Where the Air Is Clear

by Carlos Fuentes

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The Narrative Values of the Characters of Where the Air Is Clear

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1960

Many elements of Fuentes' writing style have been examined by various critics of Where the Air Is Clear, but the most prominent feature of the novel proves to be its characters. Fuentes makes the individual carriers of the story crucial to the plot, which relies on their memories and resulting actions; indeed, the characters' names are used as titles for most of the novel's chapters. Characters are thus labeled as necessary for the flow of the story, but on a deeper level, they also function as symbols for the many parts of the versatile and elusive identity of Mexico City. The symbolism of individual characters serves as an eloquent expression of Fuentes' view of his country's society.

The novel's main character and a thread that connects all the rest, Ixca Cienfuegos is a mysterious avenger of the Aztec gods: he causes destruction in the lives of other characters, in search of a blood sacrifice to appease the ancient deities. Ixca embodies pre-Columbian Mexico and claims that the past holds the key to the nation's authentic, original identity. However, even Ixca has individual problems with his own identity: he decidedly follows his mother's instructions and firmly believes in the ancient spirituality, to the extent that he withdraws to live in poverty with a widow once the sacrifice has been performed. However, Ixca goes through a crisis of faith at the novel's end: he reappears and almost gets himself and Rodrigo killed, shouting and laughing hysterically because his revenge obviously did not cause desired social changes. Ixca is enigmatic, confident, evasive, and difficult to define; other characters most often fear him on an intuitive level and one even compares him to an all-seeing god. He is anything and everything, from business adviser, to go-between, to gigolo; he makes friends, obtains their confessions and memories, and eventually betrays them, bringing about their ruin. Rosa's son escapes in panic when Ixca offers to buy him dinner; his mistress Norma is afraid of his cool temperament and disregard for the social factors that her life revolves around; and Junior tells his girlfriend Pichi: ‘‘Let's see, Cienfuegos, and be careful there. I'll keep him away from you,’’ when they encounter Ixca at a party. Like the deeply buried ancient heritage of the bloodthirsty Aztec gods, Ixca too is to be feared by the descendants of the conquistadors. The scene in which his mother takes the coffins from her basement and paints the skeletons of Ixca's father and siblings in an ancient death ritual is all the more horrific for Ixca's calm acceptance of it; in fact, he seems to be perfectly comfortable only in that ceremonial setting.

Another way in which Ixca functions as a symbol of the pre-Hispanic Mexican culture is presented in his monologues: in the beginning of the book, he introduces himself as a somewhat universal inhabitant of Mexico City; throughout the book, he often serves as a channel for the memories of other characters, even when they refuse to talk to him (like Pimpinela and Mercedes); and at the novel's end, his monologue extends beyond his person to envelop all of the city's history, material and spiritual contents, and people, in a surreal flow of words: ‘‘names which could be clotted with blood and gold, rounded names, pointed names, lights of stars, ink-mummied names, names dripping like drops of your unique mascara, that of your anonymity, face flesh hiding fleshed faces, the thousand faces, one mask Acamapichtli, Cortes, Sor Juana, Itzcoatl, Juarez, Tezozomoc, Gante, Ilhuicamina, Madero...’’ This all-inclusive narrative style speaks of another ancient concept, that of a collective voice of the city; Ixca represents the communal sense of self of the distant past. Ixca asks Rodrigo to choose between the then and the now by saying that alienation comes with modernization: ‘‘Over here you will be anonymous, a brother to everyone in solitude. Over there you will have your name, and in the crowd nobody will touch you, and you will not touch anybody.’’

Along with Ixca, the characters of his mother Teodula, the prostitute Gladys, and the blind Hortensia also symbolize the Aztec heritage. Teodula, completely immersed in the world of the past, believes wholeheartedly in the ancient world as ever-present and just waiting to reemerge and overthrow the false modern "gods'' of the bourgeoisie. Gladys symbolizes the estranged heritage of the twentieth-century Aztec descendants, who live in poverty and envy the ‘‘new gods’’ of the city's jet set; she also signifies poverty, hopelessness, and fatalistic passivity. Hortensia, unlike Ixca and Teodula, represents the positive, accepting and nourishing qualities of the Mexican spiritual past; she does not cause Federico's downfall, but patiently awaits it and offers him redemption in her love.

Federico Robles, another major character who embodies a part of Mexican identity as a descendant of the indigenous Indians, rejects his origins and strives to become as modern as possible. After making important government connections during and after the Mexican revolution, Federico establishes himself as a successful businessman through unscrupulous machinations. Once he is catapulted to a prominent position, Federico does everything he can to affirm his new status: he marries Norma to give him elegance and class, has the business headquarters of his industrial empire in an ultra-modern (and ultra-tall) building, wears silk ties and expensive suits, and even lightens his features with facial powder. Federico symbolizes the modern Mexico, which, in a desperate effort to distance itself from the origins of poverty and anonymity of peasant life, forgets that the revolution was fought for the freedom and empowerment of the lower classes. The hardships Federico had endured in his youth and during the revolution must be erased if he is to be fully accepted into the social elite; the aristocratic ideal in post-war Mexico still scrutinizes the self-made individual. His character also embodies the corruption of modernization; however, Federico remains connected with his background in his relationship with Hortensia. The actual fragility of his social status, shown in the ease of his financial success and collapse, symbolizes the underlying instability of every social class in the new society.

Other characters in the nouveau riches group who reject Mexico's past and fully invest in the future are Federico's wife Norma, the attorney Roberto Regules, and most of the jet set of Bobo's parties. Norma also comes from a poor background, but manages to build herself up for life at the social peak. With her beauty, education, charm, and high-class manners, she manages to marry into the standing she desires, but her life feels empty. Roberto is a version of Federico without scruples, a political and professional shark concerned only with maintaining his own status, increasing his own wealth, and keeping up appearances.

A character embodying the leftover Porfirian elite, Dona Lorenza is a haughty old lady living in expectations of a revolution that would put her class back on top. When Porfirio Diaz fled to Paris, the aristocratic class followed in exile to Europe and the United States, most of them losing all their possessions in Mexico due to socialist reforms. Lorenza's husband had enough foresight to maneuver out of this predicament, and maintain his family in wealth; but after his death, the next generation of de Ovandos brings about absolute financial collapse and they return to Mexico.

While her niece Pimpinela has managed to adapt to the circumstances and successfully trades "class for cash,'' Lorenza lives in denial of the new world around her: she raises her grandson exclusively as an aristocrat, without any useful skills, and tries to maintain her prestige when Norma (in her flashing mink and pearls) comes for dinner. The family of de Ovandos is dying out in alcoholism, loneliness, and sterility, except for Pimpinela who marries a nouveau riche. The character of Lorenza signifies the destructive lack of flexibility that ruins her social class, as it did their dictator.

