Literary Lion

My Father Sergio Munoz Bata’s Friendship With Novelist Carlos Fuentes

Mexico lost a leading novelist when Carlos Fuentes died. But Lorenza Muñoz’s father lost a true friend.

Gary Leonard / Library Foundation of Los Angeles

Carlos Fuentes was many things: acclaimed author, brilliant mind, ambassador to France, literary award winner, and a recipient of France’s Legion of Honor medal and Spain’s Prince of Asturias Award.

But in our family he was something more. He was perhaps my father’s closest friend. For nearly four decades my father, Sergio Muñoz Bata, and Carlos Fuentes saw films together, discussed literature, politics, art, and music, and enjoyed food, wine, and life.

My brother and I often tease our dad about his intellectual pursuits, which are usually way above our understanding. With Carlos he had a friend from the same planet. They could drink a vintage Chateau Margaux while discussing the relationship between Stephen Dedalus and Buck Mulligan or the Critique of Pure Reason, then go off to watch a six-hour retrospective on the films of Rouben Mamoulian, and then go on to dance Cuban rumba guaguanco with beautiful women.

Theirs was a special friendship. It was not unlike the initial childhood friendship between Josue and Jericó in Carlos’s last novel, Destiny and Desire—without it ever turning ugly.

“We discovered we would not permit anyone to inculcate in us opinions that weren’t ours or had not at least been screened by our own critical sense,” writes the protagonist Josue. “Further, we thought our opinions were not opinions alone but doubts as well. This was the firmest ground of our friendship.”

Carlos was a son of privilege. And his demeanor reflected his upbringing—always elegant, a gentleman who wore well-cut suits and spoke impeccable English, Spanish, and French. But he was also chic and hip and sexy. Women swooned over him.

It was through his first wife, the actress Rita Macedo, that my father met him in the 1960s. My dad was dating Rita’s daughter at the time. Carlos and Dad bonded one night as they discussed the merits of one of Balzac’s novels. My father dared to say it was boring. Carlos revered Balzac and shot back by quoting the French philosopher Michel Butor: “Judging Balzac by one novel is like judging the monument Vezelay by one rock.”

If Balzac was France’s urban realist, Carlos was Mexico’s.

He lived among the homeless and Mexico’s impoverished to write his first novel, Where the Air Is Clear, at age 29. It was a breakthrough novel where the protagonist is Mexico City itself, a mysterious, massive, fascinating, and complex place that lent itself perfectly to narrate a truly modern novel.

His next novel, The Death of Artemio Cruz, shattered the old notions of a revolutionary novel. It is from the perspective of a Mexican cacique on his deathbed. Carlos’s prose was always forceful, brutal in its realism. In the opening of Artemio Cruz, you can taste, smell, and feel death surrounding this decrepit man.

“I wake up…The touch of that cold object against my penis wakes me up. I didn’t know I could urinate without being aware of it. I keep my eyes shut. I can’t even make out the nearest voices. If I opened my eyes, would I be able to hear them? But my eyelids are so heavy: two pieces of lead, coins on my tongue, hammers in my ears, a…a something like tarnished silver in my breath. It all tastes metallic.”

Carlos’s Mexico City home was the first stop for anyone of literary or cultural importance. Mexico at the time was in expansion, full of possibility and hope. Every Sunday at 4 p.m., his guests would arrive for salons that included the likes of William Styron and playwrights Jack Gelber and Arthur Kopit, not to mention Mexican notables like Elena Garro, a poet who was married to Octavio Paz, director Arturo Ripstein, and of course, Carlos’s fellow novelist and a Colombian member of the so-called Latin American Boom generation, Gabriel García Marquez.

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“Fuentes was the door that opened Mexico to the world,” my dad said.

When my dad went to London to study film, Carlos invited him to dinner. Dad stayed three months. Carlos would wake at 6 a.m. and be at his desk by 8 a.m. He would write four to six hours and then eat. In the afternoon he would read. He did this every day with such extraordinary discipline that my dad said he was “the only Mexican with a Protestant ethic.”

Carlos was also a generous man. When I wrote my first novel, he read it and sent back a fax (he did not do email and always wrote longhand) with such words of encouragement that he kept me writing, despite rejections and my own self-criticism. When he signed his last novel for me, he wrote, “For Lorenza, my colleague and friend, from Carlos.”

I often read his words as a reminder. It is as Nina in The Seagull says to Kostya, “in our kind of work, whether we’re writers or actors, the important thing is not fame, or glory…but learning how to endure.”

My dad and Carlos had another thing in common: their repulsion at sentimentality. They never talked about the deaths of Carlos’s two children, Carlos and Natasha. What could you possibly say about such tragedies? It was unspoken and understood. My mom and dad would always get a call when Carlos and his beautiful wife, Silvia Lemus, were in Los Angeles, where my parents now live. Their lunches or dinners would stretch for hours.

On the day Carlos died, my dad was in China. I woke him at 4 a.m. to tell him the bad news. He was groggy from sleep, but then the sadness weighed in.

“Are you OK?” I asked.

“Yes. I’m fine,” he said, and then he was silent.

“Maybe it was his generation, but there aren’t people like him anymore. That brilliance and that human warmth…” his voice trailed off. “There will never be someone like him I can talk to. He was a friend in the truest sense of the word.”