Thursday Fiction Corner: A Conversation with Carlos Fuentes

Carlos Fuentes

“For me, life without literature is inconceivable. I think that Don Quixote in a physical sense never existed, but Don Quixote exists more than anybody who existed in 1605. Much more. There’s nobody who can compete with Don Quixote or with Hamlet. So in the end we have the reality of the book as the reality of the world and the reality of history.” – Carlos Fuentes

We are proud to be distributing Dalkey Archive Press, one of the leading publishers of avant-garde fiction and literature in translation! One of the most exciting aspects of working with Dalkey Archive is the opportunity to work with their rich backlist, which includes books by some of the most interesting writers of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Last week, we featured British author Nicholas Mosley; this week, we are excited to post a conversation between Debra A. Castillo and Mexican novelist and essayist Carlos Fuentes. Fuentes is a hugely influential author, one of the leading writers associated with the “Latin American Boom” and the winner of the 1987 Miguel de Cervantes Prize. In this interview, posted in full at the Dalkey Archive Press website, Fuentes discusses the political importance of literature to the world in general and to Latin America in particular.

A Conversation with Carlos Fuentes
By Debra A. Castillo
From The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Summer 1988, Vol. 8.2


DC: Do you feel that Latin America, having been relegated to the margins for so long, is now in some way converting itself into a central point of view from which to see other cultures?

CF: The discourse follows this way. When you exercise criticism, you create a culture. There is no modern culture that is acritical, and the criticism of culture in Latin America has permitted Latin Americans to see something very clearly, and it is that in spite of our recurrent political disasters, in spite of our profound political Balkanization and disunity and disgregations of times, we have an extraordinary continuity of culture. Cultural criticism reveals this: that in culture we have great strength, that in culture we have great, great continuity and this is an important thing to know, to understand. First, because when most of the socioeconomic models have just fallen flat on their faces and crumbled during the present crisis, what has remained on its own two feet is what we have created culturally: our poems, our novels, our music, our old traditions, our paintings, our films, our dances….This is what is there, the rest has become sort of a problem; you know, Corn Flakes with lots of milk in it. It isn’t real. What is real, what is standing is the culture.

This is very important because I think we’re headed towards a world in the twenty-first century which is no longer this anachronistic, bipolar world traded by the Yalta agreements with two great powers. It’ll be a world of multipolar, and therefore multicultural, reality. I don’t think you can have a multipolar world unless you have a multicultural world in which the participation of great constellations such as Latin America, Black Africa, the Moslem world, Europe, Japan, China, India will be based on the constellation of culture that they represent, the diversity of culture which represents the multiplicity of power at the same time. So for me, it’s a very, very important subject as we enter the twenty-first century with all the pluses, and now the minuses, that have become evident as this century ends.

DC: In your own fiction you seem to have been moving closer and closer towards this kind of multiculturality or complexity. You have a French storyteller in one of your novels and a gringo in another. Have you considered writing fiction in other languages than Spanish?

CF: No, though sometimes I get tempted to do it in English, which is the language after Spanish that I know best. But since I have yet to have a dream in English, it becomes very difficult, you know, or since insults in English don’t mean a thing to me and insults in Spanish do. Again, since words of love in English are alien to me and I make love in Spanish: all these things make it difficult to write fiction if you don’t have the background of love and insult and dream.

DC: That’s also interesting in terms of the kind of vexed relationship that you’ve spoken about in your own life—and also historically—between the United States and Mexico, where American tastes have had such a profound effect while at the same time culturally there is a very strong antipathy. In what way is the United States a countersite for you?

CF: Very much so. That again is a biographical thing because I grew up in this country, because I’m bilingual, because I know the United States well and admire its culture and its institutions, and I’m appalled by its policies towards Latin America, and in general by its incapacity to understand the world or to accept a diminished place in the world, and since, whatever else we might think, we’re going to live together for as far as we can forecast. Or as la Cuarraca, Damiana Cisneros, says to Juan Preciado in Pedro Paramo [the novel by Juan Ruflo] “Be quiet because we’re going to be here buried in this tomb for a long, long time together, so hug me.” The same is true between Mexico and the United States: we’re going to be neighbors. Probably many Mexicans would like to sort of drift away to Polynesia, far from the United States, even if that means being further from God, but also maybe the United States would like to see Mexico go away. No, we’re not going away. We’re going to share problems, we’re going to share labor, we’re going to share diplomacy, we’re going to be at odds. We don’t have the same culture, we don’t have the same conception of things, we don’t pray to the same people, but we will have to live together. For me this is a paramount fact of our life, of our existence. It is an important sounding board also in the sense that I think it should make Mexico understand that we gain nothing by living culturally and politically and economically in isolation vis-a-vis the United States. We have to find many sources of support and identification in the world, notably in Europe and the Pacific Basin. Our work is cut out for us, but in the great measure it is determined by our vicinity to the most powerful nation in the world. It’s the only case in the world where you have a highly developed military and industrial power living next to a developing country.

