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A Trip to the Library With Carlos Fuentes : MYSELF WITH OTHERS Selected Essays by Carlos Fuentes (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: $19.95; 214 pp.)

April 17, 1988|Jean Franco | Franco is a professor of Spanish at Columbia University

The title of Carlos Fuentes' selected essays, "Myself With Others," suggests the personal, the autobiographical and, in short, real life. In effect, the relations he speaks of are almost exclusively literary and cultural. Even in an autobiographical essay, "How I Started to Write," he cannot refrain from noting that he shares the same birthday with Dostoevsky, Cromelynk and Kurt Vonnegut. And his mother's birth pangs began in a cinema--watching a silent screen version of Puccini's "La Boheme." Life here is seen, if it is seen at all, through the grid of culture; even events such as his "loss of virginity" (as he puts it) are mediated by fiction--in this case the radio dramas in which Eva Peron played heroines such as Madame du Barry and Joan of Arc.

Ironically, Fuentes, considered by many to be the quintessentially Mexican writer and author of a modern classic, "The Death of Artemio Cruz" took a long time to discover his native country. Born in Panama City, where his father was attached to the Mexican legation, he spent his childhood and adolescence in the United States, Chile and Argentina, only returning to live in Mexico when he was 16. Thus he finally discovered "that my father's imaginary country was real, but more fantastic than any imaginary land."

Yet, like his first love affair, this discovery (mainly, according to his account, of a night life of "cantinas, brothels, strip-joints and silver varnished night-clubs") remains distant and abstract compared with the excitement of literary discovery--of D. H. Lawrence, Aldous Huxley, James Joyce and Andre Gide, T. S. Eliot and Thomas Mann.

Most modern writers are, of course, passionate readers and none more so than Fuentes. Not surprisingly, "The others" of "Myself With Others" are mainly novelists. They include Cervantes, Diderot and Gogol, all of them authors, like himself, for whom literature is, above all, a play of ideas, that defies historical determinations. Speaking of Diderot, he comments, "freedom becomes real in literature because Diderot presents it with a literary technique which is a technique of freedom; we are all in time, but we all have or should obtain the right to choose our time."

Choosing or not choosing one's time is the theme of much of Fuentes' own writing, from "The Death of Artemio Cruz" to "Terra Nostra" so that it is hardly surprising to find that his modern preferences are for Kundera and Borges. Indeed the attraction of "Myself With Others" is this sense of what he would term "passionate communication" with his favorite writers. On the other hand, real-life communication becomes vague unless it involves an author or a celebrity. An elderly gentleman sitting at the next table in a Geneva cafe is noticed because he is Thomas Mann. By contrast, girlfriends and peasants at the roadside are anonymous and generic.

The final essay in "Myself With Others" is a Harvard commencement on U.S./Mexican relations. This is a topic on which Fuentes excels since he is at ease in both cultures, and he is an eloquent advocate for non-intervention in Latin American affairs and for Latin America's right to decide its own future. He wants, he says, to have "friends, not satellites." As he points out in "How I Started to Write," the Mexican/U.S. frontier is the only frontier between the industrial and the developing world, between the Catholic Mediterranean and the Protestant Anglo-Saxon. And Fuentes, who understands both sides of that frontier, is at his best when exploring the sympathies and differences between them.

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