The book, Destiny and Desire (Random House, 415 pages, $27) is as vast and complex as Mexico itself. Blending contemporary Mexico to its historical roots in the bloody revolution that began in 1910, while still creating an exciting tale of betrayal, intrigue, and murder is no easy task. But Fuentes has done it seamlessly and set generations of Ibero-American writers to shame in the process.
As the Narrator, Josue Nadal explains it, “I’m the thousandth severed head so far this year in Mexico. I’m one of fifty decapitated heads this week, the seventh today, and the only one in the past three and a-quarter hours.”
So what makes this talking head so different from all the others?
How many others would implore the reader, “I was a body, I had a body, will I be a soul?”
And how many other authors could successfully create a narration that has been dictated by a lifeless head?
But this is not an exercise solely into imagery as evoked by the fabulists like Gabriel García Márquez. Working on a canvas as vast as Mexico, Fuentes evokes and successfully merges elements of mythology, theology, philosophy, pop culture, penal reform, immigration issues, Mexico’s oppression of its indigenous peoples, and economic and political history and then mixes the paints.
The result is truly nothing short of spectacular, like a mural by Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, or David Alfaro Siqueiros.
One can easily picture Fuentes with a smile as he toys with his readers by posing a riddle-like aside by the narrator, “Everything I’ve said may be pure invention on my part…there is no proof I am telling you the truth. There isn’t even proof I exist outside of these pages.”
Using a novel to face readers to look at the ugly truths of their worlds is a skill, and comes flawless to the master storyteller. Fuentes forces readers inside Mexico to look at reality as “citizens of the narconation,” in an era where “the great drama of Mexico is that crime has replaced the state.”
He describes Mexico as a country of “100 million that can not provide work, food and schooling for half the population.”
Did the wealthy Mexicans who flee the country every winter for the slopes of Aspen pack a copy of this book to read on the flight? If so, one wonders what would be their reaction to having been told of the “great pretext for Mexican failure: feeling defeated, always being the loser and obtaining salvation, perhaps, thanks to the blessing of defeat. We don’t celebrate success except as a passing announcement of eventual defeat in everything.”
And a short while later, “Mexico is a country where everything turns out badly.”
These are not the words of a malcontent or one calling for Mexico to return to its bloody history of revolution and counter-revolution. At 82, Fuentes is the preeminent Mexican author of the century, the author of more than 20 books and recipient of numerous prestigious international literary awards – although the one he most deserves, the Nobel Prize for Literature, continues to elude him.
Yet he continues to write with a passion, a passion for his nation, and for his people. This is the work of a master at the peak of his powers – the power to transport the reader into the alternate state of reality that is Mexico in the 21st century.
Fuentes served as Mexico’s ambassador to France from 1975 to 1977. Perhaps that prompted his almost tongue-in-cheek suggestion made by an adviser to the not-too-fictional (think Vicente Fox) president of Mexico in his novel, “Send your enemies to distant embassies. And your friends too.”
But this Mexican president – one who espouses “I don’t want Mexicans to be rich. I want them to be happy” -- is not spared the wrath of Fuentes’ wit. For as Fuentes succinctly puts it, “politics is the last resort of intelligence.”
Former president Fox is not the only recognizable character in the book. There is a complex depiction of a corporate oligarch clearly based upon Carlos Slim.
Neither man will be pleased with his portrait. As to fame itself, Fuentes dismisses it with a simple “Who recognized today will be unknown tomorrow?”
Fuentes heaps his disdain upon Mexico City, DF, at best a sprawling behemoth, a megapolis of 22 million inhabitants, “more than all of Central America, more than the republic of Chile,”
That represents much of what is wrong with Mexico today.
While duly noting the Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) as a factor in ruining Mexico, Fuentes has harsh words for the US immigration policies towards Mexican workers. Particularly those “deported from California contrary to the US policy of detaining Mexicans especially those suspected of not speaking English.”
He takes another powerful jab with describing Mexico as a place where “workers remain stationery, though they’re needed in the USA. Come because we need you. But if you come, we’ll kill you.”
But do not think that by reading this book you are going to be subjected to an endless display of polemical fireworks.
The tale Fuentes spins is unlike any you have ever read. The characters are unforgettable. The digressions, although some are frequently raunchy, will certainly make you think.
If this book came with a guarantee, it would be that after reading it, you will never think about Mexico in the same way. It is an eye-opener and an education – all cleverly disguised by Carlos Fuentes as a novel.