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:

In America, we have learned how to create a “polyculture”…. Our American nations are founded upon racial mixing, and that rests on integration, not on exclusion…each time we have practiced integration, we have been the richer for it…. Our capacity for integration comes from our Iberian roots, from that peninsula where Christian, Muslim and Jewish cultures coexisted…. It is a remarkable coincidence that this very year, 1492, in which Spain’s historic image as a nation of welcome was dimmed by the exclusion of the Jews and the conquest of Granada, was also that of the discovery of America. On 12 October 1492, the first contacts with pre-Columbian civilization opened up with the prospect of new inter-mixings of unexpected richness.

For some reason, the newspaper has the year down as 1942, but let’s not be too harsh on them now.

Of the two things that had caught my eye, one was the coinage “polyculture” which promptly went down some mental cranny to lock itself in chromatic opposition to the term ‘monoculture’ with the silent gravity of a Tetris piece. It’s a word I tend to abuse a lot nowadays, and I had forgotten, with the casual disrespect possible only among habitual thieves, where I had stolen it from. The other catcher-in-the-eye was his skilful parlaying of historical coincidences from the year 1492. I remembered having suffered frissons of god-knows-what repeatedly as I gazed upon this unexpected spectacle of a mere novelist engaging equally with history and with contemporary affairs.

I can smile, now, at the innocence with which I swallowed the hokum of the phrase “new inter-mixings of unexpected richness” without asking whether these exchanges between Europeans and the pre-Columbians were as happy as he cuts them out to be. It may have been the disclaimer in the next sentence (“Without wishing to minimize the crimes committed against indigenous populations”) that lulled the possible question.

I decided to seek him out and sink my teeth into everything he had written, but this resolve was hampered somewhat by the fact that I continued to encounter him in the same random bits and bobs—the anthologised story, or the occasional interview. And thus it was that I became a connoisseur of interviews with an author I had barely read.

They were, perhaps, an art form in their own right. His gifts as a conversationalist set him apart, in my mind, from the other writers of his generation. Vargas Llosa is a brilliant essayist, but can come across as stiff and rather uncomfortable in interviews, while Márquez, who is rather adept at managing his public persona, produces in conversation more or less the same charming mumbo-jumbo that riddles his fiction. Fuentes displays instead the ability to seize on a humdrum question for dazzling surprise, to transform the question into a springboard for some new speculation. Here I must pause to urge the reader to look online for The Paris Review interview—a 1981 conversation between Fuentes and his translator, Alfred Mac Adam—from which I have taken this quotation:

My situation as a Mexican writer is like that of writers from Eastern Europe. We have the privilege of speech in societies where it is rare to have that privilege. We speak for others... Perhaps each nation has the Siberia it deserves. In the Soviet Union a writer who is critical is taken to the lunatic asylum. In the United States, he is taken to a talk show... Philip Roth has said, in comparing his situation to Milan Kundera...that in the United States, everything goes and nothing is important. In Czechoslovakia, nothing goes and everything is important. So this gives the writer an added dimension that he doesn’t have here [in America].

Another part of this fascination with Fuentes came from my situation as a literature student. By the 1990s, even regular academic backwaters like Bangalore University had begun to witness the operations of a terrible scientism—the desire to turn literary studies into a handmaiden of the social sciences and thus become ‘relevant’. I had only a vague sense of unease about all this till I came across a conversation between Fuentes and the Canadian academic Diana Cooper-Clark. I remember how one section of the interview became frequent comfort reading, possibly because it ended with this affirmation of my discontents:

I am investigating the nature of men and women through fiction, with a constant yearning to widen the experience, to widen the possibility of the experience of literature which is called imagination. There is this great confusion because people are accustomed in the everyday world to believe that knowledge is acquired through science, ethics, philosophy, and politics…(which) reverts to what Wittgenstein would call propositional language…. However, literature has a particular knowledge of its own…not given to us by science, or by politics, or by ethics, but which makes ethics, politics and science possible because literature takes place in the origin of language constantly.

It is perhaps one thing to know your discontents, and another to have your vague intimations and half-guesses knocked into shape. At about this time, I also began to resist the demands for an almost marital fidelity to an ‘own’ culture and an ‘own’ language, demands that I had never before thought to question. I seem to owe some of this sorting-out to the hardy cosmopolitanism that Fuentes embodied, to this strange romance arising entirely out of overheard conversations.