Two characters represent the intellectual layer of new Mexico City: Rodrigo Pola, an unsuccessful poet turned successful screenplay writer, and Manuel Zamacona, also a poet and the novel's "intellectual spokesperson,’’ who according to Wendy Faris in Carlos Fuentes presents "the ideas of Octavio Paz and other essayists of the post-revolutionary period.’’ Indeed, Paz' The Labyrinth of Solitude serves as a kind of pre-text for Where the Air Is Clear.

Rodrigo embodies the self-doubt, identity crisis, and a social class in ‘‘conflict between conformity and rebellion,’’ as stated by Maarten Van Delden in Carlos Fuentes, Mexico, and Modernity. His personality reflects the existentialist beliefs, then prevalent in France, that emphasized the themes of anxiety and superfluity and regarded the essence of human life as unchangeable by its social environment. The selfish individuality of Rodrigo's character shows in his desperate attempts to define his own uniqueness: he leaves his mother because he needs independence of thought, and walks away from the literary group at the university because he feels he has a different destiny. Although Ixca believes that Rodrigo has suicidal tendencies, the poet confesses to himself that he wants to live. Finally, Rodrigo does what is necessary for success: he throws away his existentialist ideals and makes a fortune writing movie scripts. Manuel, on the other hand, maintains his belief system and even manages to touch the conscience of Federico (Manuel does not know that Frederico is his father) in a discussion of the true effects of the revolution and the economic growth afterward. However, Manuel's senseless death symbolizes the fatalistic, destructive nature and future of the new Mexico. His literal and Rodrigo's intellectual death signify the failure of spiritual renewal through philosophical and artistic idealism.

Finally, the identity of the bottom social class exists in the character of Gabriel, a working-class son who spends most of the year in California, working illegally and earning just enough to support his family. Gabriel embodies the always-present anger of the poor, looking for an outlet in drinking and violence. He is the representative of the working class who did not get a slice of the post-revolutionary rags-to-riches dream, like Federico and Norma. Also, like Gladys, Gabriel does not have a way to reach the upper classes except in absurd imitations of their behaviors: he brings his mother a blender from America, but forgets that there is no electricity in his house. In a conversation with a friend, Gabriel compares the inequality in the American social hierarchy to the immobile structure in Mexico: "So what if [Americans] don't let you in their crappy restaurant? You able to get in the Ambassador in Mexico City?’’ Gabriel wants to find a stable job in the city so he can earn a living and stay with his family, but dies trying. His destiny foreshadows that of Gladys, who cannot get a job at the store and is getting old for prostitution. Both characters embody the hopelessness of Mexico's lowest classes.

As Faris pointed out, Fuentes provides Alejo Carpentier with an urban geography of a Latin American city similar in universal resonance to James Joyce's Dublin through the infrastructure visible and invisible. She considers that the connections occur through characters; however, those connections happen under very precise conditions. Further, the interactions almost always fail to contribute to a sense of national identity sought after by the characters and the author himself. Divided by their beliefs, racial and social origins, philosophies and professions, the inhabitants of Fuentes' Mexico often fail to recognize what they all have in common: a pursuit of an authentic and welcoming city of freedom and honest opportunities for all, and—of course—plenty of clear air.

Source: Jeremy W. Hubbell, in an essay for Literature of Developing Nations for Students, Gale, 2000.
Hubbell, with an M.Litt from the University of Aberdeen, currently pursues a Ph.D. in history at the State University of New York, Stony Brook.

Myth, Contingency, and Revolution in Carlos Fuentes's La region mas transparente

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7828

La región Más Transparente (1958), Carlos Fuentes's first novel, oscillates between two different perspectives on the nature of the self and its relations to history and the community. On the one hand, the novel outlines a view of the self that derives primarily from existentialist ideas found in the works of André Gide, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Albert Camus. In this view, the self is discontinuous, contingent, wholly unaffected by any kind of socio-cultural conditioning, permanently separated from a stable and enduring core of meaning—and it is precisely for this reason that it possesses an absolute freedom to mold itself into constantly new shapes. On the other hand, the novel proposes a vision in which the self loses all its vestiges of autonomy; the individual merges entirely with the communal past, specifically with Mexico's Aztec heritage. This past is viewed as the origin and ground of an unalterable, culturally determined identity to which the self is inextricably attached. I will proceed to examine the conflict between these two views on a number of textual levels, after which I will conclude by arguing that the rather remarkable final section of the novel constitutes an attempt to resolve this conflict through the aesthetic embodiment of a concept of revolution. Fuentes expresses his vision of revolution by means of an inventive appropriation of the modernist technique of "spatial form.'' I will also show how the concept of revolution evolves in Fuentes's more recent work.

Toward the end of La región más tranparente, Manuel Zamacona, the novel's intellectual spokesman, is senselessly murdered by a man he has never seen before. Afterwards, the killer coolly states that he did not like the way Zamacona had looked at him. The incident is reminiscent of the acte gratuit motif as it appears in the works of Gide, Sartre, and Camus. Fuentes himself suggested a link with the existentialist tradition in a 1966 interview with Emir Rodríguez Monegal. In speaking of how the social and cultural realities of Mexico had somehow managed to anticipate certain artistic and philosophical currents in Europe and the United States, Fuentes made the following observation:

Hay un existencialismo avant la lettre, y muy obvio. México es un país del instante. El mañana es totalmente improbable, peligroso: te pueden matar en una cantina, a la vuelta de una esquina, porque miraste feo, porque comiste un taco. Vives el hoy porque el mañana es improbable. (‘‘Diálogo’’)

Fuentes's comment can be read as a gloss on the scene of Zamacona's death, which stands, then, as an illustration of the existentialist quality of Mexican life.

However, the existentialist act in La región is presented in a manner radically different from similar incidents in the works of Fuentes's French precursors. Lafcadio Wluiki's gratuitous murder of a complete stranger—whom he pushes out of a moving train—in Gide's Les caves du Vatican (1914) and Meursault's unmotivated killing of an Arab in Camus's L'étranger (1942) are by no means identical actions, but what they have in common is that in each case the perpetrator is at the center of the narrative. The events are related from Lafcadio's and Meursault's points of view. In Fuentes, on the other hand, the perspective is completely inverted: the victim is the protagonist and the killer remains a shadowy, indistinct figure on the margins of the narrative.

The symmetry of this inversion is reinforced by a number of other details connected with Lafcadio's acte gratuit in Les caves du Vatican. Even before he thrusts his victim out of the train, Lafcadio has been planning to leave Europe for what he calls ‘‘un nouveau monde,’’ the islands of Java and Borneo. And as he begins to speculate on the possibility of committing this unusual crime, he reminds himself that, in any case, the next day he will be "en route pour les îles,'' and so will never be found out. In this way, my two projects, the gratuitous murder and the voyage to a faraway place, become linked together. Both are strategies for asserting one's freedom, for rejecting the old, oppressive ways of Europe. "Que tout ce qui peut être soit!' C'est comme ça que je m'explique la Création...,’’ Lafcadio exclaims at one point, and throughout the novel he remains intent on demonstrating his love for what he calls ‘‘ce qui pourrait être ...’’ The desire to transgress all limits, to expand the realm of the possible, is expressed both in geographical terms, in the plan to flee to the East Indies, and in ethical terms, in the unmotivated murder of a stranger. Both projects are ways of affirming that one is bound by nothing. Or, as Camus put it in L'homme révolté (1951): ‘‘La théorie de l’acte gratuit couronne la revendication de la liberté absolue.’’

