A Conversation With Author Carlos Fuentes

Carlos Fuentes, one of the most influential writers in the Latin American world, died Tuesday at a hospital in Mexico City. He was 83. A prolific writer, Fuentes wrote novels, short stories and plays, as well as political nonfiction and essays that criticized the Mexican government during the 1980s and '90s.

Along with Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mario Vargas Llosa and Julio Cortazar, he helped spread Latin American literature to a wider international audience throughout the 20th century, with novels like The Death of Artemio Cruz and The Old Gringo, which became the first Latin American novel to make it to The New York Times best-seller list.

Fuentes appeared on Fresh Air twice, first in 1987 and then again in 1994. We'll listen back to highlights from 1987.

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Carlos Fuentes, the Mexican writer and intellectual who helped spark an explosion of Latin American literature in the '60s and '70s, died Tuesday in Mexico City. He was 83. Fuentes is remembered for many novels which blended reality and fantasy and dealt with social and political issues. Many regard his 1962 work, "The Death of Artemio Cruz," as his finest. His 1985 book, "The Old Gringo," was widely read in the U.S. and made into a movie starring Gregory Peck.

Fuentes was an outspoken advocate for social justice, but refused to embrace political orthodoxy. He praised Castro's revolution and later rejected it and called Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez a tropical Mussolini. He served for two years as Mexico's ambassador to France. Fuentes' father was a career diplomat. From the ages of four to 11, Carlos lived in Washington, D.C. where his father was stationed.

Carlos Fuentes never stopped writing. His last novel, "Destiny and Desire" was published last year. Terry spoke to him in 1987. He told her that even though he was fluent in English, French, and Italian, he could only write fiction in his mother tongue, Spanish.

CARLOS FUENTES: All my dreams are in Spanish. It happens to be the language I insult in, which is also very important. I don't feel insults in English or French. They mean nothing. But in this...

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

The word doesn't have the power.

FUENTES: It doesn't have any power, whereas an insult in Spanish really, really sets me boiling. And it's the language of love for me. Curious. It's the only language I can make love with, which is why I always married Mexican women who can understand me, I guess.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: When you were growing up in the United States, when your father was a diplomat based in Washington...

FUENTES: Yes.

GROSS: ...did you feel especially Mexican or American?

FUENTES: Well, I was made to feel very Mexican by the American kids, you know, who were rough and tough on me sometimes when Mexico crept into the news. Mexico, you recall, was the kind of Nicaragua of the 1920s and '30s for the United States, the beast down south, the leftist, the revolutionaries, the Marxist and communists and all that.

And so, I was identified with my country and, in spite of being a child, what my country was doing. And I had not been identified, well, the American children made me feel identified.

GROSS: So when you returned to Mexico when you were around 11, did you feel, well, now I can learn what Mexico is really like? You were too young to really understand it when you left.

FUENTES: No. Yeah, yeah. I only came back to Mexico when I was 15 years old, because after living in the United States I went on to Chile and Argentina because I was following my father as a diplomat, you see, when I was a child, a young man. And so, I only came back to Mexico to live permanently when I was 16 years old. And then it was a great discovery because I had to contrast what I had imagined Mexico to be with what Mexico actually was.

And in the tension between my imagination and reality, my literary possibilities as a novelist were born, because I started dealing with this tension, with this rupture between reality and the imagined that I experienced when I returned as a teenager.

GROSS: Could you give us a sense of what you were imagining that didn't exist in reality?

FUENTES: Yeah. I felt that the country was above criticism because it was so assailed by the Americans. So assailed by the United States, I had to defend it constantly. Well, I arrived and I found that it was not a perfect country and that I had to deal with the imperfections as well as with the ideals of Mexico. And I discovered very quickly that criticism is a form of optimism, and that when you are silent about the shortcomings of your society, you're very pessimistic about that society.

And it's only when you speak truthfully about it that you show your faith in that society, which is something that jingoists and chauvinists in any country, Mexico, the United States, do not understand well.

