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The Guerrilla Dandy
The literary and political illusions of Carlos Fuentes, everybody's favorite Mexican.
By Enrique Krauze
He speaks all his words distinctly, half as loud again as the other. Anybody can see he is an actor.
In the family album of exiled writers (Conrad, Nabokov, Zamyatin, Kundera), a close-up of Carlos Fuentes reveals something odd about his image. Is he a willing exile from Mexico in the United States, or a reluctant exile from the United States in Mexico? He has become something of a star in North America, where he lived until the age of 12, to the extent that even an American congressman observed that "Fuentes is a great man. He knows so much about his country." The congressman had not read a single book by Fuentes; his opinion, like the opinion of so many others, had been formed by the omnipresence of the writer in the media.
In Mexico, Fuentes has an altogether different image. No one doubts his exemplary passion for literature and his professional attachment to it. He has published novels, stories, essays, drama, and countless articles. And yet for some time now his writings have been arousing irritation and bewilderment. Mexico is a country whose complexity has exhausted several generations of intellectuals, but Fuentes seems unaware of that complexity. His work simplifies the country; his view is frivolous, unrealistic, and, all too often, false.
In a poem by Octavio Paz, a story by Juan Ruifo, or a painting by Rufino Tamayo, Mexican life is the point of departure for the work, and the work participates in that life. Even certain foreign artists have captured what is new, and radically alien, about Mexico; the Mexican pink in Rauschenberg's canvases; the signs hanging on the cantina walls in Lowry's famous novel; the dark women in Viva Zapata walking over rough paving stones; the lighthearted, innocent cruelty in Bunuel's Los Olvidados; the market day in Lawrence's Mornings in Mexico. A reality embodied by Mexicans for foreigners to discover. But Fuentes, a foreigner in his own country, skirts that reality, and lingers over externals. For Fuentes, Mexico is a script committed to memory, not an enigma or a problem, not anything really living, not a personal experience.
There is the suspicion in Mexico that Fuentes merely uses Mexico as a theme, distorting it for a North American public, claiming credentials that he does not have. The appearance of Myself with Others, then, is timely. Its autobiographical pages finally reveal the origins of his intellectual sleight of hand. The book shows Fuentes's lack of identity and personal history. From the very start, it's clear that he filled in this void with films and literature. His real world was his fictional world: a cinematic sequence of authors and works. Lacking a personal point of view and an internal compass, Fuentes lost his way through the history of literature and found himself condemned to the histrionic reproduction of its texts, theories, and personages. The key to Fuentes is not in Mexico; it is in Hollywood. The United States produces actors for movies, for television, for radio, for politics. Now and then it produces actors for literature, too. Carlos Fuentes is one of them.
“This is not a border, it is a scar." This statement by one of the characters in The Old Gringo is excessive as a description of the vicinity between Mexico and the United States, but an accurate epigraph for Fuentes himself. He was a gringo child of Mexican origin, born in Panama, a place where history and geography have indeed left a scar. On the outskirts of the Depression and the New Deal, his placid childhood was spent in the "territorial fiction" of diplomatic life, in a seven-room apartment that was "superbly furnished" and had a view of Meridian Hill Park in Washington, D.C. My/self with Others recalls long summers when "the livin' seemed easy," a good old time when Fuentes learned to prefer "grits to guacamole" and work to idleness ("no siestas for me"), and first dreamed the American dream; that everyone will be famous for 15 minutes.
On his vacations, he visited Mexico. "It was depressing to compare the progress of a country where everything worked, everything was new, everything was clean, with the inefficiency, backwardness, and dirt of my own country." In contrast to the North American past, Mexican history seemed little more than a series of "crushing defeats," beginning with the TTT: the "Tremendous Texan Trauma." Fuentes grew accustomed to seeing Mexico not on its own terms, but refracted through a North American perspective.
No Mexican loses sleep over the TTT, and none would say, as Fuentes does, that "the world of North America blinds us with its energy; we cannot see ourselves. We must see you." Quite the opposite: Mexico has always been a country maniacally obsessed with itself. But Fuentes is a special kind of Mexican. He discovered the existence of his country at the age of ten, in 1938, when President Cardenas decreed the expropriation of foreign oil properties. He suddenly realized that this "nonexistent country" was his identity, an identity that was slipping away from him.