In La región, Natasha, an aging singer from St. Petersburg, alerts us to a difference between Mexico and Europe that speaks directly to this question of freedom and the transgression of limits:

Por lo menos a nosotros nos queda siempre eso: la posibilidad de s'enfuir de buscar el lá-bas. El Dorado fuera de nuestro continente. ¿Pero ustedes? Ustedes no, mon vieux, ustedes no tienen su là-bas, ya están en él, ya están en su límite. Yen él tienen que escoger, vero?

In Gide, the idea of the limit depends on a more fundamental conceptual division of the world into a center (Europe) and a periphery (the non-European parts of the globe). From the perspective of the center, the existence of the periphery guarantees the possibility of freedom and escape. From the periphery itself, however, things look very different. If one's existence is perceived as already being at the limit, then the possibility of further displacement is eliminated. The result is the undoing of the very concept of the limit, and the collapse of the chain of analogies whereby a writer such as Gide links the notion of the limit to the ideas of the escape to a new world, the acte gratuit, and freedom. This emerges very clearly in the case of Zamacona's death. Fuentes does not use the incident to demonstrate the absolute nature of individual freedom. Instead, with the focus now on the victim, the scene evokes the old Latin American theme of a violent and hostile environment from which there is no escape. And even if we were to extract from this episode a different kind of existentialist motif—such as the notion of the absurd—such elements would exist in a state of tension with the larger narrative pattern into which the episode is absorbed. For Zamacona is only one of many of the novel's characters who suffer a violent death on Independence Day, and this juxtaposition of death and celebration is clearly designed to recall the ancient Aztec belief that human sacrifices are necessary to ensure the continuity of life. The series of deaths at the end of the novel hints at the persistence of these mythical patterns beneath the surface of modern Mexico and at the fragility of the individual in the face of such forces.

This reading of Zamacona's death is at odds with the interpretation Fuentes himself offers in the interview with Rodríguez Monegal, where he proposes that we regard it as evidence of the instantaneousness of Mexican life, and not, as I have just suggested, of the continued power of ancient cosmogonies beneath the country's veneer of modernity. In fact, Fuentes never wholly eliminates either of these two possible readings. Two details in the scene of Zamacona's death indicate how Fuentes tries to hold together these alternative interpretations. First, when Zamacona gets out from his car and approaches the cantina, he recites a line from Nerval to himself: ‘‘et c'est toujours la seule—ou c'est le seul moment...’’ Nerval's idea that each moment in time is unique anticipates the existentialist conception of time, in which every instant is a new creation, disconnected from past and future. This notion of temporality is a focal point of Sartre's well-known analysis of Camus's L'étranger. Sartre describes Meursault as a man for whom ‘‘Seul le présent compte, le concret'' (Situations, I). He links this vision of time to Camus's absurdist world-view in which God is dead and death is everything: "La présence de la mort au bout de notre route a dissipé notre avenir en fumée, notre vie est 'sans lendemain,' c'est une succession de présents.’’ Fuentes's use of the quotation from Nerval seems designed to allude to such ideas about time, and thus to prepare us for the sudden, inexplicable flare-up of violence that leaves Zamacona dead.

But if this leads to a view of Zamacona's death as an absurd, meaningless event, another feature of this episode suggests a quite different point of view: the emphasis on the eyes and on the act of seeing. Zamacona's killer, as I observed earlier, justifies his deed by saying that he did not like the way Zamacona had looked at him. Furthermore, the only mention of the murderer's appearance is of his eyes:

Uno de los hombres le dio la cara a Manuel Zamacona; desprendido como un trompo de la barra de madera, con los ojos redondos y sumergidos de canica, disparó su pistola dos, tres, cinco veces sobre el cuerpo de Zamacona.

The killer's submerged and marble-like eyes link him to the realm of the invisible, subsisting beneath the surface existence of Fuentes's Mexico. Invisibility is generally associated in La región with Mexico's origins in its pre-Hispanic past, a connection captured most vividly in the figure of Hortensia Chacón, the blind woman who leads the powerful self-made banker Federico Robles back to his indigenous roots. Hortensia represents the beneficent side of the dark world beneath the country's semblance of progress and modernity. The killer, on the other hand, represents the violent, menacing side of this world: figuratively blind where Hortensia is literally so, this anonymous figure wishes to punish Zamacona for the look in his eyes, that is, for his location within the visible world of modern Mexico. Wanting to blind him as much as to kill him, he demonstrates the enduring power of Mexico's past.

There can be little doubt that the manner of Zamacona's death reveals the persistence of an atavistic violence lurking beneath the country's surface life. The question that remains unanswered, however, is whether this violence remains integrated with ancient cosmological rhythms, or whether it has lost its connection with ritual and has been expelled into a world of existential absurdity. This ambiguity is sustained in the development of the novel's plot after Zamacona's death.

It is difficult to ignore the connection between Ixca Cienfuegos's search, at his mother's behest, for a sacrificial victim with which to propitiate the gods, and the series of deaths that occur toward the end of the novel. But we can never be entirely sure that the sacrifices really are sacrifices, nor that they are responsible for a renewal of the life-cycle. Ixca's mother, Teódula Moctezuma, for her part, does not question the significance of these events. After Norma Larragoiti dies in the fire that burns down her house, Teódula tells Ixca that she believes the sacrifice has now been fulfilled, and that the normal course of life will be resumed. At the same moment, as if to confirm Teódula's vision of life's rebirth, the sun begins to rise.

Fuentes does not always represent this idea of cyclical return with such solemnity. While Part Two of the novel concludes with the destruction or downfall of many of the central characters, Part Three resumes three years later with the description of a young couple falling in love. But both Jaime Ceballos and Betina Régules have such stale and conventional natures that we inevitably sense an element of the parodic in this vision of life's regeneration. The effect is reinforced when the scene shifts again to a party hosted by Bobó Gutiérrez, whom we observe greeting his guests with the exact same words he had used approximately three years earlier, near the beginning of the novel: ‘‘¡Caros! Entren a aprehender las eternas verdades.’’ Bobó's eternal truths are clearly a mockery. We recognize here not return and renewal, but paralysis and decay.

Fuentes leaves his readers suspended between a world ruled by profound mythological rhythms, and an alternative, modern world of drift and contingency. He never fully decides which of these two pictures is finally truer to the reality of Mexico. This same conflict shapes the meditation on identity and authenticity that receives novelistic form through the contrasting careers of Ixca Cienfuegos and Rodrigo Pola. Although two other characters, Federico Robles and Manuel Zamacona, are also central to the development of this theme, I shall focus on Ixca and Rodrigo, since their confrontation after Bobó's last party effectively brings the plot of the novel to a close, thus suggesting the importance of these two figures to Fuentes's articulation of the problem of subjectivity.

