Interviews

Carlos Fuentes, The Art of Fiction No. 68

Interviewed by Alfred Mac Adam, Charles E. Ruas

Carlos Fuentes was interviewed on a snowy December day at his home in Princeton, New Jersey—a large Victorian house in the old residential section. He is a tall, heavyset man, dressed on that winter's day in a turtleneck sweater and jacket. The Fuenteses' house was lightly heated in the European manner, and felt chilly. A Christmas tree stood in the drawing room. His two young children were out ice skating with Mrs. Fuentes. A considerable art collection was on display in the room—Oriental bronzes, pre-Columbian ceramics, and Spanish colonial Santos —reflecting Fuentes's cultural background and his various diplomatic assignments. On the walls were paintings and prints by Picabia, Miró, Matta, Vasarely, among others—most of them gifts given him by artist friends.

The interview was conducted in the library in front of a blazing fire with a hot pot of coffee available. The walls were lined with books. It is at a simple desk in this room that Carlos Fuentes does his work—in front of a window that on this December day looked out on ice-laden shrubbery and trees barely visible in the snow flurries.

In 1958, he startled Mexico with Where the Air Is Clear, a caustic analysis of Mexico after the 1910-20 revolution; The Good Conscience (1959), a bildungsroman that describes the education of Jaime Ceballos and his ultimate absorption into the Mexican establishment; The Death of Artemio Cruz (1962), inspired in part by Orson Welles's Citizen Kane; Holy Place (1967) and A Change of Skin (1968), both of which deal with Mexico, albeit from totally different perspectives: Holy Place traces the Oedipal meanderings of a young man infatuated with his mother; A Change of Skin studies Mexico in relation to the “outside world” of the sixties by examining the relationships between foreigners and Mexicans.

Terra Nostra (1978) strikes out in a different direction. There Fuentes investigates the Mediterranean roots of Hispanic culture in order to discover where that culture “went wrong.” He finds its fatal sin in Philip II's maniacal search for purity and orthodoxy, his ruthless extirpation of the heterodox (Jewish and Arabian) elements in Spanish culture. Terra Nostra, along with Fuentes's recent essays on Cervantes, marks a new epoch in pan-Hispanic studies, a new way to find unity in the fragmented Hispanic world.

The Hydra Head (1978) returns to contemporary Mexico so that Fuentes can study the nature of power, symbolized by Mexico's oil deposits. In 1980, Fuentes published (in Spanish) Distant Relations, an examination of the writer's need to know all and tell all, and (in English) Burnt Water, a collection of short stories from various periods in the author's career.

During the years he spent as Mexican ambassador to France, Fuentes found it impossible to write, and the interview began with his description of his return to writing after he had left his government post.

 

FUENTES

I left my post as ambassador to France on the first of April, 1977, and immediately rented a house on the outskirts of Paris, where I could begin to write again. I had not written a word for two years, being a conscientious diplomat. The house I rented, as it turned out, had belonged to Gustave Doré and it brought back all my yearnings for form and terror. Doré's illustrations for “Little Red Riding Hood,” for example: they're so incredibly erotic! The little girl in bed with the wolf! Those were the signs under which my latest novel, Distant Relations, was born.

INTERVIEWER

Why did you find it impossible to write while you were ambassador?

FUENTES

Diplomacy in a sense is the opposite of writing. You have to disperse yourself so much: the lady who comes in crying because she's had a fight with the secretary; exports and imports; students in trouble; thumbtacks for the embassy. Writing requires the concentration of the writer, demands that nothing else be done except that. So I have all this pent-up energy which is flowing out right now. I'm writing a great deal these days. Besides, I have learned how to write. I didn't know how to write before, and I guess I learned by being a bureaucrat. You have so much mental time on your hands when you are a bureaucrat: you have time to think and to learn how to write in your head. When I was a young man I suffered a great deal because I faced the challenge of Mallarmé's blank page every day without knowing exactly what I was going to say. I fought the page, and paid for it with ulcers. I made up for it with sheer vigor, because you have vigor when you are writing in your twenties and thirties. Then later on you have to use your energy wisely. When I look back on it, I think perhaps it was the fact that I was behind an official desk for two years that left my mind free to write within itself, to prepare what I was going to write once I left that post. So now I can write before I sit down to write, I can use the blank page in a way I couldn't before.

INTERVIEWER

Tell us how the process of writing takes place within you.

FUENTES

I am a morning writer; I am writing at eight-thirty in longhand and I keep at it until twelve-thirty, when I go for a swim. Then I come back, have lunch, and read in the afternoon until I take my walk for the next day's writing. I must write the book out in my head now, before I sit down. I always follow a triangular pattern on my walks here in Princeton: I go to Einstein's house on Mercer Street, then down to Thomas Mann's house on Stockton Street, then over to Herman Broch's house on Evelyn Place. After visiting those three places, I return home, and by that time I have mentally written tomorrow's six or seven pages.

INTERVIEWER

You write in longhand?

FUENTES

First I write it out in longhand, and then when I feel I “have” it, I let it rest. Then I correct the manuscript and type it out myself, correcting it until the last moment.

INTERVIEWER

Is the rewriting extensive or is most of the rewriting taken into account during the mental writing?

FUENTES

By the time I get it on paper, it is practically finished: there are no missed sections or scenes. I know basically how things are going and I have it more or less fixed, but at the same time I am sacrificing the element of surprise in myself. Everyone who writes a novel knows he is involved in the Proustian problem of in some way knowing what he is going to write and at the same time being amazed at what is actually coming out. Proust only wrote when he had lived what he was going to write, and yet he had to write as though he knew nothing about it—which is extraordinary. In a way we are all involved in the same adventure: to know what you are going to say, to have control over your material, and at the same time to have that margin of freedom which is discovery, amazement, and a precondition of the freedom of the reader.

INTERVIEWER

It's possible in England and the United States to write a history of editors and their influence on literature. Would such a history be possible in the Hispanic world?

FUENTES

Impossible, because the dignity of Spanish hidalgos would never allow a menial laborer to come and tell us what to do with our own work. It comes from the fact that we are caught in a terrible kind of schizophrenia made up of extreme pride, and extreme individualism which we inherited from Spain. The hidalgo expects everyone else to respect him, just as he kowtows to superior power. If you were to try to edit anyone's text in Latin America, even a hack, he would resign immediately, accusing you of censoring or insulting him.

