The Guardian Profile: Carlos Fuentes

A former diplomat, he could have had a distinguished political career in his native Mexico. Instead, he chose to be a writer † and spearheaded the Latin American literary boom of the 1960s. An outspoken critic of US imperialism, he also celebrates the Spanish cultural "reconquest" of the region. Maya Jaggi

Mexico's greatest novelist is bemused, at 72, to find he can still cause a scandal. According to the Mexican labour minister, Carlos Abascal, Carlos Fuentes's gothic novella Aura, first published in 1962, is corrupting to young women. Ridiculous though many in the Mexican cabinet find the complaint, it led to a woman being sacked last month for teaching the book at the convent school attended by the minister's teenage daughter in Mexico City.

"Abascal objects to a scene in which a couple make love under a crucifix," Fuentes scoffs. "But in Mexico most couples do that; there's always a crucifix above the bed. What's so shocking about that?" Though incensed by the sacking, he and Gabriel García Márquez - a close friend and fellow resident of Mexico City, whose fiction was also impugned by Abascal - have found reason to gloat. Sales of the offending works have rocketed. "I'm willing to cede 10% of my royalties to Minister Abascal," Fuentes grins to an audience in downtown Los Angeles. "He's the best literary agent I've ever had."

He is in California to give a reading which is billed as being in English. But Spanish inexorably takes over, despite weak protests from a handful of outnumbered anglophones. Though the multilingual author and one-time diplomat translates urbanely for the few monoglots, the scene illustrates one of his favoured themes: the Latino cultural "reconquest" of Mexican territory lost to the United States in the 19th century. His oeuvre of some 20 novels, short stories, plays, essays and journalism has probed not only the history and identity of Mexico, but its shifting relations with the superpower on its border.

Fuentes was a leading figure - some would say the catalyst - of Latin America's literary "boom" of the 1960s and 70s, when its writers became popular both in neighbouring countries and in Europe and the US. Alongside the Colombian García Márquez, the Peruvian Mario Vargas Llosa, the Argentinian Julio Cortázar and the Chilean José Donoso, Fuentes was one of the first Latin American authors who could live by their work. García Márquez's Nobel Prize in 1982, Fuentes has said, marked the ascendancy of a whole region's literature.

Fuentes was pivotal not only as an innovative novelist, but as a cosmopolitan who has spent his life on the move. The US writer William Styron, a close friend, sees him as "uniquely well positioned" to offer an "extraordinary gift: an understanding of the relationship between the US and Mexico, and by inference, between Latin America and the rest of the world". According to Jason Wilson, professor of Latin American studies at University College London, Fuentes has been a "bridge between Mexico's view of itself and outsiders' views", Mexicans having been hostile to such foreign portrayals as those of DH Lawrence or Graham Greene.

Married since 1973 to his second wife, Sylvia Lemus, a television presenter in Mexico ("She interviewed me, and has gone on interviewing me for 27 years"), Fuentes spends about half the year in Mexico City and half in Europe, where they have a flat in Earls Court, London. For a month each year he is in the US, where he is "professor-at-large" at Brown University, Rhode Island. "Our careers don't collide," he says. "Wherever I go, Sylvia can follow, because she always finds someone to interview for her show."

His globe-trotting and expansiveness have spawned public friendships with writers, film stars and politicians, from Buñuel (with whom he collaborated) to Bill Clinton. He has remained close to García Márquez and Vargas Llosa (despite his two friends' mutual antagonism and opposing politics). He has also counted among his friends Norman Mailer, Shirley MacLaine, Arthur Miller, Philip Roth, Alberto Moravia, Milan Kundera, JK Galbraith and Claire Bloom. Critics of his autobiographical essays, Myself With Others (1988), resented what they saw as namedropping, while Angela Carter, who admired his novels, noted in them an "inexplicable streak of vulgarity". Yet Fuentes, who hails from a "periphery", has had the confidence to put his own country and culture on the map.

