Page 2 of 2

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

But Fuentes is not lost in his dreams and the past. He is also a creature of politics and the present. In the '50s and '60s he was one of Mexico's angry young men—the new generation of artists and rebels who dared to criticize publicly the failures of the Mexican Revolution and were attracted to the possibilities raised by the Cuban Revolution. Fuentes' greatest novel, The Death of Artemio Cruz, is a furious critique of revolution betrayed by opportunists, and an indictment of Mexico's status quo, because only half the country's population had enough to eat.

By 1966, Fuentes had established himself as Mexico's leading author. Like Dickens' London and Balzac's Paris, Fuentes' Mexico City became, for the first time, a virtual character in world literature. But after living more than 20 years in Mexico, he was beginning to feel claustrophobic. He moved to Europe—and has never stopped traveling. Asked where he will retire one day, Fuentes is immediately uncomfortable at the prospect of staying put. "London, maybe. Or Madrid," he mumbles, and changes the subject. That night he brings it up again: "Mexico City, you know, is committing suicide. It's so difficult to live there." In his most recent novel, Christopher Unborn, soon to be published in English, he calls his once-beloved city "Makesicko" and delivers an Orwellian warning, in a darkly comic style, about a ravaged, dismembered Mexico in 1992, ruled by the right wing and partly occupied by US troops. "I could settle here in Tepoztlan, where you can still breathe," he says, looking up at the imposing mountains jutting up sharply behind the village. "But frankly, I'd be bored. I need libraries, museums, the energy of a city."

His family seems even more cosmopolitan and removed from Mexico. His wife, Sylvia, a part-time reporter for Mexican television, is beautiful, young, blonde, sophisticated; she seems more French than Mexican. They eloped to Paris in the early '70s (Fuentes divorced his first wife, Rita Macedo, a Mexican movie actress) and continued living there while Fuentes served as Mexico's ambassador to France. Their 14-year-old daughter, Natasha, a pouting beauty, refuses to be uprooted anymore by her father's endless travels, so she lives at her boarding school in Paris. Carlos Jr., 15, is an Americanized teenager obsessed with Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, and Montgomery Clift. He paints, and admires Sean Penn.

Carlos Fuentes is disciplined, efficient, and by his own admission a bit of a Calvinist when it comes to the satisfactions of hard work. One of my strongest images of Fuentes is that of a distinguished, anxious man standing on a corner in Mexico, nervously scanning the Sunday traffic for signs of our TV crew. As usual, we're late, he's absolutely punctual.

Being with Fuentes is an intellectual workout. Brilliant, curious, fast-talking in four languages, wildly imaginative, he can be exhausting. He can also be immensely charming—or, if he doesn't care much for you, briskly cordial in the manner of an embassy official. He can easily intimidate, and he has a temper, but he also displays a wonderful, spontaneous sense of humor: a prankster and a ham lurk beneath the surface of that elegant Latin intellectual.

My coproducer Joan Saffa and I caught up with Fuentes in Washington last February after he emerged from a binge of writing—holed up in an office without a telephone in a semi-deserted Georgetown University building. Fuentes does not require isolation to write. I have seen him compose a lecture on a rumbling train and take detailed notes for a novel in the back seat of a speeding car. But there are definitely two sides of his personality: the private writer and the public figure. Like air and water, he requires both. Having satisfied his urge to withdraw and write, he plunges with energy back into the public arena.

After two days of videotaping, we find ourselves in New York, just past midnight, at the National Arts Club, where Fuentes has received his award. As we pack up to leave, Fuentes, utterly at home in his tuxedo, is still going strong, surrounded by friends and admirers. The next morning at seven, I meet him in the lobby of his midtown Manhattan hotel. I am still bleary-eyed; he charges confidently out of the elevator, freshly shaved, dressed in a smart trench coat and scarf—looking like the James Bond of Underdevelopment, which is what a reviewer dubbed the hero of Fuentes' spy novel, The Hydra Head.

"There is an obsessive old man in Washington, dreaming of movie scripts which never happened actually, looking for lost lines, consumed by his personal fears," Fuentes fumed.

