Fuentes becomes passionate. His voice rises and he gestures for emphasis. "I hope it's Catholic in outlook forever. Because one thing I like to stress is that we should not sacrifice any of our traditions. Modernity has proven to be so brittle, so contradictory. The belief in progress unchecked--untrammeled progress--has practically led us to the death of progress. The exclusion of the tragic consciousness--because we (believe we) are perfectible and progress is unlimited--has led us to the gulag and Auschwitz and Hiroshima--all these horrors of the 20th Century."
To explore the past and present of Spain and the New World and to point toward an achievable future, Fuentes both conceived and narrated "The Buried Mirror." He wrote the accompanying illustrated book under deadline pressure, doing the English first, then translating himself into Spanish.
The title refers to the symbol and image of the mirror, which appears in both Spanish art and literature and Mexican lore and art, and frequently in Fuentes' own writing. In Mexico, mirrors were buried in tombs of the Olmecs and the Totonacs around Veracruz, the home of Fuentes' family, apparently as guides to the underworld for the ancient peoples. Symbolically unburying these ubiquitous mirrors, Fuentes uses them as bridges among the many strains of the Spanish-speaking culture.
In the series, Fuentes displays Mesoamerican mirrors and discusses the one in Velazquez's "Las Meninas," the astonishing painting hanging in the Prado museum in Madrid, in which you see the painter painting, the infant princess of Spain with her attendants, a court dwarf, the king and queen reflected in a mirror, and a man in black looking through an open door in the back. Nearly all the subjects are looking directly at you, the viewer.
The painting's artistic suggestiveness and ambiguity challenge Fuentes' imagination. "Did this scene ever occur?" he asks in the book. "Was it posed, or did Velazquez imagine some or all of its components? . . . Was the painting ever finished? . . . Does it not raise the possibility that everything in the world--this painting, but also this history, this narrative--is unfinished? And that, more specifically, we are unfinished ourselves, men and women who cannot be declared 'complete,' enclosed within boundaries of finitude and certainty--unfinished even when we die, because forgotten or remembered, we do contribute to a past that our descendants must keep alive if they are to have a future?"
Fuentes writes that the two great artists of Spain's Golden Age, Velazquez and Cervantes, "were able to redefine reality in terms of the imagination. What we imagine is both possible and real"--a statement that comes close to expressing the essence of Fuentes' view of the nature of art, and of his own work.
"I remember the fright I had the first time I looked into a mirror and saw myself--this was sometime in my childhood," says Fuentes. "I remember that fright so much, and the immediate realization that I could not see myself and that I could only be seen by others. Without the gaze of the other I would be nothing, I would be a prisoner within my own skin. The mirror from very early childhood in my imagination became a very powerful symbol for exactly the kind of communication I've always wanted.
"I cannot see myself if you do not see me; I cannot see myself if you do not privilege me with your gaze. I will never be complete without you."
FUENTES' GREATEST hope is that the peoples of Latin America can make the leaps of imagination in politics and economics they have achieved in the art and the literature that he celebrates in "The Buried Mirror."
"I think that the end of the Cold War has put the ball in our court squarely," he says, pulling himself up in a low chair at our friend's country home in Tepoztlan. "The left in Latin America no longer has to look and say, 'What is the Soviet Union saying? What is Marxist dogma on this?' The United States can no longer intervene saying, 'You are a communist beachhead.' That has ended, so we are facing our social and economic problems and the problems of reform in Latin America squarely on our own terms. We have no excuse anymore for not trying to solve them.
"Right now there is a kind of drunkenness: Capitalism has triumphed! Socialism is dead! I think this is going to pass, because our social problems are very deep, economic problems are very deep, and we're going to have to solve them. It's not the bankers and the private sector that are going to solve these problems. It's going to be something--a social movement, the left, call it whatever you want--that will have to approach these enormous problems of inequities, social services, health, social justice.