Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Rigoberto González on Carlos Fuentes

Carlos Fuentes: A Remembrance

by Rigoberto González

One injustice at the news of this death is that he never received the Nobel nod like his two formidable contemporaries from la Generación del Boom, Gabriel García Márquez from Colombia, and Mario Vargas Llosa from Perú, the latter just two years ago. (México’s only Nobel laureate in literature is Octavio Paz, who received the award in 1990.) This oversight, however, doesn’t lessen Fuentes’s importance or even threaten his stature as a giant of letters. He was México’s greatest critic and ambassador.

The details of his other awards and recognitions, his literary and journalistic accomplishments, his role as a cultured and savvy observer of shifts and trends in global politics can be found in the many biographical portraits that mushroom in cyberspace as soon as a figure of such renown passes away. I’d like to offer instead a more personal account, a “What does Carlos Fuentes mean to me?”

I would be lying if I said I knew who he was when I met him. This was in 1988, when I was a freshman at UC-Riverside, and Fuentes was one of the distinguished speakers in the university’s lecture series. I was simply drawn to the event because of his name, Mexican-sounding like mine. What a surprise to discover that indeed he was Mexican, though in the dark suit and with a receding hairline he resembled a banker from my country. The evening proceeded with politeness and dignity, until he began to read from his newest project, the novel Christopher Unborn, and the passage that imagines the conception of a narrator who, in utero, wonders what kind of place he will be born into 500 years after Columbus first set foot on the New World.

When I finally read that book, a decade later, I recognized the indictments Fuentes was making about the corrupt, polluted “Make-sicko City.” But at the time I simply sat there mesmerized by how this middle-aged man had broken out of his banker shell. His forehead glistened, and the spittle leaping off his lips was made visible in the stage lights. He held a copy of the book in one hand and chopped the air with the other, accentuating his delivery of a lengthy, winding road of sentences. But the climax of the reading, what gave me pause, keeping me suspended on a sound for the rest of the night, was when he uttered the word, “nalgas.” Yes, “nalgas,” perhaps the most comic of words in the Spanish language, an appropriate visitor in a description of two people groping at each other’s bodies on a beach. I dared to smile and decided right then and there that I would have to meet this brave, funny man face to face because I knew what he was doing, disarming the crowd with his conservative look, only to turn around and startle all of us with a steamy sex scene, with “nalgas.” Wasn’t that always the best strategy? The Trojan horse approach: Get in there first and then cause a stir. If they see you coming they will simply lock the doors! I have lived by that lesson ever since.

I stood in line for about 45 minutes to get my books signed. I bought the cheapest ones, paperback editions of The Death of Artemio Cruz and The Old Gringo. When I finally had my chance in front of Mr. Fuentes, whatever I had rehearsed to say had flown right out of my head.

He appeared broken down, fatigued, but he smiled back anyway. I handed him one book and he asked in English, “Who is this for?” And I said it was for me, “Rigoberto.” I handed him the other book. “And this one?” he asked. “It’s for me also,” I said. He looked up at me and laughed, so I laughed with him, not understanding why that was so funny. I knew my time was up, but I went for it anyway and said to him before I was turned away, “Yo soy de Michoacán. Yo también voy a ser escritor.” He humored me and answered, quite gently, “Pues, suerte, muchacho. Nada más cuídate los dedos.” He raised his hands up to show me and I was stunned: he had crooked index fingers. Many years later, I would read how he continued to write on a typewriter, using only those two digits. Another lesson I would come to learn about being a writer: its physical toll.

I have another confession. I didn’t always keep up with Fuentes’s books, though it pleased me to no end whenever he commented on this or that, particularly about the United States. When the English-only movement caught fire in this country, Fuentes quipped: “Those poor Americans. They’re determined to be the only monolingual idiots of the twentieth century.” He called it as he saw it, and it didn’t matter who didn’t want to hear it because his was a voice with volume enough to crack the walls of pretense and false posture--on both sides of the border.

What does Carlos Fuentes mean to me? Fearlessness, determination, and an enviable work ethic. I am saddened by his passing, but the clarity of his vision, the ferocity of his words, will continue to keep us honest, but only if we don’t succumb to the deceptive rhetoric of those who call themselves leaders and then lead us straight into the poverty of surrender.

1 comment:

Kathleen Alcala said...

I met him a decade later, here in Seattle. I read ahead of him at Bumbershoot before a packed house, one of the most terrifying moments of my life. After, people brought him stacks of books and poured out their own stories to him, how much he had meant to them through the years. That second part, sitting next to him, listening and watching as people talked to him while he patiently signed, was a wonderful experience.