Mexican Man of Letters Carlos Fuentes dies at 83
Author Carlos Fuentes, who played a dominant role in Latin America's novel-writing boom by delving into the failed ideals of the Mexican revolution, died Tuesday in a Mexico City hospital. He was 83. Mexico's National Council for Culture for the Arts confirmed the death of Mexico's most celebrated novelist. The cause was not immediately known, said the culture official, who was not authorized to speak to the media. Mexican media reported Fuentes died at the Angeles del Pedregal hospital, where he was being treated for heart problems. The loss was immediately mourned worldwide via Twitter and across Mexican airwaves.
A message on President Felipe Calderon's Twitter account said 'I deeply lament the death of our beloved and admired Carlos Fuentes, a universal Mexican writer.'
Fuentes himself tweeted only one day, March 19, 2011, his last saying: 'There must be something beyond slaughter and barbarism to support the existence of mankind and we must all help search for it.' The prolific Fuentes wrote his first novel, 'Where the Air is Clear,' at age 29, laying the foundation for a boom in Spanish contemporary literature during the 1960s and 1970s. He published an essay on the change of power in France in the newspaper Reforma on Tuesday, the same day he died.
His generation of writers, including Colombia's Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Peru's Mario Vargas Llosa, drew global readership and attention to Latin American culture during a period when strongmen ruled much of the region. 'The Death of Artemio Cruz,' a novel about a post-revolutionary Mexico that failed to keep its promise of narrowing social gaps, brought Fuentes international notoriety. The elegant, mustachioed author's other contemporary classics included 'Aura,' 'Terra Nostra,' and 'The Good Conscience.'
Many American readers know him for 'The Old Gringo,' a novel about San Francisco journalist Ambrose Bierce, who disappeared at the height of the 1910-1920 Mexican Revolution. That book was later made into a film starring Gregory Peck and Jane Fonda.
Fuentes was often mentioned as a candidate for the Nobel prize but never won one. A busy man, Fuentes wrote plays and short stories and co-founded a literary magazine. He was also a columnist, political analyst, essayist and critic. And he was outspoken. Once considered a Communist and sympathizer of Cuba's Fidel Castro, Fuentes was denied entry into the U.S. under the McCarren-Walter Act.
Having some of his childhood in the U.S. as the son of Mexican diplomat, he said it grated on him that his left-of-center politics meant he often was portrayed as anti-American. He was often critical of American governments and of a rich country that should attend to its poor, but not of Americans and American culture.
To call me anti-American is a stupendous lie, a calumnia. I grew up in this country. When I was a little boy I shook the hand of Franklin Roosevelt and I haven't washed it since,' he said with characteristic good humor. More recently, as a moderate leftist, Fuentes strongly opposed harsh policies against immigration and the war on terrorism in the U.S, though he expressed deep affection for the United States.
He warned about Mexico's religious right but also blasted Venezuela's Hugo Chavez as a 'Tropical Mussolini.' He also was very critical of Mexico's drug violence that has killed more than 47,500 people since 2006, something he blamed on a failed policy by Calderon to attack organized crime.
Described by Mexican cultural officials as the country's most distinguished living author, Fuentes in 1987 won the Cervantes Prize, the Spanish-speaking world's highest literary honor. Fuentes also was named a commander of the National Order of Merit, France's highest civilian award given to a foreigner, in 1997. Spain gave him a Prince of Asturias Award for literature in 1994.
Throughout his life, Fuentes also taught courses at Harvard, Princeton, Columbia and Brown universities in the United States. The son of a career diplomat, Fuentes himself served as an ambassador to England. He resigned from Mexico's foreign service in protest over Mexico's 1968 student massacre, but returned to serve as ambassador to Paris beginning in 1975. Fuentes resigned from the foreign service again in 1977 when former President Gustavo Diaz Ordaz was appointed ambassador to Spain, saying he wouldn't serve with the man who ordered the student massacre in Mexico City, which activists said killed up to 350 people.
A believer that literature allowed him to say what would be censored otherwise, Fuentes also was the subject of censorship. His mystery novel 'Aura,' which narrates a romantic encounter beneath a crucifix with a black Christ that some officials claimed was too racy, was banned from public high schools in Puerto Rico. It also sparked controversy in Mexico in 2001 when a former interior secretary asked the novel to be dropped from a suggested reading list at his daughter's private junior high school.
Fuentes was born in Panama City on Nov. 11, 1928 to Mexican parents. He lived most of his life abroad, growing up in Montevideo, Uruguay; Rio de Janeiro; Washington, D.C.; Santiago, Chile; and Buenos Aires, Argentina. He later divided his time between homes in Mexico City home and London, where he did most of his writing. Fuentes was married from 1959 to 1973 to actress Rita Macedo, with whom he had his only surviving daughter. After the couple divorced, Fuentes married journalist Silvia Lemus and they had two children together. Their son Carlos Fuentes Lemus died from complications associated with hemophilia in 1999, and Natasha Fuentes Lemus died in 2005 after a cardiac arrest. Fuentes also acknowledged having affairs with actresses including Jeanne Moreau and Jean Seberg.
As he grew older, Fuentes left many novels unfinished with imperfections and 'wounds that make the book bleed,' he said. But Fuentes said in 2008 that he agreed with Mario Vargas Llosa to gather 12 writers, including Garcia Marquez, to each create a piece about their favorite dictator. Fuentes wrote a 2008 opera inspired by Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, the five-time president of Mexico during the Texas Revolution. He said he wanted to see the man he considered the most flamboyant character in Mexican political history dancing and singing with his wooden leg.
He continue to publish essays and do public speaking to the very end, including the day he died. In an opinion piece in the Reforma, he expressed hope for the new government of Francois Hollande who was sworn in Tuesday as president of France. But Fuentes always postponed writing about himself.
'One puts off the biography like you put off death,' he said. 'To write an autobiography is to etch the words on your own gravestone.'