Carlos Fuentes, the novelist and essayist, died Tuesday at the age of 83 in Mexico City. He foresaw ending his days there, much as the Peruvian poet César Vallejo prophesied that he would die in Paris, but we must imagine that Fuentes might have preferred to leave this plane in Providence or London or, yes, Paris, all places in which he had lived over the course of a long life. For, though proudly and definitively Mexican, Carlos Fuentes was always a bit of an outsider in his homeland.
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Born in Panama, the son of a diplomat, he lived throughout South America, then attended school in Washington, D.C., where he learned a rich and fluent English. Only when he was 16 did his family move to Mexico, where, steeped in stories of the Revolution, which had ended only eight years before his birth, he began to write.
Much of his work, in his early years, formed a critique of Mexican society as he found it. Where the Air Is Clear, published in 1958, dissects Mexico City and finds it wanting, a Bonfire of the Vanities in an earlier time and place. Aura (1962) turned Mexico City into a musty, airless house, a place of weirdly erotic dreams and labyrinthine pasts. Aspiring to epic, The Death of Artemio Cruz (1962) announced Fuentes’ grand ongoing critique of modern Mexican history, to which he would return again and again.
The ruling elite and Mexico’s official cultural establishment may not have liked Fuentes' barbed portraits, but other readers were paying attention, including Fidel Castro, who for a time numbered Fuentes among his favorite writers, and Gabriel García Márquez, who would lead the charge in the Latin American “boom” of the late 1960s and ’70s—a worldwide discovery, that is, of Latin American authors who wrote sagas, historical and magical-realistic alike, such as The Obscene Bird of Night, The War of the End of the World, One Hundred Years of Solitude, and The Kingdom of This World that owed as much to William Faulkner as to Cervantes. If Fuentes never attained García Márquez’s popularity, he outstripped him in productivity, turning out a stream of essays, stories, novels, articles, speeches and feuilletons, with the occasional bestseller, such as The Old Gringo, to keep him in competition with Gabo, Mario Vargas Llosa and other contemporaries.
Fuentes, who considered himself an heir of Balzac, did not confine his arguments to the past. He knew well how to twit the pieties of his time and place, sometimes with oblique observations ("Jesus does not resurrect the dead. He revives the living. Jesus is the copy editor of human life"), sometimes with direct assaults. He was also a master of the literary feud, though the things he argued about with other intellectuals—notably his compatriot Octavio Paz—were sometimes rarified, and were sometimes lost on readers born a generation after Fuentes’ time.
My friend Jorge Ochoa-Lions, a native of Guadalajara, says, “Having grown up in Mexico surrounded by the discourses promoted by Carlos Fuentes and Octavio Paz, I have an emotional reaction to them, and to the very significant contributions that each made. I was never much his admirer, though, nor of Octavio Paz.” Admiration does not require affection. Indeed, while always acknowledging Fuentes as an elder master, younger readers have been drawn instead to the work of younger writers such as Laura Esquivel and the émigré Roberto Bolaño, both of whom, like Fuentes, also found many readers far beyond Mexico.
Fuentes spent much of his adulthood living in other lands and speaking other languages, sometimes working as a diplomat, more often as a professor. All the same, his great subject remained Mexico, of which he remarked, “It’s a very enigmatic country, and that’s a good thing, because it keeps us alert.”
His impatience with Mexico continued over the years, neither admiring nor affectionate. He wrote in his 1996 book A New Time for Mexico, for instance, “The Indians of Mexico are the only aristocrats in a country of provincial imitations, shabby colonial hidalgos, haughty republican Creoles, and corrupt, cruel, and ignorant revolutionary bourgeois.” In a time of resurgent nationalism and, in the figure of politicians such as Vicente Fox, of rising conservatism, the sentiment wasn’t calculated to win friends. And that, it seems, is just as Fuentes liked it.
“You start by writing to live,” Fuentes once observed. “You end by writing so as not to die.” One of the greatest writers to have come from Mexico, if by however roundabout a route, he has died—to be interred, without irony or reproach, in Paris. We can hope only that the best of his books live on.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor to and longtime reviewer for Kirkus. His latest book is Aelian's On the Nature of Animals (Trinity University Press).