Carlos Fuentes and Nationalist Writing [A Month of a Thousand Forests]
I’m going to start off today’s Month of a Thousand Forests entries with Carlos Fuentes—one of the greatest writers of all time.
When I was at Dalkey Archive, we reprinted a few of his novels, including Where the Air Is Clear and Terra Nostra, which is excerpted below. I don’t love all of Fuentes’s books, but those two are damn near perfect. And complicated as shit. Terra Nostra is the opposite of a “beach book.” And it is all-consuming and amazing.
I’m using these bits from his ATFIOA interview mostly because I like what he says about writing about your home country (or not) and all the stuff he did for the younger generation of writers.
Again, order A Thousand Forests in One Acorn now from the Open Letter site with the code FORESTS, and you’ll get it for only $15.
Your life has brought you to live in many different countries and have to communicate in many different languages. How has that affected you as a writer?
I was very privileged in having that kind of childhood, living in Mexico and then in Chile and Argentina—so it was very broad. But I was also anchored in a very nationalist period of Mexican writing, when literature was considered national, and writers had to be national. I remember when Alfonso Reyes, our great polygraphist, was attacked by these nationalistic minions saying “you talk about Greece, why don’t you talk about Mexico?” And it demonstrated that he also talked about Mexico, but that they hadn’t read him. Now that has evaporated, it is no longer consequential. The younger generation of Mexican writers can write about Germany or Russia or whatever they feel with no obligation to the Mexican nation. But let’s go beyond that, I think what you have are writers, you have Günter Grass, Nadine Gordimer, you have Juan Goytisolo or Philip Roth, who happen to write in this or that language or have this or that nationality but who are no longer simply a part of a nationalistic canon. Thankfully, because it was very limiting and noxious I think. So I take pride in myself that, because of my upbringing, I was outside of that kind of nationalistic feeling. I got battered for it when I began writing, they said “Oh, he doesn’t write about Mexico, he writes about witches and silly things” and then I wrote a very Mexican novel, the La región más transparente, and they said “Oh he only writes about Mexico because he doesn’t know about anything else.” What you learn with life is that you don’t bother about what people say, you write for yourself and for your grandmothers wherever they are and don’t worry a bit about the public’s criticism. I feel extremely independent in that sense and very linked to friends of mine who are also writers and who are writers beyond their nationality and often their politics sometimes. I still admire Borges as a writer, for example.
You have been very generous to the younger generations, often providing means and refuge from when you were living in Paris through today.
Literature doesn’t belong to anyone. We belong to a tradition. I think there’s a very straight relationship between creation and tradition. You create in order to prolong the tradition and the tradition gives you the tools for the new creation. So that always puts you in a line with previous authors and coming authors. I think it may be egotistical in helping so many young authors because without them where would I be? I know so many figures who, because of their isolation, have disappeared and I really have a great admiration for many young writers and give them a hand if I can. In Paris in 1960 there were only four Mexican authors published, Mariano Azuela, Los de abajo, Octavio Paz, El laberinto de la solidad, Juan Rulfo, Pedro Páramo and myself. I went to the Paris bookfair two years ago, where Mexico was the guest of honor, and there were 42 Mexican authors published in France, and that doesn’t include authors from the rest of Latin America. There are some 500 interesting writers in Latin America now, which is extraordinary. So what happened? First, we won independence from Spain so we had to cut everything that seemed Spanish. We had to imitate Europe and the United States, so we had a lot of realism, a lot of naturalism, a lot of Mexican nanas floating around. Then many events happened; there was Borges, I think Borges was very, very important in saying you could write whatever you want. Anything that comes into your head, literature is open. Many people don’t realize that he is a descendent of Machado de Assis. And then there was Carpentier and Lezama Lima and Onetti, who was very important, and then the younger writers Cortázar, García Márquez, Vargas Llosa, and myself. So the whole spectrum opened and each generation provided ten or twelve new writers. Besides, we felt we had the obligation to say what had not been said. Novels were prohibited by the Spanish crown during the time of the colonies, no novels were written. Then we had this imitative literature during the nineteenth century. So we had a lot of things to say that had not been said. We said it, so now the younger generation doesn’t have that obligation and they write about what is happening today. You cannot classify them, you cannot say this is the subject matter, this is what they are representing. They are representing the variety of contemporary Latin American culture. Pablo Neruda told me that we all have an obligation to our peoples, we go around with the Mexican or the Chilean people on our backs and we must write for them because they have no other voice. Today that isn’t true anymore. There is press, there is congress, there are political parties, there are unions, so now if you speak publicly it is because you want to, and not because you are obliged to do it. And you respect those people who don’t speak in public. So it is a much more modern and creative setup where you are not constrained by dogma or by allegiances that are alien to literature.
