Fuentes the Memorious

John Sutherland

Carlos Fuentes is one of those unusual novelists who would make the International Who’s Who even if he had never written a novel. As a public man, Fuentes’s career has been directed to Mexico’s uneasy relationship with the outside world – he was Mexican Ambassador to France from 1975 to 1977. As a novelist, he explores the internal character of his country, in Where the air is clear, his first novel, originally published in 1958, in The Death of Artemio Cruz and in Terra Nostra. His novels feel their way along the paradoxes and social contradictions of Mexico: the complicated assimilations of its Indian, Spanish, French and North American legacies, its two natures as a state founded in socialist revolution yet effectively governed by feudal gangsters, or jefes. Mexico is a country where, as the sardonic proverb has it, ‘the law is obeyed, then it is disregarded.’ Eccentricity is written into a constitution which awards every citizen an inalienable 50 hectares of land, but very prudently does not specify where the land is. Fuentes sees Mexico as the site of two great and conflicting American myths: the myth of epic conquest, and the myth of a pre-existent utopia. And for Fuentes, Mexico is a country whose strangeness defies and yet can only be understood by the imaginations of fiction. Hence every worthwhile Mexican novel must, directly or indirectly, be a historical novel, a novel about ‘our land’.

Fuentes has what strikes the modern Anglo-Saxon reader as an extraordinarily lofty, not to say pompous, notion of the novelist’s commission. In the absence of trustworthy state authority, he sees the Latin American novelist as a moral legislator, the uniquely impartial and wise arbiter of values. Fuentes’s ideal novelist also works under the stern injunction to ‘write everything that history has not said, otherwise it will be forgotten’. This is not, as the smug Anglo-Saxon might surmise, because semi-literate Latin America has too little written history, but because it has much more than Clio in her official capacity as recorder can handle. As Fuentes puts it in the prelude to The Old Gringo, the very dust of Mexico is ‘memorious’: the allusion to Borges’s Funes the Memorious, the man condemned to forget nothing, is surely deliberate. By contrast, the United States is ‘a land without memory’. Put genetically, contemporary Mexico has a blood connection with the 1913 Revolution, and with the Conquistadores. Contemporary America has no such vital connection with its Civil War, or with its Puritan foundation. Fuentes suggests that the Americans have lost their past by virtue of ancestral sexual timidity. The conquerors of America (unlike those of Mexico) killed, but they did not sufficiently rape. The result was genocide, not miscegenation. As the American hero of The Old Gringo puts it: ‘we killed our Redskins and never had the courage to fornicate with the squaws and at least create a half-breed nation. We are caught in the business of forever killing people whose skin is of a different colour. Mexico is the proof of what we could have been.’ If the Mexican is doomed for ever to remember his bloody past, the North American is doomed for ever unconsciously to repeat his, by insatiable imperialism.

Recently Fuentes has become preoccupied by what he calls the ‘universal communicability’ of fiction – its ability (like his other avocation, diplomacy) to cross frontiers and make international contact. This has coincided with what has been called the post-1960s ‘boom’, which has brought world-wide readership to Latin American literature, particularly the novel. The Old Gringo is the most international work of fiction Fuentes has hitherto written, and deals principally with the relationship of the so-called distant neighbours, the USA and Mexico. The action of the novel is set during the early revolution of 1913, the most tormented passage of Mexican history since the conquest. Upheaval at this period was made inevitable by the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz, which bottled up all reform for 35 years, until, in 1910, the old patriarch was finally forced to resign. Diaz was immensely popular in the United States, where popular opinion credited him as the man who had put the country’s economy on a sound footing. He was replaced by the constitutionalist Madero, who was promptly murdered by the American stooge Huerta, provoking confused revolutionary insurrection in 1913.

