Instant Fellini

Tessa Hadley

In ‘Eternal Father’, the last story in Happy Families, three sisters meet for a candlelit reunion around their father’s coffin, in a sunken park in Mexico City, ‘a cool, shaded urban depression in the midst of countless avenues and mute skyscrapers’. The father died a rich man. We aren’t told how he made his money, although picking up themes from the other stories in the collection we can guess: real estate, construction, politics? (‘He made other people work and took advantage of them,’ his oldest daughter says.) The women gather where he was born, in a bare adobe garage with a sliding metal door, an improvised toilet on one side. He made it a condition in his will that in order to claim their inheritance his daughters must meet like this every year for ten years: this is the tenth. They don’t know what happens next, whether after this they will be free to claim their portion of what he left, or whether, as they suspect, their father will prolong his tyranny over them by exacting some further compliance. ‘The door clangs and sounds like prison bars.’

These women don’t strictly speaking need their inheritance, and they seem ambivalent about whether they even want it: all three have made independent lives for themselves, as a banker, a potter, a violinist. But even all these years after his death, they fear their father too much to disobey him. Or they fear themselves; the oldest, the banker, Augusta, is afraid that they have become addicted to their father’s tyranny, that they need it to sustain and explain their lives. Worse, she fears that they may have created the tyranny they now submit to: ‘He’d simply walked by naked. They were the ones who had dressed him. Because they themselves needed power but were afraid of exercising it. They preferred to give it to a poor passerby who was dumbfounded when the crown and ermine cape fell on him. They breathed a sigh of relief. They were rid of the burden.’

Should this self-accusation be read as a comprehensive explanation of the family dynamic and its damage? It lies in the narrative alongside quite different suggestions: there are hints, for instance, of an ugly sexual history between the man and his daughters. A gagging disgust at his male physicality surfaces in Augusta: ‘I have the impression that I smelled him. He smelled of dirt, of crusted shit, of sweaty armpits, of crotch, of –’ The youngest sister, Julia, her father’s favourite, puts her hand across Augusta’s mouth to stop whatever was going to come next. ‘That’s not true . . . His body smelled of Yardley cologne, his hair of Barry’s Tricopherous.’ None of the sisters seems to be married or to be in a new family of her own, although at the end of the story Julia drives off with a boy in a Mustang convertible (ominously, he whistles for her, not bothering to get out of the car).

Each sister plays out her role. The youngest is the sweetest, the spoilt one, blonde with blue eyes and clean hands, expressing her love for their father in conventional pieties: ‘It’s obvious you two didn’t know Papa. He’s a saint.’ Augusta, who thinks Julia’s innocence the ‘mask of a profound malice’, is poised to inherit his authority, however reluctantly. The middle sister, Genara, is solitary, dedicated to drawing forms out of the earth with her pottery: her fate will be evenings alone in front of the television, with a cold supper on a tray. Only at one or two moments do the sisters seem bound together in something like love by the past they share: ‘They separated, somewhat confused about their own attitudes, and embraced again as if a decisive warning – night falling, a period of time about to conclude, the end of the plot – obliged them to defend themselves, united, against their father’s terrorist wishes, whatever they might be.’ Mostly, they bore and resent one another, quarrelling over what they remember and what it means. No narrative of the family past is certain. A number of possible versions coexist in the women’s ideas of themselves, all have explanatory power, none of them is sufficient in itself.

The scene is strange with the strangeness characteristic of Fuentes’s writing. The garage is not quite a real place, and these characters are not fleshed out and made believable according to realist conventions. But the treatment isn’t parable-like either, it doesn’t aim for the pared-down illustrative clarity of a story by Borges or Cortázar: the dialogue is too rambling, the development too extended and sometimes repetitive, as if the writer has given himself up to an associative sequence, reluctant to control and delimit meanings. The effect is rather film-like – stagey, exaggerated, mixing accident with artifice – and that would make sense: Fuentes makes frequent references to cinema in his fiction. Genara does her hair to look like Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce; another story in the collection is about an ageing Mexican film star. In one of Fuentes’s earlier collections, Constancia and Other Stories for Virgins, someone describes Mexico itself as ‘instant Fellini’. The mannered dialogue of ‘Eternal Father’ could be a script for a film by Fuentes’s friend Buñuel (Fuentes describes him in an essay as mediating wisely between ‘the freedom of imagination’ and ‘the limitations of reality’).

