Carlos Fuentes Fuentes, Carlos (Vol. 22) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)

Richard Gilman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 entire section is 572 words.)

Anthony West

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

(The entire section is 681 words.)

Saul Maloff

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 549 words.)

Helen R. Lane

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 432 words.)

A. Alvarez

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

(The entire section is 428 words.)

Lanin A. Gyurko

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 2242 words.)

Joseph Chrzanowski

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 710 words.)

A. John Skirius

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 2017 words.)

Evan Connell

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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....

(The entire section is 808 words.)

The Atlantic Monthly

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 239 words.)

Jonathan Penner

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

(The entire section is 391 words.)

Michael Wood

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 577 words.)