|Carlos Fuentes, at home in Mexico, 2001 (Henry Romero/Reuters)|
Fuentes held, I believe, an august chair for visiting writers, and taught a lecture course that permitted him to expound, in magisterial fashion, on all sorts of subjects. The specifics, I must admit, I do not remember. But I vividly recall how he would hold forth, in each class, on stage before a vast crowd, how he wove together a narrative that seemed to capture everything in its net, how he looked and acted the part of an international man of letters, of the engaged writer, which he had been and still was. Tall, handsome, witty, able to range across languages, to cite authors and ideas without recourse to notes, no name dropper but someone who actually knew and had worked with the people he was invoking, he truly loomed larger than life. I had no idea at that time that he'd been a Communist in his youth and a supporter of Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution, though I did know his general ideological orientation was on the left, and that his work, as in Where the Air Is Clear and The Death of Artemio Cruz, openly critique the Mexican elite and governing classes, as well as Mexican history itself. But Fuentes had gone much further; a diplomat from 1965 on, he resigned as Ambassador to the UK to protest the 1968 massacre of students in Mexico City, and left the foreign service in 1977 to protest the appointment of Gustavo Díaz Ordaz, the president of Mexico during the 1968 assault, as Ambassador to Spain. Morever, Fuentes refused the 1972 Mazatlán Literature Prize to protest the Mexican state of Sinoloa's actions against students at the State University of Sinaloa. (Such actions sparked criticism within Mexico's commentariat; in 1988, writer Enrique Krauze deemed Fuentes the "guerilla dandy.") I don't think he ever mentioned any of this in his lectures, but it was clear that he stood against dictators and democratically-enabled tyrants both (and this included not only Mexico's long dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party and its leaders, but Hugo Chávez of Venezuela and George W. Bush as well), and that literature, even if seemingly not overtly political, might stand as a bulwark against both. As I said, the specifics of the course I have mostly forgotten, but the model he set is one I have taken to heart, even if I have not thus far been able to come anywhere close to it.
One of my favorite Carlos Fuentes stories entails something I did not personally witness, but which I heard and have recounted many times to fellow writers and to students to let them know that, when they feel they are so deep in a poem or story or novel chapter they almost feel they're in another world, that it's perfectly okay. It may be utterly apocryphal, but bear with me nevertheless. Supposedly Fuentes was visiting Rome, perhaps on vacation, and was in his room in the middle of the day. The chambermaid came to clean the room, and as she approached the door, she could hear raised voices, and then what sounded like a violent argument. A man was yelling, passionately, and then his voice fell to a normal tone, and then another voice, likely a woman's, responded, with fury. This went on for a while, the voices going back and forth, the tempest between them such that the worker thought twice about knocking, let alone opening the door. She also wondered whether she ought contact the concierge, or security, so passionate were the exchanges at certain points. Other guests staying on the hall paused momentarily at the brouhaha, and went on their way. But finally the voices died down, and she proceeded to rap on the door to find out if she could enter. The gentleman who opened the door beckoned her in. The chambermaid, expecting to see a woman seated somewhere in the room, in a chair, on the bed, peering at the man from an interior doorway, saw instead only him, and a sheaf of papers, on the bedspread, some of them fanned out as just tossed down. The man was clutching a few. The chambermaid asked the gentleman if everything was okay, for she had accidentally overheard a fiercesome quarrel. The gentleman smiled and reassured her that all was fine. There was only he in the room; the quarrel was his reading through his novel, still underway, his voice animating those of the characters. This gentleman, this writer, was Carlos Fuentes.
|Carlos Fuentes, Union Sq., 1995 (AP Photo/Rick Maiman, File)|
Fuentes, one of the pilots of the Boom movement in Latin American literature, which placed numerous fictional works from across the Hispanophone global south on the literary landscape, was tipped to win the Nobel Prize in Literature several times; his compatriot, the poet Octavio Paz, did win it, in 1990, as did Fuentes's friend, García Márquez, in 1982, but the great Mexican fiction writer did not. (Instead, the most recent Hispanophone writer to receive the award was the right-leaning Mario Vargas Llosa, of Peru, in 2010.) Not that this oversight stopped Fuentes. He kept pouring forth fiction, essays, occasional pieces, everything, publishing the English translation of his 2003 novel, The Eagle's Throne (La Silla del Águila) last year, and an essay on the French election in Mexico's Reforma newspaper the day he died. His finest works, and the example he set, both in his fiction and criticism, and as a public literary and cultural figure, an ambassador of the word in the fullest sense, will endure. So too will his importance to the literature of his country, a multifaceted portrait of Mexico taking shape in and through his works, and to all writing across Latin America, and the Americas. Carlos Fuentes passed away in a hospital in Mexico City on Tuesday. He was 83 years old.
What do I mean? One of the techniques Brooke-Rose played with was the lipogram. In the hands of a number of writers affiliated with the Ouvroir de littérature potentielle (Oulipo), this lipogrammatic technique, of leaving out a letter, say, across an entire work, presented a constraint that they could nevertheless resolve. Thus there's the famous example of Georges Perec's La disparution (A Void), which eschews the most frequently used letter in the French language, "e"--which is also, interestingly enough, the most frequently used letter in English as well. (In the prior sentence alone, "e" appears 32 or so times.) Quite a challenge. But Brooke-Rose extended the lipogram to the grammatical level, and thus in her novel Between, which explores the experiences of a translator, she leaves out the most common verb in the English language, which happens to be the verb..."to be." That is, the copulative verb ("I am a writer," "She's hungry," "Are you there?" etc.), also used for the past voice ("I was led to believe you had emailed me"), progressive tenses ("We're heading there now"), and so forth, one of those English language tools, learned at the earliest stages of language acquisition, to which a speaker and writer learns she can attach a subject and predicate and turn anything into a sentence--is missing, in this entire novel. Note of course the multilayered irony of a novel about a translator, a woman trapped between languages (and names, places, everything) without recourse to the very verb--the grammatical form signifying action-- that elementally connects and binds in most European languages, titled "Between."
Her own account of her life is worth savoring, so I'll offer a few points that suggest another reason both for her linguistic curiosity and for her lack of attention. Brooke-Rose was born in Geneva, Switzerland, to an English father and an American-Swiss mother, and grew up mostly in Brussels, Belgium--think of all the languages she was coming into contact with--where she received her education, later heading to Somerville College, Oxford University and University College, London. Already gifted with linguistic ability, she worked as a Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) in intelligence at Bletchley Park, the UK's main decryption center during World War II, and after the war's end, completed her degree, married, and worked as a journalist and author. Divorced in 1968, she took a position teaching at the University of Paris-Vincennes, the radical, experimental campus outside Paris, and taught there till 1988. Throughout this period, she published steadily and with no loss of imaginative daring, though her only major award came in 1966, when she received the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Such.
I do know that in her equally heartbreaking collection of essays, Invisible Author: Last Essays, which, after I finished it, I believe I had to run and call Tisa B. I was so struck by the frustration infusing it, Brooke-Rose points out how almost none of her academic critics ever seemed to be able to figure out what she was doing, instead noodling off on one or other points. She even laid this at the doorstep of a champion, Hélène Cixous, about whom I'll say no more. Instead, I urge people to read Brooke-Rose, perhaps beginning with Remake and Life, End Of (which leave out the pronoun "I"), and then, Out and Textermination. If you dare take up her dare, keep jumping around her fiction after that. Your brain will get a workout, a very good one. And you'll keep the memory of her dazzling originality, sadly too little heralded, alive.