His novel The Years with Laura Díaz is published next week in English translation. It views episodes of Mexico's 20th-century history, with leaps to civil-war Spain and the McCarthyite US, as though in a panoramic mural by Diego Rivera. The artists Rivera and Frida Kahlo (for whose diaries Fuentes wrote a brilliant introduction in 1995) appear as characters in the novel, which Fuentes sees as a "monument to the horrible 20th century, and to the place of my country and of Latin America in that world of strife, paradox and brutality".

In it he wrote of the death of a talented young artist, in part, he says, to ward off the illness of his and Sylvia Lemus's only son. (He has a daughter, Cecilia, by his first wife, the Mexican film star Rita Macedo, and another daughter, Natasha, with Lemus.) Born a haemophiliac, Carlos Fuentes Lemus died aged 25, three months after The Years with Laura Díaz was published in Spanish in 1999. "He knew his life would be short, so he worked a lot through the night, painting and drawing, writing poems. It's incredible the quantity of work he did in his short life." He published not only poems but photographs, and had exhibitions in Madrid and Barcelona. "We became extremely close. I guided him into films and novels and poetry. He guided me to rock music, of which I knew nothing. He had a dry, more phlegmatic sense of humour than a Latin, exuberant way of being; he corrected some of my excesses. Without him, life has become very sad for me and my wife. But I feel that when I write is when I have my son close to me, almost inside me, as though we were writing and living together at those creative moments."

Every book written is an act of exorcism, says Fuentes. "But exorcism can turn to prophecy. All the evils of Mexico City I tried to exorcise in Christopher Unborn [1987] came true with a bonus: pollution, crime, corruption." Laura Díaz's elder brother and son draw on Fuentes's own relatives. It is as though, he says, the novel is "bracketed by the deaths of two people in my family: my uncle Carlos and my son Carlos".

Fuentes was born in 1928 to Mexican parents in Panama City. His mother, Berta, was watching a silent movie of La Bohème when her waters broke. His diplomat father, Rafael, took his family across the Americas, from Quito to Montevideo, and later became Mexico's ambassador to Italy and Portugal. "I had the good fortune of having a happy, closely knit family. In diplomatic service, you have to stay close because you're constantly changing countries, schools, friends, languages."

Fuentes's uncle was a talented poet who died of typhoid aged 21. "He left this legacy: my father named me after him and pushed me towards reading and writing as a homage to his brother. He guided me the way I did my son."

He spent formative years, in 1934-40, in Washington DC, during the New Deal. "That meant democratic values. I admired [Franklin D] Roosevelt as a great statesman. He solved the same problems of the depression, unemployment, the financial crash that gave rise to fascist dictatorships in Europe, but through democratic and humane means. I lived through that time in the US, and that put me squarely on the left ever since. It made me lament every time the US fell into reactionary policies, especially in Latin America."

Although Fuentes lived outside Mexico until he was 16, he remembers a "great sense of being Mexican". At 10 he saw a film in Washington, Man of Conquest, about the US-Mexican wars. "During the attack on the Alamo, I couldn't restrain my patriotism. I jumped on the seat, screaming, 'Viva Mexico - death to the gringo.'" His father bundled him out of the cinema. That year, 1938, his popularity at school plummeted when President Lázaro Cárdenas nationalised the oil wells. "There were blazing headlines: 'Mexico steals our oil,' 'Communists take over American property.' Suddenly I became a dangerous 10-year-old red."

Carlos and his younger sister, Berta, spent the summers with their grandmothers, "keeping alive the Spanish language and hearing stories". His father's ancestors had come to the Gulf state of Veracruz from the Canary Islands, and his paternal grandmother set up a boarding house in Mexico City. His mother's mother, a school inspector who campaigned for literacy in the 1920s, was the daughter of a German immigrant who founded a coffee plantation in Mexico. Fuentes calls The Years with Laura Díaz a homage to these women. "Contrary to the macho culture of Mexico, both my grandmothers were very brave young widows. I was always very close to these hard-working, intelligent women."