They left Spalato before the anticipated time. Three times Ludovico had returned alone to the beach; each time he found there, unerased, the gypsy’s footprints. They traveled to Venice, a city where stone and water retain no trace of footsteps. In that place of mirages there is room for no phantom but time, and its traces are imperceptible; the lagoon would disappear without stone to reflect it and the stone without water in which to be reflected. Against this enchantment there is little the transitory bodies of men—solid or spectral, it is the same—can do. All Venice is a phantom: it issues no entry permits to other phantoms. There no one would recognize them as such, and so they would cease to be. No phantom exposes itself to such risk.
They found lodging in the ample solitudes of the island of La Giudecca; Ludovico felt reassured, being near the Hebraic traditions he had studied so thoroughly in Toledo, even though not sharing all their beliefs. The coins Celestina had sent by hand of the monk Simón had been exhausted in the last voyage; Ludovico inquired in the neighborhoods of the ancient Jewry where many refugees from Spain and Portugal had found asylum, as he now did, whether anyone had need of a translator; laughing, everyone recommended he cross the broad Vigano canal, disembark at San Basilio, walk along the estuaries of the shipwrights and sugar merchants, continue past the workshops of the waxworkers, cross the Ponte Foscarini, and ask for the house of a certain Maestro Valerio Camillo, between the River of San Barnaba and the Church of Santa Maria del Carmine, for it was widely known that no one in Venice had accumulated a greater number of ancient manuscripts than the said Dominie, whose windows even were blocked with parchments; at times papers fell into the street, where children made little boats of them and floated them in the canals, and great was the uproar when the meager, stuttering Maestro ran out to rescue the priceless documents, shouting at the top of his voice whether it were the destiny of Quintilian and Pliny the Elder to be soaked in canals and serve as a diversion for brainless little brats.
Ludovico found the described house without difficulty, but its doors and windows prevented the passage of either light or human; the residence of Donno Valerio Camillo was a paper fortress, mountains, walls, pillars and piles of exposed documents, folio piled upon folio, yellowed, teetering, held upright thanks only to the counterpressure of other stacks of paper.
Ludovico circled the building, looking for the house’s garden. And, in fact, beside a small sotto portico facing the vast Campo Santa Margherita, extended a narrow iron railing worked in a series of three recurring heads: wolf, lion, and dog; fragrant vines trailed from the walls, and in the dark little garden stood an extremely thin man, the meagerness of his body disguised by the ample folds of a long, draped tunic, but the angularity of his face emphasized by a black hood—similar to those worn by executioners—that hid his head and ears, revealing only an eagle-like profile; he was occupied in training several ferocious mastiffs; he held a long stick on which were impaled pieces of raw meat; he teased the dogs, dangling it above their heads; the barking dogs leaped to snatch the prize, but at every leap the man placed his arm between the raw meat and the beasts’ fangs, miraculously barely escaping being wounded; each time, with amazing swiftness, the frail, hooded Donno pulled back the arm grazed by the dogs, and stuttered: “Very well, very well, Biondino, Preziosa, very well, Pocogarbato, my flesh is the more savory, you know how I trust you, do not fail me, for at the hour of my death I shall be in no condition to discipline you.”
Then he threw another piece of meat to the mastiffs and watched with delight as they devoured it, fighting among themselves to seize the best portions. When he saw Ludovico standing in the entrance to the garden, he rudely demanded whether he had so little interest in his life that he had to pry into the lives of others. Ludovico asked his pardon and explained that the motive for his visit was not gratuitous curiosity but the need for employment. He showed him a letter signed by the ancient of the Synagogue of the Passing, and after reading it Donno Valerio Camillo said: “Very well, very well, Monsignore Ludovicus. Although it would take many lifetimes to classify and translate the papers I have accumulated throughout my lifetime, we can do some small part, we can begin. Consider yourself employed—with two conditions. The first is that you never laugh at my stuttering. I shall explain the reason this once: my capacity for reading is infinitely superior to my capacity for speaking; I employ so much time reading that at times I completely forget how to speak; in any case, I read so rapidly that in compensation I trip and stumble as I speak. My thoughts are swifter than my words.”
“And the second condition?”
The Maestro threw another scrap of meat to the mastiffs. “That if I die during the period of your service, you must be responsible to see that they not bury my body in holy ground, or throw it into the waters of this pestilent city, but instead lay my naked body here in my garden and loose the dogs to devour me. I have trained them to do this. They will be my tomb. There is none better or more honorable: matter to matter. I but follow the wise counsel of Cicero. If in spite of everything I am someday resurrected in my former body, it will not have been without first giving every digestive opportunity to the divine matter of the world.”
(Translated by Margaret Sayers Peden)