Monday, May 21, 2012

Forever a North Star: On the Passing of Carlos Fuentes

The worldwide outpouring of admiration and affection for Carlos Fuentes, following his sudden death, surprised me.  I thought of him as a well-kept secret, a writer who existed only for those who are passionate about Latin American literature.  Instead, I’m gratified to learn that Fuentes’s words reached far beyond the borders of language, culture, and nationality to touch readers everywhere, as all worthy writing should.

My initial contact with Fuentes’s work occurred thirty years ago, during my first semester as a graduate student and at the onset of a life that, ever since, has been devoted to following my passion for literature.  In a course on the Latin American novel, La muerte de Artemio Cruz (The Death of Artemio Cruz) appeared in the syllabus as required reading.  Inexperienced at interpreting a narrative that disregards chronological order, I was a bit lost in this tale of a Mexican tycoon and powerbroker who, on his deathbed, reviews the key episodes of his life.  Yet, in spite of the confusion and inspired by the class discussions, I knew I was in the presence of a masterpiece.

Years later, I included Artemio Cruz in a couple of graduate seminars I taught, and in every instance the students and I would emerge transformed, our lives altered, and for the better, because of the impact of this reading experience.  What’s more, I’ve read other imaginary works by Fuentes that seemed just as magical, including the terrifying and fantastical short story “Chac Mool,” the psychologically disquieting novella Aura, and the inspired work of historical fiction Gringo viejo (Old Gringo).

Fuentes, however, having one of the most inquisitive minds of our times, was not content to rest on the laurels of his fiction.  In Cervantes o la crítica de la lectura, he applied his extraordinary acumen as a critical reader to penetrate one of the greatest novels of all time: Don Quijote de la Mancha.  One of the highlights of writing my dissertation, which was also on Cervantes’s work, was the opportunity to engage in a direct dialogue with Fuentes’s conclusions.

Furthering Fuentes’s reach was the remarkable book and documentary El espejo enterrado (The Buried Mirror), a highly personal yet lucid examination of the history of the Americas.  The video series—released in both English and Spanish—was widely used and celebrated by teachers of language and culture.  Being bilingual, Fuentes was the ideal person to lead viewers on a exploration of the impact of Hispanic history, language and culture in Latin America and in an increasingly Latino US.

Throughout my career as a teacher and writer, Carlos Fuentes has provided a glowing model of the professional I have wished to become. His passing saddens me, but he has left a vast legacy of writings, and he shall remain forever a north star, a beacon to follow along the path to excellence.