IN the midst of his long literary career, Carlos Fuentes, Mexico's most famous living writer, also served as his country's ambassador to France from 1975 to 1977. The author of ``Terra Nostra,'' ``Distant Relations,'' ``The Death of Artemio Cruz,'' and much more, Fuentes has pondered the urgent questions of social justice and the underlying complexities of the interrelationships among different cultures.
``The Orange Tree,'' his latest work, consists of five novellas, artfully arranged to serve as distant mirrors of one another. Each has its own distinct historical setting. Each involves a moment when two cultures meet, clash, or embrace.
Beginning with ``The Two Shores,'' Fuentes examines the convergence of the Old World and the New - here, seen through the eyes of Jeronimo de Aguilar, translator to the conquistador Hernan Cortes. Aguilar speaks from the sublime perspective of the far side of the grave. He has witnessed the horrors of conquest, the murder and enslavement of the Indians; he has also witnessed the violent and ignominious fates that overtook many of the conquistadores.
Aguilar's own role as translator has involved treachery, but his aim of rousing the Indians to repel their invaders has backfired. Now, beyond death, he dreams of an Indian conquest of Spain, in which ecologically minded Aztecs and Mayans turn the tables on the Spanish Inquisition, construct an interfaith temple ``inscribed with the word of Christ, Mohammed, Abraham, and Quetzalcoatl,'' revoke the expulsion of the Moors and Jews, and inaugurate a blending of cultures where Mayan songs mingle with calls of muezzins and lays of Provencal troubadours.
``Sons of the Conquistador,'' the second novella, is narrated by two of Corts sons. Martin 2 is the child of an Indian mother, Martin 1 of a Spanish mother. The Indian son upbraids his Spanish brother for failing to liberate the beautiful land of Mexico from the iron hand of Spanish rule. The Spanish son declines a struggle that would cost him his luxurious lifestyle. The impasse leads to despair.
The third novella, ``The Two Numantias,'' is set in the 2nd century BC. For more than a century, Rome and Carthage have been at war, and the backward, formerly isolated peninsula of Spain has become one of the main battlegrounds. Even after defeating Carthage, the Romans are still ``bogged down'' in Spain, fighting guerrillas and refusing to withdraw out of stubborn pride. It falls to Scipio Aemilianus, adoptive grandson of the general who defeated Hannibal, to quell the Spanish rebellion by crushing the defiant city of Numantia.
In Roman eyes, the Spaniards are a savage lot, who need to be led, like it or not, toward Roman civilization. In the eyes of the Greek humanist and historian Polybius, Scipio's friend and mentor, it's the Romans who are in need of Greek civilization. Young Scipio is a divided man, eager to embrace the spiritual legacy of Greek culture but determined to carry on the Roman tradition of military conquest. He dreams of founding a great school, but his fame comes from his merciless destruction of a city.
In some ways, the most interesting of the five novellas, ``The Two Numantias,'' concludes with a voice admonishing the hero to listen beyond the clamor of fame to the celestial music of the spheres. Individual renown is nothing, it declares, the individual's ability to feel, think, create, remember, use language, and exercise self control are what link him to his creator.
It's a long way from Numantia to Acapulco in the 1990s, the setting of the fourth novella, ``Apollo and the Whores,'' but once again, themes reverberate. Vince Valera, a handsome ``black Irishman'' (quite possibly a descendent of the Celtiberians defeated in Numantia) is a Hollywood film star vacationing in the resort town. He invites several local girls on his chartered boat, where they take part in an orgy that inadvertently finishes him off.
Viewing them - and continuing to narrate his own story - from the perspective of death, Valera is able to see them as individuals and to meditate on the contrast between two worlds: his own overprotected life of individual fame and glory, and the Mexican world of suffering, undifferentiated, and unprotected humanity.
The final novella, ``The Two Americas'' (which is also the name of the boat chartered by Valera in the previous story), imagines a Columbus who decides not to reveal the secret of a New World to those who would despoil it. This Columbus is a Sephardic Jew, whose family was forced to flee Spain. He has also witnessed the cruelties of the slave trade. In the New World, he finds a living example of the fabled Golden Age, an unfallen Eden he is determined to preserve.
The Indians, luckily, believe him to be the legendary white-bearded god sent to check up on how well they have fulfilled their task of caring for the earth. But Columbus cannot save ``paradise'' forever: At the story's close, a Japanese conglomerate is planning to turn the place into a tourist resort - a parody of paradise.
The many visible and hidden leitmotifs - parallels, contrasts, foreshadings, and aftereffects - that interlink these five novellas would furnish enough material for several scholarly monographs: Mirrors, masks, and the notion of a double all play a recurrent role. There are meditations on the role of language, which, unlike military power, grows by absorbing, not destroying, alien influences.
All five novellas address the contrast between the round, fertile ``earth,'' enduring the bounteous, and the human-imposed ``world'' that threatens to despoil it. And each novella contains an orange tree, a kind of tree of life brought from the Orient to Arabia to Rome to Spain, flourishing still more brightly transplanted in the New World.
Amid chronicles of inhumanity and exploitation, the orange tree symbolizes the promise of the earth's renewal, the hope for a more respectful relationship between mankind and nature, and the omnipresent possibility of cultural intersections that will result in fruitful cross-pollination instead of of crass destruction.