GROSS: You've said that as a young man in Mexico when you were, oh, a teenager around 18 or so, that you started to immerse yourself in the life of the city and you started hanging around with stripteasers and magicians and mariachis. And I'd like to know whether that was to get a sense of, like, the bohemian life or to get a sense of Mexico.

FUENTES: No, it was great fun. That was all.

GROSS: It was great fun. It was none of the above.

FUENTES: It was not part of any plan.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FUENTES: It was not part of any plan. It was simply that Mexico City was becoming a metropolis in the 1940s, and it was great fun to hang out with all these people, you know. It was such a mixture. Many emigres came to Mexico during the war from Europe. Then when you started getting the persecution of the red scares in this country, a lot of people from Hollywood and American left-wingers arrived in Mexico and it was a nice stew, you know.

There were a lot of tendencies, a lot of interesting people, and I was fortunate enough to be a teenager then, to be able to mix with all of this. And with the popular life of the city, which was fantastic and the city was very beautiful and it was small. You could walk it. You could have it in your hand. Now it spills over. It's like a cancer.

GROSS: How did your parents react to your hanging out with whores and magicians?

FUENTES: Very badly. They wanted me to be a nice young lawyer. And, well, I just went through that experience, which was fundamental for me as a writer because it was the subject matter of my first novel. If I hadn't lived that, probably I would not have written the first novel I wrote, you see.

GROSS: Well, you mentioned this coexistence of reality and un-reality and reality and magic.

FUENTES: Yeah.

GROSS: And I think one could say that that was a kind of theme through the Latin American novel, as we've come to call it.

FUENTES: Yeah.

GROSS: You know, I also wondered why that is, why there is so much magic and surrealism in Latin American fiction. I don't know if you have any ideas about that.

FUENTES: Yeah, I have many ideas and I think one shouldn't generalize totally about this because there are authors in whom this does not occur. We're dealing really with something beyond what you're saying, which is the great theme of fiction, the great theme of novels since Cervantes and "Don Quixote," and he inaugurated it, which is the relation between reality and illusion, or between imagination and daily life.

The great problem proposed by "Don Quixote," which is present in every single novel you care to mention. I don't know a novel where that is not present - what is reality and what is illusion? Only the Latin American novelist perhaps because of the quantity of unresolved problems in our society, of the burning search for identity in our societies, of the magnitude of our geography, our distances, because of the grotesqueness sometimes of our political life.

We've had to deal with it in a more baroque and a more underlying fashion, if you will, because it's the only way to deal with the magnitude of the problems of the characters in history, of the length of the rivers, the height of the mountains. It's a bit overpowering, you know. So, the response is sometimes the response of further extravagance, a greater imagination in fiction than reality offers to you.

GROSS: You've always been politically engaged in one way or another. I mean, some writers are and some writers aren't. Were there any writers who inspired you to have this politically engaged kind of fiction?

FUENTES: Well, I don't know if anybody inspired me. I felt it was simply a natural thing to do in my case in Latin America, and that I was doing it not so much as a writer but as a concerned citizen. And that I would not confuse my writing with my politics. And I think this is something you can say of most of the Latin American writers.

You have writers on the left; you have writers on the right in Latin America. But when they're good writers, you don't feel that they're imposing their politics on you or using their novels as soap boxes. On the contrary, they're extremely respectful.

I mean, Garcia Marquez on the left, I have yet to see where he preaches any leftist doctrine in one of his novels. Or Jorge Luis Borges on the right, again, he was not a propagandist for any conservative creed.

So, this is what I mean that basically one must understand these attitudes at the level of citizen concern, of citizen activity. And when all is said and done, what matters are the books, not the politics. If we were to judge Balzac or Ezra Pound or P.G. Wodehouse by their politics, not by their books, we would be very, very wrong.

DAVIES: Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes speaking with Terry Gross, recorded in 1987. Fuentes died Tuesday in Mexico City. He was 83.

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