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Carlos Fuentes: The realist magician

In the last couple of years, Mexican man of letters Carlos Fuentes has faced the death of his son and produced a new novel infused with his signature themes of family and tragedy.

October 18, 2000|By Susan Salter Reynolds | Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

After 45 minutes of waiting to have my picture taken with the president at an environmental fund-raiser in a Bel-Air living room, I finally get to the head of the line. What will I say? People are motioning for me to hurry. I approach the president, who it seems is also motioning for me to hurry.

"Hello," I say. "Carlos Fuentes says hello." Talk about currency. The president smiles. "He's my friend," he says, to the chagrin of all the handlers. "We had a terrific dinner together once on Martha's Vineyard with Vargas Llosa and William Styron." "Yes," I say, interrupting him. "You quoted Faulkner." He's beaming. "They checked on you, you know," I say (which I probably shouldn't have). "And they found you'd got it all right."

He pauses for a second. "There are some things," he says, grinning as I'm being ushered out the door, "that even a politician can't fake."

Such is the power of literature. And such, perhaps, is the power of Carlos Fuentes.

If love and hate are two sides of the same coin, as it is often said, then power and sadness are two sides of a lesser coin.

"Here is the thing I am proudest of," Fuentes says, picking a small white book from a pile of books that is bigger than the coffee table in his London flat. It is called "La Palabra Sobrevive" ("The Word Survives"), written by his son, Carlos Fuentes Lemus, who died last year at 25 in

Puerto Vallarta. Carlos Jr. was a hemophiliac, and the self-portrait on the cover of this book of poems is a simple pencil drawing with large red blotches over the eyes and throat.

He lived in Cambridge, Mass., London and Mexico during his short life. He was an artist in many mediums: painting, photography and poetry. Reading the poems, it seems clear, as it often does and sometimes incorrectly, that he prophesied his own death.

Maneras de Morir

No le creas nada a mi mente disenada por

los medios

No creas que yo lo crea

Hay cicatrices que se cierran pero se

destacan

Dejame verte

Que milagro Margarita

Solo mi ojo y tu nuca

Hay demasiadas maneras de morir.

Ways of Dying

Don't believe (anything stemming from)

my media-shaped mind

Don't believe that I believe it

There are scars that close but still stand

out

Let me see you!

What a surprise, Margarita

Only my eye and your nape

There are too many ways of dying

(translation by Wilfred Ramirez)

Fuentes senior, 72, is a big, straight-spined, handsome man whose carriage evokes both cultures in his family: German and Mexican. He commands a power in literary and political circles that is almost a birthright. His friends are people like Ethel Kennedy and William Styron. His mother went into labor with him while watching a silent-screen version of "La Boheme" with Lillian Gish in a movie house. His father was a Mexican diplomat.

Fuentes spent much of his childhood in Washington, D.C., then in Chile. The family returned to Mexico when he was 15. He studied law, became Mexico's ambassador to France in the mid-1970s, then taught at Harvard. He now spends half of the year in Mexico City and half in London, where I visited him in his fifth-floor, light-filled Kensington flat.

The writer claims that grandmothers are the best source for all stories. His new novel, "The Years With Laura Diaz," (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) is published in English this month, translated by Alfred Mac Adam, a year after its publication in Mexico. The story is based on the life of his paternal grandmother, Emilia Rivas Gil de Macias, from Sonora. But it also draws heavily on the life of his uncle, Carlos Fuentes Boettiger. Uncle Carlos was a poet and a rebel who wrote for a magazine called Bohemian Muse. He died of typhoid fever at the age of 21.

The characters in the novel are drawn from Fuentes' family constellation, but the breath of the story, its spine of sadness, lies in the death of the young revolutionary uncle. It is his death that inspires the will and idealism of his young half-sister, Laura Diaz, who grows up to be a politically active artist. "The biggest challenge," says Mac Adam, "was finding a female voice. Carlos rarely has female narrators. This book brings us back to the glory days of 'Artemio Cruz.' If Cruz embodied post-revolutionary Mexico, Laura Diaz embodies the new Mexico. She loses everything and gains integrity."

Besides families and tragedy, one theme in Fuentes' writing is the difference between the soul of a bureaucrat and the soul of a revolutionary. Sometimes they inhabit the same body, but often, romantically, they do not. Fuentes has often said it is impossible "to have art and life at the same time." He talks about an early point in his life when he could have entered the Mexican government as a representative of labor. "Where will I end up?" he thought. "With a big car and a house in Bosques de Las Lomas [a fancy Mexico City neighborhood]. I will end up dead. I decided right there that I would do what I liked."

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