The Mythmaker

Article excerpt

Byline: Mac Margolis

Latin America's literary father.

When Carlos Fuentes died last week, at age 83, the cultural world mourned the passing of a brilliant and passionate novelist. Fuentes was not just a prolific author, with some 60 novels, plays, and stories to his name, but also one of the icons of "El Boom," the Latin American literary explosion that swept the world in the 1960s and 1970s. He won every major honor in Spanish-language literature, enchanting readers from many continents. His tale The Old Gringo, about an aging American journalist (modeled on Ambrose Bierce) who rides off to fight beside the Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa, was adapted to film, starring Gregory Peck and Jane Fonda. And Americans swooned over his novella Aura, which transposed a Henry James story to the mesa.

But Fuentes's footprint stretches far beyond literature--to diplomacy, academia, and politics--parallel worlds that he navigated with ease and panache, whether in Mexico City, Paris, or Mazatlan. Polemical, occasionally quick-tempered, and fiercely outspoken, he staked out positions that sometimes jolted the establishment, helping himself on the written page or at the podium to the history and conflicts of Latin America. Fuentes was not a magical realist, eschewing the exotic, fantastical tale-telling made emblematic by his friend, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. He compared himself to Balzac and had the dissecting eye of Dickens, his tales laying bare the horrors and distortions and lies of Mexico and its troubled courtship with the rest of the world.

Along the way he became the most famous Latin American of his day. Oddly, although he helped light the fuse of El Boom, Fuentes was passed over time and again as fellow writers Garcia Marquez, Octavio Paz, and Mario Vargas Llosa won the Nobel Prize. But with his torrential output (written in longhand), his extensive career in foreign service (including as ambassador to France), and his commitment to telling his compatriots' story, he helped put not just Latin fiction but the whole of Latin America on the world map. Fuentes also had a mission, believing the great European and North American novel was flagging and that Latin American writers needed to step up. "He connected globalism and literature, perfecting the job of international man of letters," says the writer Ilan Stavans, an expert in Latin American literature at Amherst. …