In Memoriam – Carlos Fuentes, 1929 – 2012

Carlos Fuentes at home in México City in 2001. Photo courtesy Henry Romero/Reuters.

Carlos Fuentes, México’s most elegant and renowned writer, died at a hospital in México City May 15.  He was 83.  Fuentes published his first novel Where the Air Is Clear in 1958 at age 29, which set off an explosion of literary genius and introduced the English-speaking world to Latin American literature.  Fuentes gained famed in the United States with 1985’s El Gringo, a tale about American writer Ambrose Bierce, who disappeared during the Mexican Revolution.  It was the first book by a Mexican novelist to become a best seller in the U.S.

Like many writers, Fuentes was more ideological than political; choosing to embrace justice and essential human rights regardless of political labels.  He supported Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution that overthrew the regime of Cuba’s Fulgencio Batista.  But, Fuentes eventually turned against Castro when he saw the latter had become much like his predecessor.  He sympathized with Latin America’s indigenous peoples and opposed the administration of President George W. Bush because of its anti-terrorism tactics and immigration stance.  But, he also criticized Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, dubbing him a “tropical Mussolini,” and condemned México’s failed war on drugs, which has taken some 50,000 lives over the past 5 years.

Like any passionate scribe, Fuentes communicated best through his works.  He wrote with fervor, becoming one of modern literature’s most prolific writers.  In The Death of Artemio Cruz, a 1962 novel considered his masterpiece, his title character, an ailing newspaper baron confined to his bed, looks back at his climb out of poverty and his heroic exploits in the Mexican Revolution, concluding that it had failed in its promise of a more egalitarian society.

Though Fuentes wrote in just about every genre, including opera – a 2008 work inspired by the life of Gen. Antonio López de Santa Anna, the wooden-legged president of México during the Texas Revolution – he declined to write an autobiography.  “One puts off the biography like you put off death,” he once said.  “To write an autobiography is to etch the words on your own gravestone.”

Carlos Fuentes was born on November 11, 1928, in Panama, the son of Berta Macías and Rafael Fuentes, a Mexican diplomat.  As his father moved among Mexican embassies, Fuentes spent his early childhood in several South American countries.  In 1936, the family arrived in Washington, D.C., where Fuentes learned to speak English fluently while enrolled in a public school.

In 1940 the family was transferred again, this time to Santiago, Chile, where young Carlos began to experiment with writing.  In an interview with The Times in 1985, Fuentes said he first had to decide “whether to write in the language of my father or the language of my teachers.”  He chose Spanish because he believed that it offered more flexibility than English, but there was also a practical reason.  English, he said, “with a long and uninterrupted literary tradition, did not need one more writer.”

He was 16 when his family finally returned to México.  He knew his homeland through the stories his grandmothers had told during the summers he spent with them.

For much of his career Fuentes competed for recognition and influence in Mexico and abroad with another titan of Mexican letters, the poet Octavio Paz.  Fuentes received the National Order of Merit, France’s highest civilian award given to a foreigner; Spain’s Prince of Asturias Award for literature in 1994; and, in 1987, the Cervantes Prize, the Spanish-speaking world’s highest literary honor.  Paz, however, won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1990.  Fuentes, a perennial on the shortlist for the honor, never did.  His final work, an essay on French politics, was published the day he died.

Regardless of awards, Fuentes’ body work speaks without such accoutrements.  Search here for a complete selection of Carlos Fuentes’ books.

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