AT SOME POINT I DECIDED TO GET DOWN to the business of reading Fuentes’s fiction, but both my reliable lines of supply, the now-defunct Premier Bookshop and Select Bookshop, came a cropper in this regard. A snooty MG Road textbook merchant had somehow hit upon an already ratty 1988 edition of Fuentes’s first novel, Where the Air is Clear (1958). The price, at `550, was way over my means, and so I enquired after the book at safe intervals—roughly, every year. I found each time that the dacoits would quote some new inflated price based not so much on the antiquity of the book as on the rising value of the dollar. I never saw that book anywhere else. Since I have had so much time for desire, I could probably tell you how I acquired every Fuentes novel that I now possess, and maybe what the cashier was wearing as he made out the bill.

After seven years of fruitless looking, a chance visit to the library at the Regional Institute of English yielded a copy of Christopher Unborn. They allowed me to borrow the book after much polite conversation and some extravagant promises about putting up posters for their Spoken English courses at my workplace; I promptly repaid this kindness by photocopying the book entire. I found, at a shortlived store called The Bookery (either because it combined a pastry-shop with the books or because it was tucked away on high like a bird’s nest), The Orange Tree, a volume of novellas separated by time but linked by recurrences of that obdurate citrus species. A pavement chappie in Upparpet had a copy of The Old Gringo, damaged diagonally by a rodent at one end and some nameless dark liquid at the other, and he let me have it for 10 bucks. Some volumes—Constancia and other Stories for Virgins, The Years with Laura Díaz and Inez—turned up at the annual Strand Book Stall sales as remaindered copies. Blossom Book House celebrated their move from a one-room store to a three-floor building in 2004 by letting me discover in that new profusion both The Campaign and a copy of Terra Nostra discarded by the Maricopa County Library District, Phoenix, Arizona. A Kannada writer decided to offload his Latin America collection on The Bookworm, and among the loot were copies of The Hydra Head and A Change of Skin. Visits to DC Books, Thiruvananthapuram, resulted in copies of The Death of Artemio Cruz and The Eagle’s Throne.

After 20 years of chasing, through times of scarcity and in the terrible plenitude of the present, I have managed to find exactly a dozen titles by Fuentes, and that is less than half his oeuvre. Márquez and Vargas Llosa arrive frequently in Indian bookshops, and are often translated into the three Indian languages that I follow, while Fuentes, despite a substantial body of work, the available translations into English, and the critical attention he has attracted in the West, has always been a hard man to find in India. Julio Cortázar, who wrote the story that inspired Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up, which in turn lent an idea or two to the film Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, also seems to suffer from the same kind of inattention. I’m not sure what the explanation might be—all I have are questions, and maybe half an answer.

Does this difference in reception indicate that writers who disrupt traditional Realism in recognisable ways, through its verities, travel better than those who favour experimentation? When and how do our readers decide that an unfamiliar context is either alright or an insurmountable problem? Are there specific cues that reassure or put off readers when they are making this negotiation? Would it be cynical to say that a reading public which demonstrates an appetite for World Literature may nevertheless be averse to the new if it means travelling beyond Nobel Prize-winning headliners? Or do Márquez and Vargas Llosa have more readers in India because, unlike Fuentes, they track the persistence of the Baroque—possibly the hidden familiar in our cultures, given that our first acquaintance with colonialism was with a similar hardass Iberian version?

I’m not sure how useful my own experiences are in reliably answering any of the above questions. I arrived at Fuentes in eager semi-acquaintance and that should have been enough momentum to take me through his novels. I have reread some of his books several times, and managed to totter past the finish-line with a couple. Among the dozen, I must also record a dismal failure. Terra Nostra, his magnum opus according to some, sits in green reproach on a shelf outside line of sight. Every year I have sallied forth, only to retreat, sullen, bloodied and beaten by that impenetrable hulk. I would slink away, but then come across something he said and return, charmed, tempted, and unable to keep away. This year, it was the discovery of this line in an interview: “No matter how much history and causality and chronology you might pump into literature, the fact is that Kafka and Cervantes are coexisting in literature at the same time.”

