Fuentes: Transcending Barriers

Throughout his ambitious literary career, Mexican author Carlos Fuentes has never been afraid to cross boundaries. He has explored all genres from poetry to drama, from short story to essay. And within his favorite genre, the novel, he has also transgressed all boundaries, ignored them, and created a single entity in which history and myth, time and space, are all blended together.

The combination has made Fuentes possibly his country's most important author and one of the leading literary voices of Latin America, which remains a well-spring of ambitious new fiction.

For Fuentes, in the second of five years as a fall-term professor at Harvard, this disrespect for conventional boundaries is combined with an enormous reverence for the different elements which make up his novels.

History, for example, is one of Fuentes' main concerns. "I believe profoundly in societies that do not kill the past," he said in a recent interview in his Harvard office. In his work he constantly explores the influence of the past on the present and emphasizes this influence by breaking down the borders of time, letting the past and the present coexist.

Another boundary that disappears in Fuentes' work is that between history and myth. This mingling of fact and fiction can be traced back to the beginnings of Latin American history. At the very origins of Latin American history is the everpresent mythical tradition of the native inhabitants. In Mexico, the Aztecs are the people chosen by the gods to feed the sun and thus keep it moving. The arrival of the Spaniards in no way destroys this mythical tradition. Cortez' arrival, for example, is explained by the myth which tells of the redeeming God Quetzalcoatl who would come from the ocean to save the Mexicans from the evil god Huitzilopochtli. From its origins, history and myth become permanently linked.

In his novel "Terra Nostra" (1975), Fuentes sets out to reconstruct a mythical history of Latin America. In this 800-page work, fictional characters and historical ones appear together, past, present and future mingle as Fuentes narrates the birth of the New World. The novel focuses on the beginning of Latin American history when two worlds are brought together by Columbus: that of Spain, already a battlefield of the Arabic, Jewish and Roman cultures, and that of America with its native populations. "Terra Nostra" represents knowledge through imagination--a knowledge that cannot be found in the history books.

At an informal meeting at Cabot House last month, Fuentes told listeners that Latin American authors often have so much to say that even 1000 pages are sometimes not enough to say it. Yet in 800 pages of "Terra Nostra," which take us from the Roman Empire to the year 1999, that is what Fuentes attempts to do: to say it all, to write the total novel.

"Terra Nostra" is not the only novel which uses the interplay between past and present and between the diverse elements of Mexican culture. Fuentes' first novel "Where the Air is Clear" (1958) is a mythical history of Mexico City. In this novel Mexico's mythical past of rituals and sacrifices appears parallel with the present. In "The Death of Artemio Cruz" (1962), the story is narrated by the revolutionary turned opportunist of the book's title as he lies on his death bed. The story is told by multiple voices with a constantly shifting narrative and chronological viewpoint.

How does the reader fit into this complex structure of interwoven times and multiple voices? "Terra Nostra," for example, has often been considered unreadable by critics. Yet Fuentes emphasizes that in spite of its difficulty, it is a novel which does not go unread. "The Death of Artemio Cruz" and "Where the Air is Clear" were both considered extremely difficult and complicated when they first appeared. Fuentes tells of one critic who suggested that "The Death of Artemio Cruz" served no better purpose than to be flushed down the drain. "Today," Fuentes says, "these novels are read by 15 year-olds in Mexico. That is in great measure the destiny of literature, it ends up being accepted."

For the second year in a row, Fuentes is teaching a course--Lit and Art C-41, "History and Fiction in Spanish America"--which is a condensed and restructured version of "Terra Nostra." In the course, Fuentes traces the heritage of Latin America back to the different currents of thought which followed Columbus across the Atlantic. The New World became Europe's utopia: a place where Europeans could reconstruct their world without any of its faults. But as the invading Spanish and Portuguese driven by a Maciavellian thirst for gold and power, they did not face an empty continent. The history of Latin America is the history of the mingling of many cultures, of synchronism. Without understanding this history it is impossible to understand Latin America.

Underlying Fuentes' interpretation of Latin America's heritage is Gianbattista Vico's notion that man makes his own history. Time is not a limit to be respected; space is not a set of borders which confine us. On the contrary, space is something we search for and expand into.

