ARE these deep-sea or cultured pearls? Five fictions by the most popular Mexican novelist of our times - his ``The Old Gringo'' was the first United States bestseller by a Mexican - with all the bumpy luminousness we've come to expect by this master of magical realism, provoke the question. Fuentes method is to start with a piece of grit - a social observation about a city, or a text dear to the heart of his reader - and then explore it with hypothetical narratives. His characters don't work like real people; sometimes they are shown not to exist at all. What keeps the reader going is the exploration of human reality.
For Fuentes, human reality includes more than most novelists, certainly North American novelists, can handle. Each story starts out in a recognizable way. On a hot afternoon in Savannah, Ga., say, or a lunch at an old restaurant in Mexico City. Before the story is over the sentences have become longer, the narrative has given rise to skips and leaps, time and space warps, the sentences have wound up and down, sometimes hypnotically and at length.
A husband has discovered that his marriage certificate was not filled in by his wife; a building site in downtown Mexico City has become the site of a Christian miracle; a manikin has broken up a long-standing friendship; the painter Goya has seen to it that a toreador and rival lover who lived to a ripe old age without a scratch on him gets gored by a bull.
Are these pearls, then, before swine? Does Fuentes care about his audience?
Clearly he knows how to manipulate readers. In the title story, he writes that ``The people are better than the elite everywhere, in fact, except in the United States, where Faulkner or Lowell or Adams or Didion is superior to its crude and rootless people, stultified by television and beer, unable to generate a cuisine, dependent on the black minority to dance and sing, dependent on its elite to speak beyond a grunt.''
These are the thoughts of an American of the South with impeccable liberal credentials and a passion for explanations, who discovers that ``Happiness and success are as rare as logic; the most basic human experience is defeat and despair. We Americans cannot remain untouched by that fact.'' As Fuentes's Latin American critics suggest, that ``we'' is not completely protected by the author's irony.
But then Fuentes, like his stories, is constantly crossing borders.
Are these pearls of eloquence and fictive magic the real thing? Fuente's power as a poetic painter is truly extraordinary; it makes his narrative on the great Spanish painter Goya more than an exercise, but a true celebration of art.
And Fuentes does seem to be entranced by the power of certain myths. As his guru architect says in the final story, ``...it is myths that haunt us, not ghosts, which are only specters produced by an unexpected intersection of myths. A Celtic myth, for example, might intersect with an Aztec one. But what interests me the most is the syncretic capacity of Christian myth to embrace them all and make them all rationally accessible at once, and at the same time irrationally sacred.''
Fuentes's achievement is to have made these intersections visible to his readers. They may be people, places, or events, but what happens in these stories are compound, familiar happenings that draw on readers' spirits and challenge them into assent. While Fuentes does accept as given what his master architect calls ``the gray disorder of the everyday,'' he, like the architect, demands that his students look at chaos and find the work of art.
And sometimes, if Fuentes makes his reader feel inexperienced and green, still, reading along, occasionally one sees the grayness of everyday turn into a rainbow.