Mexico’s most acclaimed writer, Carlos Fuentes, died today at age 83. He was a classic “man of letters,” producing distinguished novels, short stories, literary essays, political essays, newspaper columns, and plays. Like many of Latin America’s most distinguished writers, he also had a career as a diplomat, serving as Mexico’s ambassador to Britain and later to France.
He played a major role in stimulating “el boom” in worldwide acclaim for a generation of Latin American writers that included Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortazar, Jorge Amado, Alejo Carpentier and dozens of others who found their work being translated into twenty or thirty languages and gaining a worldwide readership.Unlike Garcia Marquez and Vargas Llosa, Fuentes never won the Nobel Prize for Literautre, but he won every conceivable literary award within the Spanish-speaking world.
Like many Latin American writers, he seamlessly united art and politics in his writings, especially in such inventive novels as The Death of Artemio Cruz. I didn’t read all his works but that one made an impression on that I’ve never forgotten. So did the short, haunting Aura and The Old Gringo, which I think was a much better novel than a movie. (The movie drained the character based on Ambrose Bierce of all his savage wit and sardonic irony, and left him just a soured cynic, I thought. I say that as someone usually a fan of Gregory Peck).
I saw and heard Carlos Fuentes once. It was in Albuquerque, perhaps in December 1979, probably on the UNM campus—I only clearly remember the two friends I went with that evening. I had never seen a photo of him and was surprised to see this tall, very urbane-looking professor of Spanish Literature with trimmed mustache, blue blazer, regimental tie, and grey slacks. He had the distinguished touch of grey about the temples and those oversized horn-rimmed glasses favored by middle-class Latin American men. Somehow I’d expected some shaggy, beret’d bohemian. His massive work Terra Nostra, which I’ve never dared tackle, was his most recent work and he discussed La Celestina, Quixote, and Hamlet as “interpenetrating archetypes” that were endlessly reinterpreted and revised as cultures evolved and interacted.
His political observations on the U.S.-created and funded Contra War in Nicaragua was a refreshing and enlightening change from the opacity of the U.S. mainstream media. His reflections on Mexican relations with the U.S. were never dogmatic or predictable, but always insightful and revealing of the complexities and contradictions of that troubled but inescapable linkage between the two countries and cultures. He always seemed to be calling attention to significant aspects others ignored.
He seemed to me to be the kind of Man of Letters rarely seen in the world anymore. It is our loss. In his words he always used a rapier not a sledgehammer--elegant and stylish, but sharp and penetrating in his analyses and reflections. I shall miss him. I think the world will miss him. Fortunately we have his legacy in the works he created and has now left behind.
Que descansa en paz.