Reading the Polyphonist

Carlos Fuentes, the great Mexican experimentalist who passed away recently, still remains to be discovered in India. An adept elaborates on the writer’s provocations

01 July 2012

MY DEALINGS WITH CARLOS FUENTES seem to have been exercises in slow patience, not always by his design. I came to him rather late, many years after I encountered the Peruvian Mario Vargas Llosa and the Colombian Gabriel Garcia Márquez and embarked on a lifelong fascination for Latin American literature which quickly resulted in “wooshy-headed behaviour” (according to my sister), a “career in collecting dust” (my parents), La-Dolce-Vita-esque orgies of paper (if you ask some patriarch among the silverfish I still do useless battle with), and four stable ziggurats (according to me) categorised as ‘Fiction’, ‘Non-fiction’, ‘Xeroxes’ (more ‘F’ and ‘N-f’) and newspaper-cuttings. The Mexican writer’s name figured in every anthology of short fiction I had schemed or scrimped to possess, but somehow he did not immediately hit my nose with the same sharp mustard shock that I remember from initial encounters with other, later, discoveries such as the Cuban dissident Guillermo Cabrera Infante, the Argentine Manuel Puig who wrote Kiss of the Spider Woman, and the Cuban Reinaldo Arenas, whose memoir of growing up gay in Castro’s Cuba inspired the Julian Schnabel film Before Night Falls.

The revelatory moment occurred one morning in 1992, courtesy The Times of India. Nowadays, I am merely thankful that the paper is thick enough to fan myself with while I wait in the staff-room for the bell to ring. But once upon a time, every Sunday morning with the Times was an ambuscade. It was probably no more than a trial mix concocted by some druid of the demographics, but no other Bangalore newspaper had such an exciting combination of things to read about—it was in its pages that I first came upon Jacques Derrida, the band Steely Dan, the environmentalist Chico Mendes, and the Marquis de Sade’s novels. Among those Sabbath surprises was a longish conversation between the critic Fernando Ainsa and Carlos Fuentes.

After hours of ransacking the premises, I eventually found a cutting of the interview, decrepit from having been folded and then compressed between photocopies of other interviews with the writer. I have it before me now, of a colour for which English has no word unless you’re willing to accept a lexical incursion from my father’s Tamizh—saanithaal—the colour of drying cow-dung. In smoothing it out, I lit again upon the paragraph that had me hooked 20 years ago:

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    Arul Mani teaches English at St Joseph’s College, Bengaluru.

    Keywords: fiction Carlos Fuentes Mexican essays Where the Air is Clear Christopher Unborn The Orange Tree The Old Gringo Constancia and other Stories for Virgins The Years with Laura Diaz