It once was said of James Joyce that he had abandoned everything about the Scholastic philosophy of the High Middle Ages that suffused his education -- except its basic principles.
Carlos Fuentes, who turned 80 this year, is one of the surviving lions of a heroic generation that brought Latin American letters to global prominence and acclaim. Early in his career, he often spoke and wrote of the long cultural shadow cast by the Spanish Counter-Reformation’s vain attempt to restore the lost medieval wholeness that Martin Luther shattered when he nailed his 95 Theses to Wittenburg’s church door. All of Iberian culture -- and that of its daughter nations, like Fuentes’ native Mexico -- the author argued, was, in some deep sense, the product of Catholic Spain’s quixotic quest to put the social and intellectual toothpaste back in the tube.
Though Fuentes, like Joyce, remains a high modernist to the core, it’s become increasingly clear that his own literary project -- 23 books now, with more in the pipeline -- is a part of that endeavor. “Happy Families,” Fuentes’ new book (superbly translated by the redoubtable Edith Grossman) is described as a collection of “stories.” In recent interviews, however, the author has called it a “choral novel,” which seems entirely apt. Sixteen dramatic vignettes involving contemporary Mexican families -- or people in social arrangements standing in for traditional families -- are linked by poetic “choruses” composed in free verse. The juxtapositions are typical of Fuentes: These are narratives focused deeply on his country’s contemporary situation while simultaneously looking back into the traditions of Western letters and expressing themselves in the idiom of continental modernism. Though Fuentes routinely is linked with other Latin American writers of his generation, particularly his friend Gabriel Garcia Marquez, his closest aesthetic antecedents and colleagues are Central European: Bloch, Kafka and, particularly, Milan Kundera.
The notion of a choral novel obviously turns to the archaic traditions of Greek drama, but Fuentes also has very consciously in mind the implications of his title and epigraph, which are borrowed from Tolstoy’s famous opening to “Anna Karenina": “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Fuentes is aware that Tolstoy, like Joyce’s Scholastic philosophers -- the last of whom was the Counter-Reformation Spanish Jesuit Francisco Suarez -- conceived happiness as a harmony with universal norms and ideals. In that schema, families (and individuals) are unhappy precisely because their lives are fragmented, discordant and, worst of all, atomized: in other words, thoroughly modern.
Fuentes’ own domestic life has been a celebrated and tragic tumult. His 14-year marriage to Mexican film star Rita Macedo was marked by serial philandering, including affairs with Jeanne Moreau and Jean Seberg. In 1973, he scandalized Mexican society by eloping with his pregnant mistress, the journalist Silvia Lemus. They were subsequently married, but two of their three children have been lost to misfortune -- their only son to complications of hemophilia, their younger daughter to a drug overdose.
That alone might explain the author’s dark view of these 16 families, but something more powerful and considered than mere autobiographical influence is at work here. Octavio Paz once remarked that “after two centuries of experiment and defeat, the Mexican people have faith only in the Virgin of Guadalupe and the National Lottery.” Family might once have been added to that brief litany, and the fact that it no longer is so in contemporary Mexico is this book’s animating anger.
Ties that bind
In one of the stories, “The Gay Divorcee,” the author quotes Georges Bataille: “The consumer society was invented by the Aztecs. They consumed hearts.” The protagonist of that vignette -- a cultivated gay couple in their 60s bound by a love of Hollywood’s Golden Age -- admit a handsome young serpent into their private Eden with disastrous consequences. In “A Family Like Any Other,” a disappointed daughter retreats into a world of television, while in “The Armed Family” a pragmatic brother betrays his guerrilla brother, and in “The Mariachi’s Mother,” a woman tries to will her son into having a life better than her own. In the searing “Conjugal Ties,” the psychosexual struggle of unhappy marriage is rehearsed in alternating stream-of-consciousness fragments. The collection builds to the concluding story, “Eternal Father,” a canny gloss of “King Lear” in which a father tries to bind his three daughters to his will -- and memory -- with a dying bequest.
Raised abroad and a cultural emigre by choice, Fuentes -- though passionate about his Mexican identity -- has spoken of how he feels least at home in his own country. There is, however, an urgent, timely discontent running throughout “Happy Families,” particularly in the poetic choruses. Contemporary Los Angeles readers, for example, may experience a jolt of recognition at “Chorus of the Savage Families,” which precedes the final vignette:
They come from the north
they occupy the city of nuestra senora de la porciuncula de
los angeles on the border with mexico
they come from the south
they occupy the city of tapatatapachula south of chiapas on the
they divide up the city of los angeles
the mexican mafia are the southsiders
the salvadoran mara sansalvatrucha are in control from thirteenth
to central venice
the mestizos from venice thirteen to south central . . .
the gang members disappear in the forest
they reappear in los angeles
they specialize in drive-by shootings
firing at random from their cars
at their mexican rivals
they pretend to be mexicans their accent gives them away
captain bobby of the LAPD the los angeles police
force is capturing them one by one . . .
exiles who identify themselves with a tattoo on the arm. . . .
Like Kundera, Fuentes believes that the modern novel (indeed, the modern world) began with Cervantes’ “Don Quixote.” In an interview some years ago, he affirmed it as “the founding novel of the modern world. I think ‘Don Quixote’ comes out of the medieval world, the world of chivalry he evokes and reads about and tries to enact, the world of the Middle Ages, which is basically a world of analogy, where everything has a meaning. All words have a precise meaning, a precise function, and all things have a precise place. This order is established by means of analogy on a scale that leads to God. Don Quixote goes out into a world where this is shattered; his search for analogy leads him into a world of proliferating differentiation. The wayside inns, the people he meets, Maritomes, the dukes, and, what is most important of all, the readers of ‘Don Quixote’ he encounters tell him, ‘Your world doesn’t exist anymore. Your world of unity and analogy is shattered. We offer you this world of infinite diversity.’ Don Quixote is a great hero of fiction and of philosophy . . . because he will not give up the idea of unity in order to understand the world of diversity. Yet he must admit the world of diversity in order to admit himself, since he is only Don Quixote because he is read, and he is read by a multitude of readers, not by only one reader.”
So too, it seems, Carlos Fuentes, who found his voice as an artist in a world with which his art is, year by year, increasingly at odds.