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Carlos Fuentes: The Mother Jones Interview

In 1988, the late man of letters spoke to MoJo about crossing borders, defending the Sandinistas, and preferring grits to guacamole.

| November 1988

Carlos Fuentes, Mexico's most distinguished novelist, is sweating. His wife Sylvia has nearly fainted. Their teenage son, Carlos Jr., slumps against a parked car, fanning himself and listening to an Elvis Presley tape on his Sony Walkman. The sultry heat in the lowlands of Morelos is stifling.

We're trying to make a documentary for PBS, but our camera crew, a combat-hardened team from Chile, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua, is having a hard time keeping up and they haven't eaten. If I don't get them a drink soon, we'll have a mutiny on our hands.

But once Carlos Fuentes has set his mind to something, there's no stopping until the task is finished. He's a man of ferocious will and powerful ego; he has the tenacity of a pit bull.

Fuentes had promised to take us on a tour of the state of Morelos, the home of Emiliano Zapata, the peasant revolutionary (and subject of a novel Fuentes is researching). Our trip with him got off to a late start, but he was determined, by god, to show us everything he had planned for us to see: Zapata's birthplace, the Zapata Museum, the hacienda where he was assassinated. All this and more—even if it killed us.

Fuentes strips off his soaking shirt and strides past green fields of sugarcane. This is beginning to feel like Mao's Long March, as we struggle behind him lugging videotape equipment. Bewildered cane cutters look up in dazed slow motion at this strange sight, their machetes suspended in midair.

Finally Fuentes reaches a group of young girls, blackhaired, shy, and wide-eyed. Fuentes already knows, but he asks them if Zapata was killed nearby. "Oh, no," protests the oldest girl, "Zapata is not dead. He still lives." Fuentes turns to us slowly, a broad smile spreading across his face. "Did you hear that, my friends? Zapata lives!" A scene of the Fuentes family in their home in 1988.A scene of the Fuentes family in their home in 1988

It is tantamount to treason for a Mexican writer to achieve success among Yankee readers. It is considered gauche for a North American novelist to be involved in politics. And in Washington, that supremely insular town, it is still a scandal for an intellectual or, god forbid, a celebrity, to defend the Sandinistas.

Yet, Carlos Fuentes has committed all these sins, and worse yet, he shows not the least bit of remorse. In fact, he rather revels in his many contradictory personas: writer/diplomat, activist/professor, connoisseur/iconoclast, and, as he has written about himself, "the first and only Mexican to prefer grits to guacamole." His prolific, eclectic fiction ranges from political spy thrillers (The Hydra Head) to erotic ghost stories (Aura), from baroque dream histories of the Spanish-speaking world (Terra Nostra) to caustic indictments of the frozen Mexican Revolution (The Death of Artemio Cruz). "Don't classify me, read me," Fuentes scolds critics of his unpredictability. "I'm a writer, not a genre." And a heretic, not a conservative. As one might imagine, his political enemies and literary critics would like to burn him at the stake.

The latest bonfire singes the pages of the post-liberal New Republic, where a Mexican political journalist, Enrique Krauze, condemns Fuentes as a "guerrilla dandy," a combination of Pierre Cardin and Che Guevara, who "merely uses Mexico as a theme, distorting it for a North American public." Krauze is particularly incensed by Fuentes' support of the Nicaraguan Revolution, denouncing him as "the tenth commandante." The editors of the New Republic were so taken by this outburst that they made it a cover story complete with a caricature of Fuentes as a flinty-eyed Pancho Villa armed with pencils instead of bullets.

Actually, Krauze and his Yankee editors are latecomers to Fuentes bashing. Two years ago, Commentary, in a fit of neoconservative rage, proclaimed that "all Fuentes' books are dirty" and warned that this "patrician denouncer of American imperialism" was a "left-wing utopian with an overlay of sentimental anarchism." This crude critique of Fuentes was entitled "Montezuma's Literary Revenge"—reflecting the taste and sophistication we've come to expect from the Midge Decter/Jeane Kirkpatrick set.

None of this surprises or deters Fuentes. He has seen it all before. His first novel—La Región Más Transparente (translated as Where the Air Is Clear), published in 1958—provoked wildly divergent reviews, especially in Mexico, where Fuentes' revolutionary voice and unorthodox, European- and North American-influenced style jolted the staid, monolithic cultural scene. Ever since, Fuentes has thrived on provoking the literary, and often the political, establishment.