Rodrigo Pola is an emblematic modern personality—a type toward the definition of which the existentialists made a significant contribution. Rodrigo's connection with this tradition of the modern self is clear from the first words he speaks. Into a discussion about the social function of art, he interjects the following observation: ‘‘No todos tenemos que ser el cochino hombre de la calle o, por oposición, un homme révolté ....’’ While Rodrigo appears to reject the opposition he posits here, these words in fact encapsulate the defining axis of his personality, a conflict between conformity and rebellion. The allusion to Camus is clearly meant to recall the existentialist emphasis on subjectivity, on the need for individuals to create their own values without reference to a realm of a priori truths or to society's received notions. Initially, Rodrigo's actions are guided by a similar search for authentic self-definition.

As he grows up, Rodrigo—who wants to be a writer—has to struggle against the oppressive demands of his mother, Rosenda, who, having lost her husband during the Mexican Revolution, cannot bear the thought of her son also escaping from her grip. The conflict between Rodrigo and his mother revolves around the question of who creates the self and thus has power over it. Rosenda wishes the moment in which she gave birth to her son to be prolonged forever. She wants always to be the mother, the child owing its existence to her alone. Rodrigo speaks with horror of "ese deseo de beberme entero, de apresarme entre sus piernas y estar siempre, hasta la consumación de nuestras tres vidas, dándome a luz sin descanso, en un larguísimo parto de noches y días y años ....’’ To this idea of the enduring power derived from the act of giving birth to a child, Rodrigo opposes a notion of figurative birth in which the self engenders itself: ‘‘me sentí ... hijo, más que de mis padres, de mi propia, breve, sí, pero paramiúnica, incanjeableexperiencia ... ’’ In this, he appears to be heeding the existentialist exhortation to free oneself from all forms of external conditioning.

It is worth recalling, however, that there were different phases within the tradition of French existentialism. While the earlier work of Sartre and Camus tended to emphasize the absolute nature of individual freedom and favored the themes of anxiety, absurdity, and superfluousness, their later work sought to establish a more affirmative view of existentialist philosophy. In L'existentialisme est un humanisme (1946), for example, Sartre sought to demonstrate that existentialism provides a philosophical basis for an attitude of engagement with the world and commitment to one's fellow human beings. Camus's L'homme révolté interprets the act of rebellion against an intolerable situation not as an individualistic gesture, but as a sign of the fundamental truth of human solidarity. Rebellion, according to Camus, is always potentially an act of self-sacrifice, and so implies the existence of values that transcend the individual. Camus himself regarded the shift in his work from a concern with the absurd to a concern with rebellion as the sign of a new focus on the group instead of the individual: ‘‘Dans l'expérience absurde, la souffrance est individuelle. A partir du mouvement de révolte, elle a conscience d'être collective, elle est l'aventure de tous’’ (L'homme révolté). Rodrigo, by opposing ‘‘L'homme révolté’’ to man in the mass (‘‘el cochino hombre de la calle’’), evokes the more strictly individualistic side of existentialist thought. But in the course of the novel, Rodrigo's efforts to assert his own uniqueness become increasingly fruitless. This failure implies a critique of the early version of existentialism, with its one-sided emphasis on self-creation and self-renewal as the path to authentic selfhood, and its neglect of the social dimension of human life.

Rodrigo's pursuit of a total freedom from all external constraints leads first to feelings of alienation and inauthenticity, and eventually to a complete turnaround, an unconditional surrender to society's norms of success.

In one episode, we see Rodrigo making faces at himself in the mirror, rapidly shifting expressions, ‘‘hasta sentir que su rostro y el reflejado eran dos, distintos, y tan alejados entre sí como la luna verdadera que nadie conoce y su reflejo quebrado en un estanque.’’ This scene recalls a similar moment in La nausée where Roquentin studies his reflection in a mirror and is struck by the incomprehensible, alien appearance of his own face Fuentes's adaptation of this motif suggests a similar perspective on the impossibility of discovering a stable, continuous identity, and the consequent susceptibility of the self to being constantly remolded into new shapes. For a moment, Rodrigo seems to recoil from his performance; he feels an urge to sit down and write, to leave what he calls "una sola constancia verdadera.'' Ironically enough, the text he produces articulates a theory of the self as a mask, a form of play. Everything becomes arbitrary and gratuitous. The self is cast loose from any serious attachment, even from that most fundamental attachment, the body itself. Thus, Rodrigo is at one point led to assert that it is a matter of indifference whether one's face is, in actual fact, ugly or beautiful; the act of self-creation can apply even to one's physical appearance. The material world, even in its most primary manifestation, is fully subject to the individual will: "El problema consiste en saber cómo se imagina uno su propia cara. Que la cara sea, en realidad, espantosa o bella, no importa. Todo es imaginarse la propia cara interesante, fuerte, definida, o bien imaginarla ridícula, tonta y fea.’’

If the theory of the mask is initially designed to free the self from all forms of predetermination, then Rodrigo's radical application of this principle appears to produce the opposite result. Rodrigo himself eventually recognizes that the histrionic self-display into which he has fallen effectively obliterates the possibility of achieving genuine freedom; he admits that he has become a captive of his own game: ‘‘Se vuelve uno esclavo de su propio juego, el movimiento supera y condena a la persona que lo inició, y entonces sólo importa el movimiento; uno es llevado y traido por él, más que agente, elemento.’’

A few pages later, the description of a thunderstorm dramatizes the extent of Rodrigo's estrangement from the world:

La tormenta lo envolvía en una percusión líquida, implacable. Arriba, el espacio se canjeaba a sí mismo estruendos, luz sombría: todos los mitos y símbolos fundados en la aparición de la naturaleza se concentraban en el cielo potente, ensamblador de un poderío oculto. Resonaba el firmamento con una tristeza ajena a cualquier circunstancia: no gratuita, sino suficiente.

Fuentes's conception of the natural world, as it emerges from this passage, has important implications for his view of the status of the perceiving subject. The storm's concentrated, implacable power, its relation to the deep, continuous rhythms of nature, and its aura of timelessness are at the farthest possible remove from the inconsequentiality and arbitrariness that define Rodrigo's relations to himself and to the world. The implications of this contrast for Fuentes's larger view of the self can perhaps be sensed most clearly through a comparison with certain passages in Sartre's La nausée that deal with the same issues.

Fuentes's use of the pathetic fallacy encourages a view of the realms of the human and the non-human as deeply interrelated. The reference to the sky's occult powers may appear to lift the natural world to a position that transcends the human, but it also implies that nature is pregnant with meanings that are of great consequence to human life. The use of the verb "envolver'' defines the exact nature of the relationship: it is impossible to think of human beings as separate from the universe in which they live.

