Mexico Through The Novel: A Tribute to Carlos Fuentes

By Carole Reedy

Are you challenged while poring over pedantic history books trying to understand the people, traditions, language, and culture of the Mexico we love? Happily, many authors have gifted us with novels that not only entertain, but also provide the words and facts that quench our thirst for knowledge.

None are as poignant as those written by the late Carlos Fuentes. His death on May 15 2012 came as a shock to the literary world. At 81, he appeared healthy, was dashingly handsome, still spoke out on social and political issues, and was actively writing new books and articles (the day he died one of his articles about the recent elections in France appeared in Spain’s daily newspaper El Pais).

Fuentes was cosmopolitan. Born in Panama City of Spanish and German blood, educated in the Americas with postgraduate work in Switzerland, he became a lawyer, a Harvard professor, and an ambassador to France. Fuentes left us a treasury of books, several of which center around the theme of the Mexican Revolution of 1910. The most popular of his books here in Mexico are Aura (the supernatural spellbinder also called the most beautiful of his collection), Where the Air Is Clear (his first novel, in 1958, about midcentury Mexico City, which generated keen interest in Latin American literature), and The Death of Artemio Cruz (one man’s retrospective of his life following the Mexican Revolution). The Old Gringo is well remembered because of the movie, starring Gregory Peck, about Ambrose Bierce’s disappearance during the Mexican Revolution.

The diversity and perspectives of Fuentes’ novels is impressive. One of the short pieces in El Naranjo is written from the point of view of Cortes’ two sons, one with the blood of Malinche and the other of pure Spanish origins. The Crystal Frontier’s nine short stories explore the relationship between the US and Mexico. His colossal, 350,000-word Terra Nostra covers 20 centuries of European aand American culture and history, with a focus on Mexican. Fuentes wrote with pen, ink, and paper. “¿What else do words need?” said Mexico’s most important author. He followed the philosophy that the novel’s fundamental function is to free us from parameters and open us to scenes of the future. In theme as well as form Fuentes hasn’t written two books alike, always exploring new spaces.

Although Carlos Fuentes never won the Nobel Prize for Literature, he said when Gabriel Garcia Marquez was awarded the honor in 1982 that he felt as if he had won too. A gracious gesture from a brilliant author.

Here are a few other authors and novels of note about Mexico that combine history with a compelling story…

LA LACUNA by Barbara Kingsolver.

A glimpse into the lives of Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Leon Trotsky through the eyes of the diary of a young American.

LIKE WATER FOR CHOCOLATE by Laura Esquivel.

Story of love and food during the Mexican Revolution on the MexicanAmerican border.

THE PLUMED SERPENT, originally named ‘Quetzalcoatl.’

‘This book means more to me than any of my other novels,’ said author D.H. Lawrence. His wife said: ‘All of Lawrence is in that book.’

MORNINGS IN MEXICO (actually travel essays), D.H. Lawrence. CARAMELO by Sandra Cisneros.

Delightful novel full of the history and culture of Mexico seen through the eyes of a family traveling from Chicago to Mexico.

THE UNDERDOGS by Marino Azuela

This short novel about the Méxican Revolution was originally published in serial form in El Paso del Norte in 1915.

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