Christopher, the new Columbus, is conceived on a beach at Acapulco at the beginning of 1992. Mexico’s overseas debt stands at $1492 billion, soon to rise to $1992 billion, and the Yucatan peninsula has been ceded to the Club Mediterranée in the vain hope of paying the interest. The population of Mexico, or Makesicko, City has reached thirty million human beings and four times as many rats. Further north, the greater part of the old republic has been annexed by the United States, and further north still the Last Playboy Centerfold Contest is being held in Chicago – perhaps the one cheerful prophecy that Carlos Fuentes has to offer. Meanwhile, Chile is struck by a catastrophic earthquake, so that the whole country together with General Pinochet (who is still its leader) dissolves like a sugar lump into the sea.
Nobody would choose to be born into a world such as this, so Christopher’s birth is postponed until the final page of the novel, which has a time-span of exactly nine months. First published in Spanish in 1987, Christopher Unborn was written or finished, to judge by the internal evidence, immediately after the Mexico City earthquake of 19 September 1985. Fuentes’s basic prediction, in this sprawling national epic, is that things will go on falling apart. Within the womb Christopher, our narrator, is relatively safe, yet even here there are tremors, upheavals and palpitations. Carlos Fuentes is known for his advocacy of an ‘aesthetics of instability’, according to which the novel is most itself when it appears to be tottering on its very foundations. The result is a pocket apocalypse (or Acapulcalypse), a deconstructive narrative high on the Richter scale and richly productive of laughter, confusion, nausea and fear.
Christopher Unborn is first and foremost a deliberate verbal artefact, full of vertiginous punning and Post-Modernist self-consciousness. At one point Christopher, the foetus-narrator, expounds his own literary genealogy, which includes Tristram Shandy, Nikolai Gogol, Pierre Menard (author of Don Quixote) and many others of what he calls the ‘Sons of La Mancha’. Fuentes has written elsewhere that Cervantes’s great subject is the ‘madness of reading’, a phrase which sounds much much better in Spanish – la locura de la lectura. Christopher Unborn has this madness of reading, and of writing as well. The plot (insofar as there is one) is derived from pulp fiction and fantasy and features an obscure protean struggle between the forces of good and the forces of evil. The nature of the good is never very clear – Christopher’s father and mother, for example, are wayward, faltering creatures – but the evil characters, introduced in true hiss-the-villain style, are led by Christopher’s wicked uncle, Don Homero Fagoaga, and a mysterious psychopath, Matamoros Moreno. Matamoros buggers Christopher’s father, rapes his mother and tries to become the Mexican Ayatollah, all because his literary ambitions have been frustrated: Angel, our hero’s father, refused to give an opinion on the manuscript of Matamoros’s first novel. Thwarted literary ambitions are dangerous, it seems. Christopher Unborn contains a blank page on which we are invited to imagine Matamoros’s novel, which makes the point that it is anything Christopher Unborn is not.
Actually this is a ‘1992’ novel, aimed rather deliberately at the Columbus quincentenary (and conceivably at the Nobel Prize committee as well?). Its author is, arguably, as much North American as Latin American: the son of a diplomat, he grew up bilingually in Washington, and has taught at Harvard. As a child, he has said, Mexico seemed to him a non-existent country, an invention of his father’s imagination. It was not until the age of 16 that he went to live in Mexico City; later he chose to write in Spanish because, he has stated, there was ‘much more unsaid’ in that language. From his early novel Aura (1962)he has shown a strong leaning towards American Gothic, and Christopher Unborn transports to Mexico the paranoid inventions of a Catch-22 or a Gravity’s Rainbow. Fuentes’s writing is not necessarily typical of Latin American fiction, which, as Nick Caistor argues in his interesting anthology, has begun to suffer from a stereotyped view of the region’s literary production. Not all Latin American writers are keen to present their work as an exotic El Dorado, a place of untold literary riches for outsiders to plunder. We must go to Fuentes, however, and not to the authors collected in the Faber Book of Contemporary Latin American Short Stories, for the feeling that overwhelms a contemporary visitor to cities like Mexico, Rio de Janeiro or Sao Paulo: I have seen the future, and it scares.
Christopher is a child of this new world, but reassuringly he is not yet born. As a foetus, he can think and know things which would be outside the range both of a wise child and an average adult: he is thus a mouthpiece for his creator, and a device for bringing intellectuality into the novel. Enjoying the privileges of a writer, surrounded by a womb of his own, clairvoyant Christopher inhabits a think-tank which remains in perpetual session. It is only at the end, with the catastrophe of birth, that he is fated to forget everything. Among his mentors is Werner Heisenberg, since already, before birth, he has knowledge of the Uncertainty Principle. And there are Bakhtinian and Derridean thoughts (such as his author has often expressed), as well as filial piety and a modicum of Mexican patriotism. Christopher, too, is more detached from the world than any non-embryonic being could be. He is not responsible for its various madnesses, nor, as a foetus, is he adding to its pollution.