The annual journey to Mexico was instructive in other ways. "There were signs in Texas restaurants saying, 'No Mexicans or dogs allowed.' Waitresses would say, 'Stop talking that dirty lingo.' There was tremendous racism and prejudice against Mexicans - which there still is. All of this shaded my childhood and shaped my sense of Mexicanness."

During the second world war, the family moved to a Chile "governed by the Popular Front of communists and radicals. That was a revelation: that a Latin American country could have advanced social policies, and also great poets, like Pablo Neruda." He went to an English school in Santiago, but when they moved to Argentina in 1944, the schools in Buenos Aires were "dominated by an anti-semitic, pro-Nazi minister. I said, 'I won't go.'" His parents conceded. "At age 15 I spent the most marvellous year, discovering [Jorge Luis] Borges, the tango and women. I owe the Argentine dictatorships at least three favours."

Fuentes recalls the moment when he decided to become a writer. "It was in Zurich, having dinner on the lake, when I saw Thomas Mann having dinner next to me. I was 21 years old." Although he studied international law in Geneva, Fuentes turned down a key job with the International Labour Organisation (ILO). The man who took it, Miguel de la Madrid, later became Mexico's president, but Fuentes has no regrets. "I knew I would have ended up with a life I didn't want. My life is the life of a writer."

His first novel, Where the Air Is Clear (1958), broke ground in its urban portrayal of a metropolis in the making, harking back to the Mexico City of his childhood - famous, ironically, for its translucent air. The Mexican writer Elena Poniatowska saw then a "sophisti cated and cosmopolitan young man, eager to prove that he owns the world", while José Donoso was impressed by a Mexican who "spoke perfect English. He had read every novel... and seen every painting and every movie in every capital of the world."

While that novel prefigured the Latin American literary boom, Fuentes is anxious to share credit. "The boom was a collective experience. We would not have existed without our forefathers." He cites the Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier, the Uruguayan Juan Carlos Onetti, the Guatemalan Miguel Angel Asturias and the Argentinian Jorge Luis Borges. He also claims precedents in poets such as Neruda and the Peruvian César Vallejo - "great fashioners of language". But his guiding lights were Cervantes ("obviously"), Faulkner and Balzac. "Balzac travelled between documentary realism and stories of the fantastic with the greatest of ease. I've written ghost and fantastic stories, and others on society and politics. I don't feel any contradiction."

Fuentes has been called "the Balzac of Mexico". But for Maarten van Delden, the author of Carlos Fuentes, Mexico and Modernity (1998), he is "heir to the great European modernists - Joyce, Woolf, Proust. The Death of Artemio Cruz was one of the first Latin American novels to use stream of consciousness. But what he takes from them he applies to Mexican history and identity. Mexico is always his great subject."

In The Death of Artemio Cruz (1962) a dying man looks back on the revolution with which he rose to power and wealth, but whose ideals were corrupted and betrayed. Fuentes calls himself a child of the Mexican revolution of 1910-20, which he sees as a political failure but a cultural watershed, a "baptism". The revolution, he says, "promised many things and failed in many of them - democracy, human rights. But through it, Mexico saw itself as it really was; not as a fake, French facade with a Prussian-style army, but as an enormous country, extremely poor and illiterate, that had a rough and tough face - the face of an Emiliano Zapata and a Pancho Villa. Seeing yourself in a mirror is what the revolution was all about. From that sprang modern painting, music, poetry, film, novels."

Mirroring Mexico meant unmasking it. "Like all of Latin America, Mexico after independence in 1821 turned its back on a triple heritage: on the Spanish heritage, because we were newly liberated colonies, and on our Indian and black heritages, because we considered them backward and barbaric. We looked towards France, England and the US, to become progressive democratic republics." He adds: "The Indian past was masked by the Spanish conquest. Then there was the European mask. Then we put on a North American mask, which we're still wearing." From "Quetzalcoatl to Pepsicoatl", as he once wrote. "Maybe that's the real face of Mexico: masks one of top of another."