The 1987 novel Christopher Unborn combines, in unexpected ways, a comic vision with a dystopian throw. Christopher (or Cristóbal) Palomar (Spanish for Christopher Columbus), the narrator, is an unborn foetus in “polyphonic gestation” because he cannot help soaking up every conversation and the general jangle of a Mexico City exploding at the seams. It is 1992 and, politically, Mexico is a spectacular ruin. Large tracts of territory have been mortgaged to foreign corporations to handle the national debt. The mortal ailment afflicting the nation is summed up in the montage of “its police imposed on an army that had disbanded out of discontent…its new symbols of legitimization, its August Founding Mothers…and its thousands of unreadable newspapers.” The government occupies itself with a series of National Contests, including one in honour of the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival—the athletic male child who manages to achieve birth precisely at the stroke of midnight on the anniversary will immediately be declared the ‘Prodigal Son of the Nation’ and will ascend to the office of national regent on completing 21 years of age. The unborn narrator is one of the contestants.

This picture of a polity where circuses matter more than bread is reinforced by a president who declares war on make-believe countries in a manner reminiscent of TV tie-ins where the Hardy Boys might battle Dracula. Thus, we discover that a battalion of ‘Indians’ is defending the nation “against the dictator of the neighbouring Republic of Darkness” and that “the seasoned veterans of Squadron 201 from World War II are bombarding the haughty despots of the tropical dictatorship of Costaguana”, a country in a novel by Joseph Conrad.

While this can sound very much like the unrelievedly grim landscapes that JG Ballard offers us in his novels, Fuentes transforms this territory with scathing wit and antic word-play. Acapulco is subjected to a flurry of jokey name changes—becoming Acapulcalypse and Kafkapulco        as the occasion demands—as is Ronald Reagan, president of the United States during the 1980s, who becomes Donald Danger, Wrinkle Wrecker and Ronald Ranger. He eventually exits, pursued by this barb: “…if in fact he really exists and is not merely what he always was … a photo opportunity, a fleeting TV image no one could hear because his voice was drowned out by the roar of the helicopter whisking him away for a weekend at Camp Goliath”.

Christopher’s polyphony accommodates several histories, and several time-frames—the segregation of Mexico’s indigenes, the national myths of revolution and progress, and the consequences of globalisation. Fuentes also inserts into this polyphony a series of speculations, drawn from the writings of 18th-century Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico, about how we understand history. These speculations share the novel, in a sense, with the more traditional illuminations listed above. Christopher is eventually born after many pages of ranting and joking, and finds that he is not alone, that there was a twin sharing the womb with him in striking parallel to the above ‘twinning’—of a language re-won through a noisy barrage of wordplay and a quieter method for reimagining history.

The Old Gringo, a playful speculation on the true-life, mysterious disappearance of the American writer Ambrose Bierce in Mexico in 1914, is perhaps an easier novel to read than Christopher Unborn. The English translation became a bestseller, apparently the first time a book by a Mexican achieved that distinction in the US. This success spawned a Hollywood version titled Old Gringo, and in that nominal abridgement, which places the film among the top 10 adaptations whose titles are likely to be mistaken for racehorses, we see Gregory Peck and Jane Fonda in period costume, accents, landscape and little else.

Bierce, who is never identified by name through most of the book, slopes off into Mexico with a copy of Don Quixote in search of the guerilla leader Pancho Villa’s revolution, and death. He finds a section of the rebel army and makes the acquaintance of Tomas Arroyo, their commander, and that of the American Harriet Winslow, who has followed a throw of the dice to take up employment with a rich Mexican family and finds herself instead on a hacienda liberated by Arroyo’s followers. The rest of the novel is framed by the complex dance among the three characters. Fuentes chooses to play hide-and-seek with the reader about the old gringo’s identity. We are given a bunch of scattered ‘clews’ in the form of references to his journalism for Randolph Hearst’s newspapers, his run-in with senator and Stanford University founder Leland Stanford, his dictionaries, and a stray paragraph that seems to summarise the Bierce short story ‘An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge’. Much later, Harriet goes through his effects, and finds that “Ambrose Bierce was a dead name printed on the covers of two books the old man traveled with. She could not call him Cervantes, the author’s name on the other book. So maybe calling him Bierce was just as farfetched.”

