- Christopher Unborn by Carlos Fuentes, translated by Alfred MacAdam
Deutsch, 531 pp, £13.95, October 1989, ISBN 0 233 98016 4
- The Faber Book of Contemporary Latin American Short Stories edited by Nick Caistor
Faber, 188 pp, £11.99, September 1989, ISBN 0 571 15359 3
- Hollywood by Gore Vidal
Deutsch, 543 pp, £12.95, November 1989, ISBN 0 233 98495 X
- Oldest living Confederate widow tells all by Allan Gurganus
Faber, 718 pp, £12.99, November 1989, ISBN 0 571 14201 X
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.
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[*] Aura will be published in Britain for the first time, by Deutsch, next April.