I discovered Carlos Fuentes during my adolescence, through his Death of Artemio Cruz, which we studied in our Spanish Literature classes in Buenos Aires. Unlike many of the ponderous novels forced on us in school, this vivid depiction of an agonizing Mexican dictator, written in 1962, when Fuentes was only in his early 30s, enthralled my generation because we felt that here, at last, was something fiercely alive and new. Later, after reading Joyce and Faulkner, we realised that Fuentes belonged in their select company.
Throughout his life, Fuentes remained an adventurous storyteller, a perceptive reader, a relentless critic of those who abuse power, a conscientious intellectual for whom the craft of words was not constrained by the margins of a page. He believed that novelists were historians in the deepest, most creative sense, and he once suggested to a group of his Latin-American colleagues that they each write a novel on their endemic dictator (since there was at least one in each country) in order to set right the official stories. He called the project "The Fathers of the Fatherland" and it resulted in several masterpieces: among others, the Paraguayan Augusto Roa Bastos's I, The Supreme and the Colombian Gabriel García Márquez's The Autumn of the Patriarch. Fuentes's own Artemio Cruz told the story of Mexico.
No two of Fuentes's books are alike: every new work proposes another way of telling, a different engagement with the reader, from the historical adventure story (The Old Gringo) to the uncanny (Aura), from the erotic and satirical (Diana: The Goddess Who Hunts Alone) to the polyphonic drama (Happy Families). When I met him at last, after many years of reading his books, I realised that what remained constant was his essential honesty, his eclectic spirit, his intellectual refinement, his intolerance of injustice, his generosity and affections, his tenderness towards his wife, Silvia Lemus, his incisive, illuminating intelligence. He was, in the truest sense, a gentleman. I feel deeply privileged to have been his friend. AM
I was invited to lunch with Carlos Fuentes by his agent Bill Hamilton, to see if we got on. If we did, I might become his UK publisher. How could I not fall for this extraordinary man? He was already a hero for me, one of the fabled authors of the Latin American boom of the 60s along with García Márquez, Donoso, Cortázar and Vargas Llosa. By the time I met him in the mid-90s he had written more than 30 novels, short story collections and books of essays, not to mention many plays and screenplays.
We met for lunch again at Elena's Etoile in Charlotte Street. Lunch with Carlos was high art. Handsome, a very masculine figure (but not macho), he had elegance and old-world grace; he exuded a tremendous sense of enjoyment, showering his listeners with stories and gossip, passionate about politics, social justice and writing. He had a United Nations of friends: Nadine Gordimer, William Styron, Harold and Antonia Pinter were often in his life and conversation – among many others.
Although he and his wife Silvia lived in London for half the year (the warmer half) and he had ambivalent feelings about the US, the English translations of his books were edited in the States, so for me, as his UK editor, there was little to do editorially. The first book he offered Bloomsbury was Diana: The Goddess Who Hunts Alone, based loosely on the affair he had had with the actor Jean Seberg. Needless to say, Carlos adored women.
His death is very hard to believe. He loved living so much. Yet he anticipated death in his early masterpiece The Death of Artemio Cruz with what the LA Times has called "ferocious, cosmic intensity". And he said in the Paris Review, "Death is the great angel of writing. You must write because you are not going to live any more." So persuasive was his charm that he might well have negotiated a get-out clause with the Grim Reaper – over lunch, no doubt. If the Grim Reaper had been a woman, it might have worked. LC