Open Seas: Carlos Fuentes on Reflection

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The Buried Mirror: Reflections on Spain and the New World by Carlos Fuentes. 399 pp. Houghton Miflin, 1992; TV series written and presented by Carlos Fuentes, produced by Michael Gill. 5 episodes, 295 minutes. Sogotel, 1992.

Carlos Fuentes was not only a highly regarded novelist and intellectual but also a wildly charismatic explicator. He was perfect for the educational small screen. In fact, with such learning and panache, he sometimes seems too suspiciously perfect. In the very funny César Aira novella The Literary Conference (1997), a mad scientist attempts to clone an example of human perfection; he duly seeks the DNA of Carlos Fuentes (“the most unassailable and undisputed genius there could ever be; his level of respectability touched on the transcendent.”). Alas, the scientist accidentally clones Fuentes’s tie and plagues the landscape with giant silk worms. In addition to a lifelong commitment to left-wing causes, Fuentes was also a cosmopolitan bon vivant—Savile Row suits, luxury hotels, celebrity friends. He was famously dismissed by the Mexican critic Enrique Krause as a ‘guerrilla dandy’.

I admire Fuentes the man as well as his preference for point collars, but I’ve sometimes found his fiction to be a slog. That is true even of The Death of Artemio Cruz (1962), generally regarded as his best work. The experimental aspects of this Citizen Kane-inspired novel, which represent a corrupt politician’s dying consciousness by alternating between the first, second, and third person, strike me mostly as a set of self-consciously Modernist gimmicks. And as far as self-consciously Modernist gimmicks go, I found the book far less engaging than, say, Mario Vargas Llosa’s theoretically more challenging-to-read Conversation in the Cathedral (1969). Fuentes’s prose, at least in translation, can be baroque and opaque. Nevertheless, persistently intrigued, I’ve pushed through a handful of his books (Aura, The Good Conscience, Burnt Water, Diana, Vlad) and I’ve always kept a copy of his massive, self-styled magnum opus Terra Nostra (1975) on the shelf—unread, I admit, but hopefully not unreadable as some say.

Fuentes’s ambition was extreme. From what I can gather Terra Nostra attempts a synthesis of the entirety of Hispanic history in the form of an experimental novel about Philip II and El Escorial. Elsewhere he pursued a similarly encompassing mission. I have seen the list of readings assigned for a class he taught in Fall 1987 called ‘The Spanish American Tradition: History and Fiction’, a fat book of philosophical and historical extracts from Isaiah Berlin, Max Weber, Neruda, Nietzsche, Hegel, St. Thomas Aquinas, etc. I hope Harvard has kept tapes of the lectures.

The Buried Mirror returns to Fuentes’s epic vision in a much more conventional work of cultural history. This multimedia project was occasioned by the Quincentenary of Columbus’s arrival in the Americas. It adopts the format minted by Kenneth Clarke’s Civilisation (1969)—the large-budget documentary series hosted by its writer in a variety of scenic international locations, with an accompanying illustrated book. In light of the apparent ease of Fuentes’s cosmopolitan transit, it’s unsurprising he was commissioned to write and host this series in both Spanish and English editions.

I watched The Buried Mirror before a stint living in Buenos Aires. It was a useful crash course in Spanish American cultural history and also directed me to the best café in Plaza Dorrego, where I spent many afternoons reading at Fuentes’s table by the window. More recently I read the excellent book version, which definitely transcends the banal convention of the prosified television script. Fuentes emphatically describes the book as “not an outcropping of the series but a biography of my culture, which is really (I understood as I wrote it) a biography of myself.” Entirely complete in itself, the book has wound up the enduring incarnation of the Buried Mirror project; nearly thirty years later the TV series has fallen into obscurity (my low quality DVD copy, produced for educational institutions, had to be acquired through inter-library loan). Although originally written in Spanish, the book strangely does not credit an English-language translator. Perhaps Fuentes did that himself. His extensive annotated bibliography attests to “fifty years of reading” in this field.

Amid the celebrations of 1992, Fuentes’s guiding question was if Hispanic America had anything to celebrate? After all, it was a time of “inflation, unemployment, the excessive burden of foreign debt. Increasing poverty and illiteracy; an abrupt decline of purchasing power and standards of living. A sense of frustration, of dashed hopes and lost illusions. Fragile democracies menaced by social explosion.” Nevertheless, Fuentes’s answer is affirmative. What can be celebrated is an inclusive cultural tradition reaching back into the deep past of Iberia and absorbing influences from Jewish, Arab, and African sources (among many others). In The Buried Mirror, Fuentes follows enduring themes, symbols, and motifs, with occasional autobiographical asides. We meet him at the Gran Café de la Parroquia in Veracruz, where his father drank coffee, and outside his childhood residence in Washington, D.C.. Fuentes’s cultural canon does not seem particularly revisionist or radical, even to a cultural outsider like myself, although I was happy to be directed to Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, José Guadalupe Posada, and Eugenio Lucas Villamil. Fuentes is always on hand to furnish confident—perhaps too confident—interpretations of his case studies. He is a booster of the first rank. For the on-camera segments of the English language version, he seems to be translating his Spanish commentary on the fly, which means his delivery is often halting as he reaches for equivalent words with customarily emphatic gestures.

The project is divided into five parts/episodes. ‘The Virgin and the Bull’ canvasses pre-modern Spain, through the Moorish period and the Reconquista, to Columbus. ‘Conflict of the Gods’ switches to the indigenous American world and the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors. ‘Children of La Mancha’ leaps back and forth across the Atlantic in the days of the Spanish Empire, exploring Cervantes, Velázquez, Goya, and the Baroque in the New World. Fuentes is especially insightful explaining religious syncretism via sculpture in Latin American churches. ‘The Price of Freedom’ covers the arrival of Latin American independence, tyrannical governments, and eventually the Mexican Civil War. By ‘Unfinished Business’ Fuentes’s commentary starts to drag. Rightly full of condemnation of US military interventions in the latter half of the twentieth century, the filmed version rambles as the author outlines his personal vision of a prosperous future Latin America.

“The mirror has power,” Fuentes says. “It can harness the sun, and it can show us ourselves.” The ruling metaphor of the title suggests that Spain and Spanish America have ceased to look at each other, ceased to recognise their deep-seeded cultural affinities and to imagine mutual futures. He asks: “Is not the mirror both a reflection of reality and a projection of the imagination?” He has no shortage of useful mirrors to summon from the Hispanic cultural tradition—Velázquez’s Las Meninas, the mirrors buried with the dead in Mesoamerican tombs, etc.—and is not hesitant to extend the metaphor: the pyramid of El Tajín in Vera Cruz with its 365 steps is, he declares, a “mirror of time.” He wonders if the failings of Spanish America as of 1992 can be alleviated by ceasing to follow Anglo-American and French political and economic models, and instead to forge something new grounded in the traditions of Spain and the New World. Nevertheless, this post-colonial vision of Hispanic unity is vague. Should it be based on Roman law? Or the supposed democracy of Spanish towns?

Spanish America has much changed since the pre-NAFTA days, but I think The Buried Mirror is worthy of revival. The book is easy to find but the documentary should be remastered in HD from the film source to make it viewable for contemporary audiences.

Edinburgh, April 2020