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Mexico's Literary War Is Political

September 18, 1988|Jorge G. Castaneda | Jorge G. Castaneda, professor of political science at the National University of Mexico, is co-author, with Robert Pastor, of "Limits to Friendship: The United States and Mexico" (Knopf), due out in October

MEXICO CITY — Intellectuals have traditionally posessed a disproportionate weight in Latin American society. They sway public opinion and influence governments in ways unheard of in the United States. Intellectuals are part of the Latin American power Establishment, stars on the political and cultural scene.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in Mexico. The absence of other legitimate, fully developed institutions leaves a void that intellectuals, as individuals or as groups, rush to fill. Until its recent elections, Mexico, more than most other Latin American nations, maintained a relative societal vacuum. Political parties never flourished--except for the governing Party of the Institutionalized Revolution--or PRI--that exists as an arm of the state. The media are either honest but marginal, or powerful but corrupt--and thus discredited. Labor unions and other grass-roots organizations are in a similar situation. Intellectuals often serve as a silent society's self-designated spokesmen.

The consequences are obvious: The intellectual's role in Mexican society is a constant subject of discussion. When novelists, poets, painters or scholars argue with the state or among themselves, much more is involved than scholarly infighting. The past, present and future of the nation's soul is often the real issue behind arcane discussions concerning literary innovations or muralism as a national register of the country's history.

Mexico's vigorous cultural personality--its marvelous colors and shapes, sounds and fantasies--turns out generation after generation of artists, writers and thinkers. But for the past quarter-century, only two intellectuals can be described as institutions--Octavio Paz and Carlos Fuentes. Their views and sensitivities permeate the nation's culture. Yet because they dominate cultural life, they can be the focus of furious debates, unconditional sympathies and violent disagreements.

The most recent chapter in the never-ending discussion about their roles in Mexico involves Fuentes' politics, his "Mexicanness" and his standing as chief spokesman for Latin America in the United States. The novelist's foes and defenders have exchanged letters and insults in Mexico's newspapers and journals for weeks now.

This debate was started by a Fuentes detractor, the up-and-coming, right-of-center biographer Enrique Krauze, who, as managing editor of Paz's monthly, Vuelta, is acknowledged as the poet's favorite political disciple. Krauze, commissioned by the New Republic magazine, wrote a lengthy piece on Fuentes that also appeared in Mexico. Because Krauze is little known in the United States, his essay received scant notice north of the border. But in Mexico, the article, in the June issue of Vuelta, was perceived as a hatchet job. Krauze's colleagues in other publications responded with indignation and reopened the debate on what Fuentes represents in Mexico and the United States.

Fuentes' critics in Mexico and the United States formulated a three-pronged attack--personal, literary and political--with one purpose: to question Fuentes' legitimacy as a spokesman for Latin America.

In a sense, they are right in worrying about Fuentes' influence abroad. Although there are other Mexican intellectuals with a voice north of the Rio Grande, and other Latin American novelists--Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Mario Vargas Llosa, to name two--as well-known as he in the United States, only Fuentes has been able to translate his literary prestige into U.S. political clout on behalf of Latin America. Because he speaks from the left of the political spectrum, Fuentes is vulnerable to attack from the right. The best way to criticize him is to question his credentials in Mexico: as a Mexican, a writer and a political figure.

Personal criticism of Fuentes is most easily dismissed, for it rests on a traditional conservative argument used often by the Mexican government against its enemies--but rarely in intellectual circles. It paints Fuentes as not a true Mexican because he spent too much time abroad, first as a child and then again in middle age. He speaks English and French too well and includes too many foreign references in his literature and political writing.

Yet those who know Fuentes say he is perhaps too much a man of his time and country--the quintessential product of Mexico's National University Law School, class of 1950, where his classmates included President Miguel de la Madrid and opposition leader Porfirio Munoz Ledo.

The literary criticism directed at Fuentes is best left to literary critics. But it should be noted that Paz, who knows literature as few others, felt it necessary to disassociate himself from Krauze's complaints, in this field at least, with a recently published letter. A generation of Mexican readers owes a debt to Fuentes' major novels--particularly those of the late '50s and early '60s--which remain as relevant today as 30 years ago.

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