This I Believe: An a to Z of a Life

by Carlos Fuentes
ISBN: 1400062462

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A Review of: This I Believe: An A to Z of a Life
by Lyall Bush

"He is the novelist as the world would have the novelist be."
- Earl Shorris, The Life and Times of Mexico

In an early scene in Terra Nostra, Carlos Fuentes's big, culturally ambitious novel from 1975, a young man named Pollo Phoibee pulls on a sandwich board that advertises the caf where he works, and begins his usual morning walk through Paris. But the morning has already started strangely: straight out of the shower he had helped his elderly landlady give birth. Now as he walks, he sees all around him young girls, mature women, and grandmothers beginning to give birth in virtual simultaneity. Pollo watches the midwives move among the women wondering only what will happen when the midwives' labor pains begin. Then he looks down to find another old woman reaching out to his pant leg, which sends a wave of panic through him. Will this old woman tell him he's the father? He remembers films-Fury, The Ox-Bow Incident-that climax with lynching scenes, and he starts to imagine a "pack of betrayed women" coming at him, kissing him, scratching him, "tearing off his clothes, castrating him, ceremonially, communally eating his balls."
Is this scene happening for real? Does it matter? For Pollo the only issue is that the streets are boiling with fertility. He stares at the woman with her miraculous child, saying nothing but trying to plant in her mind an image of greasy, barefoot men crowding into the church of Saint-Sulpice, trying to replace the strange mass birthing before him into a cinematic image of mass death and the Final Solution.
The scene has the cheery Grand Guignol construction of some of Thomas Pynchon's work-the encyclopedic reveling in big-canvas collective dreams and shifting social historical theaters-and some of the blown-up character of Francois Rabelais's Gargantua and Pantagruel, which in one book satirizes the delusions of those who would pretend to know the world through reason. Alongside these is Fuentes's love of Cervantes, whose Don Quixote is never more interesting than when he is delusional. Like Cervantes, he follows a character who projects the images in his head more or less willfully onto the plain dramas before him (which in Pollo's case are themselves, arguably, images). Giant and satisfying, Terra Nostra shares with the big books of Pynchon, Rabelais, Joyce, and Melville a love of mixed-genre looseness and capaciousness which form their own tradition: juicy books of adventure, education, cloacal obsession, and the happy discovery that the earth accepts and spurns all theories about it. Fuentes has said that the book is dedicated to exploring the part of life that lies "outside of scientific knowledge, logic, and politics"-in other words to illogic, irrationality, the imagination, to earthly life itself. The title, indeed, means Our Earth.
Published in 1975 when Fuentes was in his middle forties, Terra Nostra is, I think, his masterpiece. It begins with Paris bursting with birthing and ends with the death of King Philip II of Spain, and in the nearly 800 pages between, it ranges over time with a Faulknerian sense of the loose net temporality casts over us. For Fuentes as for Faulkner, time is a broken mirror reflecting past and present; it is almost never a green stem pushing us forward. The book is also a marvel of learning, a fantastic blend of the Spanish culture Fuentes knows intimately and the world culture he lives in, and, in many of its images of death, a kind of Catholic embrace of the body that we find so richly explored in Latin American literature in general.
Since then I think Fuentes's reputation has grown even as his ambition has retreated a little. His output is impressive: his books in English alone come to more than twenty. It is fair to say that many writers would have stopped writing for a time after producing a book like Terra Nostra, which after all is a kind of summa. (After Gravity's Rainbow Pynchon was quiet for nearly two decades.) Yet Fuentes kept writing, and continues to publish a book every couple of years. This I Believe, his latest, is the first of his collections of non-fiction to appear in English. It is an intriguing book, arranged alphabetically from "Amor" to "Zurich", something of a highly personal encyclopedia, and maybe just the right venture for the writer whose other books wander so naturally among styles-from spooky zones of fantasy (Aura), to parallel histories (The Old Gringo, My Years with Laura Diaz), postmodern stream-of-consciousness (The Death of Artemio Cruz), and the Babel of Spanish and European Modernity (Terra Nostra). Almost all of his work insists on seeing the personal through the lens of the national, the darkly private through the obviously public, the anthropological in terms of the mythic. This I Believe is similarly engaged, putting short essays on love, sex, and death up against suggestively brief takes on Cervantes, Shakespeare, Cinema, Family, Freedom, Globalization, God, Reading and, among other topics, Revolution.
It's no wonder that the books' forms are so restless: Fuentes didn't grow up in any standard way; the child of an ambassador, he himself served as ambassador to France from 1975-77. As his literary fame grew, he came to the U.S., England, France and Spain for stints of teaching, and throughout his life he has written editorials, appeared in documentaries, and, as his book-jackets say, he "divides" his living quarters between Mexico City and London. He is a kind of colossus of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, at home in different worlds, of sensual words, fragmentary stories, academic ideas. As a result, his life encompasses politics as well as floridly invented places and times. He alludes to a wide range of subjects in his writing-from Medieval philosophy to Roman and Mexican history and Spanish culture. He says in more than one place that he believes Kafka is key to understanding the 20th century. He argues that Shakespeare and Cervantes, each of whom mixed genres without concern, are critical to understanding Modern culture. His first wife was an actress in Luis Bunuel films and he came to know Bunuel and admire his genius too. He appears-that most rare thing among writers-to be happy. And as Earl Shorris has pointed out in his big book on Mexico, Fuentes "is the novelist as the world would have the novelist be."