"I've lost audiences, I've recovered them," Fuentes shrugs, as he sits on the porch of a friend's magnificent house in the village of Tepoztlan, just south of Mexico City. "I've been thrashed by the critics. I love having critics for breakfast! I've been having them for 30 years in Mexico—just eating them like chicken and then throwing the bones away. They have not survived, I have!" Not that Fuentes is unappreciated. Along with his close friend, Gabriel García Márquez, and Mario Vargas Llosa, Fuentes is one of Latin America's preeminent authors—a pioneer of the "magical realism" that has captivated readers and critics on both sides of the Rio Grande. His recent collection of essays, Myself With Others, shamelessly crowded with the names of his always-famous friends, was praised unreservedly in the New York Times. His 1985 novel, The Old Gringo, is the first by a Mexican author to become a bestseller in the United States. And when the movie version, starring Jane Fonda and Gregory Peck, is released in December, Fuentes is destined to become even more widely known in this country. He is as successful as any serious fiction writer would ever dream of becoming.

This year Fuentes received three awards that symbolize the range of his art, politics, and influence. The King of Spain presented Fuentes with the Cervantes prize, including a check for nearly $88,000. It was a radical departure from the Franco era when Fuentes' novel, A Change of Skin, was banned in Spain for allegedly being "pornographic, communistic, anti-Christian, anti-German, and pro-Jewish." In New York, the National Arts Club, a rather stodgy crowd, gave Fuentes its gold medal for literature in a ceremony graced by Tom Wicker, Joan Didion, and John Kennedy Jr. And in Managua, the Sandinistas bestowed upon Fuentes Nicaragua's highest cultural award, named after Ruben Darfo, the 19th-century poet and national hero. Previous recipients included Graham Greene and García Márquez.

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"They're trying to bury me with medals," Fuentes complained to the press. But truthfully he enjoys the international recognition he has earned and nurtured. As his old schoolmate and friend, José Donoso, the Chilean novelist (Curfew), recalls, Fuentes was "the first active and conscious agent of the internationalization of the Spanish-American novel" in the early '60s. He was the leader of what became known as "El Boom," the sudden surge in international popularity of Latin fiction. He has never stopped crossing borders.

"I move, therefore I am," laughs Fuentes. But this is serious. Travel defines Carlos Fuentes. It is the essence of his art and personality. Born in 1928 to a Mexican diplomatic family, Fuentes has spent the better part of his life on the road. Today he maintains a house in the fashionable suburbs of Mexico City, but he's rarely there. He has become an itinerant intellectual, lecturing all over the world, taking up temporary residence at one university after another, living out of a suitcase. "He's like a shark," observes novelist William Styron (Sophie's Choice), who has known Fuentes for more than 20 years and journeyed to Nicaragua with him this year. "You know the shark, if it does not stay in constant motion, dies. I think Carlos moves to stay alive. I never have his phone number because it's always changed."

To a cultural nationalist like Enrique Krauze, Fuentes' perpetual motion, his "rootlessness," is his central flaw. To others, including Styron, the restlessness, the bicultural border crossing, is his greatest strength. "No one writes more eloquently about Latin America, its peculiarity, its revolutionary nature, its hopeless perplexities," Styron argues, "or, paradoxically, perceives it with such a North American eye. I think he's really become the leading interpreter of Latin America to the North American reading public."

It is misleading, actually, to think of Fuentes as a man without roots, even though he no longer lives in a particular place. Wherever he travels, he carries with him his Spanish language and his Latin culture. At the same time, he brings the perspective of the outsider, even to his own country. Restless, energetic, driven, Fuentes identifies deeply with Don Quixote, sensing early in his career as a writer that "I would forever be a wanderer in search of perspective."

"Carlos is like a shark," says William Styron, an old friend. "The shark, if it does not stay in constant motion, dies."

Like Don Quixote, Fuentes is fundamentally a man of imagination, and his fiction is born of the clash between the world as it ought to be and the world he encounters in his travels. The disparity between his imagination and reality, the chasm between Mexico and the United States, struck him early—as a child growing up in Washington, DC, during the Roosevelt years—and the impact of that revelation has reverberated throughout his life.

