(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Most of Distant Relations takes place during one long afternoon in Paris, but the events that it recounts take place in Mexico and the Caribbean as well as France and extend two centuries into the past. The title refers not only to the familial connections between the characters in the novel but also to the historical relationship between the French and Spanish-American traditions. Fuentes puts particular emphasis on a series of French writers born in Spanish America—writers who, to a greater or lesser degree, bridge the distance between the two cultures. A poem by Jules Supervielle (1884-1960), a French poet born in Uruguay, is recited by one of the characters and serves as a leitmotif for the entire novel. The poem, “The Adjacent Room,” refers to the notion, central to the plot of the novel, that there is an infinite series of contiguous possibilities for each historical event and for every personal destiny. This fantastic premise allows Distant Relations to be read as an entertaining and compelling ghost story. At the same time, by replacing a stable vision of the past with a precarious one in which alternate possibilities struggle to exist, it permits Fuentes to carry out a critical and imaginative interrogation of history.

Although the structure of Distant Relations is complex, it consists primarily of one long conversation between the Comte de Branly and the narrator, who then reports the exchange to the reader. Branly, a cultured and cosmopolitan French aristocrat, has been deeply shaken by his recent involvement with the Heredia family, and by an experience which culminated in the mysterious disappearance of twelve-year-old Victor Heredia. Branly explains that he met the Mexican archaeologist Hugo Heredia and his young son Victor while visiting the Toltec ruins of Xochicalco in Mexico. Branly was impressed by...

(The entire section is 761 words.)