Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 820

Fuentes' debut novel has inspired much criticism with its experimental narrative technique, its combination of history, anthropology, sociology, music, and cinema, and its soul-felt critique of modern Mexico. Some critics recognized the author's imaginative and powerful style as revolutionary in Latin American literature, while others rebuked his storytelling strategies. In a review for the New Yorker, Anthony West writes of Where the Air Is Clear: "With the bravery of a young man, Senor Fuentes has cleared all ideas of what a novel ought to be from his mind and has decided, quite simply, to put what is it to be Mexican, and all of Mexico, in this book.’’ West further praises the way Fuentes leaves the construction of his ‘‘social mosaic’’ to the reader, despite the author's being "not the most polished and assured of writers.'' On the other hand, Richard Gilman's article for Commonweal describes the novel as a poor ‘‘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.’’ Gilman, after comparing the Mexican and Russian revolutions, further calls Fuentes ‘‘neither Turgenev nor a Dostoyevsky’’ and states that the form and the experience of the novel ‘‘don't hold together’’ in its passionate but stylistically ineffective narration.

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However, the majority of criticism recognized the connection between Fuentes' work and the contemporary modern techniques, such as the visual processes employed by John Dos Passos in the U.S.A. Trilogy : in ‘‘The Guerilla Dandy,’’ by Enrique Krauze, the novel is called "an important step in Mexican narrative [that] acclimatized the genre of the urban novel.’’ Also, many critics have pointed out with Krauze the link between Fuentes and ‘‘that great actor of painting, Diego Rivera‘‘—another author of ‘‘immense texts and murals that proceed more by accumulation and schematic juxtaposition than by imaginative connection.’’ According to the creative strengths in this comparison, "the best of Fuentes is in the verbal avalanche of his prose'' and the almost cinematic composition of his narrative, cutting from one ambient to another in a thorough coverage of the life of Mexico City.

In his chapter in Carlos Fuentes: A Critical View, Luis Leal writes that the author follows the distinctive models of William Faulkner, Malcolm Lowry, and Miguel Angel Asturias—authors who utilize mythology in their fiction, ‘‘either as a form or theme in the context of the realistic novel.’’ Fuentes elaborates on this model by applying the technique to write ‘‘creative history,’’ Leal points out, in which history and myth keep the novel in equilibrium by balancing each other.

The readings and critical interpretations of the author's voice in his debut novel vary greatly. Saul Maloff, in Saturday Review, describes Where the Air Is Clear as impressive because Fuentes writes "always as an artist, never as an ideologist'' about a socially dense scene "that is so often the undoing of the 'political' novelist.’’ On the other hand, Fernanda Eberstadt calls the novel "marred by authorial self-indulgence and pretentiousness'' that turns the work into ‘‘a highly self-conscious melange of advertising slogans, refrains from popular songs, and overheard fragments of cocktail-party chitchat.’’ However, she does praise the novel as energetic storytelling despite Fuentes' "efforts to smother it in affectation.’’

Other theoretical reviews focused on the philosophical concepts present within the novel's thematic motifs. In an article for Comparative Literature, Maarten van Delden writes that Where the Air Is Clear contains two main philosophical perspectives: first, a view of self derived "primarily from existentialist ideas found in the works of Andre Gide, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Albert Camus,’’ and second, the view of self as part of the communal mythical past. The highly individualist existentialist self is ‘‘discontinuous, contingent, wholly unaffected by any kind of socio-cultural conditioning permanently separated from a stable and enduring core of meaning''; the other self, that of collective consciousness, "loses all vestiges of autonomy [and] the individual merges entirely with the communal past, specifically with Mexico's Aztec heritage.’’ Van Delden points out certain similarities between Fuentes' novel and the works by existentialist authors; he also analyzes the two philosophical views as embodied in the novel's characters, specifically Ixca as the symbol of the communal self-identity and Rodrigo as the existentialist presence. By the end of the novel, both of these characters fail in finding themselves in their respective theoretical niches: Ixca rejects Teodula's domination and the imposed life with Rosa, while Rodrigo, after attempting to embrace an existentialist existence, finally gives into the world and its principles of operation and becomes a successful businessman.

Overall, the criticism of Where the Air Is Clear has pointed out the novel's controversial elements, placed the work in perspective of its influences, shown its effects on the development of Latin American and modern literature in general, and recognized Fuentes as a prominent figure in contemporary literature.

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