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Reflections on a life in letters

Gioconda Belli, a poet and novelist, is the author of "The Country Under My Skin: A Memoir of Love and War."

Carlos FUENTES is the paradigmatic Latin American intellectual: cosmopolitan, committed and erudite. The son of a Mexican diplomat, he was born in Panama in 1928. He studied in Switzerland and the United States and lived in Washington, D.C., as well as the South American cities of Buenos Aires, Santiago, Quito and others. Although he’s been a restless traveler and now spends most of his time in London, the center of his literary and political life has been Mexico.

The need to define and explore the Mexican identity infuses Fuentes’ novels. Grounded in this richly layered, elusive and often hermetic culture, he has built a vision that achieves universality in his attempts to understand the conflicting nature of the self. His 1962 masterpiece, “The Death of Artemio Cruz,” established him as a central figure of the Latin American literary boom. An elegant, imposing man, Fuentes is a constant source of inspiration and debate in the Spanish-speaking world. He’s been a shrewd, tireless analyst of the political and social events that have shaped the Americas.

His new book, “This I Believe: An A to Z of a Life,” skips most of the anecdotal content of a memoir and gets down to the real reason we read most writers’ ruminations on their lives: to capture their thoughts. It is a distillation of the beliefs Fuentes has come to hold in the course of the 76 years of his prolific, peripatetic life. It is organized like a selective encyclopedia in more than 40 categories that “explain how one travels from the ‘I’ to the real person, and from the real person to the world, to others, to society.”

These concentric circles of understanding do not flow in the neat fashion that its alphabetical sequence suggests. Neither in the Spanish, nor in the elegant English translation, is there a clear logic in the alphabetical disposition of the subjects. Instead, the book is built like a Russian doll. Each successive chapter either enlightens or expands what has been said before or demonstrates a feeling or idea playing itself out in the author’s own experience.

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In that sense this is a fluid book, ebbing and flowing. Its words are like small waves lapping at the shores of our consciousness. They set forth a concept only to challenge or erode the predictable definition. The beliefs Fuentes chooses to ponder in this book are like the rocks revealed at ebb tide. One minute they are there, another minute everything is uncertain or illusory. The notion that “beliefs” can be rock-solid, Manichaean, one thing or the other, is questioned. Fuentes is a Cartesian. He never ceases to interrogate, to reflect on the ambiguities of the human condition.

Fuentes epitomizes the Latin American writer-philosopher, in search of the perfect form and also of the elusive truth. In one of the book’s more felicitous kernels of wisdom, he calls this “opening oneself to attention.” His geography of ideas -- or ideography, as I would call it -- encompasses a rich and varied world that rotates around three axes: intimacy, public life and the imagination.

The book is dedicated to his son, Carlos Fuentes Lemus, whose 1999 death at 25 from complications of hemophilia is probably the leitmotif of this father’s meditation on his own life. “Carlos’s death left his mother and me with the reality of all that is indestructible,” he writes. His attitude is not bitter but accepting. As he says beautifully, a “child deserves the gratitude of a father, even if only for one single day of existence on earth.”

Though chapters titled “Amor,” “Freedom,” “God,” “Novel,” “Cinema,” “Experience,” “Death,” “Wittgenstein,” “Kafka,” “Happiness” and “Mexico” are marvelous capsules that artfully show the convergence of his reason and his passion, more intimate topics convey a depth of feeling with the simplicity and gentle humor of a master of the craft. In “Children,” “Family” and “Silvia,” the author portrays himself through the people he loves. Of his childhood as the son of a diplomat, he writes: “This itinerant, mutant diplomatic life -- ‘gypsies in tuxedos,’ as my father called us -- clearly brought us together, but so did the mutual respect and constant affection that were the essence of our life together.” He adds: “We were a happy family, if, to someone like Tolstoy, perhaps not a terrifically interesting one. But who cares about being interesting if unhappiness is the price you have to pay?”

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To his wife, Silvia, Fuentes bestows these homages: “Without her, I can only conceive of love standing before a mirror, trembling from the memory of her.” “Every night I leave an invisible note on her pillow that says: ‘I like you.’ ” “It is she, Silvia, who crowns my life’s quest to pay attention -- sexual, erotic, political, literary, fraternal.”

Despite an occasional digression into dense or academic musings, Fuentes remains engaging, offering surprising conclusions, provocations or turns of phrase. Of Christ, whom he admires, he writes: “Jesus extends the values of eternal life to the values of earthly life and that is where he becomes something much more than a fragile God who became man. He becomes the God whose power resides in his humanity.” And, “Jesus is the eternal reproach to the Church.” In “Xenophobia,” he states: “We learn that the only identities that do not change are dead identities. All of us are in the process of being.”

It is surprising to discover that this brilliant man, who dwells in an exquisite world of ideas, is also an acute analyst of the political and economical realities of modern life, a true political animal. “For me, politics was a second amniotic fluid. I grew up swimming in it,” he writes. He talks about education, globalization, the left, urbanities and civic society like someone who has sought not only to comprehend but to solve the problems of our age. “In today’s world, 9 billion U.S. dollars would suffice to address the basic educational needs in developing countries; in today’s world, the same amount is spent on cosmetics in the United States alone.” Describing the perils and possibilities of globalization, he concludes that what is needed is “a new legality for a new reality.”

I have many favorite passages in this jewel for the modern yet attentive sensibility. In one, Fuentes refers to Spanish writer Jose Ortega y Gasset: "[O]ne day the zebra, like Ortega’s centaur, will be rendered inadmissible by logic but admissible by fantasy.”

Others resonate with hope: “Let us remember, at this dawn of a new century, that history is not over. We live in a continually incomplete history. The lesson of our unfinished humanity is that when we exclude we are made poorer, and when we include we are made richer.... [N]one of us will ever be able to find the humanity within us unless we are able to find it first in others.”

I say, dear reader, put down the page-turner and dare to drink these full-bodied, red, shining words. *


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