It is at this historical moment that the old gringo comes to Mexico to join the army of the peon turned outlaw, turned revolutionary general – Pancho Villa. Fuentes makes his gringo ‘historical’. There was a wide range of candidates for the novelist to choose from. He could, for instance, have picked on the investigative journalist John Kenneth Turner, who travelled to Mexico in 1908 and discovered that Diaz’s wonderfully healthy economy was based on massive slavery and the slaughter of the Yaqui Indians. Turner wrote up his findings in a series of slashing articles later collected as the book Barbarous Mexico. Alternatively Fuentes could have chosen John Reed as his gringo. Reed, a Communist, attached himself to Villa in 1913 and rode with a bloodthirsty company of his revolutionary soldiers. (It was, Reed claimed in his book Insurgent Mexico, the most satisfactory experience of his life.) Or Fuentes could have chosen the young Raoul Walsh. Walsh was sent to Mexico in 1914 as a cameraman and as the actor cast to play the hero as a young man in D.W. Griffiths’s The Life of Francisco Villa. Walsh persuaded Villa to postpone his daily executions until the light of dawn so that he could shoot the firing-squad at work. He, too, rode with Villa and laconically recalled: ‘we got some of Villa’s battles, but they weren’t too spectacular. When we got back we had to invent some of them.’ The subsequent film made Villa a movie star – which Walsh was later to do for James Cagney.

Instead, Fuentes takes Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914?) as his quixotic American hero. Bierce was born obscurely, of farming stock in Ohio. Virtually nothing is known of his origins. He served in the Civil War in the Indiana infantry with reckless gallantry, twice rescuing comrades under fire, apparently himself wanting to die but fated to survive. He did not apparently care one way or another about the issues over which the sides fought. After the war he was a journalist. He hated American capitalism and imperialism, and yet perversely worked for William Randolph Hearst, who owned over a million acres of ranchland in Chihuahua and instructed his editors that he didn’t want Diaz touched with so much as a rose petal in his publications. None of Bierce’s fiction did well, and his publishers all went promptly bankrupt. His sons died in circumstances of squalid debauchery. His wife divorced him after a long unhappy marriage. In 1913 Bierce apologised to his friends for still being alive and slipped incognito over the Mexican border, apparently to join the revolutionary army of Pancho Villa. To a friend, he wrote: ‘Goodbye. If you hear of my being stood up against a Mexican stone wall and shot to rags please know that I think it a pretty good way to depart this life. It beats old age, disease, or falling down the cellar stairs. To be a Gringo in Mexico – ah, that is euthanasia!’ In fact, nothing reliable was ever heard about Bierce’s death. Perhaps, like the flying Dutchman, he still wanders the northern Mexican deserts, unable to find the ‘good good darkness’ he sought.

Bierce’s last, possibly prophetic words ring through Fuentes’s narrative (although, teasingly, he does not confirm until the last pages that Bierce actually is the mysterious old gringo). Fuentes claims to have been obsessed with Bierce’s life and fiction for forty years and to have begun writing this novel as long ago as 1964. What most attracts him is the American writer’s cool obsession with death, and his evident conviction that in articulo mortis there may be that moment of supreme clarity which the novelist spends his creative life hunting. Time and again, Fuentes’s novel alludes to ‘the man hanged from Owl Creek Bridge, who at the instant of his death could see the veining of each leaf; more: the very insects upon them; more: the prismatic colours in all the dewdrops upon a million blades of grass’. Although the allusion is not made by Fuentes, one is reminded of Under the Volcano, which similarly links the instant of death with the perfectly unclouded view of life that the novel aims at.

Apocryphal accounts of Bierce’s death were legion in the years following his disappearance. In one of the better-known legends he is suposed to have been executed by firing-squad in 1915, and to have insisted on not being blindfolded, the better to ‘see himself killed’. The story is discredited. How Bierce actually died is not known to history and presumably never will be. He was swallowed up by the indifferent chaos of Mexican revolution and only the imagination of the novelist can recover him, using Bierce’s own fiction as clue.

