Hotel AmerikaSpecial TransGenre Issue
Past Issues Submit Subscribe Contact Staff Ad Rates

Interview with Carlos Fuentes

Carlos Fuentes, interviewed by Lois Parkinson Zamora
October 11, 2010
Houston, Texas

LPZ: Carlos, your first novel, La region más transparente [translated as Where the Air is Clear], was written in 1958. You most recently translated novel, Destiny and Desire, was published in Spanish in 2008 as La voluntad y la fortuna. Those dates—1958 to 2008--make fifty round years. Did you plan it that way?

CF:  No, not really. It was a very different time in 1958, you know, because we had the great novels of the Mexican Revolution--Mariano Azuela, Martín Luis Guzmán, Rafael Muñoz—but we didn’t have a novel about the city. Mexico City had grown from a small town of 500,000 people to big city of 5 million people by the time I was 25 years old. I asked myself why there wasn’t a novel about this city. Our greatest novels at that time were Pedro Páramo, by Juan Rulfo, Al filo del agua [translated as The Edge of the Storm] by Augustín Yañez—novels of the past, of the Mexican Revolution and its aftermath. There was no great novel about the city, so I thought that I’d write one. It was received with cheers and jeers. Some people loved it and other people hated it. Some thought it was vulgar, that I used improper language and spoke of people who shouldn’t be mentioned in novels. It breached the conventions—the norms—that had prevailed in Mexico for decades.
            Now, fifty years later, it is practically impossible to write a novel about the whole city. It has grown too much. My 1958 city had 5 million people. Today there are 20 million people. It is as large as a country, larger than all of the rest of Central America put together. Now we have novels about neighborhoods in Mexico Cityabout Coyoacán, la colonia Roma, la colonia Cuauhtémoc—because we have to find a space that is understandable. Mexico City as a whole is no longer understandable. It has grown too much. It devours people. It’s ungovernable and yet it’s governed;  it has lights and shadows;  it is such a vast universe that it simply cannot be taken in by one writer. With Destiny and Desire, I decided to go back to an ancient story, the story of Cain and Abel, the warring brothers, and make the city into a reflection of the personal drama of the two brothers, Josué and Jericó.

LPZ:  There are so many characters in each of these novels, but it is really Mexico City that is the living, breathing entity at the center of everything. Your fiction over fifty years traces the astonishing trajectory to which you’ve just referred. What more might be said about Mexico City as a place to live, and as a topic for writers?

CF:  We have a new generation of novelists now, wonderful writers:  the Crack generation—Volpi y Padilla—and younger people—Álvaro Enrigue, Rosa Beltrán—who are giving us a very complicated, composite picture.
            Let me tell you something. Not only in Mexico, but in all of Latin America, the generation that preceded mine had four or five or six great writers:  Borges, Carpentier, Lezama Lima, Rulfo. My generation had about a dozen. Today I can name a hundred Latin American writers, writing in very different styles for very different purposes about a tremendous variety of subjects, characters, settings. You can no longer classify them as you could in the past except from the fact of their diversity. Extreme diversity. What unites a writer like Juan Villoro in Mexico to a writer Arturo Fontaine in Chile to a writer like Santiago Roncagliolo in Peru?  They are very personal writers, very different from each other, and very difficult to classify in a single school as you might with the magical realists or the writers of the Boom. I think that this is a healthy sign.

LPZ: Would you say that a number of them might nonetheless be linked by the idea that you once enunciated in your assertion that “the real historians of Latin America are the novelists”?

CF:  What really unites us is the language, the fact that we speak and write and dream and make love and hate in the Spanish language. I remember a time in this country when, after English, French was the language of preference, and maybe German, but Spanish was not very well considered. I was giving a class may years ago at a college in California, in Los Angeles, and after seeing the students, I suggested that we speak in Spanish because we were all Mexican. Silence. I said “C’mon. Let’s have a question in Spanish.”  Silence. A courageous young girl finally raised her hand and said, “Because Spanish is the language of slaves.”  I said, “The language of Cervantes and Borges and Neruda:  the language of slaves?”   Well, it has changed radically. Today, no one gets elected in the U.S. who doesn’t say something in Spanish.

This is a big, big change in the use—the possession—of Spanish. Our language has become a universal language.  

LPZ:  When I quoted your comment about novelists being the historians of Latin America, I was asking obliquely about the social and political function of literature in Latin America. For example, you were billed this morning on the University of Houston’s PBS radio station as writer, essayist and statesman. Statesmanship has characterized your generation of writers, though maybe less so younger writers. Would you agree that Latin American literature has often been a political and social instrument, and Latin American writers have often been the conscience of governments?

CF:  But that should be true everywhere…

LPZ:  Perhaps, but compare the function of literature in Latin America to its function in the U.S. U.S. literature has never been political as Latin American literature often has been. U.S. writers have had other roles to play--important roles, of course--but different from those of Latin American writers.