Harriet Winslow remembers these events years later, and her memory is replaced, time and again, by the voices of Arroyo and the gringo, by Arroyo’s mistress, and by that of Fuentes when he jerks us back and forth in time or chooses, simply, to arrive in omniscient flourishes such as these:

Then the bed of the Mirandas where they were kneeling together in love would heave on its own, unmindful of the bodies that gave it its only rhythm: a sea of slow cool tides and sudden flashes of heat from the unsuspected depths where an octopus could move in senseless fear and clouds of black sand would funnel upward, warming the waters with the suddenly revealed fever of the unmoving, breaking the mirrors of the cool sea, splintering the surface of reality.

The gringo looks at Mexico and sees that his compatriots missed an opportunity “to fornicate with the squaws and at least create a half-breed nation” and must instead wage war incessantly against people who are of a different colour. One of Arroyo’s soldiers observes that the Americans will simply have to make things up if they want to know more about Mexican lives “because we’re still nothing and nobody”. In effect, The Old Gringo offers, much like Christopher Unborn, a mixing of voices, of languages, and a contest between different ways of knowing the world.

The sharp-witted reader may have pored over the last few paragraphs wondering what it is that Fuentes borrows and adapts from Vico’s big idea: ‘verum esse ipsum factum’, (meaning, roughly, ‘the truth is precisely what is made’). She may find this moment of insight from The Campaign illuminating (or not):

Chewing, he thought about Homer, the Cid, Shakespeare: their epic dramas were written before they were lived. Achilles and Ximena, Helen, and Richard the hunchback in real life had done nothing but follow the poet’s scenic instructions and act out what had already been set down. We call this inversion of metaphor “history,” the naïve belief that, first, things happen and then they are written. That was an illusion, but he no longer fooled himself.

To arrive at this revelation, the novel’s hero Baltasar Bustos must first, under the influence of ideas garnered from Voltaire and Rousseau, steal into the bedroom of a Spanish functionary in Buenos Aires and replace his newborn child with a Black infant as a political gesture. The gesture misfires; a fire breaks out, killing the child, and dampening the impact of Baltasar’s rebellious act. He is consumed by guilt, and by passion, for in the run-up to the deed he has had the chance to gaze on Ofelia Salamanca, the Spanish official’s wife. He sets off on a journey across Latin America that culminates in Veracruz, Mexico, where he finds several unexpected resolutions including the one quoted above.

The journey that he makes is simultaneously a journey into the years of revolution against Spain and a journey into the interior, a descent into Latin American history. This does not prevent Fuentes from archly inserting the present into this early 19th-century story. His narrator, a printer named Manuel Varela, mentions in passing a biography of South American soldier and statesman Símon Bolívar sent to him from the town of Barranquilla by an obscure writer named Aureliano Garcia. He decides to stick with publishing sure-shot writers like Voltaire and Rousseau, and to leave for another time “the melancholy prophecy of a Bolivar as sick and defeated as his dream of American unity and civil liberty in our nations”. Barranquilla is the Colombian city where Gabriel García Márquez wrote his first novella, Leaf Storm (1955). Márquez published his Bolívar novel The General in His Labyrinth in 1989, also the year in which The Campaign was published.

The genre of historical fiction works by allowing one illicit transport, that of fiction into history; no other indecorousness is allowed. Each of the novels considered so far begins by making gestures towards what we recognise as the historical novel or to some historical frame, but then takes off on another trajectory altogether. When Alfred Hitchcock pulled this sort of stunt, he called it a MacGuffin, and he did it to remind you who your daddy was before landing you in another equally absorbing narrative. When Fuentes pulls this trick, it comes with no such happy re-entry.

As someone who refused to wean himself from a steady but secret diet of historical novels, I remember finding this ejection into a territory for which I had no name provoking. I don’t think I’d have survived all this if it hadn’t been for distractions such as word-play and endless gags. Fooling around is the means by which Fuentes eventually leads the reader to his actual intention, that of opening a conversation on the nature of history. Most people call this sort of thing Post-Modern fiction, and one scholar has coined a more exact term—“historiographic metafiction”, or fiction that may, through self-conscious manoeuvring, lead the reader to question how history is written. My problem with all this terminology is that it makes no room for pleasure—it does nothing to distinguish between books that go down like cod-liver oil, and those that tease you and absorb you. Nor does it tell you very much about the quarrels that may have fletched an author in such a direction.