INTERVIEWER

You would say then that your relationship to your society is rather different from that of an American writer? That, for example, the hidalgo image suggests the greater dignity of writing in your culture?

FUENTES

My situation as a Mexican writer is like that of writers from Eastern Europe. We have the privilege of speech in societies where it is rare to have that privilege. We speak for others, which is very important in Latin America, as it is in Central Europe. Of course you have to pay for that power: either you serve the community or you fall flat on your face.

INTERVIEWER

Does that mean that you see yourself as the official representative of your culture?

FUENTES

No, I hope not. Because I always remember that remark by the French Surrealist Jacques Vaché, “Nothing kills a man as much as having to represent his country.” So I hope it isn't true.

INTERVIEWER

Do you see a difference between the social roles of American and Latin American writers?

FUENTES

We have to do more things in our culture than American writers do in theirs. They can have more time for themselves and for their writing, whereas we have social demands. Pablo Neruda used to say that every Latin American writer goes around dragging a heavy body, the body of his people, of his past, of his national history. We have to assimilate the enormous weight of our past so we will not forget what gives us life. If you forget your past, you die. You fulfill certain functions for the collectivity because they are obligations you have as a citizen, not as a writer. Despite that, you reserve your esthetic freedom and your esthetic privileges. This creates a tension, but I think it is better to have the tension than to have no tension at all, as sometimes happens in the United States.

INTERVIEWER

In your earlier works you focus on the life of Mexico after the 1910-1920 Revolution. That is your Mexico, and I can see you in those works as a Mexican writer. But after you became so popular internationally, say, with The Death of Artemio Cruz, I wonder if your concept of your role changed?

FUENTES

No. I think all writers live off of obsessions. Some of these come from history, others are purely individual, and still others belong to the realm of the purely obsessive, which is the most universal thing a writer has in his soul. My obsessions are in all my books: they have to do with fear. All of my books are about fear—the universal sensation of fear about who might be coming through the door, about who desires me, whom do I desire and how can I achieve my desire. Is the object of my desire the subject of my desire in the mirror I am watching? These obsessions are in all my works, along with the more general, historical context I deal with, but both in history and individuality, my theme is being incomplete because we fear the world and ourselves.

INTERVIEWER

You spoke of writing in your head while you were ambassador and continuing to do so now that you are writing again. I wonder if at some point—especially since you are away from your country and speaking a different language —writing first in your head and editing mentally has changed the nature of your writing.

FUENTES

You must understand that I am a peculiar case in Mexican literature because I grew up far from Mexico, because Mexico is an imaginary space for me, and has never ceased to be so, I might add. My Mexico and my Mexican history take place in my mind. Its history is something I have dreamed, imagined, and is not the actual history of the country. When as a young man I finally went to live in Mexico, of course I had to compare my dreams, my fears of that country with reality. This created a profound tension, the result of which was Where the Air Is Clear, a book nobody else could have written in Mexico. Nobody had written a novel about the postrevolutionary era as it was reflected in the city, in the social structure, in the survival of so many ancient strands of our imaginary and historical life. This came, I say, out of my discovering Mexico with a sense of fear and enchantment when I was fifteen years old. Being outside of Mexico has always helped me enormously.

INTERVIEWER

Are you saying that seeing Mexico from both a physical and a mental distance enables you to see it more clearly than you could if you were there?

FUENTES

Yes, I have a perspective on Mexico which is renewed, you see, by surprise. Quevedo, the great Spanish baroque poet, expresses this when he says, “Nothing astonishes me because the world has bewitched me.” I am still bewitched by Mexico. As you say, I live using a different language, but this helps me enormously with the Spanish language. I grew up with American English and yet I was able to maintain my Spanish. Spanish became something I had to maintain and re-create. When I am outside of Mexico, the same sensation of being alone with the language and wrestling with it becomes extremely powerful, whereas when I am in Mexico, it is immediately debased into asking for coffee, answering the phone, and whatnot. For me Spanish becomes an extraordinary experience when I am outside of Mexico. I feel I have to maintain it for myself. It becomes a very demanding fact of my life.

INTERVIEWER

Have you ever been tempted to write in English?

FUENTES

No, I very soon came to realize that the English language did not need one more writer. That the English language has an unbroken tradition of excellence and when it goes to sleep there is always an Irishman who appears and wakes it up.

INTERVIEWER

Knowing so many languages, which language do you dream in?

FUENTES

I dream in Spanish; I also make love in Spanish— this has created tremendous confusion at times, but I can only do it in Spanish. Insults in other languages don't mean a damn thing to me, but an insult in Spanish really sets me hopping. Let me tell you about a curious experience I had this summer. I was writing a novella about the adventures of Ambrose Bierce in Mexico. Bierce went to Mexico during the Revolution, in 1914, to join up with Pancho Villa's army. I had the problem that the voice had to be Bierce's, and it was extremely difficult to render in Spanish. I had to make Bierce speak with his voice, which is available to me in his stories, so I wrote the novella in English. It was an absolutely terrifying experience. I would be writing along in English when suddenly from under the table Mr. Faulkner would appear and say aah, aah, can't do that, and from behind the door Mr. Melville would appear and say, can't do it, can't do it. All these ghosts appeared; the narrative tradition in English asserted itself so forcefully that it hamstrung me. I felt very sorry for my North American colleagues who have to write with all these people hanging from the chandeliers and rattling the dishes. You see, in Spanish we have to fill in the great void that exists between the seventeenth and the twentieth centuries. Writing is more of an adventure, more of a challenge. There is only a great desert between Cervantes and ourselves, if you except two nineteenth-century novelists, Clarin and Galdos.

INTERVIEWER

Is this one of the reasons for the epic surge in Latin American novels, this effort to encompass more social and historical perspectives in each work?

FUENTES

Well, I remember ten years ago I was talking to an American writer, Donald Barthelme, and he said, “How do you do it in Latin America? How do you manage to write these immense novels? Come up with all these subjects, these very, very long novels? Is there no paper shortage in Latin America? How do you do these things? We find we have great difficulty in the United States as American writers to find subjects. We write slim books, slimmer and slimmer books.” But what I answered on that occasion is that our problem is that we feel we have everything to write about. That we have to fill four centuries of silence. That we have to give voice to all that has been silenced by history.

