Christopher Unborn

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

By 1992, in Carlos Fuentes’ grim but comic vision, Mexico will be well on the road to disintegration. The northern part will have been annexed to the Sunbelt of the United States to form Mexamerica; the Yucatan will have been sold to Club Med to pay off some of the international debt; the area around Vera Cruz will be occupied by United States Marines. What remains of the country, especially the capital, which Fuentes frequently calls Makesicko City, will be strangling in garbage, sewage, and air pollution, all caused by overpopulation and decades of corrupt government.

To provide a narrative center for the novel, Fuentes invents a young couple, Angel and Angeles, who meet in romantic circumstances and who conceive a child in the country’s most famous resort, which Fuentes most often calls Kafkapulco. The child’s birth, they hope, will coincide with Columbus Day, 1992; the child will be male, will be named Christopher, and will win the government’s promised prize of untold riches and power for the first male child named Christopher to be born on that day. It is this unborn child who is the improbable narrator of the improbable events of the novel, which ends with his birth.

Christopher’s gestation and his parents’ adventures are the hub around which Fuentes details a wild, imaginary series of events, historical observations, and verbal fireworks. He sees the history of his country as a series of natural calamities (for example, the devastating earthquake of 1985) and continual political oppression (the long reign of the ruling party, the Partido Revolucionario Institucional, and the massacres of students, especially in 1968) that has betrayed the revolutions which promised to bring to Mexico independence and democracy. In the course of the novel he invents new calamities: Acapulco is destroyed; there is a bloody revolution which is even more bloodily ended. The unnamed cities of shacks surrounding Mexico City, housing the poor in unimaginable squalor, are vividly evoked, as are the conditions in which the country’s surviving Indian populations exist.

Nevertheless, Christopher Unborn is seldom grim for very long. Fuentes provides puns, jokes, and verbal fireworks in great profusion, as well as almost continuous action—much of it violent. The device of having a fetus narrate a novel, admittedly borrowed from the classic English novel Tristram Shandy (1760), by Laurence Sterne, provides much of the comedy. Fuentes gives his narrative voice almost unlimited knowledge of Mexico’s past and an understanding of the present that is both naive and skeptical. The result is a running commentary that provides surprise as well as comprehension.

The imaginary events described in the novel take Angel and Angeles on a tortuous journey, beginning in Acapulco where the child is conceived. Almost at once, Acapulco itself is destroyed. At first it seems that Egg, Orphan Huerta, Hipi Toltec, and Baby Ba, the members of a subversive rock band, have caused the destruction, but it soon becomes clear that in fact the government is behind the event, intending to create more opportunities for graft. The young couple flee from the city with Don Fernando Benítez and Don Homero Fagoaga, who had apparently been killed but who miraculously survives, as he will so often and so improbably.

The journey is interrupted when Don Fernando tries to urge a group of laborers on the road to strike for more money and better conditions. In one of the many coincidences for which Fuentes offers no apology or explanation, the leader of the road gang is Matamoros Moreno, who has appeared earlier as the author of a fantastic book for which he wants Angel to find a publisher. (Angel, disliking the book but frightened of the man, fled to Oaxaca and hid there for several months before daring to return to Mexico City.) Now Moreno has his revenge, as he and his crew rape both Angel and Angeles.

The travelers eventually make their way to the...

(The entire section is 1631 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Library Journal. CXIV, October 1, 1989, p.116.

London Review of Books. XI, November 23, 1989, p.24.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. September 10, 1989, p.1.

Mouat, Ricardo Gutierrez. “Postmodernity and Postmodernism in Latin America: Carlos Fuentes’s Christopher Unborn.” In Critical Theory, Cultural Politics, edited by Steven M. Bell. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1993. Concludes that the novel does not fit any paradigm of postmodernity, largely because of its eccentric carnivalesque discourse.

New York. XXII, July 31, 1989, p.63.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIV, August 20, 1989, p.1.

Ortega, Julio. “Christopher Unborn: Rage and Laughter.” Translated by Carl Mentley. Review of Contemporary Fiction 8, no. 2 (Summer, 1988): 285-291. Ortega elucidates the lively comic elements of the novel while comparing it to a Latin American nightmare that portrays the miscarriage rather than the invention of the continent.

Phaf, Ineke. “Nation as the Concept of Democratic Otherness’: Christopher Unborn and the Plea for Hybrid Cultures.” In Encountering the Other(s): Studies in Literature, History, and Culture, edited by Gisela Brinker-Gabler. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995. While minimizing the dystopian elements of the novel, Phaf interprets it as a model for a multicultural and polycultural city of the future.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXV, June 23, 1989, p.48.

Rivero-Potter, Alicia. “Columbus’ Legacy in Cristobal Nonato by Carlos Fuentes.” Revista Canadiense de Estudios Hispanicas 20, no. 2 (Winter, 1996): 305-325. Analyzes all references to Columbus throughout the novel, which is described as a mixture of “the sacred and profane, colloquialisms and sexual humor.” Parallels are established between the hegemonies of Spain and the United States that have made Mexico to a large degree dependent upon them.

The Times Literary Supplement. December 15, 1989, p.1386.

The Washington Post Book World. XIX, August 20, 1989, p.1.

Williams, Raymond Leslie. The Writings of Carlos Fuentes. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996. An articulate, sensitive, and informed summary of Fuentes’s life and literary accomplishments. Christopher Unborn is treated in a separate section as one of the author’s “lengthy, ambitious, and totalizing books” and is also referred to frequently in other sections, particularly in connection with theories of time. The appendix contains a valuable interview with Fuentes.