Whatever they may have thought of his politics, anyone lucky enough to have conversed with author Carlos Fuentes couldn’t help but be taken by his patrician good looks and his love affair with language.
I was struck by this the first time I met Fuentes at his Mexico City home in 1989 following the publication of “Christopher Unborn,” his Orwellian story of the “Makesicko Seedy” capital narrated by a fetus. And I saw him again nearly two decades later over lunch in Los Angeles, where he was promoting the English version of his book “The Eagle’s Throne,” a satire on Mexico’s revolutionary history and political baggage.
Fuentes, who died Tuesday at age 83, loved good food and conversation, perhaps most of all when served up together. Words spilled out of him like water, and he played with them like a child frolicking in the sea.
Unbeknownst to Fuentes, I was interviewing him for his obituary, which is an awkwardly common practice in journalism. We keep prepared obits of famous people on file. In most cases reporters don’t tell the subject, as I did not. I also never wrote the obit, but now I find I want to share a bit of the delightful afternoon in which we discussed life, art and politics over fish at the classic Water Grill with our spouses.
Like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Mario Vargas Llosa, Fuentes belonged to a generation of Latin American writers who were both literary and political, author and social commentator. He was a public intellectual. “I wear two hats,” he said, likening himself to French author Honore de Balzac in producing a combination of human comedy, acute social portraits and ghost stories. “The imagination exists and social commentary exists. They are not at war with each other.”
Though he dressed beautifully and lived well from London to New York to Mexico, his politics were left-of-center, supportive of Fidel Castro’s Cuba early on and of the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua. That combination long ago prompted Mexican commentator Enrique Krauze to dub him “the Guerrilla Dandy,” and call him an intellectual lightweight next to the more conservative Mexican thinker and Nobel laureate Octavio Paz.
When Castro repressed writers and intellectuals, though, Fuentes spoke out against him.
The son of a career diplomat, Fuentes grew up abroad and spoke English like a native for having studied in the United States. For many years, that branded him as too much of “a gringo” for many Mexicans, while in the States he was seen by many as anti-American for his frequent disagreements with US policy in Latin America and elsewhere. Indeed, he was often critical of US governments and of a rich country that he thought should attend to its poor, but he was genuinely fond of Americans and American culture.
“To call me anti-American is like saying I am anti-Semitic because my wife is not Jewish,” he said during the lunch in Los Angeles. “It is a stupendous lie, a calumny. I grew up in this country. When I was a little boy I shook the hand of Franklin Roosevelt and I haven’t washed it since,” he added with characteristic good humor. “I’ll never forget his smile. I had great respect for him and I remember how he said that society grows from the bottom up. I had great respect for the New Deal. I went to school here. I read Faulkner, listened to jazz, saw American movies. I get along very well with the gringos,” said the author of “The Old Gringo.”
“But I oppose a North American who doesn’t represent the Americans, like the sharpshooter Cheney,” he said, in reference to the former vice president.
Still he wore almost as a badge of honor the fact that he had once been denied entry into the US under the McCarren-Walter Act for pro-Communist sympathies. “I was in very good company. Garcia Marquez, Graham Greene, Iris Murdoch, of all people.”
Fuentes was elegant that day with silver hair and a dark blazer, his even more elegant wife, Silvia Lemus, at his side. The two had suffered double tragedy in their lives with the losses of two children under dark circumstances. But they didn’t discuss their losses then and in public, at least, they always seemed committed to wringing the most out of life.
Already by then many Mexicans had come to regard Fuentes as their country’s greatest living author. He was often mentioned as a likely candidate for a Nobel Prize for Literature and he often said, as he did with a smile that day, that his friend “Gabo,” Garcia Marquez, had his Nobel. He said he believed he had many books in him yet, and indeed he went on to write at least three more novels. “If I thought I had already peaked, I wouldn’t be sitting here. There’s always another book in there,” he said.
A prolific writer, he told us he was stronger than when he was a young man. “When I began to write, I was anguished. The psychosis of the empty page. At my age, I know exactly what I am going to do. I sleep, I dream, I get up, I write.” But he didn’t always know where the writing would take him. “I plan, but with some mystery.”
Leaving the restaurant after lunch, Fuentes stopped to read the directory of tenants at the stately office building. At 77, the author explained, he was always looking at names that might work for new characters. I asked if he had a preference for any of his books. “They are all my children. Maybe some are cross-eyed, but I love them all.”
Reactions to the death of author Carlos Fuentes
“With his parting disappears a writer whose work and whose presence has left a profound mark. His short-stories, novels and essays were primarily inspired by Mexico’s problems and history but he was a universal man.” -- Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa
“One of a kind. An era, a genre. A writer for all seasons. To Silvia, all my affection.” -- Mexican writer Hector Aguilar Camin
“I deeply lament the death of our beloved and admired Carlos Fuentes, a universal Mexican writer.” -- Mexican President Felipe Calderon
“Thanks for his words and his thoughts. Goodbye Master!” -- Consuelo Salazar, director of Mexico’s National Council for Culture for the Arts
“Author of lasting novels and short stories, a vigorous, enriching presence. I think the center of his literary creativity was language. The renovation of language.” --
Enrique Krauze, Mexican historian considered Fuentes’ harshest critic
“Rest in peace Maestro.” -- Salsa musician and actor Ruben Blades
“Carlos Fuentes was a brilliant intellectual but also a very generous and fun man. We will miss him.” -- Peruvian writer Santiago Roncagliolo The Associated Press