When the Mexican author Carlos Fuentes died Tuesday at age 83, a light went out in Latin America. Prolific and poised, and relentlessly energetic, Fuentes published his first novel, Where the Air Is Clear, at age 29, and never stopped.
Over the next half century, he tried his hand at every genre, moving seamlessly between novels, short stories, plays, essays, and newspaper columns by the kilo. When a few years ago, Mario Vargas Llosa challenged a group of fellow authors each to choose a Latin American dictator to write about, Fuentes responded with an opera about the 19th-century Mexican strongman Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, who led the siege against the rebels at Alamo.
“He was a universal man who knew many literatures in many languages, and lived his life committed to the great cultural problems of our times,” Vargas Llosa wrote on his website Tuesday.
A scholar both of history and letters, Fuentes taught at a number of U.S. universities and wrote frequently about the failings of Mexico’s dreams of social justice after the revolution, most poignantly in The Death of Artemio Cruz, a title that won him a critical following in the United States and Europe. Though Octavio Paz preceded him as Latin America’s internationally acclaimed man of letters, Fuentes became something more, a public intellectual who moved easily among the bright and powerful in London, Paris, and New York.
“Fuentes was a totally political animal,” says Ilan Stavans, a Mexican writer and scholar of Latin America literature at Amherst College. “In many ways, he was the first Mexican with global reach.”
Fuentes also was a crucial figure in “El Boom,” the period in the 1960s and 1970s when talented writers like Colombia’s Gabriel García Márquez, Vargas Llosa of Peru, and Argentina’s Julio Cortázar, surged to international attention with vivid, often fantastical tales set in lushly rendered historical or exotic settings.
Fuentes studied law and economics in Mexico and in Europe. He was a polyglot, speaking fluent French and flawless English, having spent much of his childhood in Washington, where his father was assigned as a Mexican diplomat. He followed his father’s lead, serving a number of posts in the foreign service, including as Mexico’s ambassador to London and to Paris, though he never made a secret of his politics. He quit the foreign service in protest when the Mexican government dispatched troops to crush a student rebellion in 1968, returning years later to become ambassador to France.
A lifelong leftist, and sometime admirer of Fidel Castro, Fuentes had allegiances that won him no friends in Washington, which denied him entry to the United States for some years. Later, when Cold War resentments thawed, he became a familiar figure in America, lecturing at Harvard, Dartmouth, Princeton, and the University of Pennsylvania, and was feted by politicians and intellectuals alike—all the more so when he published a collection of articles, Against Bush, trashing the presidency of George W. Bush.
Ironically as he was feted abroad, he left many Mexicans cold. “He was seen as a master at packaging Mexico and selling it to the outside world, and perverted it to fit their needs,” says Stavans. “Many of his books have been forgotten.”
That may be because his country outgrew him. For all its drive and elegance, Fuentes’s prose belongs to a world that may no longer exist. “The Mexico of his novels looks like a Diego Rivera mural,” says Stavans, referring to the early 20th-century modernist artist known for his giant, politically themed murals. “It’s devoted to issues of identity and filled with archetypes, a people still struggling with its indigenous and European pasts.” Though Fuentes’s tales are bursting with strong women, often the characters are flat, and secondary, stereotypically prostitutes, mothers, or saints.
If such a cast and script seem shallow in jolting, complex contemporary Mexico, Fuentes’s representation of his country was a hit abroad. “He took seriously his role as ambassador for Mexico,” says Stavans. “The country till then was seen as an awkward, primitive people, not yet a member of modernity.” Fuentes helped change that image, presenting a stereotyped but proud nation, and perhaps the ultimate tribute to him is that Mexicans have since moved on.
“The Mexico of his novels looks like a Diego Rivera mural.”
In politics, too, he clung to his beliefs even as the cultural ground shifted below his feet. While fellow writers Paz and Vargas Llosa moved to the center-right, and left-wing García Márquez has fallen largely silent with age, Fuentes to the end remained vociferously a man of the left.
In his last newspaper column, published in the Mexican daily La Reforma the day he died, Fuentes penned a heartfelt endorsement of the change of government in France, dismissing the “pettiness” of the outgoing President Nicolas Sarkozy and roundly hailing the return of a bold thinking socialist, François Hollande, to power.
“Within limits, socialism has been able to demonstrate what the right never even thought of doing,” Fuentes wrote. It’s an epitaph he may well have chosen as his own.