Carlos Fuentes: the Balzac of Mexico?


Carlos Fuentes: the Balzac of Mexico?

JOAN HAMBIDGE looks at the diplomat and writer who unmasked the moral corruption of a capital with a brown cloud hanging over it.



Carlos Fuentes (1928-2012) was an exceptional Mexican writer, typified in 1988 as a “guerrilla dandy" by Enrique Krauze, a Mexican historian. He was described in his day as the Balzac of Mexico. Two disparate labels. He was a diplomat in France from 1975 to 1977; at the same time, he was an important Latin American writer.

In 1989, his novel The Old Gringo was filmed with Gregory Peck and Jane Fonda, Fuentes overseeing. There were relationships with Jeanne Moreau and Jean Seberg.

Mexican history runs throughout his fascinating texts and Fuentes admitted in interviews that Cervantes, William Faulkner, Virginia Woolf and Proust resonated with him.

In interviews, he professed to be pre-modern, loving pen, ink and paper. He was a visiting lecturer at Cambridge, Brown, Princeton, Harvard, Colombia, Cornell and other ivy leagues. As a writer, of course, although he was trained in law. He studied in Chile, Mexico City, Switzerland and the US. He was fluent in French and English.

He remembers the moment he wanted to write:

It was in Zurich, having dinner on the lake, when I saw Thomas Mann having dinner next to me. I was 21 years old.

And there was a feud with writer Octavia Paz over the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua.

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Carnivalesque is how his work was characterised by Pedro García-Caro in Defining Moments in Books: The Greatest Books, Writers, Characters, Passages and Events that Shook the Literary World — Lucy Daniel (editor).

As the child of diplomats, he visited several countries outside Mexico. He offered the view from the outside and a critique of politics and history.

La región más transparente from 1958, aka Where the Air Is Clear, tells the story of Federico Robbles. He abandoned his political beliefs and became a financial giant.

A biography of the city perhaps?

The moral corruption of the city is unmasked in this dark portrait of the modern Mexico City. In 2004, I visited the city and wrote about it:

Mexico City is considered one of the most polluted cities on Earth. And surely it is. One sneezes and coughs because of the incredibly dirty air. A brown cloud hangs over the city and one cannot see anything. On a bus tour, I asked the guide to show us the famous mountains. This was absolutely impossible due to this condition.


The mystical element of Aztec and Mayan cultures ultimately remains too grandiose to truly understand. The Mayan world can be viewed in southern Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

Our guide points out the extent to which Mexico City has already sunk several metres, because it is built on water. Some of the most beautiful cathedrals stand here and the pyramids are similarly beautiful.

The question is: is Fuentes the Balzac of Mexico and the Latin American world?

Perhaps, in his analysis of the community and his panoramic look at the human condition, redolent of Balzac's La Comédie Humaine.

My favourites are The Death of Artemio Cruz (with the green Penguin cover) and Terra Nostra (with the pink Penguin cover). The former  was R2.85 (1979 in Stellenbosch), the latter R5.95.

Life is cheap, life is worth nothing, according to a Mexican folk song mentioned in The Death of Artemio Cruz.

Cruz, the tycoon, is dying in Mexico City. The deathbed scene is poignantly rendered in a stream of consciousness.

Church, politics (the Mexican Revolution), conflict around a will, the quest for absolution...

The abject and impermissible fantasies make this book, translated by Sam Hileman, something quite special.

It is set from 1889-1960.

We'll take a look at Terra Nostra next time.


Some of Carlos Fuentes's most famous books are:

Where the Air Is Clear, 1958;
The Death of Artemio Cruz, 1962;
Terra Nostra, 1975;
The Old Gringo, 1985;
Diana: The Goddess Who Hunts Alone, 1994; and
Inez, 2001.

♦ VWB ♦

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