A Change of Skin Summary
Carlos Fuentes’s A Change of Skin is a difficult novel when judged by almost any standards. At least part of its difficulty lies in the fact that it continually frustrates the reader’s expectations of what a novel should be, and of how a novel should be constructed. The average reader expects the novel to “tell a story,” to recount in some intelligible way events which at least could have happened in the “real world.” The reader expects the novel, in a word, to be mimetic. Yet in A Change of Skin, Fuentes constructs a world that is absolutely and self-reflexively fictional and then deliberately destroys this world, causing it to collapse, like the Cholula pyramid of its final scene, under the weight of its own artifice.
The story of A Change of Skin is fairly straightforward. Javier, a frustrated Mexican writer, and his American Jewish wife, Elizabeth, are traveling from Mexico City to Veracruz to spend a holiday. They are accompanied by Franz, a Czechoslovakian who aided in the construction of the Nazi concentration camp at Theresienstadt and then fled to Mexico after the war, and his young Mexican mistress, Isabel. After leaving Mexico City, the couples stop to see the pre-Columbian ruins at Xochicalco and then continue to Cholula to see the pyramids. Their car is sabotaged and they are forced to spend the night in Cholula. There they are joined by the ubiquitous Narrator, who has been traveling to Cholula by the more direct superhighway in the company of a group of young beatniks who refer to themselves as “the Monks.” At Isabel’s suggestion, the two couples visit the Cholula pyramid at midnight. Here Franz, and perhaps Elizabeth, are killed in a cave-in, or, according to another contradictory version immediately following the first, Franz is murdered in the pyramid by one of the Monks to atone for his war crimes. The survivors then return to Mexico City. The story is thus in itself fairly simple. The complications and expansions that occur in the narrative presentation of this story (which include lengthy flashbacks, insertion of extraneous newspaper accounts and other real or imagined events) prolong these events, which take place in a single day, through a dizzying 462 pages and ultimately question the objective occurrence of any of the events and characters of the story by suggesting that the entire account may merely represent a demented delusion of the mad narrator who last appears incarcerated in the insane asylum in Cholula.
Duran, Victor Manuel. A Marxist Reading of Fuentes, Vargas Llosa, and Puig. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1994. An interesting study comparing the politics in the writings of these three important Latin American authors. Many of Fuentes’s works are examined in detail.
Helmuth, Chalene. The Postmodern Fuentes. Lewisburg, Penn.: Bucknell University Press, 1997. A solid overview of Fuentes’s work from a postmodern point of view. Several individual works are discussed, focusing on the issues of identity, national and narrative control, and reconsiderations of the past.
Ibsen, Kristine. Author, Text, and Reader in the Novels of Carlos Fuentes. New York: Peter Lang, 1993. Concentrating on four novels, including A Change of Skin, Ibsen offers valuable insight into the problem of communication, which remains one of the central preoccupations throughout the work of Fuentes. Her analysis focuses on the means of textualization by which Fuentes activates his reader and how this coincides with his notions of the role of literature in society.
Pollard, Scott. “Canonizing Revision: Literary History and the Postmodern Latin American Writer.” College Literature 20 (October, 1993): 133-147. Scott analyzes the impact of Latin American narrative on Western literary history after World War II. Focusing on authors Alejo Carpentier, Carlos Fuentes, and Lezama Lima, Scott discusses narratives of conquest and exploration, international modernism, the fashioning of cultural identity, and the primacy of European culture. Offers valuable insight into several of Fuentes’s works.
Van Delden, Maarten. Carlos Fuentes, Mexico, and Modernity. Nashville, Tenn.: Vanderbilt University Press, 1998. Using Fuentes’s writings as a springboard for his discussion, Van Delden presents a comprehensive analysis of Fuentes’s intellectual development in the context of modern Mexican political and cultural life. Includes extensive notes and a helpful bibliography.