"How I Started to Write" (an autobiographical chapter in Myself with Others) is a good example of the onomastic prose, worthy of a marquee, that is so peculiar to Fuentes. It introduces the veneration of the great names that would populate his life and his writings; Gene Kelly, Dick Tracy, Clark Kent, Carole Lombard, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and a long and indiscriminate etcetera. "When I arrived [in America]," he told an audience a few weeks ago at the National Press Club in Washington, where he had come to help out with the Robert F. Kennedy Book Awards, "Dick Tracy had just met Tess Trueheart. As I left, Clark Kent was meeting Lois Lane. You are what you eat. You are also the comics you peruse as a child." Fuentes's was not exactly a life in exile, but an uprooting whose abrupt reversal in adolescence would leave a scar of ambiguity: "Mexico became a fact of violent approaches and separations in the face of which affection was no less strong than rejection."
The autobiographical pages make it clear that the only early links between Fuentes and his "paternal country" were a nationalism forged less by pride in the Mexican tradition than by resentment of the North American world, and by the determined effort he made throughout his childhood to preserve Spanish as his language. It is no exaggeration to see these links, respectively, as the origin of Fuentes's political and literary attitudes.
When Fuentes finally approached "the gold and mud" of Mexico at the age of 16, language had already become "the center of his being and the possibility of joining his own destiny and that of his country into one." Mexico, the "imaginary, imagined country," was not a tangible, historical nation. It was only a victim of imperialism, an instrumental reality, a language.
Fuentes's struggle in Mexico to preserve the Spanish language led to the obsession with conquering it. The story of Myself with Others ends in 1950; to reconstruct fully the story of his struggle, one must turn to the testimony of friends, and to other incidental writings by Fuentes. Someone remembers that he became a mimetic being, all tongue and ears, a "brawler" with words. No wonder, because in Mexico the weapons of colloquial language are as sharp as, or even sharper than, real weapons. During those years he had already given up the idea of writing in English ("After all, the English language didn't need another writer"), but his use of Spanish indicated that he was tone-deaf to certain nuances, expressions, themes. He moved from reticence to excess; unexpected "damns," out of place "fucks." In sum, to a linguistic machismo.
Reality, however, was somewhere on the other side of language. In 1950 Mexico City was in the process of taking on the physiognomy of other modern capitals where Fuentes had been. He did not see the need, therefore, to go deeper into the countryside, where the reality of Mexico was more profound. His exploration of the city, although superficial, was incessant and orgiastic. Like a bedazzled and perplexed tourist, he lived the city of leisure, the nocturnal city, the show-biz city. He left out the workplace, working hours, and neighborhoods. Instead, he descended with pencil in hand into "the brash, sentimental, lowdown world of brothels smelling of disinfectant, cheap nightclubs decorated with silver-colored walls, the whores, pimps, magicians, midget strippers, and vaselined singers."
Mexico in the '50s was also defined (the word is Fuentes's) by its Star System: the muralist Diego Rivera and his scaffolding, the eyelashes of Maria Felix, the dancer Tongolele's shock of white hair, and the seal-like face of mambo orchestra leader Perez Prado. To be a writer in the '50s, "one had to be" with the writer stars: Alfonso Reyes and Octavio Paz. Fuentes went so far as to live with Reyes in Cuernavaca. In the winter of
1950, he met Paz in Paris. Paz wrote about the young man who possessed "an avidity to know and touch everything—an avidity that is manifested in charges so intense and frequent that it is no exaggeration to call them electrical." It is significant that Paz speaks of avidity, not of curiosity. Fuentes urgently wanted to appropriate the latest intellectual keys to Mexico; he needed a complete libretto of the "imaginary country," and he thought he had found it in Paz's The Labyrinth of Solitude. His reading of that book was a revelation.
In 1958 he published his first novel. Where the Air Is Clear. Closely following the visual methods of the U.S.A. trilogy ("Dos Passos was my literary bible"), Fuentes took an important step in Mexican narrative: he acclimatized the genre of the urban novel that had been introduced two years before, with fewer literary resources but tellingly and honestly, by Luis Spota in Casi el paraiso (Almost Paradise). His main formal inspiration was Balzac. "I am very Balzacian. ... In The Human Comedy (or, if you prefer, The Mexican Comedy) there is room for many storys." The image is exact. Fuentes envisioned
Mexican society as a vertical social and historical stage set. In the basement were the masked, unseen Aztec gods, embodied as faceless beings who carry out their designs.
And above ground were the various social classes: the nostalgic aristocracy, the "Croesohedonic" bourgeoisie, the arriviste middle class, and at the bottom, the common people.