Maybe this disrespect for borders can be traced back to Fuentes' own life as a citizen not of Mexico or of Latin America, but of the world. From the time he was a child, Carlos Fuentes never stayed for very long in one place. The son of diplomat, he spent his childhood in Washington D.C., Rio de Janeiro, Montevideo, Buenos Aires, Santiago and Mexico City. He attended the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico and then studied international law at Institut des Hautes Etudes Internationales in Geneva. He has traveled constantly and has been a member of the Mexican delegation to the Labor Organization in Geneva and Mexican ambassador to France.

Although he usually writes about Mexico, Fuentes needs to get away from his country to obtain the perspective which allows him to write. "This has to do with the fact that I grew up outside of Mexico," he says. "I am used to looking at the country from the outside." Fuentes feels that living in Mexico is something "very complicated and baroque." "I think there is a conspiracy in Mexico," he adds jokingly, "to prevent us from understanding what is going on due to the baroque and sometimes surrealist abundance of the elements around us."

And to gain the necessary perspective, Fuentes has often crossed the sometimes forbidden border which lies to the north. From the time he was a child growing up in Washington, Fuentes was influenced by American culture, where he recalls that one of his childhood memories is that of Dick Tracy. Subsequently, he has crossed and recrossed the border many times and has taught at a number of American universities including Dartmouth, Barnard, Columbia, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania and Washington University.

Carlos Fuentes' relationship with the United States is an ambiguous one, a love-hate relationship. "Sometimes we welcome each other, sometimes we reject one another," he says of the U.S. When he was growing up in Washington, Fuentes experienced not only Dick Tracy, Citizen Kane and the New Deal but also the anti-Mexican feelings which developed during the late 1930s when Mexico nationalized its oil industry. Fuentes says he has since faced frequent trouble entering the United States.

Why this antagonism between the United States and Latin America? Fuentes asks himself the question and concludes that the United States is not living up to its ideals. "Latin American writers such as [Gabriel] Garcia Marquez and myself spend out lives promoting American values," he says. "We have said that you have the best movies, a wonderful jazz, great artists and still we have all sorts of political problems."

In his latest novel "The Old Gringo," Fuentes explores the relationship between Mexico and the U.S. In the original Spanish language version, the parts of the two American characters are actually written in English. In spite of Fuentes' efforts in his novels to bring the U.S. and Mexico together with his characters, there remains a constant tension between the two cultures throughout the novel. The inherent antagonism between cultures is captured in the old gringo's words, "To be a gringo in Mexico, that is suicide."

Fuentes criticism of the U.S. is not cultural. His problems with the U.S. are political and relate to the role the U.S. has played so far in Latin America. The problem is between a country with well established political institutions and a continent which is struggling to set the foundations for a system of its own.

"[The United States] does not live up to its great capacity to negotiate its own internal conflicts, to find a political solution," he says. Fuentes cites the United States shaky support for the so-called Contadora process as an example. The Contadora agreement drawn up between Panama, Colombia, Mexico and Venezuela represented a Latin American solution to ongoing crises in Central America. Among the proposed conditions was the withdrawal of foreign military advisers from Nicaragua. Yet as soon as Nicaragua agreed to sign the agreement, the U.S. withdrew its support. "The United States does not allow us to be what it allows itself to be," says Fuentes. "They do not allow us the self-determination, the political and diplomatic capacity which they give themselves."

One problem which characterizes both North and South America, according to Fuentes, is that neither has discovered the meaning of tragedy. And to those who insist that Latin American literature is full of tragedy, Fuentes replies: "Not tragedy, but crime... Tragedy means to recognize that both we and our opponent are right. We do not have that which Prometheus, Oedipus and Antigone had because we have been incapable of giving our opponent the same worth which we give ourselves."

Fuentes says North Americans believe people are good or bad, cowboy or Indian, communist or capitalist. This intolerance and failure to recognize the qualities of the opponent is the source of many of today's problems both within Latin America and between Latin America and the U.S., he says.

One message which comes across clearly in Fuentes' work is that we can't escape our history. Yet, just as man has made his past, he also has the present and the future at his disposal. And if the literary creativity which has characterized Latin America can be extended to politics, there is a possibility for emerging from the present crisis. "I believe that political life is also an art, a book, a painting we must make and it is our responsibility to do so."