Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1082

In Where the Air Is Clear, Carlos Fuentes offers a kaleidoscopic presentation, in numerous vignettes, of contemporary life in Mexico City. The title of the novel is a quotation from the work of the Mexican writer Alfonso Reyes and refers to Anahuac, the valley of Mexico, as a region where the air is clear. At least the region was so at one time, before the drying up of Lake Texcoco and modern industrialization brought dust and smog, changing what was once a high tableland with a relatively low population density into an overcrowded metropolis with air pollution.

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Fuentes’s novel is divided into three sections that are not equal in length or intent. Each section is in turn subdivided into parts, each with a title, generally the name of a character who provides the point of view for the section. Fuentes’s great contribution to this modernist technique of fragmentation of point of view is largely the novel’s use of setting, both philosophical and psychological. The novel presents a portrait of Mexico City.

In Where the Air Is Clear, myth occupies a significant place. Fuentes presents a mythical history of Mexico City and its inhabitants. The characters who represent the historical aspects of the novel are products of the Mexican revolution and, at the same time, are representative of Mexican society during the 1950’s. Federico Robles is a revolutionary turned into a conservative banker. His wife Norma Laragoiti is a social climber who marries for money. Manuel Zamacona is a brooding intellectual.

Each one of the main characters is sacrificed for the sake of a myth. It is the myth of bourgeois stability in the case of Robles the banker. It is the myth of success in the case of the poet Rodrigo Pola. It is the myth of narcissism in the case of Norma. It is the myth of the intellectual in the case of Zamacona (who dies by the pistol of a deadly drunk while trying to buy gas to escape from Acapulco). All myths, the author demonstrates, are false; all are deadly; all are projections of human desires.

Ancestral voices and indigenous mythologies are very powerful in the novel. For Fuentes, myth combines past, present, and future. As a creator and perpetuator of myths, Fuentes builds a modern version of ancient patterns, including rituals of sacrifice and battles between male and female principles. In the narrative, these ancestral voices link the reader not only with the past, present, and future but also with the universe. Fuentes works within the universal time of myth and within the limited, linear, and subjective time of individual history. In Where the Air Is Clear, the mythic mode predominates.

Ixca Cienfuegos (the name combines the Aztec and the Spanish; the surname means “hundred fires”) moves through the novel as a unifying consciousness, a force for the elicitation of truth and a bearer of transcendence. He symbolizes Mexico’s past, a mythical Mexico that still believes in ritual and in sacrifice as the only way to redemption. The Mexican people have been chosen by the gods to keep the sun moving so that humanity may survive. Without sacrifices this would be impossible. Norma and Zamacona are sacrificed.

This revelation of the mythical nature of Mexican history is accomplished by the use of image and of metaphor. The characters, the city, the action, and the plot are all expressed by uniting two worlds, that of the remote past and that of the present. The interactions among the characters representing both cultures become the central technique of mythmaking. History and myth balance each other to give the novel equilibrium.

Cienfuegos listens to the stories of many characters who are incarnations of Mexican history, constituting a landscape of moral, psychological, and social destiny. There are the revolutionary turned tycoon, the aristocratic woman frozen in nostalgia and sexlessness, the ambitious young woman from the provinces, the self-pitying unsuccessful poet, the aged avatar of Mexico’s pagan past, and the lower-class youth yearning murderously for some way to feel alive.

All of these characters also function on another level within the novel’s narrative. There is tension between their existence as specific examples of Mexican society and the deeper truth that Cienfuegos extracts from them. Interlocked, their destinies unfold in extreme violence. One by one, the shameful and false routes to social standing are blocked. On the other hand, the innocent, the ones who have remained true to themselves, suffer deaths of terrifying meaninglessness.

Fuentes presents many aspects of Mexican life in the novel, all, in one way or another, a reflection of the impact of the revolution on the city and its people. There is nostalgia for prerevolutionary Mexico City, the city of palaces that was orderly and reasonable, and for the times of Porfirio Díaz. There is the betrayal and fear in the death of Gervasio Pola, father of the poet Rodrigo, who leaves his wife and dies facing the firing squad with the three companions he betrayed. There is the somewhat inhuman curiosity of Cienfuegos, who takes a sadistic delight in trying to make people face the truth about themselves. Through it all, there is the brutally frank presentation of a thoroughly tawdry society, mestizo and rootless. Finally, the question, posed by the author himself—What is the origin and identity of Mexico?—is unanswerable, and the reader is left only with questions.

In Where the Air Is Clear, an extraordinary and influential first novel, Fuentes attempts a “biography of a city” and a synthesis of Mexico. The novel contains insights into a country whose social revolution soon ceases to be truly revolutionary. Everyone—oppressed and oppressors—is represented in rapid, cinematic scenes. Through this spectrum of characters, the author seeks the essence of the modern Mexican among a collection of people and finds no shared philosophy or sense of purpose, nothing to prevent the strong from preying on the weak.

The novel is an attempt to extricate a living imagination from the entombed, self-devouring Mexican consciousness, forever mourning its divided past, incessantly projecting its possible future, and torn between its ill-defined cultural heritage and the influence of more advanced societies. Fuentes’s wish is to understand and to create images of the metamorphoses that the Mexican spirit has undergone, to work his way through old myths in search of a more viable new one, and finally to emerge at some point where form and experience cooperate to raise an adequate philosophical and psychological structure.

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Critical Overview