The reader is licensed to make these kinds of connection because Fuentes’s own cultural referencing is so voracious. In both his fiction and his essays, he writes all the time about reading, seeing and reflecting on books and films and paintings, as well as philosophy and politics. In previous collections (not this one) individual stories have multiple epigraphs. ‘Eternal Father’ hums with echoes of Lear, overtones of Waiting for Godot. The writers’ worlds and temperaments are very different, but the situation brings Katherine Mansfield’s ‘Daughters of the Late Colonel’ to mind too, although it’s handled without Mansfield’s economical comedy, or her knife-edge management of our suspense over whether the daughters will escape. At the end of her story, after their father’s death her overgrown girls at least begin to stretch open in their imaginations: but it’s too late for them to learn to live in the world as themselves, or ever to speak, except in the small change of polite gentility. Augusta in ‘Eternal Father’ fears that was ‘their father’s original theft: to make her mute’. The end of the Fuentes story is less nuanced than Mansfield’s: the women get nowhere, nothing happens; Julia drives off with the new tyrant and the others prepare to take up the roles their father assigned them, the rejected one and the heir.

Coming at the end of this collection, published as Fuentes approached 80, ‘Eternal Father’ almost asks to be read as a signing off, the ironic last testament of one of the male writers who dominated Latin American writing in the second half of the 20th century. The story represents – gloomily – the problem of patriarchy and authority in Mexico. Writers are in complicated ways mixed up in that, since being a writer has seemed also to entail being a public man: Fuentes and Octavio Paz have both had careers in diplomacy. The subject at the heart of the collection is the recent past of Mexico City (though some stories are set in the provinces): the scene, from the 1930s onwards, of a dynamic, shape-shifting, erotically charged celebrity culture, in which writers have played a significant part. The stories tend to look back on that past from a suspect present in which the city’s exoticism, which once drew stars from the States and refugees from Europe, is wearing thin (there’s no ‘là-bas to flee to . . . Gauguin’s grandchildren receive the Paris papers by plane every day. Stevenson’s grandchildren watch a serialised Treasure Island on television’). Its built fabric is being distorted out of recognition by the weight of population, which has grown from two to 20 million, as the head of a construction company says in one story. Only yesterday ‘all the known people really did know one another and would meet at the Rendez-Vous.’ Now, in ‘The Discomfiting Brother’, the Rendez-Vous’s one-time owner is old and indigent and scrounging. ‘The city was growing, the fashionable places changed like serpents shedding skin, social barriers fell, exclusive groups became reclusive or inclusive, the names of the old families no longer meant anything, those of the new families changed with each presidential term.’

Fuentes is too sceptical to be wholly regretful about this, but we feel the sharpness of his perspective on the new world, as a public man who was not long ago at the centre of a different world, in which he knew everyone and was known by them all, a leader in a cultural elite. His essays are rich with the names of the greats who have been his friends; he has worn with elegant lightness his privileges of travel, of access and opportunity. The ageing film star in ‘The Star’s Son’, contemplating himself in the mirror, thinks: ‘You no longer are.’ (That idea of a man searching in vain in a mirror for his younger and more powerful self has been with Fuentes from the beginning – it appears in his 1962 novel, The Death of Artemio Cruz.) One reading of ‘Eternal Father’ – those daughters waiting for their father’s final sentence, which will never come – is as a sardonic representation, with layers of self-irony, of the legacy of Fuentes’s generation of Latin American literary patriarchs.

The collection maps the translation of an archaic Mexican culture (the patriarchs, the revolutionary-soldierly ideal, machismo, the Catholic and aristocratic traditions, the glamour of the writer-hero) into an equivocal modernity (game shows, the drug war, traffic gridlock, the sinking of the capital as the water table falls). But the writing still belongs in a tradition that depends on the mystique of outward identities, where role and subjectivity are fused; and in that tradition the female tends to be the ground of otherness against which the male defines himself. Either she’s the mother-source, nurturing or treacherous, or she’s the tormenting unfathomable object of love or desire. It’s not that the women in these stories aren’t powerful. Often they’re more powerful than the men: a servant kills her priest-abuser; an actress abandons her thalidomide child; in a chance encounter between long-lost sweethearts it’s the woman who is less moved and disturbed. But their power isn’t reflected in the writing by the roving, allusive, free movement of mind that represents the male subjects. In ‘Eternal Father’ it’s for the old eavesdropper in his coffin that all the rebellions and capitulations of his daughters are rehearsed, and he defeats them all. Genara’s return to her art at the end of the story isn’t a creative possibility, it’s the form her unfulfilment takes (‘He has us . . . in a larval state’). Pottery isn’t like writing: it’s a body-activity (‘All day at the wheel, with muddied hands and a stained brown apron . . . Her legs spread as if she were giving birth to clay’), not a mind-activity equivalent to the artwork of the story itself, which is written around her.

