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Seer of the present and past

books Updated: May 18, 2012 18:28 IST

Nick Caistor, The Guardian
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The writer and polemicist Carlos Fuentes, who has died aged 83, published more than 60 works, including novels, short stories, essays and plays, in a career spanning six decades. His 1985 novel El Gringo Viejo (The Old Gringo) was the first Mexican book to figure in the New York Times bestseller list, while his fictionalised account of his love affair with the movie star Jean Seberg surfaced in Diana, O la Cazadora Solitaria (Diana: The Goddess Who Hunts Alone, 1994).

Born in Panama to Mexican parents — his father was a diplomat —Fuentes spent his childhood in several Latin American capitals before starting his schooling in English in Washington DC. It was while he was in the US capital that he began to write. “I started my own magazine with drawings, commentary, news, film reviews and drawings.

I didn’t get much reaction, but from then on I knew I wanted to be a writer.”

Fuentes’s first short story collection, Los Días Enmascarados (Masked Days, 1954) was followed by his first novel, La Región Mas Transparente (Where the Air Is Clear, 1958). In it, he describes life in Mexico City in the 1940s and 50s, with its heady mixture of Spanish, indigenous and contemporary Mexican elements. It was his second novel, La Muerte de Artemio Cruz (The Death of Artemio Cruz, 1962) that won him recognition as one of Latin America’s leading young authors. The book centres on the Mexican revolution (1910-20) and its effect on succeeding generations and is still considered to be Fuentes’s masterpiece.

As with many other prominent Latin American authors, Fuentes combined an administrative career with intense literary output. In the 1960s he lived mostly in Europe, especially Paris, where he met and mixed with other writers, from fellow countryman Octavio Paz to the Cuban Alejo Carpentier and the Argentinian Julio Cortázar. It was thanks to the presence of this group in the French capital that Latin American novels made such an impact internationally — ‘el boom’ — although Fuentes’s work is often more experimental and challenging than the magical realism the movement is so associated with.

Like many Mexicans, Fuentes’s relationship with America was a complicated mixture. For many years, his politics meant that he had difficulties gaining entry to the US, but from the 1970s onwards he frequently stayed and taught at leading American universities. In his Tiempo Mexicano (Mexican Time, 1971), he observed that: “The United States is very good at understanding itself, and very bad at understanding others.”

At the same time, he managed the rare feat for a leftwing Latin American intellectual of adopting a critical attitude towards Fidel Castro’s Cuba without being dismissed as a pawn of Washington. His ability to maintain such a position was due in no small part to his brilliance as a polemicist. He was a sharp, incisive speaker, full of malicious wit, conveyed in the Mexican spirit that every argument is a duel that is to be taken completely seriously — and then forgotten over a drink.

Cervantes and his character Don Quixote were a crucial influence on Fuentes as a novelist. He saw Cervantes, together with Shakespeare, as ushering in the modern age, and revelled in the Spanish author’s mixture of fantasy and reality. He himself drew on the concept of the agora, the place in the cities of ancient Greece where citizens assembled. He defined the power of the novel as that of the agora, “where all voices are heard, where all voices are respected.”

Throughout his life, wherever he lived, Mexico was the centre of Fuentes’s artistic preoccupations. In his late 70s, he provided a typically graphic description of the attraction he felt for his own land: “It’s a very enigmatic country, and that’s a good thing because it keeps us alert, makes us constantly try to decipher the enigma of Mexico, to understand a country that is very, very baroque, very complicated and full of surprises.”

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