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Commentary 052112 Baker

Monday, May 21, 2012

Mexican Writer and Outspoken Critic Carlos Fuentes Dies

By George Baker

Carlos Fuentes (1928-2012) - QEPD [RIP]

In the early 1970s, when I taught Mexican history at California State College, Fullerton, I specified that one of the required books for the course was The Death of Artemio Cruz, by Carlos Fuentes. I felt then that there was much more to be gained in understanding history though the imagination of its novelists than by the chronology of facts and dates about wars, presidents and government programs. I told students that you had to understand "the sense of appropriateness" of Mexican leaders and the Mexican people as portrayed in novels. The students and the history faculty were puzzled about why there were novels in a history course.

In the course of the next three decades, I read many of Fuentes's novels (but certainly not all), as if it were a continuation of the standard that I had set as an assistant professor of history. In the early 1990s, living in Berkeley, I heard Fuentes speak at a bookstore on the iconic Telegraph Avenue. He read from the opening soft-porno paragraphs of his novel Christopher Unborn. And the handsome figure spoke in American-accented English.

In recent years I became impatient with his later novels, with their "president boudoir" plots. At one point I thought of writing a demand for a public apology from him for having wasted his time and that of his readers (the one about the two orphan boys who grow up to be important políticos). There was no excuse, I would have said, for such a boilerplate novel when narcos controlled half the country, the political system was paralyzed, and the country's Petroleum Narrative was serving a status quo that benefited only a few.

It was in this state of impatience that I wrote, as an op-ed for Reforma, an article that asked Fuentes to help us all better understand the social psychology of oil in Mexico. My essay was published in May, 2007. Fuentes had a full five years to respond to my challenge. Perhaps he did, and we will one day read a posthumous novel that attempts this most serious challenge of understanding Mexican history. If so, I hope only that the story does not revolve around sexual plots and sub-plots of Lázaro Cárdenas.

Had I actually written this complaint, I would have also acknowledged my great debt to Carlos Fuentes for having introduced me to the Mexican literary imagination.

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George Baker is the director of Energia.com, a publishing and consulting firm based in Houston.  He can be reached via e-mail at g.baker@energia.com.


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