Even in the three linked stories, ‘Conjugal Ties I’, ‘Conjugal Ties II’ and ‘The Secret Marriage’, which develop variations on the sexual entanglements between five characters, and in which the women have plenty to say about their desires and their suffering, there’s something monotonous about their concentration on their sexual and emotional connection with men. In ‘A Cousin without Charm’, Jesús Aníbal marries the beautiful Ana Fernanda (‘tall, very white-skinned, with luxuriant black hair, and a suggestive mixture of wilfulness and affection in her eyes, lips always partially open to show off her teeth’), and seems to have married along with her a whole slice of Mexican tradition: not only the Catholicism that has her cutting off the ends of his condoms, but a mother-in-law of old family, presiding over their disintegrating house in an unfashionable suburb, and a range of relatives who seem like escapees from a magical realist novel (‘her sister, Purificación, had died of indigestion from an orgy of marzipan, ham, candied sweet potatoes, and other delicacies of Pueblan pastry-making’). The marriage founders: the couple have nothing in common. Jesús Aníbal realises he had only fallen in love with Ana Fernanda’s beauty.

In reaction he goes to the opposite extreme, becoming besotted with his wife’s ugly cousin Valentina: ‘You have a face that disguises your body the body doesn’t correspond to the mask the mask converts the body into a dazzling discovery . . . I’m the one from now on who came here the one who found you.’ It’s a neat twist in the terms of the story, but it isn’t clear that there’s any irony at the expense of Jesús Aníbal: here, as elsewhere, the writing turns the woman into a thing to be discovered and made love to and adored. After the expulsion of the adulterous pair, the household left behind revolves around the mother-in-law’s obsession with ‘That Woman’, whose name and reality are soon lost inside the habit of invoking her. ‘Some crossed themselves when she was mentioned; some sneered; some took offence.’ Valentina’s separate experience is lost under the weight of all these accounts, although there is one passing insight, when momentarily the narrative point of view strays into hers: ‘No, it was nothing that came out of her and her life. This was what baffled her, subjected her, frightened her. She was barely a rivulet flooded by the great passionate torrent of the man.’

The subject matter of the stories is richly diverse. A fictional president of Mexico, worried about his disaffected son, confronts the leaders of a demonstration of agrarian workers. A middle-aged gay couple is torn apart when one partner is unfaithful because ‘he’s just like you when you were young.’ The impoverished mother of a mariachi singer paralysed in a riot prays to the Virgin for him to get his voice back (she gets it instead). The collection seems to aim at offering almost an anthropological survey of its society, though it mostly deals with the middle classes, intellectuals and politicians and arrivistes and bureaucrats, and a few of the old gentry. Perhaps in order that these subjects – and the very convention of a succession of self-sealed freestanding stories – shouldn’t misrepresent the reality of the swollen inchoate present of Mexico, between each story there are choruses written as free verse, purporting to voice the perspective of the multitudinous remainder: the dispossessed, the ‘good families’ and the ‘savage families’ among the poor, the intoxicated fans of pop idols, the disregarded victims of political murder, the criminals and the drug-users. As a solution to the problem of representing a whole society, this is interesting but not quite comfortable; as in a Greek tragedy, the chorus maintains the segregation between those whose individual stories are told and those whose lives make up an undifferentiated collective background.

As poetry, the problem with these free-verse passages is similar to the problem with the prose of the stories: the particular insights tend to sink under the excess of the writing, the multiplication of words and ideas as examples and restatements are piled on:

This is a crowded district, you know that very well. It’s as if lives become confused here. Names are lost. Men change their lives and their names without having to or being afraid to. Like movie stars, wrestlers in masks, criminals. El Santo. El Floridito. El Pifas. El Tasajeado. Evil names, all of them. El Cacomixtle. But then, like compensation, there are all the blessed names. Holy Child of Atocha, Christ of the Afflicted, Virgin of Remedies.

It’s possible that the style works differently in Spanish, that something in its prolixity remains untranslatable.

There’s plenty that’s suggestive. The president says quietly to himself: ‘Power postpones death, it just postpones death.’ Augusta thinks, looking at Julia, that ‘the innocent only complicate life for others.’ Don Luis Albarrán decides that ‘the best way to dispatch his discomfiting brother was to treat him like a beloved guest.’ The atmosphere of the city – or of a house or a room – is conjured in the detail: ‘Jesús Aníbal would come home from work and enter the desolation of an enormous living-room, empty except for a piano that no one played and a good number of chairs placed along the walls. No pictures were hung, and the glass doors opened on a damp, untamable courtyard.’ Forms emerge from the material, then fall back again under the next wave of an incantation that’s always interesting but always on the verge of dissolving into mere gestures of evocation.

Of course they had kin but they were very scattered. Puebla and Veracruz, Sonora and Sinaloa, Monterrey and Guadalajara, every family who came to the capital came from somewhere else but put down roots in the city, the systoles and diastoles of the internal migration in the nation determined by wars, revolutions armed, agrarian and industrial, the long nomadic border in the north, the muddy, wild border to the south, the poles of development, ambition and resignation, love and hate, unkept promises and persistent vices, yearnings for security and challenges to insecurity.