If Carlos Fuentes could have invented the perfect character to star in one of his novels, he might have come up with a protagonist named Carlos Fuentes.
That character would be a glamorous global citizen who was born in Panama as a diplomat’s son, then hopscotched to Washington, D.C., London, Paris and other glittering power centers. A dapper ladies’ man who married an actress and claimed to have had affairs with screen sirens Jeanne Moreau and Jean Seberg.
A lifelong adventurer, like the tragedy-haunted journalist hero of Fuentes’ novel “The Old Gringo,” played by Gregory Peck in the 1989 film version. A man who, like many of Fuentes’ characters, overcomes personal tragedy of near-mythic proportions partly through the sheer power of his own relentless drive and productivity.
“He was a Renaissance man of astoundingly ambitious intellectual scope,” Ilan Stavans, a professor of Latin American and Latino culture at Amherst College in Massachusetts, said Tuesday after it was announced that Fuentes had died in a Mexico City hospital at 83.
Fuentes’ doctors told reporters that the writer suffered a severe hemorrhage due to the rupture of an ulcer that could have resulted from his frequent aspirin use for heart trouble.
A towering figure in Mexican and world literature, Fuentes, along with Colombia’s Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mario Vargas Llosa of Peru and Julio Cortazar of Argentina, ignited the Latin American literary explosion known as “El Boom” in the 1960s and ‘70s.
The prolific author of more than 20 books, including novels, short story collections, essays and often-scolding commentaries, Fuentes was among those most responsible for raising the profile of the hemisphere’s Spanish-language literature in the second half of the 20th century, following decades in which it had languished in the shadow of better-known European and U.S. modernists.
He also was a public intellectual who was courted by politicians and engaged his adversaries in erudite brawls in highbrow journals and newspaper op-ed columns.
Tuesday’s announcement prompted tributes across Latin America. Mexico’s president, Felipe Calderon, wrote on his Twitter account: “I deeply lament the death of our beloved and admired Carlos Fuentes, writer and Mexican of the world. May he rest in peace.”
Like the dashingly handsome author known for his impeccable personal attire, Fuentes’ books were elegantly crafted affairs, frequently packed with literary, historical and mythological allusions.
His best-known works include “The Old Gringo” (1985) and “The Death of Artemio Cruz” (1962), which illustrate two themes that recur throughout Fuentes’ writing: the interminable corruption of Mexico’s ruling class, and the nation’s failure to live up to the ideals that precipitated its bloody revolution of 1910-1920.
Among Mexican readers, Stavans said, Fuentes’ first novel, “Where the Air Is Clear” (1958), set amid the vibrant mixed-ethnic enclaves of Mexico City, and the surrealist, time-shifting novel “Aura” (1962) have proved to be enduringly popular and well-regarded.
Fuentes also wrote the bestselling illustrated history “The Buried Mirror: Reflections on Spain and the New World” (1992) and essays dealing with innumerable aspects of Latin American history, politics and literature.
Born Nov. 11, 1928, in Panama City, where his diplomat father was stationed, Fuentes spent his childhood and adolescence moving around various Latin American capital cities. He initially seemed destined for a diplomatic career himself, after earning a law degree and entering Mexico’s diplomatic service. But the success of “Where the Air Is Clear” convinced him to pursue writing.
Fuentes combined cosmopolitan erudition, ironic wit, passionate political convictions and a sweeping knowledge of global history in a style that was as widely praised by critics as it was popular with readers. Yet although he received numerous awards and honors, including the Cervantes Prize and France’s Legion of Honor medal, the highest of all literary accolades, the Nobel Prize in literature, eluded him. It was bestowed on Garcia Marquez in 1982 and Vargas Llosa in 2010.
Like those two famous contemporaries, Fuentes spent much of his adult life outside his native country, as an esteemed man of letters who also adopted the role of cultural ambassador-without-portfolio. To his admirers, that detachment helped Fuentes to turn a steely, discerning eye on Latin America.
“He wrote of a post-revolutionary Mexico, where the revolutionaries had become business entrepreneurs and bourgeoisie,” said Homero Aridjis, a prominent Mexican poet and writer who knew Fuentes for decades. “Styling himself after Dickens and Balzac, he wrote novels that formed a kind of ‘Mexican Comedy,’ a deep portrait of Mexican society, economy and politics.”
But some critics assailed Fuentes for depicting what they saw as a mythological and stereotypical image of Mexico as a neocolonial, violent and corrupt country, an image they believed was designed to appeal to Fuentes’ growing numbers of U.S. and European readers.
The contrast between Fuentes’ urbane, fastidious, bon vivant persona and his generally left-of-center politics spurred a famous attack by the intellectual Enrique Krauze in a 1988 piece in the New Republic that labeled Fuentes “the guerrilla dandy.”
“There is the suspicion in Mexico that Fuentes merely uses Mexico as a theme, distorting it for a North American public, claiming credentials that he does not have,” Krauze wrote.
As a young man, Fuentes was a leftist who sympathized with Fidel Castro’s communist revolution in Cuba and was highly critical of Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party, which ruled the country as a virtual one-party state for seven decades. His endorsement of the Nicaraguan leftist revolutionary Sandinistas led to a permanent rift with his former mentor, Octavio Paz, the Mexican man of letters and Nobel laureate.
Gradually, Fuentes shifted to a more moderate liberal position on many issues, criticizing the excesses of both the left and the right. In recent years, he labeled Venezuela’s socialist president, Hugo Chavez, a “tropical Mussolini.” He also argued that conservative President Calderon’s crackdown on drug cartels, which has left 50,000 Mexicans dead since 2006, would be futile as long as the United States failed to recognize and rectify its own part in the illegal drug trade.
His most recent column, about the presidential election in France, was published Tuesday in the daily Reforma newspaper. Disdainful of many Mexican politicians, he tacked a note at the end taking aim at the tone of Mexico’s current presidential race, which he said had sacrificed discussion of big issues for the candidates’ petty attempts to knock one another down.
Fuentes was married from 1959 to 1973 to actress Rita Macedo. He is survived by a daughter, Cecilia, from that marriage. His two children by his second wife, journalist Silvia Lemus, who also survives her husband, both died before him.
“Work is what saves you,” Fuentes once said in explaining how he had overcome his life’s adversities. In an interview published Monday in the Spanish newspaper El Pais, Fuentes said he had just completed a novel, called “Federico on his Balcony,” and had already begun another.
“I have no literary fears. I’ve always known well what I want to do and I get up and do it. I get up in the morning at 7 and by 8 I’m writing,” he said. “Between my books, my wife, my friends and my loves, I have enough reasons to keep living.”
Johnson reported from Los Angeles and Ellingwood from Mexico City. Times Mexico City bureau chief Tracy Wilkinson in Culiacan contributed to this report.