CF:  I remember Pablo Neruda, with whom I had a good friendship, saying, “We are the voice that the people do not have. In a continent of illiteracy and poverty, writers say what no one else can say.” 
            This is no longer true. It isn’t true because there have been sweeping social changes in Latin America. How dare I speak for workers today?  For farmers?  I can’t speak for anybody but myself, and hope to have a response from the social classes that have given us more or less democratic governments over that past twenty years. When the dictatorships disappeared--the Pinochets, the Videlas--we took our democratic politics back. People diversified in so many ways—their occupations, their education, their purposes—and writers simply became writers. We’re still connected to the people because you are never disconnected from your country and your people, but people are no longer without a voice and the writer no longer speaks for them in the same way that Neruda intended.
            A writer uses the arms of imagination and language as a profession. We are part of a society, and we choose to be to be a part of that society as a person who uses language and imagination, but we do so as one citizen among many. I think that we have stopped being the voices of the people and have become writers and citizens. This is a more demanding and interesting role in a society that is evolving very rapidly, going toward a future that is very difficult to imagine and that is in constant change—constant, constant change. You cannot say what the future of any Latin American country will be because the changes are so rapid, and the people are so young.
            People ask me about the future of Mexico. Mexico is a country of 110 million people. When I was born, Mexico had 20 million people, the same number of people that Mexico City has now. After the Mexican Revolution, when 1 million people died, there were 14 million, not 15 million, as before. We’ve grown by leaps and bounds. We’re an enormous country with enormous difficulties, enormous problems, and half of our population is 30 years old or less. How can I know what people of 30 years old or less are going to do?  Are they going to find ways do all of the things my country needs to modernize ourselves in a million different ways?  We need to modernize as we haven’t done for decades; there is so much to be done. How to make the vast majority of young people understand that we must work to resolve our long-standing problems or we will have even greater problems in the future?
LPZ:  Does the internet have a role to play in this process?  

CF:  I just saw this movie  . . . what is it called?

LPZ:  The Social Network?

CF:  This is another universe. I don’t belong to that universe. I was brought up with books. I was brought up with the printed word, and I’m at a loss to go beyond that. You know, I don’t even go beyond the FAX machine. I just had to stop there!  I said to myself, my word, if I step beyond the FAX machine and into the internet, I’m going to get lost, and spend most of my time receiving and sending messages and pretending that I am understood when I’m not. I will die reading books!


LPZ:  Your style: your literary style:  in my opinion, it is Baroque. You’ve written about the New World Baroque in a number of essays and in your wonderful book, The Buried Mirror, which is a cultural history of Spain and Spanish America. I use The Buried Mirror as a basic text in my courses on Latin American literature and culture, and I especially emphasize your chapter on “The Baroque Culture of the New World.”  Please tell us about the New World Baroque, and what you consider to be your own relation to it.

CF:  You’re opening one of the biggest topics in our history. We could spend the whole evening talking about this. There is the Baroque of the Old World. The Baroque is Catholicism’s sensuous answer to Protestantism in seventeenth-century Europe. The Protestants built churches without images, without any kind of decoration, without saints, whereas the Catholic Counter Reformation, though politically nefarious, had a dimension to it called the Baroque that engaged the sensuous imagination of Catholicism. European Baroque art and architecture came to the New World, but something happened on the trip. Christianity was offered to the conquered Indians, and then to the African slaves in the New World, and they saw in the Baroque a chance to manifest themselves. The New World Baroque was different from the European Baroque in that it became the avenue of expression for Indians and blacks. If you see the church of Santa María Tonantzintla in Mexico, you see a Christian church given to Indian artisans to decorate. What did they do?  They created a vision of an Indian paradise:  flowers of the tropics, fruits of the tropics, the columns overflowing with figures. All the angels ascend and they are brown skinned; all the devils go to hell, and they are white-skinned Spaniards with big smiles and red beards.

Take another example of the New World Baroque, the Brazilian architect and sculptor Aleijadinho, who was a mulatto. He took the models of the European Baroque and turned it into an expression of the black and mulatto communities of Brazil: the forms, the sensuousness, the unorthodoxy of his architecture is speaking of another culture altogether—the culture of the New World. So we have a very different approach to the Baroque in Latin America from that of Europeans, who consider the Baroque to be a European style confined largely to the seventeenth century. Latin America lived for two centuries under the sign of the Baroque—the churches, the cities, everything!  Then there came a reaction, and it is an understandable one. The French Enlightenment arrived at the end of the eighteenth century. Voltaire denounces Shakespeare as a monster who mixes genres, who has great heights and then enormous falls, enormous vulgarities:  belching, sex, things that should not be in literature.

LPZ:  The rationalism and restraint of Neoclassicism serves as a rebuke to the exuberance and extravagance of the Baroque.

