- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 19, 2005

THIS I BELIEVE: AN A TO Z OF A LIFE

By Carlos Fuentes

Random House, $26.95, 331 pages

REVIEWED BY BART MCDOWELL

Carlos Fuentes, the grand old man of Mexican letters, is now a candidate for the Nobel Prize. This book is his campaign biography. After all, the Nobel Prize for literature is more political than artistic. And Mr. Fuentes is running artfully with the right — meaning left — political tilt, sure to find favor in that secular Vatican, the Nobel committee.

This highly readable batch of essays and memoirs is something of a scrapbook: uneven, often thought-provoking, sometimes just provoking. Mr. Fuentes drops more names than the telephone directory. He includes quotations from, and references to, Great Thinkers and icons of pop culture. And the subjects of his essays range in alphabetical order from Amor to Zurich. Scattered throughout are autobiographical snippets of Mr. Fuentes’ life, some of them poignant, others embarassing.

He is consistently anti-U.S.A.: “I have never appreciated generalizations regarding my country or any other…(with the one exception of the United States: I am, after all, Mexican)… .”

“I detest Washington… .Washington is nothing but a cemetery that stretches out toward the vast nothingness of Highway 1, that runs from the Atlantic to the Pacific.” Mr. Fuentes may have a faulty highway map, but it is the sentiment that counts. With the Nobel Committee.

At the age of 76, Mr. Fuentes may feel himself on the actuarial firing line. He has watched his fellow Latin Americans, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Octavio Paz, receive the Nobel laurels, and he even describes, wistfully, his encounter with Thomas Mann in 1950, “dignified man of letters, Nobel Prize winner, septuagenerian.” So much like Carlos Fuentes.

Mr. Fuentes reminds us of his body of work. As though re-cycling his yesteryear manuscripts, he quotes from his own past prose: “The Years With Laura Diaz,” “The Five Suns of Mexico,” “The Old Gringo,” “Where The Air Is Clear.” He is good. Very good. Perhaps more deserving of a Nobel than many a past recipient.

He has had a good life. Like many dedicated leftists, he had a privileged upbringing. His father was a Mexican diplomat, so young Carlos, born in Panama, grew up in Washington, Santiago, Chile, and Buenos Aires. His father went on to serve the Mexican Ministery of Foreign Affairs in The Hague, Rome, and Lisbon. Early on, young Carlos became a man of the world. And from his father, the boy learned to read widely, and to dream.

His mother was the practical manager, the one who represented the “dignity and formality of the home.” Each year she drove the family Buick from Washington to Mexico, “enduring the heat, the racial discrimination in Texas (‘no dogs or Mexicans allowed’)” and providing the clean clothes, the school schedules, and order for a diplomatic family. At the age of 94, “achy but every bit herself,” she confessed to her son, “I have one disappointment in life. I would have liked to pilot a plane.”

The boy’s paternal antecedents, of German background, “hailed from the city of Darmstadt.” The scope of famly interests equipped young Carlos for the life he has led. “We were a happy family,” he writes, “if, to someone like Tolstoy, perhaps, not a terrifically interesting one.” I would differ. Some of his relatives sound like characters from a Russian novel: Feisty widowed grandmothers, bibliophiles living in strange ports, even a grandfather who “mysteriously contracted the most feared of diseases, leprosy.” And so on.

What a life it has been. Glamorous. For a time, he served his country as ambassador to France. In his chapter — or alphabetical segment — called Bunuel (after the film director), he mentions that his first wife, Rita Maceda, was a member of the cast of the film “Nazarin.” His friendship with Bunuel lasted; the marriage did not.

Here he discusses the idea of religious temperament without religious faith. And the famous, ironic quotation: “I am an atheist, thank God.” He discusses his “incomparable friend” and the hours he spent with him in Mexico, Paris, and Venice, always with a glass of their drink: half English gin and equal parts of Carpano and sweet vermouth. The drink sounds awful, the friendship great.

One of the most moving parts of the quasi-memoir is Fuentes’ tribute to his wife Silvia. “If all the women I have known could be encapsulated in one…Silvia is the galaxy itself… .I am the most punctual man in the world and she always arrives, punctually, late. This is part of her charm. To be waited for. The European of the seventeenth century hoped that death would arrive from Spain, so that it would arrive late.

“A couple can never know which person will outlive the other… .The one who survives will always be a delegate of death rather than simply grieving… .Sexuality necessarily implies death because reproduction signifies eventual disappearance from earth… .Every night I leave an invisible note on her pillow that says, ‘I like you.’”

They have had their trials, including every parent’s nightmare, the loss of a child. They were living on a farm in Virginia when the boy took his first steps and bruises began to appear all over his body. He was suffering from hemophilia, the genetic defect that prevents blood from coagulating. Enormously precocious, the youngster won international attention with his drawings at age five. He turned to music and poetry and film. He was “gifted with an intuition that was both wonderful and terrible,” and spent the last night of his life “…phoning his friends all over the world, telling them about his plans to finish his movie, publish his book of poems, exhibit his artwork, telling them he was happy, strong, full of creativity, in love with his girlfriend… .” The next morning, he collapsed with a fatal pulmonary infarction. He was 25.

Throughout the book, Mr. Fuentes has scattered aphorisms and factoids:

Brazilians sometimes refer to their country as “Belinda” — part Belgium, part India.

Pessimism is defined as “well-informed optimism.”

“…Experience, like Galileo’s earth, moves… .”

“Pascal’s Pensees were…found sewn inside an old shirt.”

“Poe…was Stalin’s preferred writer (a case of power fascinated by torture and terror).”

“Roosevelt, the aristocrat from Hyde Park, New York, was a renegade, a cripple, and possibly even a Jew.”

A reader should remember that Mr. Fuentes is an accomplished writer of fiction, and many of his statements are more inventive than informative. Take, for example, his attempts to be even-handed. He denounces the “tribunals of Vishinsky and McCarthy.” This was a “symmetrical reflection…of witch hunts.” McCarthy tribunals?

His hobgoblin today is globalization, “the name of a power system. Just like the Holy Spirit, it has no boundaries.” He asks, “Can the political world resume control over the anarchy of the markets?” What is “most necessary is a state that can regulate and establish standards.” Regulate, not liberate. “Will it be possible to socialize the global economy? Yes, I think it will.”

The author is at his best when he romps through the flowers of literature. Consider his comments on travel: “…trips around my room, trips to the center of the earth, the trips made by Ulysses and Phileas Fogg, but also the trips of Proust’s narrator and Kafka’s insect: displacements toward the lighthouse, the magic mountain, but also behind Alice’s looking glass and into the garden of forked paths.”

What a splendid prospect of places that a relaxed Carlos Fuentes can take us, after he has paid the Nobel price and won the Nobel Prize.

Bart McDowell is a former editor of National Geographic.

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