His monumental novel Terra Nostra (1975) reclaimed a Spanish heritage for Latin America, but a plural one. He credits Borges with "reminding us that Spain was also the repository of great Jewish and Muslim traditions throughout the middle ages". In his non-fiction work The Buried Mirror (1992), and a BBC series of that name, Fuentes warned against using the quincentenary of Columbus's "discovery" of the Americas (also the subject of his novel Christopher Unborn) to castigate Spain.

"The conquest was catastrophic for the Indian peoples of the Americas," he says. "But it wasn't sterile. We became mestizo nations, of mixed European and Indian blood, then black also: mulatto. We gained the gold of the Spanish language. And in Spanish America, even atheists are Catholics. So we are what we are because of the Iberian conquests, and I, for one, will not suffer the false Atlantic division. Neruda and Lorca are poets of the Spanish language; they belong to all - which is an advantage we have over English-speaking peoples."

The Zapatista leader, Subcomandante Marcos, is known to admire Fuentes, who welcomed the 1994 uprising in Chiapas for reminding the country of its suppressed Indian self. "For me, the problem is not the Zapatistas but the state of Chiapas; oligarchs owning and running and corrupting everything, protected by armed guards that go around murdering Indians," he says.

In the 1950s, before he published his first novel and began to live by his writing, Fuentes had edited Mexican literary reviews while working for the ILO, the UN and the Mexican foreign ministry. In 1974 he became ambassador to Paris. But he resigned in 1977 over the appointment as Mexico's ambassador to Spain of former president Gustavo Díaz Ordaz, implicated in the Tlatelolco massacre of hundreds of protesting students in 1968, which overshadowed the Mexico Olympics. "Mexico never recognised the Franco regime. But after 35 years of non-recognition, when Franco died we sent our own local Franco as ambassador," Fuentes fumes. In his view, the revolution "came with a compact: governments said, 'We'll give you social reform but not democracy. We'll have a politi cal monopoly, the Institutional Revolutionary party, the PRI, to defend ourselves against the backlash of the church, dispossessed landowners and the gringos.' That compact lasted till 1968, when the real children of the revolution demanded the freedom, equality and revolutionary ideals in the streets. The result was murder, and from that moment the compact was broken."

Jason Wilson, author of books on the Nobel Prize-winning poet Octavio Paz - who served as Mexico's ambassador to India - says Fuentes vied with Paz as the "daring, outspoken Mexican intellectual". Though the two had been friends since they met in Paris in 1950, they had a public falling-out in the late 1980s, when Paz's magazine, Vuelta, printed a vituperative attack on Fuentes's work. They never spoke again, creating a schism among their disciples that was unhealed at Paz's death in 1998. "He never called me again; it was up to him to do it."

According to Julio Ortega, professor of Hispanic studies at Brown University and co-editor with Fuentes of The Picador Book of Latin American Stories (1998), "everybody in Mexico was waiting for Fuentes to fill the vacuum of power at the top of the cultural pyramid after Paz's death. But he's immune to the Mexican rituals of power. His politics are free of ideology or party lines. He sometimes overreacts, but always as an independent political voice with an instinct for social justice."

Fuentes backed Castro's Cuban revolution of 1959, and the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua 20 years later. He found himself harassed by US officialdom. Invited by NBC in 1962 to debate with the Kennedy administration's undersecretary of state for Latin America, he was denied a visa. "The pretext was that I was a card-carrying communist. I said it was untrue, 'But I'm going to become one thanks to your stupid policies - you're going to make communists of us all in Latin America.' " He was barred from the US for much of the 1960s, till a ship he was on docked in Puerto Rico.

"This John Wayne character tore up my landing card, saying I was forbidden in American territory. I said, 'Puerto Rico isn't American, it's part of Latin America, so fuck yourself.'" They reckoned without Fuentes's connections. He enlisted Vargas Llosa, Norman Mailer and American PEN, the writers' association, in a campaign, joined by Senator William Fulbright, to get him exempted from the list barring suspected communists (including Iris Murdoch, García Márquez, Graham Greene, Dario Fo and Simone Signoret) from the US. Fuentes attacked US foreign policy, "not in the back yard, but right here, in the front yard" - the US.