Around Bierce’s imaginary euthanasia, Fuentes weaves a mystifying narrative. An unnamed 71-year-old gringo crosses the border at El Paso, ‘because he didn’t have any frontiers left to cross in his own country’. His reckless bravery under fire attaches him to the military band of a Villist General, Tomas Arroyo. (Arroyo is accompanied by a mistress, called ‘La Luna’, who takes the story into areas of cosmic Mexican mythology beyond me and I suspect most English-speaking readers.) Arroyo’s troops halt at the vast Miranda ranch and hacienda in Chihuahua. There they encounter an American governess, Harriet Winslow, who has been left behind by the Miranda family. Like all the main characters in the novel, Harriet has a haunting secret in her past. She has convinced the world and the US military authorities that her father died fighting in Cuba. In fact (as she alone knows), he chose to stay on the island, living in peacable anonymity with a black whore. Harriet is searching for an honourable body to fill her father’s vacant grave at Arlington military cemetery. Although duty calls him to Villa’s side, Arroyo delays at Miranda, laying waste the property. The reason for his lingering, it emerges, is that he is the bastard son of the former owner, bred by rape on a house servant. Old Miranda was murdered by a vengeful ‘brother’ of Arroyo’s (whom he has never met, but has dedicated his life to finding), and his corpse was hooked up like a bale of sisal by the testicles. No honourable grave for him. Arroyo is driven by motives of hopelessly confounded revenge: against his ravishing father, against the brother who murdered his father. He claims the Miranda ranch as his patrimony, by virtue of title deeds which he has stolen but cannot read. The theme of lost and murdered fathers is repetitively connected to Bierce’s mystical short story, ‘A Horseman in the Sky’, in which a young soldier firing at an airy vision kills his own father. The whole revolution, Fuentes’s narrative asserts, is a mass parricide – ‘a series of murders of old, no longer useful fathers’.

The final action of The Old Gringo is more the completion of an allegorical design than a sequence of credible events. Winslow takes both men as her lovers. (Arroyo, his father’s son, rapes her.) Bierce burns the title deeds to Miranda’s estate and is shot in the back by a thus disinherited Arroyo. The implications of this scene are historically profound. The revolutionaries and their successors can never legitimately possess the land they have liberated.

Harriet returns to Washington, but through the sensation-seeking American press she demands the corpse of the old gringo, claiming it to be her lost father, Captain Winslow. Villa orders the corpse disinterred, has it decently shot from the front by firing-squad, and returned for burial at Arlington. Villa then shoots Arroyo as he administers the redundant coup de grace to Bierce’s already twice killed corpse. It is one of Fuentes’s crotchets that nothing fiction can invent is stranger than Mexican history. The business about the exhumed corpse ‘executed’ by Villa’s firing-squad is based on fact. By the end, all the characters have ‘crossed the frontier of our differences with others’.

As with Fuentes’s previous novels, The Old Gringo is fiendishly complex in its narrative method. The author’s professed aim is to dissolve and distil everything into a single, collective voice. Scenes, time settings, narrative moments melt one into the other. The novel starts, for instance, with Harriet, leaving Mexico: ‘Behind her, she thought she saw the dust marshalling itself into some kind of silent chronology that told her to remember ... She remembers. Alone.’ This promises that the action will be contained and organised by the mind of Harriet. But it is not. The next section slips dramatically into the exhumation of a coffin, a scene which Harriet cannot have witnessed. Nor can the significance of this episode be understood by the reader at this stage of the story; it must be carefully stored away for future reference. The third section switches to Bierce’s entry into Mexico. Gradually these components allow themselves to be laboriously assembled into narrative order – but the task demands unnatural patience and persistence on the reader’s part.

The unremitting complexity of The Old Gringo’s telling would be painful if one were less reverent of its author. For myself, I’m not convinced that any novelist has the right to baffle the reader to the extent Fuentes does and still expect the tribute of close attention. The other main objection to this work (and its predecessors) is the unrelieved sombreness of tone. In lectures, the author reveals a delightful gift of humorous storytelling. This, together with his interest in Cervantes, about whom he has written a critical commentary, suggests that Fuentes might well find black comedy a congenial new territory.