Pollution, however, is almost universal. Mexico, as Angel says at the moment Christopher is conceived, is a country of sad men and happy children; one plausible reason for this, in the country of Fuentes’s invention, is that there is so much shit to play around in. No sooner have Angel and his wife Angeles completed their task of procreation than they are showered, and not with confetti, by Uncle Homero, who happens to be parachuting overhead. Homero for some reason is ‘diarrheic with terror’, ‘dripping the skyborne revenge of Montezuma’. Later in the book an undiscovered tribe of Indians, without the faculty of sight, is found on an isolated mesa. The noble savages living in the Country of the Blind engage in communal acts of ceremonial excretion. (They like the smell, apparently.) The notion that Cortes and his followers abolished coprophilia provides the key to Montezuma’s revenge and, it would seem, to Mexican nationhood: the scatological is the political in this novel.
Carlos Fuentes has written on another occasion of the silencing of the Aztec language and the Aztec nation, which left Spanish as a victorious but ‘tainted’ speech. In Christopher Unborn, Aztec culture is a constant underground presence. Rockaztec, the latest international craze in popular music, is represented by a group called the Four Fuckups, whose music has been banned by the Mexican Government. Towards the end of the novel, one of the Fuckups brings Christopher and his mother under the protection of an Indian family, who see our unborn hero as a proto-Quetzalcoatl and potential saviour. Christopher, however, is not impressed; he would rather be a free spirit than a son of the ancient gods. Unlike the fiction of a D.H. Lawrence, there is no hint here of the primitivist belief that the Aztecs could return or that a post-Columbian age might be at hand. Instead, Fuentes prints a few lines of dialogue (incomprehensible to the reader) in an Indian, possibly an Aztec language. It is in the interests of multilingualism and heteroglossia, not of Mexican nationalism, that Aztec should be revived. For much the same reasons, the MacAdam and Fuentes English translation of this anarchic, carnivalesque novel contains some virtuoso coinages which it is hard to imagine in the original Spanish.
Fuentes’s genealogy for the novel in fact suggests a perpetual rivalry between two warring tribes, which he calls the ‘Sons of La Mancha’ and the ‘Sons of Waterloo’. The latter are the worldly and prosaic realist writers, Stendhal, Balzac, Thackeray and Tolstoy. (These genealogies, by the way, are almost entirely male, and though it centres on a child in the womb Christopher Unborn is among the most patriarchal of contemporary novels.) Gore Vidal in his recent incarnation is a Son of Waterloo, a sober historical chronicler. Hollywood is the sixth in a series of novels set roughly at twenty-year intervals which he has described as a fictive biography of the United States. The title Hollywood, as it happens, is something of a misnomer, though Vidal makes a token attempt to argue that it is on celluloid that political campaigns (which are what really interest him) are nowadays won. The time is 1917-23, and much more of the action of the novel takes place in Washington than in the film studios scattered among the orange groves and onion fields north of Los Angeles. We do catch the odd glimpse of Douglas Fairbanks or Charlie Chaplin off-duty, and we learn that, ‘contrary to dark rumour’, Fairbanks wears his own teeth: but what Vidal has to offer might have been more accurately if less enticingly labelled Woodrow Wilson and Warren Harding.
Hollywood fits rather curiously into Vidal’s saga of American political history. Chronologically it is the sequel to Empire (1987) but also the predecessor of Washington DC, the novel set in the 1940s with which Vidal started the sequence more than twenty years ago. Washington DC dwells on the tangled family relationships of two ageing power-brokers, James Burden Day, a Democratic senator, and Blaise Sanford, a newspaper publisher. The action spans fifteen years, from the end of the Depression to the advent of Eisenhower and John Foster Dulles. Vidal keeps track of the major political developments but concentrates on the inter-generational conflicts between Burden and Blaise and their respective children. From time to time a famous politician appears in the middle distance – we see, but do not hear, Franklin Roosevelt hobnobbing with George VI, for example – but there is no attempt at an intimate portrayal of historical figures. After Washington DC, Vidal wrote Burr, Lincoln and 1876, which are much more genuinely historical novels. Empire and Hollywood are in the same mode except that they reintroduce the characters of Washington DC in youth and early middle age. Not surprisingly, some adroit new invention is needed, and with each of them Vidal, a C.P. Snow of the Potomac, takes us further into the corridors of power.
