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Book review: 'Destiny and Desire' by Carlos Fuentes

Rage, remorse and heartbreak course through Carlos Fuentes' lament for modern Mexico.

January 09, 2011|By Reed Johnson | Los Angeles Times
  • Illustration to go with the review of 'Destiny and Desire' by Carlos Fuentes
Illustration to go with the review of 'Destiny and Desire' by… (Owen Freeman / For The Times )

Destiny and Desire

A Novel

Carlos Fuentes, translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman

Random House: 417 pp., $27

The narrator of Carlos Fuentes' hauntingly timely new novel is one of the most unlikely storytellers in fiction.

Not because Josué Nadal isn't an eloquent and engaging tale-spinner — far from it. It's because, when we first meet him, Josué is a severed head, oozing his last remaining life onto a Pacific Coast beach.

Anyone familiar with the macabre nature of Mexico's current, 4-year-old "war on drugs," in which more than 30,000 people have perished, knows that such grisly scenarios have become as commonplace as saints' days for our southern neighbors.

But in "Destiny and Desire," Fuentes, the 82-year-old author of more than 20 works of fiction and nonfiction, including "The Old Gringo," "The Buried Mirror" and "The Death of Artemio Cruz," has his eagle-eyed vision and prodigious imagination trained on far more than mere topicality.

Here, Fuentes attempts nothing less than a critique and dramatization of multilayered Mexican society as it has evolved over the century since the bloody revolution of 1910-20, an anniversary that's being marked this year with much pomp and political opportunism, even as the country endures relentless waves of violence.

It's an endeavor that only a writer of Fuentes' formidable literary skills, broad historical knowledge and well-earned self-assurance would be advised even to attempt. And it's one that largely succeeds. This grand operatic fantasia is a book that's by turns comic and cosmic; erotic and sinister; mythological, theological and scatological; darkly satirical and poetically tragic.

That's the sum of the narrative that flashes before Josué's dying eyes as he relates it to us. Most central to his short, sordid life is his relationship with Jericó, his lifelong soul mate/alter ego, "the reverse side of my coin."

If "dueling siblings" and "rival blood brothers" isn't the freshest motif in the Western canon, it's legitimately one of the most durable. The two orphans meet as schoolboys — Josué, skinny and self-conscious, his face capped by a heroically large proboscis, as proud as Popocatépetl; and Jericó, gregarious, robust and perpetually on the make. They bond, irrevocably, through shared lovers and (mis)adventures of an increasingly ethically compromised character.

As twentysomethings they part ways, temporarily, when Jericó is recruited by a cynical Mexican president, bearing more than a passing resemblance to the flag-waving, pro-business, former President Vicente Fox and current President Felipe Calderón, in a strategy to pacify the impoverished proles by offering circuses without bread. Meanwhile, Josué goes to work for Max Monroy, a financial potentate bearing more than a passing resemblance to Carlos Slim, the real-life gazillionaire who controls much of Mexico's telecommunications industry.

Like the novel's two main characters, these entities, business and government, are depicted as each other's dark twin, seemingly adversarial but actually collusive, reflecting back their parallel corruptions. Collectively, they imprison the country in a grotesque and grimly humorous hall of gleaming but secretive baroque surfaces that conceal as much as they reveal, recalling the Knight of the Mirrors in "Don Quixote."

Literary references and allusions abound in "Destiny and Desire," to Odysseus, Sinbad and Cyrano, as well as Kafka, David Copperfield, Anne Frank and other innocents whose sentimental educations were corrupted and confounded by forces beyond their control. The mysterious lawyer who pays the boys' bills and holds the keys to their futures could've popped out of a Dickensian tract like "Great Expectations," or a Hobbesian or Darwinian one, for that matter.

In the best traditions of the college-dorm bildungsroman, Josué and Jericó indulge in entertainingly written, Dostoevskian debates about St. Augustine vs. Nietzsche, and questions of whether salvation is attained through intermediaries or a personal conduit to the Divine. Spanning a polytheistic pantheon, the novel aptly cites Castor and Pollux and Cain and Abel, and includes a couple of celestial cameos by the Prophet Ezekiel.

Fuentes' erudition here, though not exactly worn lightly, isn't simply showmanship. With "Destiny and Desire," he transcends the North American marketing trope of "magical realism," which helped make the reputations of the now geriatric writers of "Latin American Boom" of the 1960s, and spins a cloth of a much rarer and more intricate weave: a genuine living mythos, made of equal parts captivating dream logic, surreally converging plotlines and dead-on observation of the benighted world we actually inhabit.

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