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A writer tilting at windmills

Happy Families Stories; Carlos Fuentes, translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman; Random House: 332 pp., $26

October 22, 2008|Tim Rutten

It once was said of James Joyce that he had abandoned everything about the Scholastic philosophy of the High Middle Ages that suffused his education -- except its basic principles.

Carlos Fuentes, who turned 80 this year, is one of the surviving lions of a heroic generation that brought Latin American letters to global prominence and acclaim. Early in his career, he often spoke and wrote of the long cultural shadow cast by the Spanish Counter-Reformation's vain attempt to restore the lost medieval wholeness that Martin Luther shattered when he nailed his 95 Theses to Wittenburg's church door. All of Iberian culture -- and that of its daughter nations, like Fuentes' native Mexico -- the author argued, was, in some deep sense, the product of Catholic Spain's quixotic quest to put the social and intellectual toothpaste back in the tube.

Though Fuentes, like Joyce, remains a high modernist to the core, it's become increasingly clear that his own literary project -- 23 books now, with more in the pipeline -- is a part of that endeavor. "Happy Families," Fuentes' new book (superbly translated by the redoubtable Edith Grossman) is described as a collection of "stories." In recent interviews, however, the author has called it a "choral novel," which seems entirely apt. Sixteen dramatic vignettes involving contemporary Mexican families -- or people in social arrangements standing in for traditional families -- are linked by poetic "choruses" composed in free verse. The juxtapositions are typical of Fuentes: These are narratives focused deeply on his country's contemporary situation while simultaneously looking back into the traditions of Western letters and expressing themselves in the idiom of continental modernism. Though Fuentes routinely is linked with other Latin American writers of his generation, particularly his friend Gabriel Garcia Marquez, his closest aesthetic antecedents and colleagues are Central European: Bloch, Kafka and, particularly, Milan Kundera.

Family crises

The notion of a choral novel obviously turns to the archaic traditions of Greek drama, but Fuentes also has very consciously in mind the implications of his title and epigraph, which are borrowed from Tolstoy's famous opening to "Anna Karenina": "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Fuentes is aware that Tolstoy, like Joyce's Scholastic philosophers -- the last of whom was the Counter-Reformation Spanish Jesuit Francisco Suarez -- conceived happiness as a harmony with universal norms and ideals. In that schema, families (and individuals) are unhappy precisely because their lives are fragmented, discordant and, worst of all, atomized: in other words, thoroughly modern.

Fuentes' own domestic life has been a celebrated and tragic tumult. His 14-year marriage to Mexican film star Rita Macedo was marked by serial philandering, including affairs with Jeanne Moreau and Jean Seberg. In 1973, he scandalized Mexican society by eloping with his pregnant mistress, the journalist Silvia Lemus. They were subsequently married, but two of their three children have been lost to misfortune -- their only son to complications of hemophilia, their younger daughter to a drug overdose.

That alone might explain the author's dark view of these 16 families, but something more powerful and considered than mere autobiographical influence is at work here. Octavio Paz once remarked that "after two centuries of experiment and defeat, the Mexican people have faith only in the Virgin of Guadalupe and the National Lottery." Family might once have been added to that brief litany, and the fact that it no longer is so in contemporary Mexico is this book's animating anger.

Ties that bind

In one of the stories, "The Gay Divorcee," the author quotes Georges Bataille: "The consumer society was invented by the Aztecs. They consumed hearts." The protagonist of that vignette -- a cultivated gay couple in their 60s bound by a love of Hollywood's Golden Age -- admit a handsome young serpent into their private Eden with disastrous consequences. In "A Family Like Any Other," a disappointed daughter retreats into a world of television, while in "The Armed Family" a pragmatic brother betrays his guerrilla brother, and in "The Mariachi's Mother," a woman tries to will her son into having a life better than her own. In the searing "Conjugal Ties," the psychosexual struggle of unhappy marriage is rehearsed in alternating stream-of-consciousness fragments. The collection builds to the concluding story, "Eternal Father," a canny gloss of "King Lear" in which a father tries to bind his three daughters to his will -- and memory -- with a dying bequest.

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