INTERVIEWER

You do feel that Latin American writers are trying to create a cultural identity for themselves?

FUENTES

Yes, and here I think we have a very strong link with the writers of Central and Eastern Europe. If you had asked me today where the novel is alive and kicking, I would say it's basically in Latin America and in so-called Eastern Europe, which the Czechoslovaks insist on calling Central Europe. They think of Eastern Europe as Russia. In any case, there you have two cultural zones where people feel that things have to be said, and if the writer does not say them, nobody will say them. This creates a tremendous responsibility; it puts a tremendous weight on the writer, and also creates a certain confusion, because one could say, Oh, the mission is important, the theme is important, therefore the book has to be good, and that is not always the case. How many novels have you read in Latin America that are full of good intentions—denouncing the plight of the Bolivian miner, of the Ecuadorian banana picker—and turn out to be terrible novels which do nothing for the Bolivian tin miner or the Ecuadorian banana picker, or anything for literature either . . . failing on all fronts because they have nothing but good intentions.

But still, we had a whole past to talk about. A past that was silent, that was dead, and that you had to bring alive through language. And so for me writing was basically this need to establish an identity, to establish a link to my country and to a language which I—along with many other writers of my generation—felt we in some way had to slap around, and wake up, as if we were playing the game of Sleeping Beauty.

INTERVIEWER

Can it be said, though, that you are speaking for several generations of Spanish and Latin American writers who have a double culture, who have one foot in their local culture and the other in an external, Western culture?

FUENTES

One of the basic cultural factors of Latin America is that it is an eccentric branch of the culture of the West. It is Western and it is not Western. So we feel that we have to know the culture of the West even better than a Frenchman or an Englishman, and at the same time we have to know our own culture. This sometimes means going back to the Indian cultures, whereas the Europeans feel they don't have to know our cultures at all. We have to know Quetzalcoatl and Descartes. They think Descartes is enough. So Latin America is a constant reminder to Europe of the duties of its universality. Therefore, a writer like Borges is a typically Latin American writer. The fact that he is so European only indicates that he is Argentinian. No European would feel obliged to go to the extremes Borges does to create a reality, not to mirror a reality but to create a new reality to fill in the cultural voids of his own tradition.

INTERVIEWER

Which writers are missing from the evolution of fiction in Spanish? You mentioned Faulkner and Melville, and I could easily imagine Balzac and Dickens.

FUENTES

They are all present because we have appropriated them. Your question is important because it emphasizes the fact that Latin American writers have to appropriate the writers of other traditions in order to fill a void. Sometimes, to our astonishment, we discover an extraordinary sense of coincidence. A lot of fuss has been made about the great influence of Joyce and Faulkner on the Latin American novel. Well, two things have to be said: first, the poets of the Spanish language in the earlier part of this century coincide with the great poets of the English language. Neruda is writing at the same time as Eliot, but Neruda is writing in a rain-drenched town in southern Chile where there are no libraries. Nevertheless, he is on the same wavelength as Eliot. It is the poets who have maintained the language for us novelists: without the poets, without Neruda, Vallejo, Paz, Huidobro, or Gabriela Mistral, there would be no Latin American novel. Second, the great modern novelists of Europe and the United States have revolutionized the sense of time in the Western novel as it had been conceived since the eighteenth century, since Defoe, Richardson, and Smollett. This breaking up of time, this refusal to accept the singular concept of linear time which the West had been imposing economically and politically, coincides profoundly with our sense of circular time, which comes from the Indian religions. Our idea of time as a spiral, our basic historical vision, is derived both from Vico and from our everyday experience of times that coexist. You have the Iron Age in the mountains and the twentieth century in our cities. This recognition that time is not linear is particularly strong in Faulkner because he is a baroque writer and because he shares the baroque with Latin America. He is probably the only Western novelist in the twentieth century who has the same sense of defeat and loss that we have.

INTERVIEWER

But Faulkner is also re-creating a postagrarian culture.

FUENTES

The passage from an agrarian culture to a postagrarian culture is our own situation, but more than anything, Faulkner is a writer of defeat. He is the one American writer who says “We are not only a success story; we are also the history of defeats,” and this he shares with us. Latin America is made up of historically and politically failed societies, and this failure has created a subterranean language—since the Conquest. The baroque in Latin America was the response of the New World to the Old World: it took a form of European culture, the baroque, and transformed it into a hiding place for Indian culture, for black culture, for the great syncretism which is the culture of Spanish and Portuguese America. We insert ourselves into that tradition when we write today.

INTERVIEWER

This burden of the past we mentioned earlier is extremely important, isn't it? It creates a heavy load that every Latin American writer has to bear. It also deforms language because every word resounds into the past as well as into the future.

FUENTES

I think it was Allen Tate who disparagingly referred to Faulkner as a Dixie Gongorist, which I think is really the highest praise because it links Faulkner to this culture of the incomplete, of the voracious, of the intertextual which is the baroque. There is a culture of the Caribbean, I would say, that includes Faulkner, Carpentier, García Márquez, Derek Walcott, and Aimé Césaire, a trilingual culture in and around the whirlpool of the baroque which is the Caribbean, the Gulf of Mexico. Think of Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea.

INTERVIEWER

Did you get this sense of cultural perspective as you were growing up or as you were writing?

FUENTES

As I was growing up. Let me explain: a few years ago, a friend of mine, Tito Gerassi, got permission from Jean-Paul Sartre to write his biography. He said, “I have a great idea; I'm going to ask Sartre to write down the books he read as a child, and from there I'll see what his intellectual formation was.” Later Gerassi came back to me and said, “What are these books, I've never heard of them?” The books Sartre had read as a child were the books we read in the Latin world, which I read as a child: Emilio Salgari, without whom there would be no Italian, French, Spanish, or Latin American literature. Also Michel Zévaco. These authors are part of our tradition but are not part of the Anglo-Saxon tradition. I was lucky because I had both: I read Salgari and Zévaco as well as Mark Twain and Robert Louis Stevenson. Ed Doctorow told me that he became a writer because he read Sabatini, the author of Captain Blood. You're invited into such a marvelous world in those books! You are sailing towards that island on a wonderful Spanish galleon! I never want to get off; I want to spend the rest of my life looking for Treasure Island.

