Authors: Carlos Fuentes

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Mexican novelist, short-story writer, playwright, and critic


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.{$I[AN]9810001154}{$I[A]Fuentes, Carlos}{$I[geo]MEXICO;Fuentes, Carlos}{$I[tim]1928;Fuentes, Carlos}

Carlos Fuentes

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.

BibliographyBrody, Robert, and Charles Rossman, eds. Carlos Fuentes: A Critical View. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1982. This well-written collection of essays takes various critical approaches to Fuentes’s major works of prose, drama, and literary criticism. The work also includes bibliographical references and a chronology.Brushwood, John S. Mexico in Its Novel. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1966. This book takes account of a nation’s search for identity through an examination of its fiction. The section devoted to Fuentes discusses the author’s major works (published before 1966). Brushwood underscores Fuentes’s belief that Mexico has accepted realities that prevent the realization of its potential. Contains a chronological list of Mexican novels and a select bibliography.Dupont, Denise. “Baroque Ambiguities: The Figure of the Author in Terra nostra.” Latin American Literary Review 30 (January-June, 2002): 5-19. Examines the interaction between the literal author and the author as envisioned within the text of Terra nostra.Duran, Gloria. The Archetypes of Carlos Fuentes: From Witch to Androgyne. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1980. The first work in English to deal exclusively with the body of Fuentes’s novels that have been translated into English. Duran maintains that an examination of the place of witchcraft and occultism is critical to an understanding of Fuentes’s work as a whole. Contains biographical data, an appendix, and a bibliography.Fainaru, Steve. “Poisoned Pen.” The Boston Globe, November 4, 1997, p. E1. A detailed account of the bitter feud between Fuentes and Octavio Paz; discusses the origin of the feud in the 1980’s over an attack on Fuentes that Paz allowed to be published in a journal he helped establish.Faris, Wendy B. Carlos Fuentes. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1983. Faris’s book offers both biographical information and an insightful critical assessment of Fuentes’s early novels, short fiction, and plays. Complemented by a useful bibliography, a chronology, and an index.Guzmán, Daniel de. Carlos Fuentes. New York: Twayne, 1972. The author provides a brief but insightful view on the historical context (specifically, the Mexican Revolution) of Fuentes’s fiction. Guzman’s book also includes a select bibliography, an appraisal of the author’s works, a historical and sociocultural background, and a chronology of Fuentes’s works.Helmuth, Chalene. The Postmodern Fuentes. Lewisburg, Penn.: Bucknell University Press, 1997. Studies the postmodern features in Fuentes’s novelistic production, particularly since 1975. According to Helmuth, the postmodern novels hold a nonmimetic view of the textual representation of reality, which becomes evident when considering the continual reminders of the artificial nature of the written word that Fuentes scattered in his later narratives.Ibsen, Kristine. Author, Text, and Reader in the Novels of Carlos Fuentes. New York: Peter Lang, 1993. A reader-oriented analysis of four major novels: A Change of Skin, Terra Nostra, Distant Relations, and Christopher Unborn.Morton, A. D. “The Social Function of Carlos Fuentes: A Critical Intellectual or in the ‘Shadow of the State’?” Bulletin of Latin American Research 22 (January, 2003): 25-51. Uses Fuentes as a case study on the role of public intellectual in Latin American society.O’Connor, Anne-Marie. “The Sum of Unequal Parts.” Los Angeles Times, October 24, 1997. An extended discussion, based on an interview with Fuentes, of his treatment of the border between Mexico and the United States in his The Crystal Frontier. Fuentes talks of Latin American writers and intellectuals, criticizes the news media for ignoring the plight of the poor, and comments on his efforts to reflect the changes that have taken place in Mexican society.Van Delden, Maarten. Carlos Fuentes, México and Modernity. Nashville, Tenn.: Vanderbilt University Press, 1998. Analyzes the ongoing tension in Fuentes’s works between nationalism and cosmopolitanism, which stands in a complex relationship to the problem of Latin American modernization.Weiss, Jason. “At the Frontier.” Review of The Crystal Frontier, by Carlos Fuentes. The Boston Globe, November 16, 1997, p. L1. A review of Fuentes’s collection, praising especially “Rio Grande, Rio Bravo”; criticizes the frequent didactic message in many of the stories.Williams, Raymond Leslie. The Writings of Carlos Fuentes. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996. Considering Terra Nostra a keystone in Fuentes’s narrative production, the author maintains that the early novels contained all major themes and topics later developed by the writer and, by the same token, that the later novels are reworkings and expansions of many of the motifs found in Fuentes’s masterpiece.
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