May 16, 2012

Hail & Farewell: Carlos Fuentes


Carlos Fuentes, 1928-2012

Carlos Fuentes, perhaps Mexico’s most celebrated writer, died on Tuesday in Mexico City. He was 82.

Fuentes influence on Mexican literature was enormous, and along with Gabriel García Márquez, Mario Vargas Llosa and Julio Cortazar he brought South American literature to international acclaim in the 1960s and 70s.

Fuentes’ career was somewhat overshadowed by another leading Mexican writer, the poet Octavio Paz, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1990. The two writers had a very public rivalry that left both of their reputations diminished. From the New York Times obituary:

The two became friends in 1950, when Mr. Paz published his landmark work on Mexican identity, The Labyrinth of Solitude. They grew closer as they worked together on several literary projects, but by the mid-1980s their political opinions had started to differ. Mr. Fuentes supported the Sandinistas, the leftist rebel group in Nicaragua, but Mr. Paz, who had more conservative views, condemned them. Then, in 1988, the literary magazine Vuelta, which Mr. Paz directed, published an article that was fiercely critical of Mr. Fuentes, accusing him of lacking true Mexican identity. That set off a bitter and often public feud that lasted until Mr. Paz died in 1998.

Fuentes’ father, who was a diplomat, originally wanted his son to be a lawyer instead of a writer. He studied law in Switzerland and Mexico City, using his free time to write. In 1958, at the age of 29, he published his first novel Where The Air Is Clear to instant success and acclaim.

Always outspoken, Fuentes’ political beliefs caused him constant scandal. As a communist in he was banned from the United States until 1967. Afterwards he held numerous teaching positions at Ivy League institutions.

The lifting of the ban would not be his last political hurdle. As his politics became more moderate, he also served in Mexico’s foreign service, including a stint as ambassador to England. But Fuentes was not one to back down from a position, and he resigned from the foreign service more than once in political disputes. He refused awards and positions if they conflicted with his political beliefs. This of course led to conflict and in one case an extended ban on one of his best works. From the Los Angeles Times obituary:

Fuentes resigned from the foreign service again in 1977 when former President Gustavo Diaz Ordaz was appointed ambassador to Spain, saying he wouldn’t serve with the man who ordered the student massacre in Mexico City, which activists said killed up to 350 people.

A believer that literature allowed him to say what would be censored otherwise, Fuentes also was the subject of censorship.

His mystery novel Aura, which narrates a romantic encounter beneath a crucifix with a black Christ that some officials claimed was too racy, was banned from public high schools in Puerto Rico. It also sparked controversy in Mexico in 2001 when a former interior secretary asked the novel to be dropped from a suggested reading list at his daughter’s private junior high school.

Carlos Fuentes was a perennially on the list of contenders Nobel Prize for Literature but never received one, although he did win the Cervantes Prize, the Spanish-speaking world’s most prestigious award . He is survived by his daughter Cecilia Fuentes Macedo and wife Silvia Lemus. Fuentes never wrote a memoir because, as he said once in an interview: “One puts off the biography like you put off death. To write an autobiography is to etch the words on your own gravestone.”


Paul Oliver is the marketing manager of Melville House. Previously he was co-owner of Wolfgang Books in Philadelphia.