Carlos Fuentes dead at 83: Mexican novelist wrote of past, but was always engaged with present

BY ALEXANDER NAZARYAN

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Carlos Fuentes, among the most prominent of Mexico’s writers and intellectuals, died on Tuesday in Mexico City at the age of 83. The death was confirmed on the website of El Universal, the Mexico City daily newspaper. (Image: AP Photo / Miguel Tovar)

Born in Panama City to Mexican diplomats in 1928, Fuentes saw much of the Americas in his youth, which included a stay in Washington, D.C. In 1965, he followed in his parents’ footsteps to become a diplomat himself, eventually being named Mexico’s ambassador to France.

Consequently, his fiction is by turns personal and political, at once worldly and informed by the struggles of his own homeland,

Fuentes’ first novel, published when he was 30, is 1958’s “Where the Air Is Clear,” an account of privileged lives in Mexico City. The novel is credited by the Cambridge Companion to the Latin American Novel with partly initiating “the Boom,” a mid-century literary movement that also included Gabriel García Márquez and other notable writers of the region who would go on to fame.

Four years later came “The Death of Artemio Cruz,” which looks back at the life of a man who fought in the Mexican Revolution. In 1985, Fuentes published “El Gringo,” which became the first Mexican novel to crack the American bestseller lists. It was made into a film in 1989 that starred Jane Fonda and Gregory Peck.

In all, his output included a prodigious number of novels, essays, screenplays and poems – a total of more than 30 works in all.

In 1994, he published “Diana: The Goddess Who Hunts Alone,” a roman a clef whose hyperliterate, womanizing protagonist is clearly supposed to be Fuentes, while the object of his affections is intended to be the actress Jean Seberg, with whom he supposedly had an affair. Some thought Fuentes was trying to exaggerate the extent of the brief romance, and Paul Theroux panned the book in the New York Times, writing, “It is as though with ‘Diana’ Mr. Fuentes is trying to make himself a footnote to history, since, in the thundering herd of Seberg’s lovers, he was lost in the shuffle.”

Then again, Fuentes was used to controversy. An outspoken political radical for most of his life, he was prevented from entering the United States in 1963, to which he said, “The real bombs are my books, not me.” “The Crystal Frontier,” a 1995 novel, explores the fraught relations between Mexico and America. In later years, Feuntes was also highly critical of then-President George W. Bush, lambasting his foreign policy on numerous occasions and publishing a book called “Contra Bush.”

In recent years, Fuentes had been teaching in the Hispanic studies department of Brown University, and had previously had appointments at many other prestigious American colleges.

Following his death, Mexican President Felipe Calderon wrote on Twitter, “I profoundly regret the death of our beloved and admired Carlos Fuentes, writer and universal Mexican.”