Born in 1943, Reinaldo Arenas is one of the expelled Marielitos who came over to the US in 1980. Farewell to the Sea is a massive extract from a five-part work in progress whose final scale will be Himalayan. It is subtitled ‘A Novel of Cuba’. In fact, it might more accurately be called ‘a novel in spite of Cuba’. A stark epilogue records the manuscript’s trials. The first version of the novel was stolen in Havana in 1969; the second version was confiscated by the Cuban authorities in 1971; a third version was smuggled out of the country (some six years before the author himself could escape) in 1974. It was published in Spanish in Barcelona in 1982 and now this fourth version (translated by a professor of English at San Juan) is available in 1986.

Farewell to the Sea has a tiny plot buried under a mass of verbiage. As far as I can make out, it goes like this. Hector and his wife take a cabin by the seaside for six days. They have their baby boy with them. Their aim is to recover the spirit of their early marriage. Hector is a poet, a disillusioned revolutionary and, it emerges, a covert pederast, currently a very serious crime in Cuba. His wife suspects that he has already been at the resort without her. One supposes that in the course of the week Hector has an affair with a young boy in a neighbouring cabin, who commits suicide when he realises the bleak future for homosexuals in Castro’s regime. The novel ends with the entirely uncommunicative couple motoring back to Havana.

This attempted plot summary will not convey the heroic effort that Farewell to the Sea demands from its reader. The narrative is divided into two separately introspective sections. The first is made up of the wife’s day-by-day stream of consciousness. Each of the six mornings starts with a factual observation of the world around her, and ends with an apocalyptic reverie as she drifts into sleep. She has, apparently, ‘done with words for good’ and consoles herself with glum stoicism: ‘I must accept my existence, as others accept an incurable disease.’ Her dull resentments against the revolution are inarticulate, but insistently talkative and nag away interminably.

The second half of the novel is a 230-page-long Whitmanesque poem in six cantos which Hector has composed, presumably in his mind. It is obsessively homosexual and varies relatively lucid scabrous fantasy with vast quantities of bosh like the following:

swallows were gliding

fornicating above the ocean

and a bird (a Bird of Paradise because he wore a Manhattan) gobbling down his own eyes masturbates with the hand of God. God, said the blackbirds, banging flagpoles to the beat of the choral chant of the dead cousins who fell over the area, unannounced by the one-legged prestidigitator with the big beard (but bald on top).

There’s a certain brio to this, and of course surrealism – the very technique – makes a counter-totalitarian protest. But what is a Manhattan, and what are these fornicating swallows and masturbating blackbirds? The prestidigitator with the big beard must be Castro, but the missing leg is mysterious.

Neil Bissoondath’s Digging up the mountains is a first book and a collection of short stories. The separate pieces are linked by an embittered sense of expatriation. Bissoondath himself was born in colonial Trinidad in 1955 and emigrated to Canada in 1973 after Independence. The title story records the government campaign against the Indian middle class which sanctioned murder, Bissoondath alleges, and eventually drove people like him into exile. The ruling West Indian blacks are generally portrayed by Bissoondath as arrogant and brutal. At home they are grossly incompetent and violent. Abroad they are vulgar and absurd. ‘Dancing’ is the autobiographical account of a former fifty-dollar-a-month black maid, Sheila. She comes to Toronto, where she is picked up by a sponsoring relative who takes her to a blues party. A white neighbour complains at the din, and the West Indians insult and threaten him with the ‘Untarryo Human Right Commission’. The ‘racialists’, they explain, ‘owe us. And we going to collect.’ Another more spiteful story portrays a black ‘revolutionary’ studying in Canada who cannot read the name ‘Lenin’ or spell ‘proletariat’. More effective is the gentler piece ‘Insecurity’, the comic portrait of an Indian merchant vacillating about whether to buy a house in distant Canada. When Bissoondath comes to terms with his racial anger he will be a writer worth watching.