The writer and polemicist Carlos Fuentes, who has died aged 83, published more than 60 works, including novels, short stories, essays and plays, in a career that spanned six decades. His 1985 novel El Gringo Viejo (The Old Gringo) was the first Mexican book to figure in the New York Times bestseller list, and four years later was made into a Hollywood film starring Gregory Peck and Jane Fonda, while his fictionalised account of his love affair with the movie star Jean Seberg surfaced in Diana, O la Cazadora Solitaria (Diana: The Goddess Who Hunts Alone, 1994).
Born in Panama to Mexican parents – his father was a diplomat from Veracruz, on the Gulf of Mexico – Fuentes spent his childhood in several Latin American capitals before starting his schooling in English in Washington DC. He said in an interview in 2005 that it was while he was in the US capital that he began to write. “I started my own magazine with drawings, commentary, news, film reviews and drawings. I took it round all the apartments in the block. I didn’t get much reaction, but from then on I knew I wanted to be a writer.”
His first experience of living in Mexico, other than for holidays, came at the age of 16 when he returned to study. Like his father, he embarked on a diplomatic career, taking law at the National University of Mexico in Mexico City and international law at the University of Geneva. But while studying, he also worked as a journalist on the Mexican daily Hoy, and began to write short stories.
Fuentes’s first short story collection, Los Días Enmascarados (Masked Days, 1954) was followed by his first novel, La Región Mas Transparente (Where the Air Is Clear, 1958). In it, he describes life in Mexico City in the 1940s and 50s, with its heady mixture of Spanish, indigenous and more contemporary Mexican elements. The linguistic and formal experimentation in the book brought him to the attention of reviewers in Mexico and abroad, but it was his second novel, La Muerte de Artemio Cruz (The Death of Artemio Cruz, 1962) that won him recognition as one of Latin America’s leading young authors. The book centres on the Mexican revolution (1910-20) and its effect on succeeding generations. It is still considered by many to be Fuentes’s masterpiece because of its psychological insights, again with formal experimentation.
As with many other prominent Latin American authors, Fuentes combined an administrative and diplomatic career with his intense literary output. In the 1960s he lived mostly in Europe, especially Paris, where he met and mixed with other writers, from his fellow countryman Octavio Paz to the Cuban Alejo Carpentier and the Argentinian Julio Cortázar. It was mainly thanks to the presence of this group in the French capital that Latin American novels made such an impact internationally – “el boom” – although Fuentes’s work is often much more experimental and challenging in tone than the magical realism with which the movement became so closely associated.
It was also early in the 1960s that he became involved in Mexican cinema. He had married the film actor Rita Macedo in 1959, and during the next decade wrote several film scripts with Gabriel García Márquez and others. He also showed an interest in the theatre, his two most noteworthy plays being Todos los Gatos son Pardos and El Rey Tuerto (both 1970). The major novels Fuentes produced in these years were Cambio de Piel (Change of Skin, 1967), and the 350,000 word, all-encompassing Terra Nostra (Our Land, 1975), which spans more than 2,000 years of history and has been called “a panoramic Hispano-American creation myth”.
Like many Mexicans, Fuentes’s relationship with America was a complicated mixture. For many years, his politics meant that he had difficulties gaining entry to the US, but from the 1970s onwards he frequently stayed and taught at leading American universities. The difficult relationship between the two countries was summed up in his Tiempo Mexicano (Mexican Time, 1971), and he observed that: “The United States is very good at understanding itself, and very bad at understanding others.” One of his many achievements, in essays, lectures, but also in fiction, was to help overcome that misunderstanding.
At the same time, he managed the rare feat for a leftwing Latin American intellectual of adopting a critical attitude towards Fidel Castro’s Cuba without being dismissed as a pawn of Washington. This dated from the infamous 1971 Heberto Padilla incident, when the poet was arrested and kept under close watch till his departure nine years later for the US.
Fuentes’s ability to maintain such a position was due in no small part to his brilliance as a polemicist. He was a sharp, incisive speaker who loved to shine and dominate his audience. He was full of often malicious wit, conveyed in the very Mexican spirit that every conversation or argument is a duel that is to be taken completely seriously – and then forgotten over a drink. At the same time, he was consistently generous in his praise and support for younger Latin American writers.
His personal life was also frequently tumultuous. In 1972-73 there was a very public break with his first wife, with whom he had had a daughter, Cecilia, followed afterwards by marriage to the journalist Silvia Lemus. A son, Carlos, was born to her in 1973, followed by a daughter, Natasha, three years later.
With his new family, Fuentes moved again to Paris, where from 1975 he served as Mexican ambassador. He said he took the position in memory of his father and his long diplomatic career, but he resigned in 1977 when the former president Gustavo Díaz Ordaz, whom he saw as being responsible for the 1968 massacre of several hundred students in Tlatelolco Square in Mexico City, was appointed ambassador to Spain following the death of the dictator Francisco Franco.
After this, Fuentes made his living from his writing and academic appointments. He continued to produce novels at an astonishing rate, acknowledging that it was his obsession, and that he had to write every day. “It’s like bricklaying or making a table. You have to take it seriously, you have to practise your trade each and every day, or you forget it.”
He won many awards. These included Mexico’s Alfonso Reyes prize (1979), and the Premio Miguel Cervantes from Spain (1987) as well as honorary doctorates from universities in the US and Britain including Warwick, Harvard, Cambridge and the University of California, Los Angeles.
Cervantes and his character Don Quixote were a crucial influence on Fuentes as a novelist. He saw Cervantes, together with Shakespeare, as ushering in the modern age, and revelled in the Spanish author’s mixture of fantasy and reality. He himself drew on the concept of the agora, the place in the cities of ancient Greece where citizens assembled. He defined the power of the novel as that of the agora, “where all voices are heard, where all voices are respected. This is also the idea of Hermann Broch, and has been inherited by Milan Kundera and myself. We are disciples of the idea that the novel is the agora of many points of view, but also of not only a psychological reality or a political reality, but of many aesthetic realities that would otherwise have no languages.”
In his 60s and 70s, Fuentes produced a stream of novels and essays that deepened this investigation into the possibilities of fiction, in works such as The Crystal Frontier (1997), The Years with Laura Díaz (1999) or Inez (2003). Some of these were less well received than his earlier work, but La Silla del Águila (The Eagle’s Throne, 2003), an epistolary novel comically taking apart the complexities and absurdities of Mexican political life, was seen by many critics as a return to form. At the time of his death, he had just completed a new novel, Federico en Su Balcón (Federico on His Balcony), and had embarked on writing another.
His later years were marred by the loss of both his children from his second marriage: Carlos, who was a haemophiliac, as a result of blood transfusion problems, and Natasha after a heart attack.
Throughout his life, wherever he lived, Mexico was the centre of Fuentes’s artistic preoccupations. In his late 70s, he provided a typically graphic description of the attraction he felt for his own land: “It’s a very enigmatic country, and that’s a good thing because it keeps us alert, makes us constantly try to decipher the enigma of Mexico, the mystery of Mexico, to understand a country that is very, very baroque, very complicated and full of surprises.”