Roquentin, in La nausée, recognizes this human inclination to search for connections between ourselves and the physical world, to treat it, for example, as a text waiting for its meaning to be unveiled. At one point he describes a priest walking along the seaside as he reads from his breviary: "Par instants il léve la téte et regarde la mer d'un air approbateur: la mer aussi est un bréviaire, elle parle de Dieu.’’ But Roquentin furiously rejects this attempt at humanization: "La vraie mer est froide et noire, pleine de bêtes; elle rampe sous cette mince pellicule verte qui est faite pour tromper les gens.’’ In La nausée the world of objects and natural processes does not envelop the human world in a transcendent, protective manner; instead, it is conceived as a realm of brute, unredeemable fact from which a lucid consciousness will recoil in horror.

If Rodrigo is a failed existentialist, part of the explanation may lie in the way Fuentes has stacked the deck against him. In a world where natural phenomena exude such a compelling and inscrutable sense of purpose and power, the individual can hardly presume to play God with his own existence. Fuentes has created a character with existentialist features, but has placed him in a setting entirely different from the kind that would have been envisioned by the existentialists themselves. As a result, the existentialist project is effectively invalidated.

Ixca Cienfuegos represents, on the level of character, the same mythical forces which Fuentes evokes through his description of the thunderstorm. Ixca, whose first name derives from the Nahuatl word for bake, or cook, and whose last name alludes to the original time in Aztec mythology when fires lit up the universe, is a shadowy yet central presence in the novel. One character compares him to God because of his seeming omnipresence. Ixca's search for a sacrificial victim is part of an attempt to reintegrate Mexican society into a sacred, cosmic order, and thus to overcome the kind of self-division and self-estrangement suffered by a typical product of the modern world such as Rodrigo. The contrast between the two men emerges clearly in the description of an early evening walk they take along the Paseo de la Reforma:

Rodrigo miraba como el polvo se acumulaba en los zapatos amarillos. Se sentía consciente de todos sus movimientos nerviosos. Y Cienfuegos como si no caminara, como si lo fuera empujando la leve brisa de verano, como si no tuviera esas piernas, esas manos que tanto estorbaban a Rodrigo.

While Rodrigo is severely afflicted with the modern disease of self-consciousness, Ixca is entirely at ease, in possession of an unfissured consciousness that exists in harmony with the natural world. Ixca does not search for an increasingly intense awareness of his own separateness from others. He is deeply at odds with the idea of a unique, individual personality waiting to be liberated from external oppression. Fuentes shows him in an intense, sometimes conflictive relationship with his mother, in which he submits to her wishes instead of rebelling, as Rodrigo does. Ixca advocates self-forgetfulness rather than self-regard: ‘‘Olvidarse de sí, clave de las felicidades, que es olvidarse de los demás; no liberarse a sí: sojuzgar a los demás.'' His vision ultimately evolves out of his belief in the absolute nature of the nation's origins, and the priority of these origins over the claims of contemporary individuals. Mexico, he claims, "es algo fijado para siempre, incapaz de evolución. Una roca inconmovible que todo lo tolera. Todos los limos pueden crecer sobre esa roca, pero la roca en sí no cambia, es la misma, para siempre.’’ At one point, Ixca urges Rodrigo to choose between the two Mexicos, the ancient and the modern: ‘‘Acá serás anónimo, hermano de todos en la soledad. Allá tendrás tu nombre, y en la muchedumbre nadie te tocará, no tocarás a nadie.’’ The possession of a name becomes an emblem of the barren, atomistic individualism that rules over the contemporary world. In the mythical world Ixca believes in, the individual is absorbed into a larger order of fraternal belonging.

Neither Rodrigo nor Ixca offers a satisfying solution to the problem of authenticity. Rodrigo's inner restlessness seems so gratuitous and self-indulgent that it comes as no surprise to see him eventually give up his rebellion against the world. If each new mask is the result of an arbitrary choice, then why not choose the mask that will bring success and prosperity? By the end of the novel, Rodrigo has become a successful writer of screenplays for the movie industry, a hack who has cynically mastered a simple formula for success.

But if Rodrigo's cult of individuality ultimately proves fruitless and self-defeating, Ixca's violent attack on the notion of a personal life does not seem much more appealing. His behavior becomes increasingly menacing, at times literally poisonous. We may note, for example, the terror he inspires in little Jorgito Morales when he meets him outside the Cathedral and offers to buy him some candy. In order to escape from Ixca's grip, Jorgito bites his hand, drawing blood. But the next time we see him, over a hundred pages later, the boy is dead. Since it is never clear that the regeneration Ixca is after actually takes place, we are left simply with the image of a man who goes around causing havoc in the lives of others. If Rodrigo's emptiness is that of a life lived without reference to the transcendent, then Ixca displays the perhaps more sinister emptiness of someone who has voided himself of all human emotions: ‘‘en realidad Ixca se sustentaba sobre un imenso vacío, un vacío en el que ni la piedad, ni el amor, ni siquiera el odio de los demás era admitido.’’

The final confrontation between Ixca and Rodrigo, three years after the main events of the novel, brings the plot to a close, and seems designed to show that while their respective destinies are diametrically opposed, they are equally stunted and unfulfilled. While Rodrigo scales the heights of social success, Ixca disappears from Mexico City altogether, living in obscurity with Rosa Morales, the cleaning lady, and her remaining children. On the surface, Rodrigo has been transformed into a new person, yet he is haunted by the past: "¿Crees que porque estoy aquí ya no estoy allá?... ¿Crees que una nueva vida destruye a la antigua, la cancela?'' Ixca, on the other hand, while having apparently reconciled himself to the demands of the mythical past, now finds himself abandoned in the present, divided from the very past he thought he was embracing. He describes his condition in the same plaintive tones as Rodrigo: "¿Crees que recuerdo mi propia cara? Mi vida comienza todos los días ... y nunca tengo el recuerdo de lo que pasó antes."

Wendy Faris has drawn attention to Fuentes's fondness for the rhetorical figure of the chiasmus, which he employs not only at the level of individual sentences but also at the level of plot-structures. The paths followed by Rodrigo and Ixca trace a chiastic design. If at the beginning of the novel Rodrigo represents the present-oriented pole, and Ixca the past-oriented, then the final confrontation between the two men constitutes a complete reversal of this relationship. By the end of the novel, Rodrigo can no longer escape the past, while Ixca lives his life as though it were starting anew at every instant. The result of this chiastic pattern is to lead the novel into an impasse. The plot of La región offers no clear resolution to the problems of authenticity and national identity which the novel articulates.

Fuentes rejects the existentialist project of liberating the self from the past, of investing life with value simply through the agency of free individual choice, but he also rejects the attempt to provoke a return to the cultural origins of Mexico. Both these approaches to the problems of subjectivity and community are shown to be fruitless, even self-cancelling.

