The Good Conscience

Last year I was able to look back on the books I had read thirty years before as that was when I first began to keep a record. This year I thought I would go one step further and re-read some of the books I first encountered in 1993, starting with one of Carlos Fuentes’ earliest works, The Good Conscience. The Good Conscience was Fuentes’ second novel (more of a novella, really) following Where the Air is Clear in 1958 and coming just a year before the novel which made his name, The Death of Artemio Cruz (1962). The translation is by Sam Hileman from 1968 – four years after Hileman seems to have translated The Death of Artemio Cruz, which was later retranslated by Alfred MacAdam (at least, this is what I think happened!) My own introduction to Fuentes came via a Picador edition of The Old Gringo and was limited to what was in print in the UK at the time, including Distant Relations (Abacus) and Where the Air is Clear which, like The Good Conscience, was published by Andre Deutsch.

As I was not reading Fuentes’ work in order, I did not recognise that the central character of The Good Conscience, Jaime Ceballo, had already appeared in Where the Air is Clear. Ceballo is the character who struggles with his ‘good conscience’ in the novel, having to decide whether to follow in the hypocritical footsteps of his family, who pay lip service to religion but place the accumulation and preservation of their wealth first. The novel opens with the family’s history from the moment they arrive in the town of Guanajuato and open a clothing shop in 1852. When Jaime is born the shop is in the hands of his father, Rodolfo, who has less aptitude for business than his predecessors. His son is the result of a marriage the rest of the family oppose, his sister, Asuncion, writing to him from Europe:

“…that the daughter of a Don Nobody was not going to sleep in her mother’s bed.”

When Asuncion and her husband, Balcarcel, return from Europe they move into the Ceballo home and Balcarcel becomes the de facto head of the family; childless, they view Jaime as their heir. Asuncion wastes no time in humiliating Rodolfo’s lower-class wife:

“Everyone laughs at you, you know. It’s just that there are certain things you didn’t learn when you were small.”

She soon convinces Rodlofo to annul the marriage and takes on the role of Jaime’s mother. (Later when Rodlofo points out, “But she’s his mother,” Asuncion replies, “No, she isn’t.”) Even as a child Balcarcel worries that Jaime takes religion too seriously, particularly when he indicates he wants to become a priest:

“You have a decidedly mistaken idea about religion. Religious training is certainly of the highest importance in life… But there can be too much of a good thing.”

A pivotal moment occurs when Jaime finds a fugitive hiding in the barn. The man, Ezequiel, claims he is on the run after organising a strike. Jaime brings him food and water, but the Balcarcel follows him, discovers the intruder and calls the police. Jaime is distraught when he sees Ezequiel being marched through the streets later that day, shouting after him, “It wasn’t me!” Jaime’s rebellion continues when he befriends a lower-class boy, Juan Manuel, from school. It is with Juan, in a bar, that he sees his mother, who, the barman tells him:

“…gives herself airs because she says she was real society lady in Guanjuato once. Claims she had a rich husband.”

The novel ends with two key conversations with the priest, Father Obregon, at the insistence of Balcarcel who has discovered his nephew is no longer going to confession. Jaime tells the priest he wishes to imitate Christ but rejects the church:

“The church is where Dona Asuncion and Don Balcarcel and all the others come once a week in order to feel that they are decent.”

By the end of that first conversation Obregon is all but convinced of Jaime’s deep faith, asking him to “pray for me”. Yet Jaime’s actions do not match his intentions. He ignores his dying father, unable to forgive him for deserting his mother. At the same time, he cannot bring himself to speak to his mother. Obregon reprimands him on both counts when he speaks to him next:

“Listen to me clearly now: love is not words but deeds. You have come to me with words but you have never been capable of a single act of true love.”

Jaime, too, is not above hypocrisy. When, at the novel’s end he walks back to the “house of his ancestors” there is a sense he has resigned himself to living the life his uncle had planned for him. The Good Conscience is a minor work among Fuentes’ many novels, but it benefits from its brevity and focus, providing a timeless story of both the desire for and the difficulty of attaining true goodness.


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6 Responses to “The Good Conscience”

  1. winstonsdad Says:

    Think I read this back in the day in fact got the same cover was just looking at a couple of his on my shelves to read at some point in next month or two

  2. Lisa Hill Says:

    I’ve only read one book by Fuentes so I look forward to learning more about him.

  3. JacquiWine Says:

    Wow, I really wish I’d kept detailed records of my reading over the past three (or four!) decades, but my notes only date back to 2013! Still, ten years is better than nothing, so I’ve just looked at what I read in Jan 2013: Kawabata’s Snow Country, Teju Cole’s Open City and Helen de Witt’s Lightning Rods all spring out! A strong month all round.

    I guess it’s difficult to judge after such a long time, but do you have a feel for whether you thought this Fuentes was stronger on your first read or the second one? I’m just wondering how your impressions of it might have changed given all the other books you’ve read since then?

    • 1streading Says:

      The downside of it being thirty years ago is that I can’t really remember my first impression! I was reading a lot of Latin American literature at the time and, to be honest, I remember Fuentes less well than Vargas Llosa or Marquez.

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