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Carlos Fuentes: 1928—: Novelist , Essayist - First Writings In English

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In the early 1940s Fuentes lived in Argentina and Chile; he first took up residence in Mexico only at the age of 16. His first attempts at writing had been in English (at age 13 he was already a published short story writer), but in the process of reconnecting with Mexican culture he switched to Spanish. "I wasn't adding anything to the English language," he explained to Publishers Weekly. "I thought I could struggle more with the Spanish language and be on the edge of the precipice. My dreams were certainly in Spanish, my insults were in Spanish, my lovemaking was in Spanish, so I had to write in Spanish finally."

Fuentes wrote for a Mexican weekly called Siempre in the 1940s, but then resolved to follow in the professional path his father had laid down. He enrolled in law school at the National University of Mexico, graduating in 1948 and going on for further study in international law in Geneva, Switzerland. There he was sidetracked by his literary interests. He had already taught himself to read French by sitting down with a dictionary and the novels of Honoré de Balzac, and now he encountered the iconic works of European modernism in several languages—the Austrian epic-intellectual novelist Thomas Mann, the experimental French poet Arthur Rim-baud, and the expatriate Irish tradition-breaker James Joyce. These influences gave him the tools to express the complexities of his country's cultural background—and of his own.

At a Glance . . .

Born November 11, 1928, in Panama City, Panama; Mexican citizen; son of Rafael Fuentes Boettiger and Berta Macias Rivas; married Rita Macedo, 1959 (divorced, 1969); married Sylvia Lemus, 1973; children: (first marriage) Cecilia; (second marriage) Carlos Rafael, Natasha. Education: National University of Mexico, LL.B., 1948; graduate study, Institute des Hautes Etudes, Geneva, Switzerland.

Career: International Labor Organization, Geneva, Switzerland, secretary of the Mexican delegation, 1950-52; Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Mexico City, assistant chief of press section, 1954; National University of Mexico, secretary and assistant director of cultural dissemination, 1955-56, head of department of cultural relations, 1957-59; published debut novel, La región más transparente, 1958; Mexican ambassador to France, 1975-77; Cambridge University, Norman Maccoll Lecturer, 1977, Simon Bolivar professor, 1986-87; Barnard Coll., New York City, Virginia Gild-ersleeve Professor, 1977; Columbia Univ., New York City, Henry L. Tinker Lecturer, 1978; appointed Harvard Univ., Cambridge, MA, Robert F. Kennedy Professor of Latin American studies, 1987; fellow at Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, fellow, 1974; lecturer or visiting professor.

Awards: Romulo Gallegos Prize (Venezuela), 1977, for Terra Nostra; Medal of Honor for Literature, National Arts Club, 1988; French Legion of Honor, 1992; honorary degrees from Bard College, Cambridge University, Columbia College, Chicago State University, Dartmouth College, Essex University, Georgetown University, Harvard University, and Washington University.

Memberships: American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters (honorary).

Addresses: Office—401 Boylston Hall, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA 02138.

From his first novel, Where the Air is Clear (La Región más transparente, 1958), Fuentes experimented with complex narrative techniques: flashbacks, multiple perspectives that suggested the transplantation of cinematic techniques into the novel, fragmentation of the action into small episodes, and other devices. Fuentes has always faced his share of unfriendly literary critics, both in Mexico and the United States, his often critical stances toward both societies and the frequent difficulty of his works have put off some observers. But Fuentes, who has often said that novelists must create new audiences rather than simply giving the public what it wants, has done just that, gaining greater and greater repute over a five-decade career.


He first came to international attention with The Death of Artemio Cruz (La muerte de Artemio Cruz, 1962), a novel that seems cut from the fabric of modern Mexican life and that remains one of the best known works in the Fuentes canon. The book depicts the life of a ruthless Mexican millionaire; told from the perspective of his deathbed, it shifts between first-person, second-person (an unusual device cultivated by Fuentes), and third-person narration. The 1967 Fuentes novel A Change of Skin (Cambio de piel, 1967) featured another common trait in the author's output: an intense eroticism that sometimes put him at odds with his predominantly Catholic surroundings in Hispanic countries.


Fuentes showed a new level of literary ambition in the 1975 novel Terra Nostra, an 800-page tome that spans three continents and ranges temporally from the creation scenes of the biblical book of Genesis to the 21st century. "My chief stylistic device in 'Terra Nostra' is to follow every statement by a counter statement and every image by its opposite," Fuentes said in a New York Times Book Review interview quoted in Contemporary Authors. The result was a modern epic that matched the creations of the most stylistically challenging European writers, such as Joyce. Such devices posed readers considerable difficulties in understanding the book. Fuentes, however, believed that he had perfected his literary craft with the novel, and indeed his output since then has been both large and of a consistently high level.


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