The principal innovation of Empire was Caroline Sanford, Blaise’s half-sister. Washington DC told us simply that Blaise had ‘bought a moribund newspaper, the Washington Tribune, and made it a success’. Caroline had clearly not yet been thought of. In Empire it is she who makes a success of the Tribune, while fighting with Blaise over the terms of her inheritance: eventually, following his apprenticeship on the Hearst ‘yellow press’, he buys a half-share in a paper already revitalised by Caroline’s appetite for sensationalism. Not content with being a heroine of women’s emancipation and a press pioneer, Caroline is also half-French, a grande dame in the making, and a youthful protégée of Henry Adams and Henry James. She is shown having tea at Lamb House and receiving Henry Adams’s blessing on the youth of the new century; and Empire, by and large, sustains our curiosity about the belle époque of early 20th-century American power.
In Hollywood Caroline again provides the focus of narrative energy. Bored with newspaper publishing, she begins a second career as a movie actress, Emma Traxler, starring in ‘mature’ roles with the help of a face-lift and a judicious choice of lens filters. Sadly, the new novel lacks both the emotional intensity of Washington DC and the historical élan of Empire. Blaise and Burden are shown in uneventful middle age, and the two earlier novels have pre-empted most of the possible sexual permutations as well as the characters’ most revealing personal experiences. A good deal of space is taken up by Woodrow Wilson’s, Warren Harding’s and Franklin Roosevelt’s amours, though (apart from the general moral that Presidents and Presidential hopefuls are usually skirt-chasers) it is hard to take much interest in these. With President Wilson America is firmly launched on the world stage, but the champagne and silver-fork Washington circuit, even with Hollywood as an occasional bonus, proves a rather inadequate vantagepoint from which to portray, for example, the First World War.
This was an epoch when Presidential illnesses had much impact on political life, and in Hollywood the characters suffer from so many ailments – diabetes, ulcers, high blood pressure, appendicitis, polio, the Spanish flu – as to constitute a serious health warning about the dangers of power and ambition. Dinner at the White House with the sinister Warren Hardings is neatly compared to an evening with the Macbeths, but a page or two later Harding dies of an apoplexy, so poetic justice is seen to be done. Hollywood is a well-made novel with much wit of the ‘little did they know’ sort, which is perhaps easy enough in historical fiction. To the British Ambassador Washington in the 1880s was a minor capital, and ‘Buenos Aires was more desirable and more worldly.’ Then there are the Bolsheviks (‘At the beginning, we really did think they were an improvement’) Franklin Roosevelt after his attack of polio (‘would never walk – much less run for office – again’) and Hollywood itself, which is seen to have ‘all the charms of village life and none of the drawbacks’.
Champagne and silver forks are in short supply in Falls, North Carolina, where Allan Gurganus’s Confederate widow has lived for more than ninety years. A first-person narrator – ‘My English may be ugly as a mud fence but I know what a story is,’ she boasts – Lucy Marsden tells her story, and many other people’s stories, to an anonymous listener equipped with a tape-recorder. The garrulous old lady’s Carolina brogue is not wholly consistent, however. ‘Novocained’, ‘unguided missile’ and other coinages are part of her vocabulary, and it seems that a ghost writer has been at work. Gurganus’s mannered, rather irritating imitation of Lucy is a severe defect in a 700-page novel. Lucy is on first-name terms with history (‘Hi, history,’ she says), and her views on such up-to-date matters as the Vietnam vets and the National Rifle Association are given an airing; she is liberal on both. But she probes, obsessively and at length, Southern backwardness, the slaving inheritance, and the festering wounds of military defeat. For Lucy, born in 1885, the enlistment of 13-year-old foot-soldiers, General Sherman’s scorched earth policy, and Robert E. Lee crying in front of his men, are, if not exactly memories, vivid tales that she can tell at only one remove.
Lucy became a Confederate widow as a result of her marriage to a man nearly forty years older than herself, ‘Captain’ Marsden (actually he had been a private). A third member of the household was Castalia, the black servant, who seems about the same age as Captain Marsden but somehow remembers her passage to North Carolina in the slave ships. Lucy, his child bride, recalls the Captain’s performance of his marital duties in nauseating detail, and at some length – she has produced nine children. (We are never told why the Captain refrained from using the French letters he so thoughtfully took on his honeymoon.) Marsden’s only passionate involvement in his long life was with a fellow trooper killed at his side by a shot from a sniper. Lucy is soon alienated from her children and her blown-up monster of a husband, and her closest relationship is with Castalia, who has also, in her time, been the Captain’s lover. After several hundred pages the threesome come together in a spectacularly nasty, copro- and necrophiliac climax. When at last Lucy has told it all (if you can wait that long) we realise that the last surviving Civil War veteran has been given his quietus by his long-suffering spouse. But it isn’t really Lucy’s fault. Sheriff Cooper pronounces the epitaph on the man who became a national monument in his own lifetime: ‘Ma’am? he was one sick motherfucker.’
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