Author Interview. Crossing the cultural border with novelist Carlos Fuentes

All the stories, all the histories, are here in my head, a whole library of words; the history of my people, my village, our pain: here in my head. --Carlos Fuentes in ``The Old Gringo'' To speak with Carlos Fuentes, Mexico's preeminent novelist, is to converse with an encyclopedia of information -- political, economic, historic, and yes, imaginative.

Mr. Fuentes has served not only as a leader of ``El Boom'' in contemporary Latin American literature, but also as ambassador, academic, and respected social critic.

He is, in a word, a Latin American man of letters. It is a label the author disavows with a diplomat's charm.

``A writer in Latin America is supposed to be what we call in Spanish, a s'abelotodo, a `know-ologist.'* Well, it isn't possible,'' he says with a laugh during a recent interview. ``I think good writers don't have an answer for anything; they have a lot of good questions.''

In the 30 years he has been writing, Fuentes has emerged as one of his country's most articulate spokesmen. As a statesman, he served as Mexican ambassador to France between 1975 and 1977.

In a 1983 Harvard commencement address, he made a reasoned if pointed appeal to the Reagan administration for nonintervention in Central America.

His fiction is considered not a defense, but an exceptionally literate dissection of Mexico's multilayered history and culture. His first novel, ``Where the Air Is Clear,'' is considered a classic, while his most popular work, ``Death of Artemio Cruz'' remains one of the most insightful portraits of post-revolutionary Mexico.

Now, with the publication of ``The Old Gringo,'' his latest, and some say best, work, Fuentes returns to familar themes and techniques while attracting an ever-expanding audience. A richly imaginative examination of the last days of American writer Ambrose Bierce during the Mexican Revolution, ``The Old Gringo'' is the first Mexican novel to become an American best seller.

``I am simply conscious that Mexico is a polycultural and multiracial country. That is its stamp, its variety,'' says Fuentes. ``That is what I am writing about.''

Critics insist it is the author's gifted use of magical realism, that literary technique developed by such Latin American writers as Gabriel Garc'ia M'arquez and Mario Vargas Llosa, with which Fuentes probes the relationship between Mexico and the United States, men and women, dream and reality. This relationship, or ``scar,'' as the author puts it, is a favorite topic in fiction and conversation.

``There is a tension, I hope, between realism and fantasy that adds strength and richness to the work,'' he says. ``[The book] is full of the events of the Mexican Revolution, but it is the depths of the dreams of the characters that count.''

Indeed, revolution, ``one of the world's great events,'' according to Fuentes, is one of his most frequent fictive concerns. ``It's the most interesting subject matter I have at hand -- the intersection of individual destiny with historical destiny,'' he says. ``That's where my juices get going and my pen starts flowing. Really.''

And the juices do get going here in Fuentes's spare Harvard University office, where the author is in the midst of a five-year teaching contract. A trim, nimble man, Fuentes exudes a jaunty ebullience -- he wears both French cuffs and rubber-soled shoes -- as well as an unflagging erudition on an astounding array of topics. He speaks excellent English, one of his six languages, in the cascading cadences of his native Spanish. The rapid-fire conversation is peppered with literary and historical references, constant gesturing, and bursts of laughter. The impression is one of foot-tapping brashness tempered by wisdom of the ages.

``I'll tell you why, I'll tell you why,'' he bursts out when asked about the use of magical realism. ``Latin America is a land where it is necessary to take a fantastic leap to reach your desire in dream or imagination, because it is not obtainable materially. Here, if you have a desire you can almost go to a supermarket or shopping mall and get it.''

Other topics get equally provocative assessments.

On the novel's form: ``You take the reader by the hand and leap over a chasm. We're either going to fall down and kill ourselves or land on the other side in a land of glory.'' Laughter. ``Let's do it; let's run the adventure.''

On technology: ``[Fifth-generation computers are] a totally new world for our politics, the way we write, for everything. I think we will cope with imagination and human response, I hope. But we have lived facing challenges, so what's new about that?''

Politics? ``Anything you like,'' Fuentes says smiling broadly, spreading his arms graciously. Then off he gallops:

``[America] is a country in love with the future, and it has made the modern world believe in the future. Mexico believes in the past. . . . I think the notions of progress and future are falling down. . . . [But] right now [America] is very happy because [President] Reagan is fooling it and telling it is a success story. But wait a minute. Wait, wait, wait. Let's wait and see, eh?''

As one of the pioneers of the Latin American literary movement, which many attribute to the publication of ``Where the Air Is Clear'' in 1958, Fuentes remains an unabashed practitioner of this ``welding of politics and poetry.'' A frequent and outspoken critic of American foreign policies, the author has long been listed on the McCarran-Walter Immigration Act, which can be used to bar subversives from entering the country.

``For the past 15 years [the US] has been very nice, very correct,'' he says, but the law remains, in his eyes, ``an embarrassment for this great democracy.''

When asked whether political turmoil is necessary to the production of great art, Fuentes is adamant. ``It's a sorry fate to say that great literature has to be born of the sufferings of your fellowman. If I had the absolute choice I'd prefer a prosperous, well-fed society to one that is based on oppression and that produces good movies and good literature.''

Born in Mexico City in 1958 into a family of diplomats, Fuentes has spent more than half of his life abroad. Although his first novel was published before he was 30, he initially studied law. ``My father and mother made me feel if I didn't study law I would become a kind of bagman because writing was not a profession in Mexico,'' he says, adding, ``I guess I was the first Mexican who made money writing.''

He says he chose to write in Spanish rather than in English, primarily because of the lack of a strong literary tradition in his native tongue.

``You don't have a great novel in Spanish after Don Quixote until mid-19th century. Imagine, almost three centuries without any novels.''

Although Fuentes continues his prodigious output in Spanish -- another book, a futuristic novel on Mexico is due out next year as well as a collection of political essays -- ``The Old Gringo'' includes some of the first passages he ever wrote in English. ``It's my first Mexican novel that has American protagonists. I did some of the writing in English in order to get a better sound.''

It is a linguistic difference that the author, not surprisingly, attributes to political roots.

``England and the US have a tradition of civil liberties that reflects itself in the language. Spanish is far more demanding that we change it, that we slap it around, pinch its bottom, smack it in the face . . . to get it out of the carcass of the counter Reformation . . . that has been a constant attempt to make [Spanish] unusable to literary means.''

As always, it is this fiercely articulated blend of politics and the personal that most attracts the author. His choice of protagonist in ``The Old Gringo'' came about precisely because ``Bierce had participated in both the American Civil War and the Mexican Revolution and offered an immediate situation for comparison.''

It is a comparison the author continues to make. ``I think it is the perception of many Americans toward Mexico, `What is this essentially foreign land on our doorstep? Does it deny us? Is it a menace?' This [attitude] is extremely difficult to overcome. . . . I think it is the greatest human challenge to be able to recognize yourself in the other. . . . So bear with us, read our novels, talk with us. Let's sit together, so we can be more human than we would be in isolation.''

Fuentes's growing popularity in the US suggests this message may be gaining ground, that the cultural and racial myths separating the two halves of the hemisphere are yielding.

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