INTERVIEWER

But I was wondering if as you grew up you had a sense of somehow representing your culture to other cultures.

FUENTES

I did. Let me tell you another anecdote. I was a Mexican child growing up in Washington in the thirties. I went to public school, I was popular, as you must be to be happy in an American school, until the Mexican government expropriated foreign-owned oil holdings on March 18, 1938. I became a leper in my school, nobody would talk to me, everyone turned their backs on me because there were screaming headlines every day talking about Mexican Communists stealing “our” oil wells. So I became a terrible Mexican chauvinist as a reaction. I remember going to see a Richard Dix film at the Keith Theater in Washington in 1939, a film in which Dix played Sam Houston. When the Alamo came around, I jumped up in my seat shouting “Death to the gringos! ¡Viva México!” When the war started, Franklin Roosevelt organized a meeting in December of 1939 of children from all over the world to speak for peace. I was chosen to represent Mexico and I was dressed as a little Mexican charro with a big sombrero and I went and made my speech for peace in the name of Mexico.

INTERVIEWER

I asked you about it because you have an objective vision of what Mexico is, and at the same time you seem to feel that Mexico is within you.

FUENTES

I am grateful for my sense of detachment because I can say things about my country other people don't say. I offer Mexicans a mirror in which they can see how they look, how they talk, how they act, in a country which is a masked country. Of course, I realize that my writings are my masks as well, verbal masks I offer my country as mirrors. Mexico is defined in the legend of Quetzalcoatl, the Plumed Serpent, the god who creates man and is destroyed by a demon who offers him a mirror. The demon shows him he has a face when he thought he had no face. This is the essence of Mexico: to discover you have a face when you thought you only had a mask.

INTERVIEWER

Is Stendhal's image of the novel as a mirror moving along a highway ironic for you?

FUENTES

It poses a problem because I don't think literature can content itself with being either a mask or a mirror of reality. I think literature creates reality or it is not literature at all. You have to write “La marquise sortit à cinq heures,” to copy the banal details of life, but this is not enough. The mirror is also a way to augment reality; it augments reality or it does nothing.

INTERVIEWER

We seem to have interpolated Alice's mirror here. There is the mirror in which we see ourselves, the mirror we present to others, and the mirror we pass through. But as you grow up this third mirror is frightening.

FUENTES

It is a neurotic mirror. It's related to desire and to holes. The baroque poet Quevedo is very close to me in my conception of literature as a mirror. For Quevedo the purity of the mirror and the impurity of the asshole are invariably linked. After all, in Spanish, mirror is espejo, a speculum which contains the word culo—asshole. It's the center of the world for Quevedo, the pleasure hole through which you receive and expel desire. So Quevedo can sing of the purity of the reflection in the mirror. I always have him with me in a painting by Cuevas in which he is holding up a mirror saying, “Look at yourself in this mirror.” It's as though the mirror were the mind and the mouth and the eyes which will finally expel reality through the culo, the speculum. I've always thought this way when thinking about the mirror: the mirror and the latrine are inseparable.

INTERVIEWER

How does the germ of the text take root in your imagination? Where does the subject matter of your work begin?

FUENTES

I think my books are derived from city images, and the city of my dreams or nightmares is Mexico City. Paris or New York just do not stimulate my writing. Many of my stories are based on things I have seen there. The story “The Doll Queen” in Burnt Water, for example, is something I saw every afternoon when I was in my teens. There was an apartment house: on the first floor you could see through the windows, and everything was normal. Then at night it was transformed into an extraordinary place full of dolls and flowers, dead flowers and a doll or a girl lying on a bier. I am a city writer and I cannot understand literature outside the city. For me it is Mexico City and its masks and mirrors, the twitchy little images I see when I look at the base of this totem-city, in the mud of the city— the city a space where people move, meet, and change.

INTERVIEWER

I don't mean to ask you a reductive question, but what hooks you, what makes you start writing?

FUENTES

That wonderful thing Hamlet says about “a fiction, a dream of passion.” My fiction is a dream of passion, born of a cry that says “I am incomplete. I want to be complete, to be enclosed. I want to add something.” So Artemio Cruz, for example, is a novel of voices. I think literature is born from a voice: you discover a voice and you want to give it a body of paper, but it is the voice that will be the reality of the novel.

INTERVIEWER

You heard Artemio Cruz's voice?

FUENTES

Yes, it was his voice that said, “I am dying in this present. I am a body and I am losing my existence. It is draining out of me.” He had a past and was going to die and his memory was going to die. And another voice, the collective voice said, “We will outlive this individual and we will project a world of words with language and memory which will go on.” But it was simply a question of many voices meeting in a literary space and demanding their incarnation.

INTERVIEWER

Aura, published in the same year, seems so different from Artemio Cruz, so experimental.

FUENTES

Aura is written in the second person singular, the voice poets have always used and that novelists also have a right to use. It's a voice that admits it doesn't know everything, and after all you are a novelist because you don't know everything. Unlike the epic poet who does know everything. Homer knows exactly how doors close and, as Auerbach says, closing a door in Homer takes four verses and the death of Hector takes four verses because they are equally important. But this poetic voice says that we are not alone, that something else accompanies us. In writing Aura, I was consciously using a particular tradition and without tradition there can be no creation. Aura came to me from a great Japanese film, Ugetsu Monogatari. In it, a man goes to war just after he marries a young courtesan, who becomes the purest of wives. When he comes back, he finds she has committed suicide. The town had been taken by some soldiers and in order to avoid rape she killed herself. He goes to her grave and finds her beautiful body perfectly preserved. The only way he can recover her is through an old crone who captures the girl's voice and speaks to him. This is an extraordinary tradition: the old woman with magic powers. Here I insert myself into a tradition that goes back to Faulkner, to Henry James, to Miss Havisham in Dickens, to the countess in Pushkin's Queen of Spades, and back to the White Goddess. I'm very much in agreement with Virginia Woolf when she says that when you sit down to write, you must feel the whole of your tradition in your bones, all the way back to Homer.

INTERVIEWER

You also gave voice in Aura to a subject not often discussed, Napoleon III's intervention in Mexico, Maximilian and Carlota.