Fuentes was not yet six years old when he came to the United States, where his father was counselor of the Mexican embassy. He read Dick Tracy and Superman, traded Indian Chief bubble gum cards in Meridian Hill Park, discovered Mark Twain, fell in love with the flaxen-haired daughter of the Lithuanian ambassador, shook hands with FDR, and became such a devotee of matinee movies that he won $100 in a Hollywood trivia contest.

"Mexico was an imaginary country," recalls Fuentes. "I thought my father had invented it to amuse me. It seemed so exotic, so different from where I was living." Reality was Henry Cooke Public School on 13th Street NW—"an American melting pot. You had blacks, Chinese, Greeks, Italians…and a wonderful teacher named Florence Painter, who really took us in hand and taught us everything—arithmetic, literature, history, geography. I get students at Harvard now who don't have any idea where Brazil is, or Angola, or Indonesia! Where's Mrs. Painter when we need her?

Fuentes was popular in school, "one of the gang," until March 18, 1938, the day Mexico's populist president, Lázaro Cárdenas, nationalized the foreign oil companies. "Suddenly there were a lot of headlines about 'Red Mexico' and the Mexican communists stealing 'our' oil, and all my friends turned their backs on me. I was an instant pariah." As Fuentes describes the ostracism more than 50 years later, it's evident that it still makes him uncomfortable. "That made me realize I was not a gringo," he says emphatically. "I was a Mexican."

The traumatic childhood experience echoes in descriptions of the US-Mexico border in The Old Gringo as a "scar," and one can easily imagine his own wrenching separation: "Mexico…the next never frontier of American consciousness…the most difficult frontier of all, the strangest, because it was the closest and therefore the one most forgotten, most often ignored, and most feared when it stirred spontaneous was from its long lethargy…each of us carries regarded his Mexico and his United States within him, a dark and bloody frontier we dare to cross only at night."

The Mexican nationalization of US oil interests and the sudden hostility of his peers ended Fuentes' youthful love affair with the United States. But the jilted lover never lost his deep affection for things American: John Garfield movies, Faulkner novels, Yankee diligence, the optimism and vitality of the New Deal. Few Latin American writers have such an intimate knowledge of the gringos (including our desire to see the world reflected in our own image) or such an intense love-hate relationship with the United States. Fuentes often describes the United States as the "Jekyll and Hyde of Latin America": "I admire your democracy; I deplore the expansionist and manipulative empire."

During the '60s, the US State Department—stung by Fuentes' ardent criticism of US intervention in Vietnam and the Dominican Republic—repeatedly barred him from entering the country. And right up until this year, when portions of the McCarran-Walter Immigration Act were repealed, that legacy of the McCarthy era compelled Fuentes to apply for special permission every time he wanted to visit the United States. There is always someone to remind him he will never be a gringo.

In 1940, the boy with the Yankee accent "entered fully the universe of the Spanish language." Fuentes arrived in Santiago, Chile, where his father took up a new diplomatic post. In the land of the poets, under the spell of Pablo Neruda, Fuentes began to write a novel with his friends at school. "It was a terrible novel," Fuentes groans. "It was a gothic melodrama, which began in Marseille and ended on a hilltop in Haiti with a black tyrant whose mad French mistress is hidden in the attic. Shades of Joan Fontaine, wow!" There was even a climactic slave revolt. The earnest 14-year-old used to read his novel aloud to the exiled Mexican muralist David Siqueiros, who routinely fell asleep.

Fuentes' left/liberal politics were conditioned by his boyhood travels. "You see." he explains, "I had the triple experience of Mexico under Cárdenas, revolutionary Mexico; the United States under Roosevelt and the New Deal; and then Chile during the time of the Popular Front. These were all, in their own way, exciting democracies. And Roosevelt, to his credit, respected these experiments in Mexico and Chile. No mining of harbors. No assassinations. No intervention. None of these silly things. He respected the internal dynamic of each country. Will no one imitate him today?"

His appreciation of progressive democracy was heightened by his exposure to incipient fascism in Argentina, where his father was appointed Mexico's chargé d'affaires. "This was at the time of Perón's rise to power, and it was shocking," remembers Fuentes. "A despicable man called Martinez Zuvirla was the minister of education and he had given a fascist imprint to the schools. I couldn't take it."