CF:   Yes, Neoclassicism arrives in Latin America with our independence from Spain. The Revolutions of Independence say that they don’t want the Baroque, we don’t want Spain, we don’t want Indians or blacks. We want to be a modern nation designed after the United States and the French Revolution. These are our models, and now we’re going to think like Voltaire and Rousseau and Jefferson and George Washington. So we lived a sham during the nineteenth century. We were going to be what we could not be. We had another history, another culture, other roots. Instead we decided to be Paris or Washington. No! Impossible!  There is a tremendous failure of Latin American governments during the nineteenth century—even the best governments, the liberal governments like Juárez’s in Mexico, had to make great concessions to free markets. The liberal governments of Mexico destroyed the collective land tenure system—the ejido—in favor of private property, because this was what modernity demanded. It was a long story of lying to ourselves, of denying our own traditions.  
            So, when we came back to ourselves, it was with great force:  call it the Baroque if you want. Yes!  Carpentier and García Márquez are extremely Baroque…

LPZ: . . . as are you, most especially in your monumental novel, Terra nostra . . . .

CF:  The Baroque became a way of resurrecting the totality of our past. Our recuperation and revision of the New World Baroque over the course of the twentieth century was our assertion that nothing will be lost from our past. We will not deny anything anymore. We’re not going to be modern or progressive or linear. We cannot…we don’t want to be. We want to be circular, confusing, heaven and hell, with lots of mixtures and messes…

LPZ: Just one last thing:  what about Faulkner?

CF:   Well, you know for us, Latin American literature begins with the Mississippi, with Faulkner.

LPZ:  With the “Dixie Gongorist.”

CF:    Hey, he is a Latin American writer, a Baroque writer. He has nothing to do with Puritanism—with Emerson or Thoreau or Hawthorne. Something else begins with Faulkner. You’re right that Allen Tate called him, very disrespectfully, the Dixie Gongorist. Good God, to be compared to Góngora, one of the greatest poets the world has ever known, as an insult:  we found it fantastic. All of the writers of my generation were inspired by Faulkner. We began writing under the sun and the moon and the dusk and the awakenings of William Faulkner. I think he was the greatest influence in the lives of García Márquez, Vargas Llosa, myself. We read his novels and we felt that our Latin American territory began in Mississippi.

LPZ:  You have kindly given me and my co-editorpermission to translate your essay on William Faulkner in our collection titled Baroque New Worlds. What I appreciate most about your essay is that you include Faulkner in the Baroque tradition that you outlined for us a moment ago. He belongs there.

CF:  In the English tradition, too, there are a number of Baroque writers: Andrew Marvell, John Donne, some of the playwrights, the late plays of Shakespeare . . . .

LPZ:  Yes, but we don’t call them Baroque. The poets you’ve mentioned are labeled metaphysicals and cavaliers. The playwrights are called Elizabethan or Jacobean or Augustan, but not Baroque. Shakespeare is Shakespearean;  Milton is Miltonian. Both have strong Baroque characteristics, as do the writers we group under these other rubrics, but professors and students of English literature look back to the seventeenth century and don’t see the continuities of Baroque styles and substance. This is too bad because it has the effect of separating English literature from what was going on in the rest of Europe, and now it also separates recent U.S.-American literature from what is being written in the rest of the hemisphere. In this sense, labels do matter. Your essay on Faulkner’s Baroque style presents a strong challenge to our Anglo-American isolationism.
Changing the subject: Mario Vargas Llosa, has just received the Nobel Prize. Your thoughts?

CF:  Oh yes, I was very happy about it. I congratulated him immediately. It is a well- deserved prize. He is a great writer. I think that one of the great acts of providence is that he lost the election for president of Perú. If he had won, he would have been caught up in a terrible web of politics.  Instead, he lost to Fujimori and went on writing great, great books. A recent one is about the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic, The Feast of the Goat, and now he has a new novel about the Belgian Congo. He is a very active writer. Richly deserved. I’m very happy about it.

LPZ:   Vargas Llosa’s Nobel Prize thrilled those of us who love Latin American literature, and it gave me the idea to look back over our winners. Gabriel García Márquez, 1982;  Octavio Paz, 1990;  Pablo Neruda, 1970;  Miguel Ángel Asturias, 1967;  Gabriela Mistral, 1945;  and now, of course, Vargas Llosa, 2010. This very impressive list reminds me of a comment that you made a few years ago. You said that the last half of the twentieth century belonged to Latin American literature. Now, with this recognition of Vargas Llosa, we can easily add the first decade of the twenty-first, and I personally believe that there will soon be another distinguished name added to this list:  Carlos Fuentes.