On the Metroliner to Washington, I sit next to Fuentes. In his best mock Hollywood gangster dialogue, he places his wrist next to mine and deadpans, "I don't think the handcuffs are necessary." Then as the train pulls out of Penn Station, he announces he'll be taking a 45-minute nap. In no time, he is asleep. Less than an hour later, he wakes up, orders a Coke, and gets down to work: marking student papers, polishing his lecture. When he finishes, he scans every page of the New York Times, stopping to read all the articles on Central America. After he finishes, we begin to talk, but after awhile he starts glancing at his watch. The train is just a few minutes behind schedule, but he's starting to get nervous about being late for his class at George Mason University in Virginia, where they are paying him handsomely for his time. Bounding off the train and into a cab, his anxiety mounts as we cross the Potomac. Only when we arrive at the suburban campus—with plenty of time to spare—does he relax.

In his seminar, he proves the ideal professor—taking his students seriously, expertly guiding a discussion of the Monroe Doctrine, going off on a tangent about the Spanish Inquisition, listening patiently, even to an earnest, insistent woman who argues for continued US military aid to the contras "to preserve democracy." When Fuentes, rather gently, asks if the United States was concerned about Nicaraguan democracy during the Somoza dictatorship, she switches gears to say it's not so much democracy we need to worry about as stopping the spread of international communism. A few students groan but Fuentes refuses to either patronize her or duck the issue, and the exchange continues.

Next, there is a private lunch with the president of the university, and after that, Fuentes strides into a lecture hail packed with more than 600 people. This lecture series is open to the public, and Fuentes' first appearances were marred by right-wing pickets; he had to be escorted to the podium by security guards. But today decorum reigns. Without hesitating, Fuentes launches into a nonstop, fast-paced two-hour talk on the art and literature of medieval Spain. "He's so passionate!" swoons a middle-aged professor from a local teacher's college.

After a quick post-lecture sherry with the faculty, he races back to his rented town house in Georgetown just in time to feed the fish he's promised to keep alive. He sings "Three Little Fishes" as he performs the chore, and spins out a cartoon tale of dancing goldfish in top hats and tails. It's getting late. Fuentes disappears upstairs for a shower, another shave, and a change into an impeccably tailored dark suit, then submits to yet another one-hour on-camera interview, which he finally breaks off when a driver arrives from the Swedish embassy to take him to a dinner meeting with the Swedish foreign minister. I'm crawling into bed, while the 60-year-old writer/diplomat is still fielding questions from the Swedes.

Fuentes' trip to Nicaragua last January was really grueling. He was on the go day and night for a week, never sleeping for more than five hours. As guests of the Sandinistas, Fuentes and author William Styron traveled in a jeep to the contra-plagued mountains north of Matagalpa; they flew in a Soviet helicopter over newly irrigated fields; they shuttled across a lake on a boat as battered and rusty as the African Queen; they visited struggling agricultural cooperatives and a shoe factory crippled by shortages; they spoke with the wounded in dreary hospital wards. And every night they ate, drank, smoked cigars, and talked for hours with the Sandinista leaders: Daniel Ortega, Sergio Ramirez, Tomds Borge, Ernesto Cardenal, Jaime Wheelock. Styron's hound-dog face began to show the strain, but Fuentes seemed to thrive like a marathon runner.

The sharpest exchanges I overheard were between Fuentes and Borge, the tough minister of the interior who was tortured by Somoza's national guard. In an argument about whether the contras could ever beat the Sandinistas, Borge confidently said such a turn of events was impossible because "they are going against the grain of history." Fuentes interrupted to ask, "What about the experience of Guatemala in 1954 and Chile in 1973—didn't they prove that the Left can be defeated?" "No," Borge shot back. "They didn't arm the people. That's why they failed."

The two men continued arguing, with Fuentes insisting, "History has a way of breaking through any ideology imposed upon it." Later, they tangled again, this time on the subject of opposition parties. Borge said it was his personal opinion that no opposition party could ever defeat the Sandinistas at the polls. "Not now," agreed Fuentes, "but in the future, why not?" "Only if they are anti-imperialist and revolutionary," Borge proclaimed. "If a reactionary party won, I would cease to believe in the laws of political development." "I wouldn't be so sure about those laws," Fuentes advised.

