Carlos Fuentes With Others
By David Carrasco
The death of Carlos Fuentes brings to mind a book and a photograph. The book is his Myself with Others and recounts the many borders he crossed –geographical, linguistic, cultural, genre,- and the creative connections he made with other writers, countries, cultures and imaginations. The photograph, taken at his home in 1995, shows him elegantly dressed and an expression of intrigue and amazement. He is seated between his best friend Gabriel García Márquez and his new friend Toni Morrison. He looks immensely pleased to be in the company of Morrison, giving her his full attention.
I first met him when he came to hear me give a lecture on The Old Gringo at the Novel of the Americas conference. “We’ve lived parallel lives, David” he said generously, referring to how his father’s career had taken him across borders and into contact with many cultures. He had been born in Panama and spent some formative years in Washington D.C. resulting, he wrote in becoming “perhaps the first and only Mexican to prefer grits to guacamole”. His adolescence was more global than mine-than most of ours-for he also lived in Chile, Buenos Aires, and Zurich, and these early encounters led to his striving to be a universal writer, a heroic global force.
What drew me to him through The Old Gringo was what he wrote about crossing interior frontiers as well as political borders. As the Mexican protagonist speaks of crossing frontiers, he touches his heart, provoking the old gringo to say “There’s one frontier we only dare to cross at night…The frontier of our differences with others, of our battles with ourselves.”
Fuentes was the whole package-that is the real secret of his particular fame and significance. A great writer of novels, a fine essayist, university professor, dashing diplomat, and critic of governments, he was also the best public speaker of all the Latin American writers. This combination of talents led to him becoming a living symbol and widespread communicator of the literary creativity of Latin America. It was his destiny to live and write during what is called the Latin American “Boom”, when between 1946 and today six Latin American writers won Nobel Prizes for literature. Pablo Neruda, García Márquez, Jorge Luis Borges, and Octavio Paz became international icons. It can be argued that it was Fuentes’ literary brilliance and personal charisma that helped push back some of the world’s ignorance and sometimes disdain for Latin Americans and their imaginations. He could speak in English and French with the same eloquence and power with which he spoke and wrote Spanish. I remember a tour de force lecture that he gave in 1992 in the Glenn Miller Ballroom at the U of Colorado on the geography of the novel in Latin America. His talk was full of names, a panorama of Latin American writers’ names and I marveled ‘This is probably the first time in the history of any university in the U.S. where that many Latin American names had been spoken in public.’ He filled the ears of 1500 people with new accents and the literary lineages of their future. He wasn’t simply dropping names-he had read them and knew most of them personally.
Fuentes loved being with others because he drew energy from their words and faces and he enjoyed dazzling people with his language and imagination. But when people call him ‘cosmopolitan’ they miss the points he repeatedly made about the trauma of frontiers, how European dreams became destructions in Latin America that also resulted in the “most original and urgent creativity” of cultural exchange. In Latin America ‘we have to imagine the past and remember the future’ he said, reversing the conventional formula. Imagination was crucial because cultures, libraries, lineages and peoples were damaged – memory is not enough. As he wrote in This I Believe: From A to Z the long drive to the globalized world was made up of, not cosmopolitans, but “a multiplicity of encounters between the indigenous, the European, the African.”
We spoke last year just prior to Toni Morrison’s 80t birthday. I had been asked to give one of the tributes for Toni and I called Carlos to ask if he wished to send a word of greeting in memory of that dinner years ago. “I’ve just turned 81, David, and tell Toni that the 80’s are the best decade. After all, we are still alive and loving it.” He preferred to be surprised by death rather than suffer in decline, embracing the pure pleasure of being alive, soaking life in as a participant and not as an observer.
Carlos passed away in Mexico City last week, a city which he wrote in Where the Air is Clear was built “in the true image of a gigantic heaven.” Because of the way he lived we can believe that his spirit has ample room to roam, always with others.
Note: This obituary was published in the Boston Globe on May 23, 2012.