FUENTES

I am obsessed with Carlota: she is one of my ghosts. But my country is a land where the life of death is very important, as is the death of life. It is curious that I wrote Artemio Cruz and Aura at the same time. They complement each other in that Artemio Cruz is about the death of life and Aura is about the life of death.

INTERVIEWER

The witch in Aura is a specific type of woman. What other female images appear in your work?

FUENTES

I've been attacked for depicting very impure women, but this is because of the negative vision my culture has had of women. A culture that combines Arabs, Spaniards, and Aztecs is not very healthy for feminism. Among the Aztecs, for example, the male gods all represent a single thing: wind, water, war, while the goddesses are ambivalent, representing purity and filth, day and night, love and hate. They constantly move from one extreme to another, from one passion to another, and this is their sin in the Aztec world. There is a pattern of female ambiguity in my novels.

INTERVIEWER

In this idea of an image of woman created by men, you automatically conjure up movie actresses, and this reminds me of Claudia Nervo in Holy Place.

FUENTES

Oh, of course. She would be the supreme example. But last summer I wrote a play about two women, two great symbols of the face in Mexico, María Félix and Dolores del Río. It is called Orchids in the Moonlight, from the camp tango in the old Hollywood musical Flying Down to Rio. The two women think they are María Félix and Dolores del Río and behave as such, and you might well assume that they are the actresses in exile in Venice until you discover that it is Venice, California, that the women are two chicanas, and that nothing is what it seems. But the real faces of the actresses are there, projected on the stage, those incredible faces never aging, because as Diego Rivera once said to them, “Skulls as beautiful as yours never grow old.”

INTERVIEWER

In Holy Place you deal with the impact of the female on the male: the protagonist, Mito, seems to lose his identity in the presence of his mother. Like Carlota or the witch, she seems to be an extreme feminine type.

FUENTES

No, because I don't think Claudia Nervo is an extreme. On the contrary, it is Mexican men who make an extreme of her. She is only defending herself. She is a central figure and the men won't allow women to be central figures; they are banished to the extremes because Mexico is a country where women are condemned to be whores or nuns. A woman is either la Malinche, the Indian who helped Cortés and betrayed her race, or Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, the nun who divests herself of her voice and her personality, under pressure from religious and political authority. Nowadays in Mexico women are saying they are neither whores nor nuns but many things. They are usurping a role that men have reserved for themselves. Things are changing.

INTERVIEWER

You have seen Mexico undergo a tremendous change, from the Mexico that nationalized the oil fields in 1938 to Mexico today. I assume the society has crumbled the way it has here, that the entire value structure has been transformed. I was wondering how that historical reality enters your very mythical vision of the culture?

FUENTES

In Mexico all these changing realities only point up the fact that there is a tradition, that myths are a tradition, that myths breathe, and that they nourish the epics, the tragedies, and even the melodramas of our contemporary life. Because the society is crumbling, we are in a terrible situation of stock-taking. Mexico, all of Latin America in fact, has been fooled by the illusion of progress. If only we could imitate the United States, France, and Great Britain we could become rich, prosperous, and stable. This has not happened. Suddenly we are in 1980 and we know that in your world too, progress has become an illusion, so now we must look back on our tradition, which is all we really have. Our political life is fragmented, our history shot through with failure, but our cultural tradition is rich, and I think the time is coming when we will have to look at our own faces, our own past—look into this mirror we have been talking about.

INTERVIEWER

Has Mexican culture fallen the way it has in New York, where money is the only index of worth? Has materialism leveled Mexican society?

FUENTES

No. Your culture has no past; it lives only in the present. Mexico is a culture with many coexisting times. We have a horrible bourgeoisie in Mexico, much worse than yours, a know-nothing bourgeoisie proud of being ignorant. But we also have the majority of the people who have the spiritual value of religion. Ah yes, now it appears that religion, which we have attacked so much in the past, is a cultural value that exists in the depths of Mexico. I mean the sense of the sacred, not Catholic values, the sense that the rabbit can be sacred, that everything can be sacred. If you go to the land of the Tarahumaras you see they don't care a hoot about material things. They care about reenacting the origins, being present at the origins all over again. They find their health in the past, not in the future.

INTERVIEWER

But as you have already shown in your spy novel The Hydra Head, Mexico with its vast oil reserves is going to be thrown into the center of things.

FUENTES

Yes. Oil is going to affect the society. I am writing a novel, Cristóbal Nonato, that takes place on October 12, 1992, the five-hundredth anniversary of the discovery of the New World. I'm wondering what Mexico City and the country will be like then, when we take stock of having been discovered by Europeans five centuries ago.

INTERVIEWER

What is your projection? Don't tell all your secrets, just give us an idea.

FUENTES

Oh, it's a gloomy projection. This is not a science fiction novel: there are no gadgets. The story is told by an unborn child and it is what he hears that creates his impression of the world into which he is going to be thrown. The life of Mexico City will almost have been destroyed because you can't have a city of thirty million people with all its physical problems—being high up in the sky, cold, surrounded by mountains that keep the smog down, with water having to be brought from far away, and sewage having to be pumped out. The city will drown in shit; that's what will happen to Mexico.

INTERVIEWER

I can't help thinking of Terra Nostra: that novel also takes place in the future, between June and December of 1999. Of course, in that novel your primary concern is the past and your scope is vast.

FUENTES

This is a much more comical novel. Its scope is much more concentrated. The very fact that the narrator is inside his mother's womb limits its possibilities drastically. The information he receives is limited—what he hears and what his genes tell him. I am not trying to do anything like Terra Nostra, which is an excursion into Mediterranean culture, into all the worlds we come from, and into the creation of power in our society.

INTERVIEWER

Now that you have given us a glimpse of Cristóbal Nonato I wonder if you would mind talking about a text I know of only by hearsay, a book you wrote as a boy in Chile after you left Washington in 1941. Do you remember that book?

