The celebrated Mexican author Carlos Fuentes died Tuesday, May 15, at the age of 83, drawing in his last breath in the capital city of his beloved ancestral homeland.
His death is a loss for the entire literary world, but especially for the people of Latin America, even those unfamiliar with his work. Fuentes was one of Latin America’s 20th-century literary rock stars, a key figure in “El Boom,” a period during the 1960s and ‘70s that witnessed a surge in popularity for Latin America-centered literature. He helped transform Latin American literature into a household genre. (I’m sure you’ve noticed the growing section marked “Latin American literature” at your local Borders – that is, of course, before it was shut down.)
Born in Panamá to a member of Mexico’s diplomatic corps, Fuentes experienced something of an international upbringing, attending school in Brazil, Chile, Uruguay, Argentina and even Washington – an emanant Latin American. He was fluent in Spanish and English, but when he swaggered into the perilous realm of literature, he decided to write in his native tongue, explaining that English had such a rich literary heritage that it didn’t need another contributor. Plus Spanish, he noted, was a much better language for a writer to work with.
The book that introduced me to this master storyteller was The Death of Artemio Cruz, Fuentes’ magnum opus. The pages jump back and forth in the life of a Mexican soldier-turned-statesman who becomes disillusioned by promises of a better society in post-revolutionary Mexico. And although I was skeptical of fiction selected as required reading for a course on the Mexican Revolution, the craft in Fuentes’ prose and the insight he brings to bear on Mexican history and society in this seminal text was immediately recognizable even to the greenest undergraduate student.
After reading the last drops of ink on the final page (SPOLIER ALERT: someone dies), naturally, I wanted to know more about the man who authored such a fantastic book. It wasn’t until I conducted something of a post-research on Carlos Fuentes that I realized, hey, a lot of people think he’s an amazing writer too.
And that’s understatement. To say that he was Cisneros and Díaz rolled into one would be committing a crime against letters.
I can’t claim to know much about a man I never met. I can only say what I know of him based on a few incredible works of fiction and a cursory knowledge of the author’s life. But my reading has revealed to me a man entirely against the grain.
Fuentes was a rebel even down to the sentences he composed, seemingly disregarding mandated rules of prose and experimenting with words and images and emotions and narration.
And he wasn’t without his own political views. He practically made a career out of unveiling revolutionary rhetoric for what it almost always turned out to be – a grab for evermore power and control. For this, he was labeled persona non grata in Havana and D.C. alike. (He was denied entry to the United States during the ‘60s, but the success of works like Artemio Cruz meant he couldn’t be kept out of America for long.)
It’s comforting to know that Fuentes went into the long night a wrinkled old man, having lived, by all accounts, an eventful and productive life.
What more could any writer ask for?