The novel, however, does not end with the conversation between Rodrigo and Ixca. After the two friends separate, the text undergoes a series of unusual transformations. Ixca gradually sheds his corporeality, and little by little absorbs the different facets of the surrounding city, until eventually he and the city become a single entity. In a subsequent transformation, Ixca becomes the characters of the novel itself, so that finally Ixca, the city, and the book become metaphors for one another, in an operation that may be understood as an attempt to lift the novel onto a plane distinct from ordinary narrativity. In a final transition, Ixca disappears into his own voice, but the voice that speaks in the novel's concluding chapter is one no longer tied to a particular space or time; it is a voice that aims to give a total and instantaneous vision of Mexico, as well as of the novel Fuentes has written about it.

This final chapter, entitled ‘‘La región Más Transparente del aire,’’ suggests an attempt to recapitulate and condense the novel; it is a mélange of densely metaphorical descriptions of the Mexican people, scenes from Mexican history, and echoes of the main narrative of the novel itself. The guiding conception behind this remarkable novelistic flight is the attempt to escape from linear time, to propose and embody an alternative vision of temporality in which, as Fuentes writes, "todo vive al mismo tiempo.’’ Among writers of the present century, Fuentes clearly does not stand alone in his fascination with the break with linear time. For Octavio Paz, for example, the idea of a zone of pure time, beyond chronology, provides the very basis for his definition of poetry: "El poema es mediación":

por gracia suya, el tiempo original, padre de los tiempos, encarna en un instante. La sucesión se convierte en presente puro, manantial que se alimenta a sí mismo y trasmuta al hombre (El arco y la lira).

In the area of the novel, one of the most influential codifications of the modernist aesthetic is Joseph Frank's 1945 essay ‘‘Spatial Form in Modern Literature''; it centers precisely on this attempt to create forms that are not dependent on linear, chronological methods of organization. Frank's essay, particularly his discussion of the basic features of spatial form, and the type of content it conveys, clarifies Fuentes's relationship to modernist writing. It also contributes to an understanding of the function of the novel's final chapter, in which the techniques of spatial form are most emphatically deployed and appear to constitute an effort to escape from the impasse with which the actual plot of the novel concludes.

According to Frank, in the works of poets such as Eliot and Pound, and novelists such as Joyce, Proust, and Djuna Barnes, the normal temporal unfolding of the text is repeatedly interrupted, with the result that the unity of these works is no longer located in a continuous narrative progression, but in the reflexive references and cross-references relating different points in the text to one another. The reader, in reconstructing these patterns, must ignore the aspects of temporal flow and external reference that are fundamental to more conventional works of literature. The reconstructed patterns must be perceived simultaneously, as a configuration in space. Frank goes on to argue that the most important consequence of the deployment of spatial form in literature is the erasure of a sense of historical depth. Different moments in time become locked together in a timeless unity that evokes the world of myth rather than history.

Clearly, numerous objections could be made to the concept of spatial form, in particular to the term itself, which may seem inappropriately metaphorical. My interest here, however, is not in the accuracy of the term itself, but in the narrative techniques the term was designed to describe, and in the revolt against linear, progressive time implied by the use of these techniques.

Fuentes's attempt, in La región, to disrupt the straightforward temporal flow of the novel is not restricted to the final chapter. To the extent that the novel as a whole constitutes an attempt—along the lines of James Joyce's Ulysses (1992) and John Dos Passos's Manhattan Transfer (1925)—to recreate the life of a city within its pages, the rejection of a sequential organization of the text appears entirely fitting. What Frank would call the "spatializing" technique of the juxtaposition of unrelated textual fragments corresponds to the essentially spatial entity being represented. A typical instance of this technique occurs near the beginning of Fuentes's novel, where the narrator, in a decidedly small-scale imitation of the ‘‘Wandering Rocks’’ chapter of Ulysses, traces the simultaneous activities in different parts of the city of various characters on the morning after one of Bobó's parties. The revolt against linear time is also apparent in those moments in the text when past and present are conflated within the mind of an individual character. This device is used most strikingly in the case of Federico Robles, who, as a firm believer in economic progress and a builder of post-Revolutionary Mexico, represents the attachment to the singularity of chronological time in one of its most powerful forms. Although he rejects the past, Robles nevertheless, at Ixca's urging, undertakes the perilous journey inward, and is eventually led to an almost Proustian apprehension of pure time freed from the habitual constraints of consecutiveness. In one scene, while making love to Hortensia, Robles bites the woman's hair, an act that suddenly evokes an image from the day he fought at the battle of Celaya during the Mexican Revolution, and bit the reins of his horse as he rode into the fray. The merging of past and present is underscored by the paratactic arrangement of the following two sentences: ‘‘Llano ensangrentado de Celaya. Cuerpo húmedo y abierto de Hortensia.’’ Robles's vision is particularly significant since it seems to be at least partly responsible for his decision to abandon his public role as a powerful financier in the nation's capital and return to his obscure roots in the country. His decision constitutes an explicit rejection of the rigorously linear time of economic progress.

The important question is whether, as Frank would argue, the disruption of a continuous temporal progression within a narrative necessarily implies a return to the timeless world of myth. It seems doubtful, if only because it is not altogether clear why we should be locked into a binary opposition between history conceived purely in a linear fashion, on the one hand, and myth as the eternal repetition of the same, on the other. The question, then, is what purpose does Fuentes's use of these techniques serve? In answering, I want to focus in particular on the relationship between the main body of the narrative and the poetic finale with which it concludes. One of the most remarkable features of La región is that while most of the devices Frank enumerates in his article on spatial form are in evidence throughout the novel, they are most spectacularly exploited at the end, in a manner without real equivalent in the texts Frank discusses. This does not mean, however, that the reader is now truly transported into the realm of myth. I would suggest, instead, that the final section of the novel ought to be read as an attempt to lift the text onto a completely different level, in the hope of offering a resolution to the ambiguities with which the plot concludes. Since these ambiguities center on the opposition between the mythical and the existential views of life, it seems unlikely that such a resolution would take the form of a more determined affirmation of the mythical, a move that would simply eliminate one of the poles of the opposition.

We can begin measuring Fuentes's distance from the mythical approach by looking at the principal features of Frank's definition of myth. Frank quotes Mircea Eliade, who identifies myth as a realm of ‘‘eternal repetition,’’ where time becomes ‘‘cosmic, cyclical and infinite’’ (The Widening Gyre). Frank discovers a similar emphasis on repetition and uniformity in the works of modernists such as Joyce, Eliot, and Pound, whose techniques of juxtaposition and allusion he believes underline the fundamental sameness of the human condition through the ages. Octavio Paz, in his discussion of the poetic technique of simultaneísmo (which we may regard as another term for spatial form), reaches a similar conclusion: he argues that Pound and Eliot developed their experimental poetic in order to "reconquistar la tradición de la Divina Comedia, esdecir, la tradición de Occidente’’ (Los hijos del limo). Both projects, the return to myth and the recapture of tradition, are driven by a search for cultural coherence and identity.

