My introduction to literature in translation came in the 1980s largely thanks to writers from South and Central America: from giants like Mario Vargas Llosa and Gabriel Garcia Marquez to the less well known, for example, Jose Donoso or Manuel Puig. Carlos Fuentes was very much in the former category, though his fame has since faded somewhat, perhaps because never won that Nobel Prize. Unlike Llosa (Faber) and Marquez (Penguin), Fuentes’ novels are available more sporadically and from a number of publishers, most recently Dalkey Archive Press (the lack of a UK publisher demonstrates the decline of Fuentes’ reputation).
The last novel to be published in his lifetime, in 2010, was the short and darkly comic Vlad, translated into English by E. Shaskan Bumas and Alejandro Branger in the year he died, 2012. It will not surprise you to learn that Vlad is Fuentes’ take on Dracula, moved literally form the Balkans to Mexico City (and therefore in need of a house). The narrator, Yves Navarro, is charged by his boss, Zurinaga, with providing that accommodation – nothing, it seems could be easier:
“You are a lawyer in my firm. She has a real estate agency…Between the two of you, my friend’s housing problem is already solved.”
Yves and Asuncion, his wife, would have a seemingly perfect life – they have a beautiful ten-year-old daughter, Magdalena – if it weren’t for the fact that their son had died some years previously:
“This is our everyday life. I need to emphasise, however, that this is not our normal life, because there can be no normal life for a couple who have lost a son.”
This aspect of Yves and Asuncion’s past highlights the attraction of any escape from mortality.
Fuentes, as one might expect, has fun with the reader’s previous knowledge of vampires. The house Vlad wishes to buy, for example, has some particular requirements: it is to be remote, have no windows, and be connected by tunnel to a ravine. Similarly, his description of Vlad himself when Yves first meets him:
“Count Vlad was dressed more like a bohemian, an actor, or an artists than like an aristocrat. He wore all black: black turtleneck shirt, black pants and black moccasins without socks. His ankles were extremely thin, as was his whole body, but his head was enormous, extra-large but strangely undefined, as though a hawk had disguised itself as a raven…”
However, the tone becomes darker as the novel progresses and Yves’ family become entwined with Vlad. When Yves meets him for the second time, emerging naked from a shower (“He looked as though he’d been flayed”), Vlad asks him, “Do you know where your children are?” The plural is particularly haunting. While the reader may feel Yves is helpless in the face of Vlad’s power, Yves is hampered more by his ferocious good manners. Even when he finds a picture of his wife and child in Vlad’s home, he seeks a reasonable explanation and stays, as invited, to dinner.
In the novel’s final confrontation, any satirical intent vanishes as Fuentes embraces horror completely, using the innocence of children, that staple of the genre, to shock both Yves and the reader. This is not just a tired motif, however, as the novel explores a deep rooted fear of our children ceasing to be children; at one point Vlad asks Yves, “You don’t want to sentence children to old age, do you?” Part of that fear relates to the development of their sexuality, hinted at in the behaviour of Magdalena and Minea (Vlad’s daughter, we assume) towards the end. This fear is perhaps also in evidence from the beginning when Yves is relieved not to have found his son’s body (he was swept out to see) so as to be able to remember him as he was.
Vlad is not, of course, Fuentes’ greatest work; it is, however, thoroughly entertaining, in turns amusing, thrilling, horrific, and disturbing. And with a classic horror story ending.