Carlos Fuentes (FWAYN-tays) gained international recognition as a significant writer associated with the so-called boom period in Latin American literature, and he came to be regarded by many as Mexico’s foremost novelist in the twentieth century. The son of a career diplomat, Rafael Fuentes, and Berta Macias Rivas, Carlos Fuentes grew up in many different countries and attended excellent schools in several of the major capitals of the Americas. He learned English at the age of four while living in Washington, D.C., and for a time he lived in Santiago, Chile, and in Buenos Aires, before returning to study law at the University of Mexico. He also spent some time at the Institut des Hautes Études Internationales in Geneva.
From 1950 to 1952 Fuentes was a member of the Mexican delegation to the International Labor Organization in Geneva. Upon his return to Mexico in 1954 he became assistant head of the press section of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and from 1955 to 1956 he served in a similar capacity at the University of Mexico. During much of the time that he was head of the department of cultural relations at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs from1957 to 1959, he was also editor of Revista mexicana de literatura; he later edited and coedited the leftist journals El espectador, Siempre, and Politica. After 1959 he devoted himself to writing novels, book reviews, political essays, film scripts, and plays. From 1975 to 1977 he served as Mexico’s ambassador to France. Fuentes was married to the well-known Mexican actress Rita Macedo in 1959, with whom he had a daughter. The marriage ended in divorce in 1969, and in 1973 he married Sylvia Lemus, with whom he had a son and a daughter.
Fundamentally a realist, Fuentes’s search for the quintessence of Mexican reality often led him to its mythological roots. Yet for him Mexico’s Aztec, Christian, or revolutionary past is not merely a literary theme but a powerful force to be reckoned with in representing society. The principal concern of his fiction is the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920) and the failure of its promises, a subject that earned him both the hostility of the Mexican establishment and the admiration of a new generation that looked to him for ideological leadership.
Fuentes began his literary career with a collection of short stories, Los días enmascarados (masked days), published in 1954. In this work he denounces customs and primitive modes of life that he views as a burden to modern Mexican life. He develops this subject matter further in Where the Air Is Clear, a phenomenal and influential first novel, in which he attempts to create both a “biography of a city” and a “synthesis of present-day Mexico.” A panorama of the Mexico City of the early 1950’s, the novel is filled with insights into a country whose social revolution soon ceased to be truly revolutionary. Through his range of characters Fuentes investigates the essence of twentieth century Mexicans and their many formative influences and finds no foundation–no shared philosophy or sense of purpose–that would prevent the strong from preying upon the weak.
The suppression of the revolutionary instinct is the focus of The Good Conscience, a more conventional novel that Fuentes intended as the first volume in a planned tetralogy he later abandoned. The Death of Artemio Cruz, the novel that achieved world fame for him, is a richly orchestrated historical novel once again depicting the failure of the revolution, this time through the eyes of the dying robber baron Artemio Cruz, who recalls scenes from his life. In the novel, as in Where the Air Is Clear, Fuentes presents a panoramic view of recent Mexican history. In both The Death of Artemio Cruz and Terra nostra Fuentes uses a variety of narrators to tell his story, as well as the technique of second-person narrative. A Change of Skin describes, at the narrative level, the pilgrimage of five characters from Mexico City to Vera Cruz for Holy Week. The book’s more fundamental concern, however, is with human beings’ primitive and persistent notions of vengeance and atonement. Some critics found the book symbolically overburdened, yet other readers found A Change of Skin to be a work close to greatness in its scope, energy, and skill of characterization.
As a result of his outspoken political views Fuentes was forbidden entry into Puerto Rico in February, 1969. Because of his denunciation of the Mexican government’s brutal repression of student demonstrations during the 1968 Olympic Games he was even for a time denied entry into his own country. Although most critics agree that The Death of Artemio Cruz is Fuentes’s most technically successful novel, others believe that the bulk of his work is more clever than substantial; they find that he neglects the most important feature of his subcontinent’s culture: the Indianist problem. Perhaps the most valuable contributions of Fuentes’s writing are that it has introduced experimental techniques into mainstream Latin American fiction and it has helped to define the Mexican national character.