FUENTES

I remember it very well. I have always been trapped in a way by English because of living in Washington, so when we moved to Chile I found myself recovering Spanish. That was when I was eleven. Chile at that moment was the country of the great poets—Gabriela Mistral and Pablo Neruda, in particular. It was also the most politicized country in Latin America. I ended up, of course, in a British school because the British schools in Chile and Argentina were the best. I was promptly dressed up in a blazer, a school tie, and a little grey cap. We did calisthenics at seven a.m. alongside the Andes, got caned, and celebrated Allied victories: every time Montgomery won a battle, we had to throw our caps in the air and shout hip, hip, hurrah. There were many budding writers in the school, The Grange, it was called: Luis Alberto Heyremans, a playwright now deceased, and both José Donoso and Jorge Edwards, novelists. One of my best friends, who has now become a great Kant scholar, was Roberto Torretti: he and I wrote that novel together. We had many problems because there we were, a Mexican and a Chilean writing a novel that started in Marseilles. Novels had to start in Marseilles because that was where the Count of Monte Cristo made his appearance. Where else could a ship set sail from if not Marseilles with the Château d'If out ahead. The problem, which Dumas did not have, was how to make the people talk: would it be in Mexican or Chilean? We compromised and made them speak like Andalusians. From Marseilles, the novel moved on to Haiti: we had read Jane Eyre and were very impressed by mad women in attics. We included a gloomy castle on top of a mountain, Sans Souci—all of this before Alejo Carpentier had written his novel about Haiti, The Kingdom of this World. The novel took place there in those gloomy surroundings with mad women chained to their beds and young masters making love to mulatto girls. It went on for about four hundred pages.

INTERVIEWER

Did anyone ever read this Gothic tome?

FUENTES

Not exactly. I read it out loud to David Alfaro Siqueiros, the muralist. He was my victim. He had to flee Mexico because he was involved in an assassination attempt on the life of Trotsky. He went to Chile and was painting a bombastic mural in a small town, Chillán, to which Mexico had donated a school after an earthquake had destroyed the local school. My father was chargé d'affaires, and since Siqueiros was not making much money, and depended somewhat on the embassy, we invited him over quite often. He was a charming man, so after dinner I told him to sit down and listen to my novel. He had no way out. He dozed off, of course, and had a good siesta.

INTERVIEWER

So you combined the English Gothic novel, Dumas, and Salgari?

FUENTES

Yes. It was very dramatic, not at all picturesque. We thought it very gloomy and Brontë-like. We were greatly influenced by Charlotte and Emily Brontë, as was everyone in our group in Chile. Branwell Brontë was the height of decadence for us. You had to be like the Brontës to be good artists.

INTERVIEWER

Those puritans were the height of decadence?

FUENTES

Well, we thought so—the Moors, the hints of incest. Imagine how the Brontës are seen by thirteen-year-olds in Chile in 1942.

INTERVIEWER

Did you write a great deal before publishing?

FUENTES

Yes. When I moved back to Mexico City I was put into a Catholic school—for the first time in my life. We had left Chile and moved to Buenos Aires, but I couldn't stand the schools there—it was the beginning of the Perón period and the fascist influence on education was intolerable. So I demanded to go to Mexico. Alas, when I got there I was put in a Catholic school. The school made me into a writer because it taught me about sin, that everything you did was sinful. So many things could be sins and therefore became so pleasurable that they set me to writing. If things were forbidden, one had to write them, and things are pleasurable if they are forbidden.

INTERVIEWER

Has the idea of sin as a stimulus to writing stayed with you?

FUENTES

Yes. I suppose I started to write Terra Nostra in that Catholic school in Mexico City. St. John Chrysostom says that purely spiritual love between a man and a woman should be condemned because their appetites grow so much and lust accumulates. This is an essential point in Terra Nostra, where people can never meet in the flesh and have others do the actual fornication for them. I learned a lot in Catholic school.

INTERVIEWER

What brand of Catholicism did you have in Mexico City?

FUENTES

It was a very political Catholicism totally allied to the conservative interpretation of Mexican history. There was a teacher there who would arrive with a calla lily at the beginning of each school year. He would say, “This is a pure Catholic youth before he goes to a dance.” Then he would throw the lily on the floor and trample it. After, he would pick up the rag of a lily and say, “This is a Catholic after he goes to a dance and kisses a girl.” Then he would throw the flower into the waste basket. They rewrote Mexican history in favor of Maximilian, in favor of Porfirio Díaz, the dictator who precipitated the Revolution, and all images of law and order. I was thrown out of school for a month because I dared to celebrate the birthday of Benito Juárez, the Indian who became president of Mexico, an image of liberalism in our country.

INTERVIEWER

We see how you began to write: how did you decide what to write at the beginning of your professional career?

FUENTES

I decided I had to write the novel of the Mexico I was living. The Mexican novel was locked into certain genres: there were Indian novels, novels of the Revolution, and proletarian novels. For me those were like medieval walls constraining the possibilities of Mexican fiction. The Mexico City I was living in belied those restraints because it was like a medieval city that had suddenly lost its walls and drawbridges and sprawled outside itself in a kind of carnival. You had European nobility stranded in Mexico because of the war, an up-and-coming bourgeoisie, unbelievable bordellos lit up in neon near the fish markets where the smell of the women and the smell of the fish mingled. The writer Salvador Elizondo would go there and slit the prostitutes' armpits while he made love to them so he could make love in a gush of blood. Then mariachi music all night long. Mexico City found in the late forties and fifties its baroque essence, a breaking down of barriers, an overflow. I remember dancing the mambo in astounding cabarets and that was the origin of Where the Air Is Clear: Mexico City as the protagonist of postrevolutionary life in Mexico. I felt that nothing had been said about that in a novel.

INTERVIEWER

Were there any other writers or artists in your family?

FUENTES

Not particularly: my father was a diplomat, my mother a housewife. My father's brother was an interesting poet, but he died of typhoid at twenty. My great-aunt was a sort of Grandma Moses for poetry in Vera Cruz. She wrote about the tropics, the lakes, and the sea, and was quite well known.

INTERVIEWER

Were there any myths about either your uncle or your great-aunt that might have created a literary prototype for you?

FUENTES

The only myth was a great-grandmother, Clotilde Vélez de Fuentes. She had her fingers cut off by bandits when she was on the stagecoach between Vera Cruz and Mexico City. She wouldn't take off her rings so they chopped off her fingers. She's the only myth I can remember.

INTERVIEWER

How did your family react to your becoming a writer, to your earning a living by writing?