Fuentes has frequently discussed the notion that different temporal planes may have a simultaneous existence, but he has a very different understanding of the implications of this fact. When he discusses ‘‘la simultaneidad de los tiempos mexicanos" ("Kierkegaard en la Zona Rosa’’) which he opposes to the linearity of European time, he does not mean that the juxtaposition of these different temporal levels would reveal an underlying continuity between the various phases of Mexican history. Nor is this the effect he pursues at the end of La región. The torrent of images, names, and historical episodes he unleashes here evokes a tumultuous, unrestrained multiplicity. In the same essay Fuentes writes that Mexican time "se divierte con nosotros, se revierte contra nosotros, se invierte en nosotros, se subvierte desde nosotros, se convierte en nombre nuestro.'' These verbs describe not continuity and coherence, but an unceasing process of metamorphosis. He argues that the simultaneous existence in Mexico of all historical levels results from a decision of the land and its people to maintain alive all of time, for the simple reason that ‘‘ningún tiempo se ha cumplido aún’’ Fuentes's Mexican past, in other words, is profoundly different from the past to which the Anglo-American modernists wished to return. It offers not the fullness of an established tradition, but a variety of unfinished projects. Fuentes attacks the proponents of modernization in Mexico, with their cult of the present and of progress, for having suppressed this feature of Mexican time. To return to the cultural and historical multiplicity of Mexico constitutes an act of liberation, a rebellion against the enslaving prejudices of modernity. Fuentes believes that such a rebellion in fact took place during the Mexican Revolution:

Sólo la Revolución—y por eso, a pesar de todo, merece una R mayúscula—hizo presente todos los pasados de México. Lo hizo instantáneamente, como si supiera que no sobraría tiempo para esta fiesta de encarnaciones. (‘‘Kierkegaard’’)

This view of the Mexican Revolution is explicitly expressed in La región by Manuel Zamacona, who declares at one point that "La Revolución nos descubre la totalidad de la historia de México,’’ a statement that exactly replicates statements Fuentes has made elsewhere in his own name. It is an idea that can be traced to Octavio Paz, who in El laberinto de la soledad described the Mexican Revolution as ‘‘un movimiento tendiente a reconquistar nuestro pasado, asimilarlo y hacerlo vivo en el presente.’’ My argument is that at the end of La región, Fuentes tries to reproduce on the aesthetic level this revolutionary resuscitation of Mexico's many-sided past. He creates a textual model of ferment, upheaval, and open-endedness. This vision of the simultaneous coexistence of all times overturns the linear approach to time represented by Rodrigo Pola, and by the new Mexican bourgeoisie's deification of progress. But the constant process of change and dispersal implied by this vision of time as "fiesta'' also subverts the obsession with the unity and singularity of origins expressed in the figure of Ixca Cienfuegos. Fuentes's alternative is his concept of revolutionary time, a vision of simultaneity that promises freedom and possibility, but does not dispense with a strong sense of the shaping powers of the past. This paradoxical fusion of freedom and necessity, of futurity and pastness, is made possible by an ambiguity in the word "revolution" itself, which generally refers to a clean break with the past, a drastic change in the social order, but, in an older version of the word, which Fuentes clearly wants his readers to recall, indicates a process of cyclical return. In the imaginative space Fuentes creates at the end of La región, these two meanings are held together in an ultimately utopian gesture.

A utopian vision of revolution has been a consistent element in Fuentes's work. In the 1980s, Fuentes has continued to discuss revolutions, in Mexico and elsewhere, in the same terms he used in the 1950s. In his 1983 Harvard commencement speech, for example, he declared that the Mexican Revolution had brought to light "the totality of our history and the possibility of a culture’’ (Myself with Others). He went on to connect the Mexican experience with that of other countries now passing through revolutionary phases:

Paz himself, Diego Rivera and Carlos Chávez, Mariano Azuela and José Clemente Orozco, Juan Rulfo and Rufino Tamayo: we all work and exist because of the revolutionary experience of our country. How can we stand by as this experience is denied, through ignorance and arrogance, to other people, our brothers, in Central America and the Caribbean?

In Gringo viejo (1985), Fuentes once again explores his ideas about the Mexican Revolution. At one point in the novel, the soldiers in the rebel army of Pancho Villa occupy the mansion of a wealthy family that has fled the country. When the soldiers enter the ballroom, with its huge mirrors, they are astonished at the sight of their own reflections; for the first time in their lives they are seeing their own bodies in their entirety. In this way, the Revolution has finally allowed these men and women to discover who they really are. A similar notion is articulated in the broad opposition the narrative constructs between Mexico before and Mexico during the Revolution. Before the Revolution the country was merely an aggregate of static, isolated communities. The Revolution sets the country in motion; the people leave their villages and towns and finally begin to discover the common purpose that binds the nation together as a whole. The Revolution, in this view, constitutes an explosive moment of self-recognition in the nation's history.

Fuentes's most recent novel, Cristóbal Nonato (1987), however, reveals a distinct shift in perspective: revolutions, both past and present, are now seen in a far less sanguine light. The spirit of the Mexican Revolution is recreated in a mocking, though affectionate, manner in the figure of General Rigoberto Palomar, who owes his high military rank to a somewhat unusual feat: at the age of eighteen he was elevated in one stroke from trumpeter to general for having recovered the arm General Alvaro Obregón lost during the battle of Celaya. In the novel's present, at the age of ninety-one, General Palomar is the last survivor of the Revolution, in which he maintains an irrational faith premised on two contradictory assumptions: ‘‘1) la Revolución no había terminado y 2) la Revolución había triunfado y cumplido todas sus promesas.’’ This discrediting of the concept of revolution takes on a less light-hearted form when it comes to a depiction of the revolutionary spirit of the late twentieth century. The embodiment of this spirit is Matamoros Moreno, whose leadership of the revolutionary forces of Mexico is both absurd, in that it grows out of the resentments of a frustrated writer, and somewhat sinister, in that his name, the "Ayatollah,’’ links him to a reactionary religious fanaticism. In this way, the belief in the possible emergence of a new, more benign, order is severely attenuated.

A final element in Fuentes's revised view of the nature of revolution consists of his rethinking the relationship between the erotic and the political. Wendy Faris has observed that in much of Fuentes's work "love and revolution are allied, the physical upheaval and implied freedom of eroticism often serving as analogues for social liberation, both moving us toward some kind of Utopia" ("Desire and Power’’). In Cristóbal Nonato, however, the personal and the political are no longer so easily reconciled; the relationship between these two dimensions of existence turns out to be fraught with difficulties. When young Angel Palomar abandons his wife in the middle of her pregnancy in order to pursue an infatuation with the vain and superficial daughter of one of Mexico's richest men, he manages to convince himself that he is doing it in order to keep alive his iconoclastic and rebellious spirit. He is, in other words, chasing Penny López for the right ideological reasons. But Angel is not entirely convinced by his own attempt at self-justification; he continues to be perplexed by "la contradicción entre sus ideas y su práctica’’ and he is finally unable to find the correct adjustment between his sex life and his politics: "Su sexualidad renaciente, era progresista o reaccionaria? Su actividad política, debía conducirlo a la monogamía o al harén?'' The only possible conclusion is that these two realms are in some sense incommensurable: ‘‘ante un buen acostón se estrellan todas las ideologías.’’ In this way, revolution, deprived of a clear basis in personal experience, becomes a far more complex, baffling and even improbable event. Whether Cristóbal Nonato signals a major shift in Fuentes's work it is too early to say. What is clear, however, is that it is precisely Fuentes's persistent engagement with the question of the interrelations between the private and the public, between the individual self and its historical circumstances, that constitutes his most powerful claim on our interest.