"I'd never thought about sin before. Suddenly everything I felt was natural and spontaneous was regarded as sinful."

While Fuentes toured Nicaragua, President Reagan asked Congress to approve increased military aid to his freedom fighters. "There is an obsessive old man in Washington, dreaming of movie scripts which never happened actually, looking for lost lines, consumed by his personal fears," Fuentes fumed when we finally caught up with him for an interview. "I hope that when he leaves, his fears and obsessions and paranoia will leave with him, too."

The only person I have ever seen upstage Fuentes was Borge. He is macho, earthy, and a natural showman. Before dispatching Fuentes and Styron to visit a military field hospital in a particularly risky area, Borge joked: "I can see the headlines now: 'Two Internationally Famous Authors Murdered by Contras.' Not bad publicity for our cause. It would bring attention to the contra attacks on civilians. But, of course, it wouldn't be very good for the writers!" Borge and his aides laughed hard—it's the kind of humor popular in a war zone—but Fuentes couldn't manage a smile.

Later, Borge succeeded in getting Fuentes to laugh by telling him how the vision of a woman's breasts saved him from becoming a priest. There's no stopping Borge once he's on a roll, and with Fuentes he was in rare form. While Fuentes sampled coffee beans at a misty mountain co-op and listened politely to a manager's description of crop yields, Borge slipped off to talk with a haggard woman and other reticent villagers. He returned, shouting to Fuentes, "The greatest harvest here is not coffee, it's kids! This woman has 12 kids, another one has 8. You know, Nicaragua has one of the highest birth rates in the world. Only contraceptives can help—abstinence is impossible." The campesinos grinned; this short, slightly hunched character had captured their attention. "We better get out of here before the compañeras who came with us become pregnant!" laughed Borge, as he winked at the militant woman journalist from the Sandinista newspaper Barricada, and herded Fuentes, Styron, and bodyguards into a convoy of jeeps.

In Managua, Fuentes was badly shaken by a hospital visit to see children who have been maimed in contra raids. He spoke with them quietly in soothing Spanish, and angrily waved off our camera when we intruded. Afterward he was uncharacteristically silent and withdrawn. He may speed through life, endlessly curious, racing from one country to another, skipping through the subject matter. But he discriminates. He absorbs the meaningful moments and distills them in his creative imagination. (Months after the Nicaragua trip, at the end of a long, revealing conversation, Fuentes said, "I would love to be Buster Keaton. I think he is the angel of films. He's the innocence, the purity I've never seen in life. Maybe in some children. Like the children I saw in Nicaragua—the mutilated ones. They had that same purity. They had halos.")

In a speech to the diplomatic corps and Sandinista officials, Fuentes proclaimed: 'The defense of Nicaragua is the defense of all Latin America." But he is sensitive as well to criticism of the Sandinistas. "I would love it if a Swiss coffee maker invented a formula for instantaneous democracy, like instant coffee, you know, whereby Nicaragua could become Sweden overnight. But no!" insists Fuentes. "Democracy takes time. Leave Nicaragua in peace. Don't kill her people and burn her crops and schools. And Nicaragua will find her way, a Nicaraguan style of democracy."

And how long might that take? "Well, in the case of Cuba," Fuentes sighs, "it has taken too long. Cuba needs a dose of perestroika. Great things have been done by the Cuban Revolution in education, health, and working conditions, but the price that has been paid in individual freedom is excessive. It is time to correct this. Cuba should withdraw from the international chessboard of East-West confrontation and concentrate on itself, on the question of individual rights, freedom of expression, and democracy."

At the end of their week in Nicaragua, Fuentes and Styron found themselves on a bus headed to Costa Rica in the middle of the night. A few hours before, Daniel Ortega had suddenly invited them to accompany the Nicaraguan delegation to a summit conference of Central American presidents. The topic of the session was implementation of the peace plan proposed by Costa Rican president Oscar Arias. A New York Times headline noted that Ortega arrived with a "Strong Literary Escort."

