- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 6, 2011

By Carlos Fuentes
Translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman
Random House, $27 415 pages

What do Carlos Fuentes, Porfirio Diaz and Senor Wences - Hispanic novelist, Hispanic dictator and Hispanic ventriloquist - have in common? More than you might think. Diaz, the relatively enlightened caudillo who ruled Mexico for half a century, once summed up the plight of his troubled homeland in 12 simple words: “Poor Mexico, so far from God, so close to the United States.”

About 100 years later, Mr. Fuentes, the relatively enlightened Marxist intellectual who has ruled Mexican literature for half a century and, like Diaz, entered his 80s still in command (he was born in 1928) suffers from a similar but not identical plight. Indeed, after reading his latest and in many ways outstanding novel, “Destiny and Desire,” one is tempted to describe him in neo-Porfirian terms: “Poor Carlos Fuentes, so far from God, so close to Senor Wences.”

As to Wences, for readers too young to remember him, he was a Spanish ventriloquist, active into his 80s, whose frequent appearances on “The Ed Sullivan Show” earned him a fleeting measure of television fame in the 1950s, just when the young Mr. Fuentes was developing into a man of letters. One of the mainstays of Wences’ act was a talkative severed head contained in a wooden box. It - the head - offered a terse running commentary on the act as it progressed. The talking head must have made a deep impression on the youthful Carlos because now, in the autumn of his literary patriarchate, he offers us an entire novel narrated by a severed head.

As Josue, the disembodied head in question, explains with commendable precision in a brief prelude: “I look without looking. I’m afraid of being seen. I’m not what you would call a ‘pleasant’ sight. I’m the thousandth severed head so far this year in [crime-plagued] Mexico. I’m one of fifty decapitated heads this week, the seventh today, and the only one in the past three and a quarter hours.”

Josue’s looking without looking and fear of being seen are characteristics he shares with his creator and most of the other leading Latin American novelists dealing in magic realism and other fantasy-heavy allegorical variations on the novelistic form. As pampered members of a small Latin American cultural elite with nominally leftist political views, they seem to have trouble looking their region and its long-suffering masses directly in the eye. Only after decking out their plots with astral presences, caricature totems and a dazzling - or distracting - array of supernatural bells and whistles can they even begin to deal with the very current, very real tragedy that is most of Latin America.

The result, as in the case of “Destiny and Desire,” is often a work that is less than the sum of its parts. Mr. Fuentes, as always, writes fluently, demonstrates an impressive grasp of history and world literature and wields a delightfully wicked sense of humor. He also writes lovingly and beautifully - not the same things - about Mexico’s landscape, history and people. But, like the plot and characters in an elaborately staged grand opera, the people and situations created by Mr. Fuentes seldom achieve a third dimension.

All too often, they are overshadowed by garish wardrobes, bedazzling staging and intrusive orchestration. The damage is mostly self-inflicted. For instance, in what is arguably his most ambitious novel, “Terra Nostra,” Mr. Fuentes described his approach as “synthesizing” the voices of Alexander Dumas the Elder’s “Count of Monte Cristo” and James Joyce in “Ulysses.” As an impressive technical feat, this earned him considerable critical acclaim … but the greatest gift a writer of Mr. Fuentes’ quality can give his public is his own voice, not the artfully invoked echoes of past masters.

Depending on the level at which you read it, “Destiny and Desire” is a grim allegory of a dysfunctional modern Mexico, a personal human drama of despair and betrayal (like Mexico’s history), a rudimentary murder mystery or - and above all - an impressive literary tour de force in which style trumps substance. Even some of the leading characters’ names - Josue and Jerico (“Joshua” and “Jericho”) and Miguel Aparecido (“Michael Ghost”) - make it easier to accept them as symbolic puppets than as real people.

The pity of it is that when Mr. Fuentes mutes the special effects and concentrates on his characters as people, they take on life, color and interest that only a master storyteller can give them. All too soon, however, they are overtaken by the author’s stylistic juggernaut - a vast, iridescent mass of color, sound and fury obscuring most of what is human - and a plot of labored, predictable coincidences worthy of 17th- or 18th-century picaresque novels by Rene Lesage or Henry Fielding. It’s definitely worth reading but is a painful example of a great substantive talent diminished but not destroyed by its own stylistic excesses.

In the end, the ethos of this sad story about an even sadder subject - troubled, tormented Mexico - is best expressed by the disembodied voice of Antigua Concepcion, a ghastly but earthily articulate old termagant speaking from beyond the grave: “Don’t do any wishful thinking. Just try to anticipate catastrophe a little.” If you can handle that prescription, you should find “Destiny and Desire,” for all its flaws, both a challenging and a profound read.

Aram Bakshian Jr., who served as an aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan and as a council member of the National Endowment for the Humanities, writes frequently on politics, humor, history and the arts.

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