Now that we’ve mentioned teasing, we cannot go any further without talking of The Orange Tree, a collection of five novellas in which the idea of victors and losers in history comes in for repeated, playful examination. One of them, titled The Two Shores, is narrated to us by a Spaniard who got to Mexico a few years before Hernán Cortés, the Spanish Conquistador who overthrew the Aztec empire. He ends up translating for the Conquistador and Moctezuma (the name by which Aztec emperor Montezuma is referred to in the story), before a nubile replacement is found. He dies shortly after, dreaming of a new Spain civilised by its Mexican conquerors. This is the conceit that he offers us in explanation: “Hernán Cortés, for all his malicious intelligence, always lacked the magic imagination which, on the one hand, was the weakness of the Indian world, but, on the other, might someday be its strength.”

IN 1989, Fuentes was invited to deliver the Presidential Address to the Modern Humanities Research Association in London. Responding to recurring rumours of the death of the novel, he pointed out that the “geography of the novel” gives those rumours the lie—there is today a community of novelists worldwide in some kind of conversation with each other, no longer held back by what he called the “poverty of narrow national association”. To define the subject of this conversation, he presented two genealogies for the novel. One is a mythology of success that connects Realist fiction to forebears like Robinson Crusoe, impelled by the “arrogance of seeing oneself as the protagonist of the times”. The other is a more ambiguous genealogy, dominated perhaps by folly, connecting Myshkin, Emma Bovary and Mr Micawber to Don Quixote.

While the novel may be dwarfed by other modes of narrative, and by other technologies, there is as yet something that is still possible only within the form:

By proposing the possibility of the verbal imagination as no less a reality than historical narrative, the novel becomes perpetually new, announcing an imminent world…instead of a certainty, history has become a possibility. So has the novel, with history, within it, against it, as a counter-history, a second reading of the historical.

Fuentes has referred elsewhere to being driven by the desire to fill the sparse silence of several centuries between Don Quixote and the present, a univocality in Spanish brought on first by the repressiveness of the Counter-Reformation and augmented by later political developments. The literary solution to this culture of silence is perhaps the release of what he calls plurivocality, or multiple voices, in fiction. Such a release is often accomplished by challenging the ideas of utopia enforced by ideology, whether with Pancho Villa’s rebellion in the 20th century as in The Old Gringo or with 19th century struggles for independence as in The Campaign. These insurrections seem to do no more than repeat, ironically, similar fantasies from the days of Spanish colonialism in Latin America. Utopian impulses—and here we must again pronounce the title Robinson Crusoe—also seem to enforce some notion of purity, thus violating a world which is reliably heterogeneous, mixed and impure:

But I believe that Don Quixote really inaugurates what we understand modern fiction to be – a reflection of our presence in the world as problematic beings in an unending history, whose continuity depends on subjecting reality to the imagination. Cervantes does it, as all writers do, in a precise time and space. ...The modern novel is born as both an encounter of genres and a refusal of purity.

That last sentence is as much in praise of Cervantes as it is Fuentes nailing his own colours to the mast.

At this point, we could set off in several directions. We could begin with the curious fact that Fuentes, in his scattered reflections on the nature of the novel, first anticipates and eventually encounters the work of Mikhail Bakhtin—but that is another story altogether, to be told in tandem with the story of how he first danced towards Marxism, and then away. We could talk of his long career as interlocutor between the two Americas, dwell on those who celebrate this aspect, and stop to gossip about Enrique Krauze’s rather nasty dismissal of these claims (available in English as an essay in The New Republic called ‘The Guerilla Dandy’), a piece that Octavio Paz may have shepherded into print. We could talk of why some choose to call him Mexico’s Balzac, and stop to wonder if this is perhaps a misreading of his effort to play off a European, linear sense of time against a cyclic version derived from Mexico and elsewhere. These, patient reader, are journeys you should make on your own, in the excellent company that he can offer. My own travels with Carlos Fuentes in each of these directions have led me, each time, to a renewed appreciation of his capacity to speak Socratically in our times.