DC: I would like to ask you about another countersite. Gombrowicz remarked in an essay that “any artist who respects himself ought to be, and in every sense of the term, an emigre.” How would you compare your sense of exile with Gombrowicz’s?

CF: Listen, I’ve been traveling all my life because my father was a diplomat, so I’ve always had a sense of displacement. I think I can top Gombrowicz, who lived a long time in exile in Argentina and France and knew what he was talking about certainly. I think I have something to top that, and it’s the quotation from the medieval academic transmigrant monk Hugo de San Victor, who is quoted by Edward Said in his reflections on exile. What San Victor says is that an individual who feels he is best, most comfortable, in his own homeland is a tender beginner. An individual who feels at home everywhere is a bit more interesting and complex, but only the individual who feels that he is an exile everywhere, including his own home, can call himself the perfect man. Right now I’m in stage two. I have not attained a state of perfection. I feel at home in many places. I feel at home in the United States, I feel at home in Brazil, in Argentina, Venezuela, France, England, Spain. I feel less at home in my home because I’m more in tension there. I feel more of an exile in Mexico. It’s probably where I’m most perfect, then. I’m basically in stage two; I’m a man who is at ease in many places: imperfect, imperfect.

DC: We’ve been coming back to biography and history several times. I need to ask you a question that one of your characters asks in Distant Relations: “What relation can there be, tell me, between living something and telling something?”

CF: For me, life without literature is inconceivable. I think that Don Quixote in a physical sense never existed, but Don Quixote exists more than anybody who existed in 1605. Much more. There’s nobody who can compete with Don Quixote or with Hamlet. So in the end we have the reality of the book as the reality of the world and the reality of history. The great possibility not only of literature, but of art in general, is to be the only presence of the past, the only way of being in the present, and the only way of being a perpetually potential event that can project itself into the future. That is the reality of art. Nothing else except art becomes a potential reality projected from the dawn of mankind, or from 1605 to our present day, and nothing that we will do today will be able to be a presence in the future except probably the art we do today. The rest will be dead; it will become old very quickly.

DC: You have delimited the cultural scheme you’ve been discussing by what you call “operative questions.” Without recapitulating a whole semester of lectures, can you briefly comment on these questions? They are: who desires, who dreams, who speaks, who has power, and what faces can we see?

CF: This is the question in Latin America. The monopoly of language in Latin America has been a tremendous fact. The fact that Montezuma, the Aztec emperor, had as his official title Heutlatoani, “he of the great voice,” he who has the monopoly on speech, the monopoly on language. A character such as Pedro Paramo is so important because he has a kind of monopoly on the discourse of verbal sphere from which only one character escapes, and it is Susana San Juan. He can’t have her because she is captured in her own delirious, mad monologue, whereas he decides that people exist or don’t exist in the measure that they enter or not the verbal sphere that he determines constantly. So in Latin America there is constantly a question, and that is why literature is so important, why poetry and the novel have been so important in Latin America. To an extent which is not even suspected by a Frenchman, or an Englishman, or an American, it means saying, “I’m taking voice, I’m taking language, I’m taking dream for myself. You do not have the monopoly.” Since here or in Western Europe you think you spread it out so well, it is not a problem for you. And there is the First Amendment and there is a series of protections. But for a man living in the Venezuelan Guyana in a novel by Romulo Gallegos or in the plains of Jalisco in a novel by Juan Rulfo, there to be able to dream and to be able to speak is an extraordinary affirmation of humanity. Therefore the poet, the novelist who gives people that possibility, becomes a central reality of our societies.

DC: So would you say that between Europe and the United States on one hand and Latin America on another, the difference is in the role of the imagination?

CF: Yes, I think that for you these problems I’m speaking about are no longer things to be won, but rather things to be preserved at the most. And sometimes not even that. Sometimes you very easily lose consciousness of values that you have and let them go. Otherwise you couldn’t understand certain events in the politics of the United States, where it comes so easily to indifference or extremism, or is taken in, is bamboozled so easily in this society. Whereas in Latin America it is not a question of preserving values, but of conquering values for the first time. It’s a very different thing.

Read the full conversation at the Dalkey Archive Press website.

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