Source: Maarten Van Delden, ‘‘Myth, Contingency, and Revolution in Carlos Fuentes's La region mas transparente,'' in Comparative Literature, Vol. 43, No. 4, Fall, 1991, p. 326.

Shouting from the Backyard

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1187

Ambrose Bierce was a misanthrope, a nihilist, and America's most celebrated journalist. At the end of his career he decided not to fade away. In 1913, a bitter and beaten seventy-one-year-old, he lit out for Mexico and disappeared. Rumour has it that he joined Pancho Villa's revolutionary army and died in action the following year. Where history stops, the novel can begin. Carlos Fuentes's The Old Gringo takes up Bierce's story from the moment he crosses the Rio Grande with a suitcase containing two of his own books, a copy of Don Quixote and a Colt .44.

Fuentes clearly has only the most perfunctory interest in creating a plausible version of what might have happened. The ‘‘old gringo’’ (Bierce is never named: it is only through hints, allusions or reading the dust-jacket that we find out the truth) rides across the desert and stumbles on a revolutionary detachment in Chihuahua commanded by the self-styled General Tomás Arroyo. He has led a rising on the estate where he was born and brought up as a virtual slave. The landowners have fled, but Harriet Winslow, the prim American school-teacher they had hired, remains stubbornly behind. The general refuses to accept Bierce as a recruit until The Old Gringo demonstrates improbable skill with his revolver.

This novel is crammed with incident, much of it of the most melodramatic kind. We are told frequently that The Old Gringo has come to Mexico to die. He rides into battle with Arroyo's troops and performs acts of astonishing bravery, but he is not killed. Meanwhile Harriet Winslow is cured of her inhibitions in the course of a love affair with the virile General Arroyo. The tale reaches a predictably violent conclusion, and as in many a western only the woman survives to return to civilization.

But what is the book really about? Bierce wonders himself: "Was he here to die or to write a novel about a Mexican general and an old gringo and a Washington school-teacher lost in the deserts of northern Mexico?’’ The Old Gringo is about Ambrose Bierce the man, but it also makes sophisticated use of his literary and political career. The form of the novel alludes to Bierce's celebrated short story, "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge'', about a Confederate soldier being hanged from a bridge during the American Civil War. He feels the rope break and the story details his escape and journey across country. Finally he reaches home, but as he runs towards his wife everything goes black and he dies, swinging from the bridge. The whole story has taken place in his mind at the moment of his death.

Fuentes hints that this novel may be taking place in similar fashion in Bierce's mind as he dies. To complicate matters; the story is also unfolding in the confused memory of Harriet Winslow, reliving the events many years later in her Washington, DC, walk-up apartment. He is in her dream, but she is in his dream as well.

For the Mexicans, their country is all too real, and there are vivid evocations in this book of desert, heat and smells. But Mexico is also present as a state of mind, a subject of fantasy. Harriet Winslow and Bierce both enter Mexico as carefully delineated representatives of imperialism, with disdain for this primitive, chaotic country in the United States' back yard. Much in The Old Gringo is muddy, even on a second reading, but the anti-Americanism is clear enough. As Bierce put it to Harriet, with the author's obvious approval,

remember how we killed our Redskins and never had the courage to fornicate with the squaws and at least create a half-breed nation. We are caught in the business of forever killing people whose skin is of a different color. Mexico is the proof of what we could have been, so keep your eyes wide open.

This is a curious novel, alternately whimsical and immensely impressive. The vitality and virtuosity of Fuentes's narrative--in this superb translation, something like Jack London rewritten by Borges—are breathtaking. This is a story composed of fragments: moments of violence, passion or revelation, captured in memories and dreams. In other hands the effect could have been diffuse and boring, but Fuentes gives it the strange solidity of a fable. Yet much of the characterization—the demure school-teacher, the macho rebel leader with ‘‘his uneasy sex, never restful’’—is crude caricature. And the real subject of the novel, Mexico itself, which, we are told, redeems Bierce (compensating him ‘‘with a life: the life of his senses, awakened from lethargy by his proximity to death’’), remains in the background.

It's only when one turns to Fuentes's first book, Where the Air is Clear (first published in 1960 but appearing now in English for the first time), that we see fully what Mexico means to him. And if The Old Gringo seems starved of characters, perhaps it's because Fuentes used a career's worth of them in his first novel, a prodigious attempt to give Mexico its Comédie Humaine and Ulysses between the covers of one book. He tells the story of family after family—bankers, revolutionaries, artists, prostitutes, socialites—and, with flamboyant dexterity, weaves them together. At the heart of the book are two young men, Ixca Cienfuegos and Rodrigo Pola, who are on a troubled quest to discover how they can live in this violent, impoverished country, a country which destroyed Rodrigo's father, Gervasio, a revolutionary, executed during the 1913 civil war (an event that obsesses Fuentes). Fuentes portrays much of his country with loathing: the squalor of Mexico City, the corruption, the political oppression. The novel's most troubling, complicated character is Federico Robles, once a revolutionary comrade of Gervasios's and now a successful banker. ‘‘Here there is only one choice’’, he tells the two young radicals, ‘‘we make the nation prosperous, or we starve.’’ And if that means putting Mexico under the economic control of the United States, he is willing to pay that price.

Where the Air is Clear (again, in an excellent translation) lacks the formal discipline of The Old Gringo, but it is attempting something more difficult and interesting, which is to embrace all sides of a country, ranging from the old Spanish Empire to the Aztec culture of the sun the Spanish found when they arrived, from capitalism to revolutionary socialism: "Mexico is the only world radically cut off from Europe which has to accept the fatality of Europe's complete penetration and use the European words for both life and death, although the being of her life and faith are of a different language.''

Of course, all this proves difficult to resolve and the novel ends in a sort of mystical trance of affirmation and reconciliation. It does have its moments of shrillness, over-insistence or sentimentality but is nevertheless a very exciting book, partly because it is written out of excitement for a great new subject. As one character puts it: "One does not explain Mexico. One believes in Mexico, with fury, with passion, and in alienation.’’

Source: Sean French, ‘‘Shouting from the Backyard,’’ in Times Literary Supplement, July 4, 1986, p. 733.

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