Archive for the ‘Carlos Fuentes’ Category

The Good Conscience

January 2, 2023

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.

1967: Holy Place

February 20, 2017


When I decided to read books published in 1967 I was hoping for a mix of those I had read before, those I had long wanted to read, and perhaps a new discovery or two. In the latter category I was primarily hopeful of placing writers I had only vaguely heard of – or perhaps not even that – and didn’t really consider the possibility of unearthing something by a writer I thought I knew well which was new to me. Yet, despite having been familiar with Carlos Fuentes work since the late eighties (The Old Gringo was my introduction), a little research revealed that he had indeed published one of his lesser works in that year, the novella Holy Place. Though never granted a UK publication, it had been translated by Suzanne Jill Levine in 1972 and I quickly set about getting a copy. (It’s also available in Triple Cross alongside novellas by Jose Donoso and Severo Sarduy, and in a volume with a second novella, Birthday, published in 1988).

Holy Place is narrated by Guillermo, a shiftless, drifting young man (if twenty-nine is still young), whose only focus is his distant, dismissive mother, the movie star Claudia Nervo. The novel opens (after a brief introductory chapter) with Guillermo turning up at his mother’s house uncertain of his welcome. Claudia is, of course, the centre of attention: charming a journalist, posing for photographs, surrounded by her entourage of young girls. The only thing she fears is ageing:

“…while the camera’s shutter snaps once and again, my mother continues deceiving herself, refuses to resign herself to enjoying the taste of her victory, and poses, poses, poses today for a cover which will come out in three months because, besides the recognition of today’s victory, that of each moment, she loves and fears the time which surrounds her, escapes her, and she can only capture it today, one more time today.”

There is a brief moment when Guillermo thinks Claudia is pleased to see him but, in fact, her open arms are for her current leading man. Later, when he follows her into a boutique, we are told:

“Claudia stands in the perfect pose. The dressmaker stops working and looks at me; Claudia looks through me: I am not tolerated, I am not welcome.”

Claudia fears, of course, that a son will allow others to guess at her age:

“I am a secret. Didn’t they explain? Claudia Nervo doesn’t have a son. And especially a twenty-nine-year-old son. People would start figuring.”

Her cruelty to her son, however, also seems to originate in her need to hold others in her power – to be the star. She rebuffs and entices at the same time:

“She slowly undresses, in front of me, smiling, without asking me to close my eyes or look away: a camera would suggest the whole thing with a close-up of my face.”

Thus the novel is fuelled with references to women said to have magical powers over men: the sirens, Salome, Cleopatra and Circe (as sign-posted on the back cover along with various other metaphors – never a good sign!). Circe also transformed men into animals, and another image used (the blurb writer feels he must forewarn us) is dogs. Guillermo asks Claudia to buy him dogs in order to get her attention:

“Pharaoh was nothing more than a ball of fur, the smallest among a beautiful pack of Afghans and sheepdogs among the ridiculous court of Pekinese and Chihuahuas which I went on demanding, not only to keep me company… but also to make Claudia realise how I replaced her, ah, and each time I asked her for a dog, she not only had to be aware of my existence, but also my intention to fill the place with a dozen dogs.”

Just as Claudia neglects Guillermo, so he neglects the dogs, before eventually becoming one (as revealed by both the back and front cover).

Holy Place is not a neglected gem but is an interesting detour for those already acquainted with Fuentes’ work. Though ten years into his career, it shows him experimenting both with layering Greek myth onto contemporary satire and using elements of Manuel Puig’s cinematic novels (long sections made up of only dialogue, for example). His portrayal of a movie star still rings true, though I found the Oedipal undertones less interesting. Guillermo’s obsession also makes it difficult for other characters to come to life. One for the completist.


June 22, 2015


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.