His sympathetic parents allowed their 15-year-old to quit school and wander the streets of Buenos Aires. Fuentes was ecstatic: "I became a groupie of the tango bands, I went to the low dives. I lost my virginity, which was a wonderful event! I read [Jorge Luis] Borges for the first time."

But World War II cut short Fuentes' romance with the tango. His father's difficult assignment was to try to convince the Argentine regime to break relations with Hitler and Mussolini, and to protect his family from reprisals, he sent them home to Mexico. During Fuentes' long childhood exile from his country—broken only by summer visits—his vision of Mexico had been sustained by his father's stories. Now, returning for an extended period, the reality captivated and sometimes stunned him. For one thing, there was the stifling atmosphere of the Catholic Church—something his father, Rafael ("an incorrigible Jacobin and priest hater to the end"), had somehow neglected to mention.

"I became a groupie of the tango bands, I went to the low dives. I lost my virginity, which was a wonderful event!"

Taking advantage of her husband's absence, Fuentes' mother, Berta, who is a devout Catholic, enrolled their unsuspecting 16-year-old in a priests' school. It was along way from the tango clubs. "One central reality was hammered into my consciousness," Fuentes nearly shouts, hitting himself in the head with his fist, "and that was SIN! I'd never thought about sin before. Suddenly everything I felt was natural and spontaneous was regarded as sinful. Of course, that made leftists of us all. I remember the first rebellion my friends and I staged—a celebration of Juárez's birthday [Mexico's first mestizo president, and secular liberal]. The priests considered him to be the big villain, the devil with horns. We staged a strike and we almost got thrown out of the school."

As a writer, Fuentes has savored his revenge. In one of his early novels, The Good Conscience, a teenage boy in the throes of religious and sexual anguish masturbates in church while gripping the nailed feet of Christ on the cross. His short story, "The Old Morality," features a recurring Fuentes character: the cantankerous, highly sexed grandfather who fought in the Mexican Revolution, despises the Church, and scares away priests by asking, "Do you want me to tell you where the heavenly kingdom is?" while lifting up his young mistress's skirt.

Fuentes' sweeping vision of the Spanish-speaking world appears in Terra Nostra—a 778-page avalanche of dense (many would say unreadable) Joycean prose, published in 1975. A reviewer in the Nation noted that Terra Nostra "is particularly Latin American in its hatred of the Catholic Church, here the embodiment of social, political, emotional, and sexual repression." In Fuentes' world view the archenemy is the Counter-Reformation, the totalitarian Catholic state; the heroes are the dissenters, the blasphemers—wandering Arabs, sensual Jews, free thinkers, free lovers.

Although Fuentes rejects orthodox Catholicism, he believes in a spiritual dimension, a sacred world. The Mexico City he came to know in the '50s was a booming metropolis spiced by Hollywood gangsters, European aristocrats, and Republican exiles from fascist Spain. The sleepy provincial capital he'd imagined was already gone forever. But beneath the modern city, he saw an ancient, buried civilization: the Aztec city, Tenochtitlán. He imagined Indian gods escaping up through the subways.

"Mexico City is like Rome," Fuentes said one morning as he strolled through the excavated remains of the Aztecs' Templo Mayor, in the heart of the city. "There are many, many layers." Dressed in a white suit and open-necked white shirt that reflected the bright sun, Fuentes was his own dazzling image. Strangers stopped to stare at this elegant vision. As he wandered deeper into the ruins, he began to resemble the ghostly narrator of his first novel: "…fall with me on our moon-scar city…city witness to all we forget."

I heard the voice say: "Under the veneer of Westernization, the cultures of the Indian world—which have existed for 30,000 years!—continue to live. Sometimes in a magical way, sometimes in the shadows." He turned, and I could see his outline against the light and haze. "The gods defend themselves against genocide, commercialization, all the abuses the Indian world of Mexico has been subjected to."

In his emblematic short story "Chac Mool," a statue of the rain god comes to life and drowns its art collector, a government bureaucrat. Ghosts and demons haunt nearly all his fiction, most notably in Aura, a small masterpiece about an aged, green-eyed sorceress who can conjure up her youthful beauty. Magical realism and the living presence of the past are the subterranean forces in Fuentes' work. "I think this is a magical country," Fuentes says with obvious pride. "Neruda in his memoirs calls it the last magic country. It is a national resource, this magic."

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