FUENTES

Well, my parents told me to study law because they said I would die of hunger if I tried to live off my writing in Mexico. I also visited the great poet and humanist Alfonso Reyes and he reminded me that Mexico is a very formalistic country and that if I had no title people wouldn't know how to deal with me. “You'll be like a teacup without a handle,” he said. I wasn't unhappy about studying law once I began. First, I went to Geneva, my first trip to Europe, where I learned discipline. Back in Mexico I was able to study with great teachers who had fled Spain during the Spanish Civil War. The former dean of the University of Seville, Manuel Pedroso, told me that if I wanted to understand criminal law I should read Crime and Punishment and that if I wanted to understand mercantile law I should read Balzac, and forget the dreary statutes. He was right, so I immediately found a conjuncture between the social and narrative dimensions of my life. I might have become a corporate lawyer, but I wrote Where the Air Is Clear instead. What energy I had then: I wrote that novel in four years while finishing law school, working at the University of Mexico, getting drunk every night, and dancing the mambo. Fantastic. No more. You lose energy and you gain technique.

INTERVIEWER

Your second novel quickly followed the first.

FUENTES

My second was actually my first. I was already writing The Good Conscience, a more traditional book, when it was washed away in the flood of Where the Air Is Clear. That novel was more than a book for me: it was my life. It made a big splash: it was praised to heaven and damned to hell. One critic said it was only fit to be flushed down the toilet. Now I find to my chagrin that it is required reading for fifteen-year-old girls in the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Mexico City.

INTERVIEWER

So we have the creation of a world which takes on its own shape, a kind of Faulknerian or Balzacian world. Is it still alive?

FUENTES

I've never left it. In the preface I wrote for Burnt Water, I mention an imaginary apartment house in Mexico City: Artemio Cruz lives in splendor in the penthouse and Aura the witch lives in the basement. Somewhere in between I have all my other characters. I think I have always been caught in the tension of illusory realism because the realism of these novels is illusory. I hope I am a decent reader of Cervantes, and he, after all, inaugurated realism by casting doubt on reality. This illusory realism is one pole of my writing and the other pole is the fantastic dimension, which is extremely real because it takes place in the mind. People think of Balzac merely as a realistic social writer, they forget his fantastic novels. So the lesson of Balzac is deeper for me than appearances would suggest.

INTERVIEWER

You are very much aware of the continuity of your writing.

FUENTES

In a sense my novels are one book with many chapters: Where the Air Is Clear is the biography of Mexico City; The Death of Artemio Cruz deals with an individual in that city; A Change of Skin is that city, that society, facing the world, coming to grips with the fact that it is part of civilization and that there is a world outside that intrudes into Mexico. There is a collective psyche in these books which is negated and individualized. But no character speaks alone because there is the sense, I hope, that there is a ghost on every page, with every character. All of this culminates in Distant Relations, a ghost story about the ghost of literature, about this world as a creation of fiction, a dangerous fiction you are afraid to hand over to the reader. Distant Relations is the novel I care most for. It says the most about me as a writer and my interests in literature. It is about writing, the only novel I have ever written about writing. It is a story told by one character to another who in turn tells it to me, Fuentes. I will not be satisfied until the story is completely told. I must know the whole story, but once I have it I must pass it on to you readers like a gift from the devil. As the title suggests, it is a story about distant relations, about a family in the New World and the Old World whose whole story cannot be told because no text could contain the whole story. It also deals with the influence of France on the Caribbean nations, the ghosts of French writers who came from Latin America, like Lautréamont or Heredia. The novel deals with the origins of fiction, how no story can ever be fully told, how no text can ever be fully exhausted.

INTERVIEWER

Both Terra Nostra and Distant Relations deal with origins: the first maps out the Mediterranean and Spanish sources of Spanish American culture and the second describes the origin of the literary text, your vain attempt to absorb and express a total history. This desire we see in both novels for a totality of one kind or another reflects one of the common concerns of the novelists of the so-called boom of the Latin American novel during the sixties. How do you understand this “boom”?

FUENTES

I would say with García Márquez that we are writing one novel in Latin America, with a Colombian chapter written by García Márquez, a Cuban chapter written by Carpentier, an Argentine chapter by Julio Cortázar and so on. We live in a continent where the novel is a recent development, where many things have been left unsaid. It is difficult to speak of individuals because a fusion has taken place: characters from Artemio Cruz appear in One Hundred Years of Solitude, while in Terra Nostra there are characters from One Hundred Years of Solitude, from Carpentier's Explosion in a Cathedral, Cabrera Infante's Three Sad Tigers, and Cortázar's Hopscotch. There is a constant intertextuality which is indicative of the nature of writing in Latin America.

INTERVIEWER

So you never felt isolated as a Mexican writer, or that your work was for Mexicans only?

FUENTES

I think I was conscious from the very beginning of my career that it was ridiculous to speak of Mexican literature or Peruvian literature or Chilean literature, that if we were to have any meaning, any universality it would have to be within the wider range of this tattered, mendicant language we call Spanish.

INTERVIEWER

Some Spanish-American writers have suggested that it was only during the sixties that they could imagine a readership that extended from Mexico City to Buenos Aires.

FUENTES

This was not the case for me. I founded and directed a lively magazine in the fifties called Revista Mexicana de Literatura, and in 1955 we were publishing Julio Cortázar's early short stories, Cuban poets like Cintio Vitier and José Lezama Lima, even a short story coauthored by Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy Casares. By the mid-fifties I felt the traditional barriers had been broken down. The readership was developing at the same time so that there was an intellectual and even a material underpinning for the boom when it appeared. There were publishing houses, distributors, and the authors' knowledge that we belonged to the same linguistic community.

INTERVIEWER

Why were the sixties so favorable to a communal spirit among the writers?

FUENTES

The Cuban Revolution certainly provided a meeting place. Such fervor and hope were raised by the Cuban Revolution! Havana became a focal point until the Cubans developed their tropical socialist realism and began to excommunicate people. Ultimately they destroyed the possibility of a community, but the Cuban Revolution played a fundamental role in creating a sense of unity. I was there when Castro came into Havana. That was a galvanizing moment in our lives, and retrospectively it still is. An extraordinary thing happened then in the history of Spanish-American literature: everybody prominent in the boom was a friend of everybody else. Now this has sadly ended. Now that we enter middle age the friendship has broken, and people have become enemies for personal or political reasons. We look back with nostalgia.