From the early 1970s he held a series of professorships at US universities. At the height of the US-backed Contra war in Nicaragua, he slammed the Reagan administration in a Harvard commencement speech in 1983. "I said, 'You fools, you behave like Dr Jekyll at home and Mr Hyde in Latin America. You're making a big mistake.' " Caspar Weinberger, Reagan's defence secretary, was in the front row. In 1987 Fuentes became Harvard's first Robert Kennedy professor of Latin American Studies. Of what he calls the "United States of Amnesia", he says: "It's a country with a short memory. It has to be constantly reminded of its vices and virtues."

Styron sees Fuentes as immensely influential among US scholars, with a "purposely ambiguous approach to the US. Because he knows the culture so well, he neither panders to it, nor is he promiscuously critical. He's not an unqualified detractor like so many Latin American leftwing intellectuals."

His novel The Old Gringo (1985), which became a film starring Jane Fonda and Gregory Peck, explored the US-Mexican border as a real and symbolic frontier. He returned to it in The Crystal Frontier (1995), a novel in nine stories in which Latinos cross the Rio Grande only to become invisible (terrain covered in Ken Loach's new film, Bread and Roses). Despite the brutal economic realities of a land frontier where the first world abuts the third, Fuentes relishes the "silent reconquest" of the Mexican territories lost in 1848. "In the US, 35 million people speak Spanish," he says. "Los Angeles is the second Spanish-speaking city in the world after Mexico City - and before Madrid or Buenos Aires. These people are bearers of culture." He believes the Latino presence will reshape US politics. "The US has become a multicultural nation, which makes it stronger, not weaker - though it has difficulty accepting the fact."

His novel Diana: The Goddess Who Hunts Alone (1994) forayed into autobiography with a thinly veiled portrait of Jean Seberg, the actress who committed suicide in 1979. Fuentes had met her at a New Year's Eve party in 1969, as his first marriage was breaking up. He and Seberg had a "passionate location romance". "We went off together to the wilds of Durango where she was filming a tequila western," he says. "She was brilliant, intelligent, beautiful - but I knew it would only last the time of the filming; she was married and had a son. She was a very hurt person; she'd been yanked out of the Lutheran midwest unprepared to cope with fame. I think it disturbed her emotionally. But I can only be grateful for those two months - very grateful."

That and earlier portrayals of women in his novels have drawn feminist criticisms. One of Fuentes's translators, Margaret Sayers Peden, feels his work is steeped in a "Latin culture in which women are whores or madonnas". Alicia Borinsky, professor of Latin American literature at Boston University, views Fuentes as "squarely in a tradition that places men at the centre of history". Yet she adds: "It wasn't a conspiracy of the boom writers but the cultural and social context."

Fuentes has since praised a constellation of women writers in what he terms the "boomerang" generation that followed his own. He also wrote The Years with Laura Díaz as a "counterpoint" to The Death of Artemio Cruz. "I always felt a little worm inside me: 'Now you need to write a novel with a woman protagonist.' "

While Fuentes remains prolific, some feel he is repeating himself. Ilan Stavans, professor of Spanish studies at Amherst College, Massachusetts, says his "early novels transformed Latin American literature; they mesmerised an entire readership with a new view of the novel and how to perceive Mexico through it. But he got stuck in a vision of history and literature that belongs to the 60s nouveau roman . He's a very fluid and dynamic man, but he's lost touch."

Fuentes has champions, however, among a new generation of Latin American writers, the "junior boom", as he calls it, of the past three years. Born in 1968, the Mexican novelist Ignacio Padilla says: "Fuentes is like our grandfather; he's the best example that you can be both local and universal, read both as a portrait of Mexico and as an epic of the world looking for its own identity." Fuentes sees President Vicente Fox Quesada, whose election last year ended 71 years of PRI rule, as "a breath of fresh air. A new Mexican democracy is testing itself, warily but surely. The problems are daunting but a big step has been taken." Democracy is changing what he sees as the role of the Latin American intellectual in speaking for the voiceless. "Civil society has grown stronger; there are cooperatives, the feminist movement, gay rights groups, a free press. So a writer may still speak out - but as a citizen." Yet, he says, responsibility remains. "To maintain the vigour of language and the imagination - that's a role the writer cannot renounce."