CF:  No, there won’t be. There won’t. The prize is given generationally. In my generation, it has been given to García Márquez and Vargas Llosa. There will be another generation. I forecast that the next Nobel Prize winner from Latin America will be a Mexican poet, José Emilio Pacheco. I tell you right now. Let’s see if I’m right or wrong. Time will tell.

LPZ:  OK. We have a bet!
           Speaking of prizes, we were chatting before you came on stage about a prize given by the Mexican government called the Águila azteca [the Aztec Eagle], awarded to foreigners who have contributed to the life and culture of Mexico. The U.S. gives no such prize.  It doesn’t occur to us to honor foreigners who have enriched our country with their art, or contributed to our nation in other important ways. Carlos, you made a wonderful suggestion.

CF:  Yes, I said that the president of the United States should give a prize every year to an international artist or filmmaker or musician or writer from outside of the United States—a prize to an artist who is not from the United States but who is honored by the United States for his or her contribution to world culture. As you’ve just said, the United States doesn’t do this:  you don’t recognize cultural contributions from abroad. I think that it would be a great idea if President Obama created an international prize to recognize artists and cultures in the rest of the world.

LPZ:  And what you continued to say off-stage was that this prize would be a way of demonstrating that the U.S. has begun to recognize its place in the global community.
Shifting to political issues, the relations between the U.S. and Mexico:  the famous phrase of Porfirio Díaz, president and dictator of Mexico from 1870 to 1910:  “Poor Mexico, so far from God, so close to the United States.”  How true is this in our own time?

CF:  Well, I wouldn’t say that it’s a geographical fatality, but there are no two countries in the world that are more different from each other than Mexico and the United States, and we share one of the longest borders in the world. It has become a very conflicted border, as we know:  the drug trade, crime, walls, and on and on. These are problems we have to address. I’m part of a group that includes former Presidents Cardozo of Brazil, Zedillo of Mexico, and Gaviria of Colombia. We are pushing for the decriminalization of drugs. Obviously, the current policies aren’t working. This failure has created great empires of crime. We need to decriminalize people who use drugs and consider them in terms of health care. Franklin Roosevelt legalized alcohol during his first year in office, and that was the end of Al Capone. There are people who are alcoholics, and there will still be people who take drugs, but nobody will prosper from the drug trade. It has to be done universally. The problem is worldwide;  it cannot be solved in one country and not in others. We must stop enriching criminals and start addressing issues of treatment and care.

LPZ:  Another question:  immigration. I wrote an e-mail to a law professor, Geoff Hoffman, who directs the University of Houston’s Immigration Law Clinic. I asked him what question he would put to you about this subject. He wrote back:  “Immigration reform is about the balancing of interests. Ask Mr. Fuentes how this balance might play out.”

CF:  Yes. This is a problem that has many, many sides to it. First, Mexican workers are in the United States because they’re needed here, or they wouldn’t come. They come here and they do work that others won’t do. We should make a list of the occupations of Mexican workers in the United States, from caring for babies to driving buses to working in factories . . . millions of things. I wish that these people would stay in my country. We have so much to do in Mexico. We have been living in a fool’s paradise in my country.  We say to ourselves:  as long as we have oil, as long as we have tourism, as long as we have workers sending dollars from the United States, why should we do anything more?  This is over!  This is a pipe dream that has come to an end. The price of oil is unstable, tourism is falling off because of the image of Mexico as a dangerous country, and we do not have the workers we need in Mexico to reconstruct our country. We need new highways, new dams, new airports, urban renewal…everything under the sun has to be renewed in Mexico. We’re not doing it because we’re happy with workers sending money from abroad. We should do all we can to retain our workers in Mexico, but those who come to the U.S. should be treated as workers, not criminals.

This is not a problem limited to the U.S. and Mexico. The problem of migration is global. Workers from Africa go to Europe, and Europe is more chauvinistic and dismissive every day. They ask why these workers can’t stay home. They can’t stay home because there are no conditions for decent lives at home: dictatorships, poverty, social and political injustice, caused in part by the neocolonialism of Europe throughout Africa. Why do Russian workers go to China?  It’s a worldwide problem, and it has to be solved with global measures. These measure have to take into account that if you do not develop the countries from which the workers come, then you will continue to have workers who leave those countries. This has to change, and will only change with enormous investment in economic development and political renewal. It’s a huge task, but if we don’t do what we have to do at home, we will continue to depend upon the charity of the countries to which our workers go.
LPZ:  I want to ask a final question about literature. If you had to say which of your own books is your favorite, what would you say?  Is it possible to choose?

CF:  No, no, no, it’s not possible. You’re talking about my children. Some of them are cross-eyed, some of them look like camels, but I still love them. Seriously, they are all part of the same family. A writer tends to see his work as a whole. The novels are different chapters of one work—one work with different chapters. At least, that’s how I see it. I don’t think of myself as writing this book now, and a different one next. No, they’re all interconnected in all their vices and virtues.