In His Own Words: Carlos Fuentes (1928-2012)

By Arturo R. García

Courtesy: Associated Press

It was only fitting, in this modern age, that news of the death of Mexican author, diplomat, and social critic Carlos Fuentes, spread via Twitter. And it was just as befitting of his stature that the person who broke the news was the President of México himself, Felipe Calderón.

That kind of acknowledgement from the highest political circles might’ve amused Fuentes; as recently as the 1980s, his name and works were practically verboten in the public-school curriculum mandated by the country’s ruling party of seven decades, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). Far from being a loyal party subject, Fuentes, the son of a diplomat, resigned from his post as Mexico’s ambassador to France in 1977 after the PRI named Gustavo Díaz Ordaz–the former president who sanctioned the 1968 massacre of student protestors at Tlatelolco Plaza in Mexico City–to be his colleague. The party also hovered over one of his more celebrated works, The Death of Artemio Cruz.

“There was no need to mention the PRI,” he once told The Associated Press. “It is present by its absence.”

In his absence, Fuentes’ presence will be remembered not just because of his sheer dedication–he published more than 50 works spanning literature, theater, and film,  beginning with La Región Más Transparente (Where The Air Is Clear) in 1957–but because of his influence on the other writers who would fuel the Latin American “Boom” movement. As University of California-Riverside Professor Raymond L. Williams told the AP, Fuentes was responsible for galvanizing other preeminent authors, like Gabriel García Márquez, Julio Cortázar, and Mario Vargas Llosa into a collective.

“It took Fuentes’ vision to say if we unite forces and provide a common political and literary voice, we’ll have more impact,” Williams told the AP. “His home in Pedregal (an upscale Mexico City neighborhood) was the intellectual center what brought a lot of writers together.”

Fuentes was creative, almost literally, to the very end: not only is his latest book, Vlad, scheduled for release this July (“I loved the old Dracula movies,” he told Publishers Weekly)–but an essay he penned on the recent presidential elections in France was published in the Mexican newspaper Reforma the day he died, just 24 hours after his interview with the Spanish newspaper El Día was printed, in which he revealed that he had completed another book, and planned to start another.

So, it’s only fitting to let this consummate man of words speak for himself. Under the cut are selections and videos from several interviews Fuentes has given over the years. Today, we join readers, writers, and fans of the written word all over the world in celebrating Fuentes’ singular vision.

The simple answer is that there were no other voices, especially as we had to deal with dictatorships, semi-feudal conditions, and illiteracy. It was incumbent on the writer to say what otherwise would not be said; it’s what would be left unsaid. Pablo Neruda once said, do you realise we are all carrying the bodies of our countries on our backs? It’s a great weight we have. He was right at that moment, but society has evolved. There is freedom of the press, political parties, unions, social organisations – others are taking on the solitary duty of the writer. Thank god! So now, more and more, we participate in the life of our countries as citizens. If you don’t do it, nobody is going to demonise you, because if a writer is already working seriously at the level of language and the imagination, he or she is already accomplishing a political mission.
- Open Democracy, 2006

I decided I had to write the novel of the Mexico I was living. The Mexican novel was locked into certain genres: there were Indian novels, novels of the Revolution, and proletarian novels. For me those were like medieval walls constraining the possibilities of Mexican fiction. The Mexico City I was living in belied those restraints because it was like a medieval city that had suddenly lost its walls and drawbridges and sprawled outside itself in a kind of carnival. You had European nobility stranded in Mexico because of the war, an up-and-coming bourgeoisie, unbelievable bordellos lit up in neon near the fish markets where the smell of the women and the smell of the fish mingled. The writer Salvador Elizondo would go there and slit the prostitutes’ armpits while he made love to them so he could make love in a gush of blood. Then mariachi music all night long. Mexico City found in the late forties and fifties its baroque essence, a breaking down of barriers, an overflow. I remember dancing the mambo in astounding cabarets and that was the origin of Where the Air Is Clear: Mexico City as the protagonist of postrevolutionary life in Mexico. I felt that nothing had been said about that in a novel.
- The Paris Review, 1981

I was very, very amazed that I would be denied a personal visa to enter the United States when one of my books was published in translation. In 1963, my publisher — Roger Strauss of Farrar Strauss — invited me, and I was promptly denied the visa. And I said, “The real bombs are my books, not me. I’m not going to put a bomb in a post office in the U.S.A. But my books may be more dangerous than I am. They maybe should ban the books, not the person.” It was logical.
- Academy Of Achievement, 2006

U.S. foreign policy is Manichaean. It’s like a Hollywood movie. You have to know who has the white hat and who has the black hat and then go against the black hat. It’s “Moby-Dick.” The genius of Melville is that he saw that this is a country that needs a monster. The delusion of one madman, Captain Ahab, meant that the white whale had to go. But as Katrina showed, there are great, great problems within the U.S. without it constantly having to create crusades against the rest of the world.
- The New York Times, 2006

With Gabriel García Márquez, 2008. Courtesy: Associated Press.

I’m fascinated by the changes we’re experiencing [this century]. Who could have told you about the changes that would be taking place in North Africa? And from there they’ve extended to the better part of Europe and the United States, where many of my students have told me, “I’m a doctor and I can’t find a job,” or … “My father ascended to the middle class, and I feel I’m sliding back into the working class.” There have also been big changes in Latin America, although a certain stability has been maintained. Before, the problems began in Latin America. Now it looks like they’re headed there. And it’s [now] a world we don’t know how to name. If one would have asked Dante, “How does it feel to be in the midst of the Middle Ages?,” he would tell us, “And what are the Middle Ages?” We don’t know what to call this age, but we feel everything is changing. The Renaissance knew it was the Renaissance. The Middle Ages did not know they were the Middle Ages.
- El País (via Excelsior), May 2012 (translated from Spanish)

“There must be something beyond slaughter and barbarism to support the existence of mankind and we must all help search for it.”
- Twitter, May 2011 (translated from Spanish)