and gaiety, Burnt Water is a minor but important contribution from Mexico's leading novelist. (pp. 96-7)
"Short Reviews: 'Burnt Water'," in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1980, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), Vol. 246, No. 5, November, 1980, pp. 96-7.
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[Fuentes' scenes in Burnt Water] draw vitality partly from their vivid sense of place: a Mexico City sprawling and ugly, corrupt and provincial, destroyed by, and destroying its people. The stories are mined from various literary veins, of which the richest by far is a closely observed social realism.
That is the mode, for instance, of "The Son of Andrés Aparicio." Bernabé, the main character, lives in a district of makeshift huts, a barrio so tenuous that it lacks even a name. He quits school and becomes a street hustler, winding up as a thug for a reactionary political gang. Life on the margin—economic and emotional—was never made more real, and persuasive connections are drawn between such a life and its political consequences.
But even into this story, so largely successful by any standard, there enters an element that—I propose—the Latin Americans like better than we do. This is superimposed design. In a manner too complicated to relate, connections are made at the end between Bernabé's fate and that of his long-vanished father. The effect is completely artificial; human beings are treated, as it were, geometrically. The characters are made to posture so as to describe a pattern.
Still more distressing is the emphasis placed on the eerie. For instance, the story "In a Flemish Garden" is told by a young man serving as caretaker in a spooky old house. Little by little, he is enthralled by a supernatural crone. At the end, this person is revealed to be Carlotta, former empress of Mexico; she has mistaken the protagonist for the Archduke Maximilian.
Again: in "Chac-Mool," a man buys the statue of an idol, which comes alive and causes its owner's death. In our own literature, that sort of thing is relegated—almost always—to the cheapest of thrillers. To find it at the peak of South American literary fiction suggests, I think, an esthetic rift at whose brink we must stop in wonder.
In spite of all this, we can read most of these 11 stories with pleasure, largely as social portraiture. Fuentes moves with perfect ease from cardboard shacks to the palaces of Pedregal, peopling his worlds with generals and mariachis, rentiers and whores.
Jonathan Penner, "Where the Real and the Fantastic Meet," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1980, The Washington Post), November 23, 1980, p. 7.
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The burnt water of [the collection entitled Burnt Water] is the lake of the Aztecs, drained by the conquering Spanish, who wished to recreate their arid homeland in this high tropic. "Burnt water," Fuentes notes, "atl tlachinolli: the paradox of the creation is also the paradox of destruction." That is neatly put, but Fuentes's vision is ultimately less symmetrical than this sentence suggests. The Spanish substituted their world for that of the Aztecs, but the Mexicans since independence have substituted theirs for that of the Spanish, and the name for these substitutions is not creation but ruin. There are many positive things to be said about modern Mexico, but not in this matter of its active relations with its past, and Fuentes returns again and again to images of damage and decay….
No writer has a better sense of this rambling, uncontrollable city…. (p. 56)
Yet there is no nostalgia in these stories, no yearning for earlier or other worlds. There is only what Fuentes calls "the past and its reality"—a spoiled reality, not a backward-looking dream. What happens in Fuentes's world is that ancestors are killed off before the next generation is ready to live without them, and so they return insistently as ghosts. At times this return is a little too artful or predictable, as when a pre-Columbian statue comes to life and takes over a house, or when the Empress Carlotta haunts a quiet garden in the center of Mexico City. At other times it takes the form of sinister and gripping repetitions: a man returns to look for a child he once knew and finds her twice, first as dead and worshiped by her parents in the image of an excessively beautiful figure of porcelain and wax and cotton, a doll queen, as the title of the story calls her; and then as the misshapen cripple the poor child actually grew into…. (pp. 56-7)
There is a powerful myth at the center of this book, briefly but unforgettably sketched:
Reality: one day it was shattered into a thousand pieces, its head rolled in one direction and its tail in another, and all we have is one of the pieces from the gigantic body….
Reality is dismembered; or is a dismembering; and that is why existence seems so partial and ghostly….
And what we are to do in the face of this broken reality, this world dominated by a past it has smashed or desecrated, is not to grieve or daydream but to learn how to be faithful to what we need….
Fuentes's world in these stories is haunted but actual…. [Mexico City] is harshly portrayed, and we cannot offer the conventional piety which suggests that we always chastise the thing we love. Fuentes does something better than love Mexico City, which over the years has busily exacerbated the evils he has been describing for so long. He sees how full it is of living people, and he knows that because of them its betrayals of itself count so much. "We must remain united in what matters most…." He invites his compatriots not to an orgy of slogans, but to a recognition that they can have no future other than that which arises from the way they treat their past. (p. 57)
Michael Wood, "In the Latino Americano Mirror," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1981 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. XXVIII, No. 16, October 22, 1981, pp. 54-8.∗