INTERVIEWER

Your personal vision of the boom reminds me of the paucity of biographical and autobiographical materials in the Hispanic world. Only now are we beginning to see writers describing their relation to historical events in Latin America. There are texts like José Donoso's Personal History of the Boom, but there is no tradition of memoirs or autobiographies.

FUENTES

I'll tell you why: there is a fear of what is written because it compromises you. I remember arriving at the Mexican embassy in Paris and asking for some information left, I thought, by one of my predecessors. I was interested in his ideas about French politics: it turned out that he never wrote anything because some day it might be used against him.

INTERVIEWER

You have mentioned the influence of Citizen Kane on Artemio Cruz. Have films been important to your writing?

FUENTES

I'm a great moviegoer. The greatest day in my life as a child was when my father took me to New York City to see the World's Fair and Citizen Kane, when I was ten years old. And that struck me in the middle of my imagination and never left me. Since that moment, I've always lived with the ghost of Citizen Kane. There are few other great movies which I am conscious of when I write. Buñuel's work would be another. Von Stroheim would be another one, especially the great version of The Merry Widow he did as a silent film, without the waltzes. Great scenes of love between John Gilbert and Mae Murray, in beds of black sheets, and beautiful women playing the flute and tambourine around them with their eyes blindfolded. And finally when the love comes to a climax, they pull the curtains of the little bed, so they are totally isolated from sight; we are there seeing the absence of sight—a series of reflections unseen and imagined, which I found very powerful. But beyond that I don't view it as an influence.

I think the comedians have influenced everybody, the Marx Brothers are among the greatest artists of the twentieth century. The greatest anarchists and revolutionaries, and destroyers of property. The people who make the world shriek and explode with laughter and absurdity. I think they have influenced practically everybody. Keaton and Chaplin. But then literature is another thing. It's a verbal process which is very different from the film, very, very different.

INTERVIEWER

Then you don't feel that film will usurp the novel?

FUENTES

I was talking a few months ago in Mexico with one of the great film makers of our time, Luis Buñuel. He was eighty years old, and I was asking how he looked back on his career and on the destiny of the film. He said, “I think films are perishable, because they depend too much on technology, which advances too quickly and the films become old-fashioned, antiques. What I hope for is that technology advances to the point that films in the future will depend on a little pill which you take; then you sit in the dark, and from your eyes you project the film you want to see on a blank wall.”

INTERVIEWER

Somebody would come along and close your eyes.

FUENTES

Yes, there will be censors. But the film would be projected inside your head, then. They'd have to kill you. It would be the final proof of artistic freedom.

INTERVIEWER

What do you do to promote your own work? Do you submit to talk shows?

FUENTES

Perhaps each nation has the Siberia it deserves. In the Soviet Union a writer who is critical, as we know, is taken to a lunatic asylum. In the United States, he's taken to a talk show. There they have to deal with the KGB, here they have to deal with Johnny Carson, which is much more withering, I suspect. Phillip Roth has said, in comparing his situation to that of Milan Kundera, the Czech writer, that in the United States, everything goes and nothing is important. In Czechoslovakia, nothing goes and everything is important. So this gives the writer an added dimension he doesn't have here.

I was in Paris last year. A book of mine was being launched and they said that I had to go on television. I didn't want to. They said no, no, it sells a lot of books—the program, called Apostrophes, is very popular; it's seen by about thirty million people in France. I said, “Okay, let's go and see what happens.” It was a terrifying experience because there was a petulant Frenchman who kept cutting me, so I couldn't express my ideas. He wanted things to go very quickly, and I couldn't say anything. I was very unhappy at what had happened and with what I had said. I went back with Sylvia, my wife, to the apartment. The concierge was waiting up for us and she said, “Ah, I just turned off the television. How wonderful. It was magnificent, marvelous.” I said, “No, it was terrible. It was awful. I didn't like the things I said.” And she said, “But Mr. Fuentes, I didn't hear anything you said. I saw you. I saw you.” People who are glued to the television are really in the deepest recess of their soul, hoping to see themselves, because this will be the apotheosis of their identity. Walter Benjamin says a very good thing about the real revolution of the nineteenth century being the invention of photography. All throughout history, people had been faceless, and suddenly people had a face. The first photographs were kept in jewel boxes lined with velvet because they were precious. They were your identity. Now suddenly you have this possibility of being seen by thirty, forty, fifty million people. You have an identity. You exist. You are someone. No matter how fleetingly, no matter how briefly. Talk about the end of feudalism. There it is. The end of feudalism happens in front of your TV.

INTERVIEWER

Have you ever contemplated writing your memoirs?

FUENTES

Oh, yes. I want to do that very much when the time comes and I keep lots of interesting notes. I think that in Mexico and Latin America it is a good idea to start thinking of the genre of the memoir, of leaving something, of creating in that genre. My generation has done a great deal to create a narrative tradition and we probably have time to create a memoir tradition. After all, it has existed in the past, in Cortés's letters and in Bernal Díaz del Castillo's personal history of the conquest of Mexico. And now I see this promise in Guillermo Cabrera Infante's book of boyhood in Havana.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think you will continue to write at the same rate you have been?

FUENTES

Well, it has become physically easier for me to write. Time passes and the past becomes the present. What you were living and thought you had lost forever is ancillary to your work. Then suddenly it acquires a shape, it exists in an order of time all its own and this order of time demands a literary form. So then these presences of the past are there in the center of your life today. You thought they were unimportant or that they had died, but they have just been looking for their chance. If you try to force a theme when you are twenty-five and have lived less, you find you can't do a thing with it. Suddenly it offers itself gratuitously. At fifty I find there is a long line of characters and shapes demanding words just outside my window. I wish I could capture all of them, but I won't have enough time. The process of selection is terrifying because in selecting you necessarily kill something.

INTERVIEWER

This is a fantastic image, a double apprenticeship: an initial phase of writing being itself a gestation period followed now by a period of painful plenitude.

FUENTES

When your life is half over, I think you have to see the face of death in order to start writing seriously. There are people who see the end quickly, like Rimbaud. When you start seeing it, you feel you have to rescue these things. Death is the great Maecenas, Death is the great angel of writing. You must write because you are not going to live any more.


Author photograph by Nancy Crampton.