Life at a glance: Carlos Manuel Fuentes Macías

Born: November 11 1928, Panama City.

Education: Schools in Washington DC and Santiago de Chile; Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Mexico City; Institute of Higher International Studies, Geneva.

Married: 1959-72 Rita Macedo (one daughter, Cecilia); 1973 Sylvia Lemus (one daughter, Natasha; one son, Carlos - deceased).

Career: 1954-58 editor, Revista Mexicana de Literatura; 1974-77 Mexican ambassador to France; 1986 Simón Bolívar professor, Cambridge; 1987 Robert Kennedy professor, Harvard.

Some books: Where the Air is Clear, 1958; The Death of Artemio Cruz, 1962; Terra Nostra, 1975; The Old Gringo, 1985; Diana: The Goddess Who Hunts Alone, 1994; El Instinto de Inez, 2001.

Honours: 1984 Mexican national award for literature; 1987 Cervantes prize; 1992 Légion d'Honneur.

• The Years with Laura DÍaz is published on Thursday by Bloomsbury at £17.99.


Maya Jaggi

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Ladies in Latin

Jane Stevenson on a search for women's writing that took her from Cumbria to the Vatican library.

Jane Stevenson

23, Jul, 2005 @1:46 PM

Article image
Profile: Jaan Kross

Jaan Kross survived the Nazi and Soviet occupations of Estonia and hard labour in the Gulag. Denounced by the censors for his poems, he learned to mask his criticisms of the authorities in allegorical novels. After communism's collapse, he helped draft a new constitution and found a wider readership. Ian Thomson reports

Ian Thomson

05, Jul, 2003 @12:13 AM

Article image
Profile: Garrison Keillor

Born in the Midwest to a fundamentalist Christian family which frowned on entertainment, Garrison Keillor's main ambition was to write. But he first worked as a radio presenter and went on to make his mark by broadcasting comic tales of a fictional small town, Lake Wobegon. His quirky stories and novels, with some echoes of autobiography, are now bestsellers, writes Nicholas Wroe

Nicholas Wroe

06, Mar, 2004 @12:57 AM

Bulgakov's rise to fame

His work was banned for decades, but in Russia he now has iconic status and his cult is growing in the west. Martin Wainwright on Bulgakov

Martin Wainwright

31, Mar, 2001 @2:16 PM

Extract: Author, Author by David Lodge

Henry James's private life has been the subject of much speculation. In this extract from his new novel, David Lodge weaves fact and fiction to explore the truth about the most reticent of writers.

David Lodge

14, Aug, 2004 @1:52 PM

Article image
Lessons from the master

David Gooblar sheds light on Philip Roth and Saul Bellow's fascinating literary friendship.

David Gooblar

07, Oct, 2005 @11:46 PM

Article image
Review: Everyman by Philip Roth

A blank style masks the magical craft of Philip Roth in Everyman, says John Banville.

John Banville

28, Apr, 2006 @11:53 PM

Article image
Review: The Brainfever Bird by I Allan Sealy

Maya Jaggi admires the descriptive power of I Allan Sealy's romantic thriller, The Brainfever Bird

Maya Jaggi

22, Mar, 2003 @12:33 AM

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov | Audiobooks review

It's played strictly for laughs by Julian Rhind-Tutt, says Sue Arnold

Sue Arnold

31, Jul, 2009 @11:01 PM

Article image
Exhalation by Ted Chiang review – stories from an SF master
The emotional and the cerebral are expertly balanced in these meditations on the mysteries of existence

Adam Roberts

12, Jul, 2019 @6:30 AM