As far as he ranges, Fuentes is Latin American in his tone and in the way he sees history behaving as a dream: the sound of whispered secrets that moves through Aura and The Death of Artemio Cruz is the sound of magic realism, its anthropo-historical mythic projection of world and consciousness, and it is reminiscent of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's tone and Octavio Paz's, all of them at home in the twilight between real and dream, the elastic space between time past and time present. At his best Fuentes seems to be writing from a long time ago, his voice clouding up from somewhere else.
Is it possible, then, that it's his ease with crossover worlds that makes Fuentes seem less at home in the essay? The form of the essay, after all, asks writers to choose between the solid and un-solid, between their own view of experience and the received one-and it asks a writer to choose clearly. "An artist asks questions," Fuentes writes in the essay, "Velazquez". And indeed his own fiction raises more questions than it supplies answers to. In The Death of Artemio Cruz, Fuentes tells the story of a rich and ruthless man's life, backwards and forwards through time and from a variety of points of view. Throughout, transitions are abrupt, unexplained and, in many places, inexplicable. It works perhaps because, as he writes in "Reading", "All one has to do is enter the indigenous world of Mexico to discover, with amazement, the tremendous capacity of its men and women for telling stories and recalling old legends and myths." He says nothing about Mexico's relationship to the non-fiction world of explaining.
What I miss in Fuentes's essays is a connection with the person that an essay can offer. As he takes on "Globalization" (for 15 pages), we encounter his mind, and that is not bad. But in places Fuentes falls back on making generically intellectual propositions, and in these passages we might be reading almost any reflective writer. In the first pages of the essay he backs up to explain first the 20th century's four eras, quoting a Cambridge University scholar and Eric Hobsbawn in the first paragraph. Then he writes, "Having lived through the four eras, I can now state that globalization is the name of a power system." I'm not so sure that I needed the great Carlos Fuentes to bring me this news. By contrast, consider that a masterful essayist like Joan Didion frequently twists notes about her life into her close and gripping explanations of California or America, and comes to conclusions-for instance, that her own psychiatric report parallels the disconnections and fractures of the 1960s in "The White Album". By sheer suggestion she made her medical condition a Rorschach of the age. As an essayist she manages to inject some of the suggestiveness of fiction.
More often than not, reading This I Believe, as confident and smart, and occasionally as personal as it is, I miss some of the ways in which Fuentes pools history and social fact in his fiction. In "Experience", a short essay that alludes to Emerson's 1842 essay of the same title, Fuentes again retreats into texts, previous authorities. In this case it is to the Medieval philosopher, William of Occam, whose "razor" defined our emerging scientific disposition. Fuentes persists, explaining that Occam's rule of thumb about evidence-that the simplest answer is often the truest-starts us down the path of seeing how laws do not always coincide with religious faith or ancient texts, that our regular experience with the world, reported on, written down and studied, turns out to be true even if defined as blasphemy. I wanted the essay to become personal then. I wanted Fuentes the novelist to prove this by way of an observation he had around Mexico City. I wanted something of the feeling of the journals of writers, their hedging way of tracing self and soul on the world: a scratch on the glass that carries with it something of the writer's body-how the world has worked its pencils on him. I wanted to see how he might ply his own razor on himself, as Emerson does in his "Experience". There we begin right away with the writer's mid-life vertigo: "Where do we find ourselves? We wake and find ourselves on a stair; there are stairs below us, which we seem to have ascended; there are stairs above us, many a one, which go upward and out of sight." Soon Emerson is explaining that the death of his son has shown him that the earth resists any deeper meanings.
Occasionally Fuentes tries: "We are on earth because this is where we were born," he writes near the end of "Experience", "and this is where we will die. But we are also in the world, which is not quite the same thing." If only he had continued with this rapt gaze. In another essay, "Sex", he allows some biographical information, if modestly, about the girls he has known. Midway, he redirects himself from thinking about the gifts that women have given him:

"But there were also women who so vividly-perhaps inevitably, perhaps in spite of themselves-embodied a desire that transcended them as individuals, and coalesced in my search for one woman who could encompass them all, yet who was at the same time singularly her own woman. I found her and have lived with her for a quarter century. With the others, it always ended. Each was a constant reminder of the things that could never be mine because they were women who engendered so many things that obeyed their own laws, far beyond the confines of the sexual relationship that was always the moment to leave."

He continues: "It was also the moment to transform them into literature."
The best essays in this collection-none very long or ponderous, thank goodness, despite their learning-show some similar intuition about when to break off from life and take the step into transformative literature. But Fuentes could help us more often with how he slipstreams from life to art (and back), and why he believes, now here, now there, in one over the other.

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