Fuentes's first book presaged the character of his entire work. The intellectual itinerary that he had chosen in order to learn about the country was transfigured into a strange confusion of genres. The characters had no life of their own: they simply acted out fashionable philosophical theses. A philosophical poet clearly inspired by Paz appears throughout the novel and dies in a manner that recalls the chapter on death in The Labyrinth of Solitude; the ruined banker does not consult a lawyer but discusses the essence of the Mexican spirit with Paz's alter ego; and so on. The most successful parody is not of the bourgeois class (Fuentes scorned it without knowing it), but of the aristocracy, to which he belonged without really belonging to it: its parties, its snobbery, its dandyism, its uprootedness. But finally Fuentes lacked the practical knowledge of social life that may be found in Balzac, for whom a bankruptcy, the work of a printing house, or the fall of the stock market were concrete realities, not symptoms of the life of a class. And he lacked something even more important. "There, where your shoe pinches, is the touch of Balzac," wrote Harry Levin, In Where the Air Is Clear the common people do not suffer or work; they reflect philosophically on poverty in the setting of an endless and tragic binge.
Fuentes’s first novel does not recall Balzac so much as that great actor of painting, Diego Rivera: immense texts and murals that proceed more by accumulation and schematic juxtaposition than by imaginative connection. Both are painfully rigid in suggesting the inner lives of their themes and characters, both treat them as theses or burden them with a didacticism that grows tedious, both have recourse to allegory. Texts that are murals, murals that are texts. The best of Rivera is the flowering of his forms and colors. The best of Fuentes is in the verbal avalanche of his prose.
The great Cuban poet Lezama Lima wrote that "I have found his novel strong, urgent, abundant, throbbing with symbols and masks," This verbal eroticism was the real substance of the novel, and it limned the central paradox of Fuentes's future work: there was something chimerical in his attempt to write the social novel of a reality he had not lived, something false that was supposed to be disguised by intellectual mimesis and lyrical expansion. But it was not disguised. Language was still the center of Fuentes's being, and Mexico remained an "imaginary, imagined country," His vast reading, diligent but independent of any experience that wasn't academic or folkloric, was never enough to correct his limitation. He never came to know the country that would be the central theme of his work. He thought he could resolve the deafness of his origins by turning it inside out: history, society, the life of the city, would be assimilated to the raging tumult of its voices. Balzac's characters still survive in the literary and popular memory of Europe. Nobody in Mexico remembers the characters of Fuentes.
Like the great majority of Mexican intellectuals of all political tendencies (Jose Vasconcelos and Octavio Paz, Vicente Lombardo and Daniel Cosio Villegas), Carlos Fuentes celebrated the victory of the Cuban Revolution and interpreted it as an act of Spanish American affirmation: a triumph of Marti, not Lenin. For Fuentes in particular, the revolution had an additional significance: it seemed to resolve, not in language but in history, his latent identity crisis. It seemed to make his scar disappear. Revenge for the TTT, Mexico was still the imaginary country, but suddenly it was no longer necessary to compare it with the dubious paradise of the "cheerful robots" or with the cruel mirror of "crushing defeats." In an article published in March 1959, Fuentes maintained that Cuba had opened the doors of the future when it interdicted all the founding philosophies of the United States: Locke, Adam Smith, Protestantism, the free enterprise system—"weapons that are much too feeble to attack the problems of the 20th century," The nationalist vindication alone seemed to guarantee a happy ending,
"One must be Malraux," he had confided years before to a friend, Cuba offered Fuentes the opportunity to play a young, somewhat altered Malraux: the Malraux of a revolution in power. He traveled to Havana, he wrote enthusiastic articles, and with his closest friends he founded El Espedador (The Spectator), which in its short life closely followed the pulse of Cuba and interpreted the problems of Mexico in light of the Cuban experience. In Mexico, the natural effect of the Cuban Revolution was to push its old local homologue to the right, to make the Mexican Revolution seem like a pseudo-revolution.
This occurred, paradoxically, at precisely the time when the economic and social balance of the Mexican pseudo-revolution was not at all bad, whatever the point of comparison—internal or external, the past or the present. (The fundamental problem of the time was the growing insensitivity of the governing class, which blocked the country's political and economic growth.) Very few intellectuals, however, had the wisdom to judge the situation with any equilibrium—the young, influenced by the academic Marxism made fashionable by Sartre, least of all. Democracy, certainly, was not on their horizon. After Cuba, the only horizon was the revolution. In El Espedador, Fuentes asked: "Are we still in time to save the Mexican Revolution from the pitiful stupor it fell into in 1940?" To set it back on course, he thought it necessary to abandon the "impoverishing anarchy of free enterprise" and fight for a "strong State that would assume total control and rational, popular planning of economic development."