"Except for the actual private meetings of the presidents themselves, Carlos and I were in on all the deliberations," Styron said, "and it was a fascinating thing to see." Styron watched Fuentes assume the role of diplomat: "I believe that Arias felt that Carlos was a valuable intermediary between the peace plan and Ortega. And in fact I think Carlos was able to convey some of Arias's thoughts to Ortega. I don't mean to say that Carlos suddenly became the eminence grise, but that people there respected him as an influential person who could contribute something."

"He reminds me a little bit of Bishop Desmond Tutu," observes Jane Fonda.

Ortega made concessions at the talks, which led to a cease-fire in Nicaragua and continued face-to-face bargaining with the contras. But real peace remains as elusive as ever, and Fuentes sometimes despairs that Washington will "make the hideous mistake of invading Nicaragua outright and provoking a chain reaction throughout the hemisphere…I'm simply one more individual trying to reach the American people with the message that this war in Nicaragua is a bloody waste."

In recent years, Fuentes, the citizen of the world, has returned in his fiction to Mexican themes and settings: Burnt Water, a collection of short stories; The Old Gringo; Christopher Unborn; and the novel he is writing about the assassination of Emiliano Zapata.

"The caricatures of Zapata as a blood-soaked Attila the Hun were terrifying," Fuentes says, pointing to old newspaper cartoons on display in a museum in Morelos, Zapata country. "People in Mexico City were shaking in fear at the arrival of this, in truth, extremely gentle, aristocratic man. I think that the bourgeois in Mexico are afraid even today of meeting the real aristocrats of Mexico because they are the Indians and peasants. They were the former princes of this realm. They've been here for tens of thousands of years, and they have the stamp of nobility in them, which unfortunately most of us who come from immigrants do not."

Fuentes is too peripatetic to become directly involved in Mexico's internal politics, but like nearly everyone else in the country he is caught up in this year's election drama. "There has been a tremendous popular mobilization in this country," Fuentes shouts over a faltering Mexico City phone line. "Mexico will never be the same." He's impressed with the "seriousness" of the centerleft opposition candidate, Cuauhtémoc Cardenas, who is, of course, the son of Lázaro Cárdenas, the president who made Fuentes discover his "Mexicanness" by nationalizing oil in 1938.

"The PRI (Mexico's ruling party) was stupid not to negotiate with Cuauhtémoc when he pushed to open up the party, to democratize it," says Fuentes. "This was a great strategic blunder. Now they would like to negotiate, but it's too late. The PRI must learn to live with a real opposition. If not, all hell could break loose."

Fuentes is a man of political concerns, but he has no desire to run for office, unlike that other outstanding Latin American writer, Mario Vargas Llosa, now a conservative and a probable candidate for president of Peru. Putting aside questions of temperament (Fuentes is far too quixotic to be a politician), he does not have a political base in Mexico, nor does he spend enough time there to develop one. Because he is so seldom in Mexico City, his long absences leave him open to the charges that he is a foreigner in his own country.

"He reminds me a little bit of Bishop Desmond Tutu," observes Jane Fonda during a break in the filming of Old Gringo. "I mean, it's a totally different context, but both men have such an important role internationally in helping people to understand their countries."

Fuentes still enjoys a large readership in Mexico, and still speaks directly to the people of his country, but it does seem true that, in his politics and his writing, Fuentes has created for himself the role of ambassador, interpreter—a man ideally suited to bridge the chasm between the United States and Latin America.

Toward the end of Old Gringo, Fonda's character, Harriet Winslow, a schoolteacher from Washington, DC, who dreams of civilizing Mexico, crosses back into the United States to escape the revolution that has unhinged her life. But at the last moment, she realizes that she no longer wants to "save" Mexico, she only wants to learn to live with it.

"So she runs for the bridge, to return to Mexico, but as she reaches it, the bridge bursts into flames and burns," writer Joan Didion told the National Arts Club when it awarded Fuentes his medal. "Now I think that all of us would like for the bridges not to burn. But Carlos is telling us that they are going to or perhaps already have."

Carlos Fuentes, a 20th-century Don Quixote, a man who moves in order to exist, has no desire to see the bridges burn between the United States and Latin America: He needs them to cross borders, real and imagined. But when he smells smoke, he is the first to warn us—even when we'd rather not listen.

Page 2 of 2