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Remembering Carlos Fuentes, Mexico’s Grand Man of Letters

May 16, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
Carlos Fuentes was a prolific writer -- penning novels, essays, newspaper articles, even an opera. Recognized as one of Latin America's greatest literary figures, Fuentes brought stories from Mexico to the world stage. He died Tuesday at age 83. Ray Suarez and Ilan Stavans of Amherst College discuss the impact of Fuentes' work.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight, we remember Mexico’s grand man of letters.

Ray Suarez is back with that story.

RAY SUAREZ: Carlos Fuentes was a prolific writer, penning novels, essays, newspaper articles and even an opera. Recognized as one of Latin America’s greatest literary figures and a politically outspoken artist, Fuentes brought stories from Mexico to the world stage. He died yesterday at the age of 83 in Mexico City.

To discuss his life and work, we are joined by Ilan Stavans, who teaches literature at Amherst College in Massachusetts and edited “The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature.”

Professional Stavans, welcome back to the program.

I keep hearing Carlos Fuentes referred to as a novelist, but that seems like too small a box to put him into.

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ILAN STAVANS, Amherst College: Yes, too small. I think he was a renaissance man.

He perfected the role of the international man of letters. And every time one of his kind dies, we think that the last public intellectual has passed away. I’m not going to fall into that kind of lazy thinking. There are others.

But Carlos Fuentes represented the passion for the ideas, the engagement with politics and the vision that you could go from one culture to another, from one language to the next, and engage audiences in their own realm, bringing the passion of thought through writing, but also through lectures, through all sorts of strategies that he could come up with.

He was really a man that believed in the idea that ideas are at the center of our democratic society.

RAY SUAREZ: You know, in 2012, an American student who finishes high school, maybe goes on to college is likely to read a Latin American writer. But take us back to 1958, when Fuentes’ first novel appeared. It was a pretty different scene, wasn’t it?

ILAN STAVANS: It was a very different scene.

Mexico was considered at that time to be an awkward, primitive country with little to offer to Western civilization. And it was Fuentes and a cadre of other writers at that time who started to believe in the idea that the European novel, the North American novel had both run their course, and that it was time for the Latin American pen to stand up to the world stage and present a different vision of what literature was all about and what the idea of politics and the imagination together could — could result in.

He, together with Gabriel Garcia Marquez, with Mario Vargas Llosa, who recently won the Nobel Prize, and with Julio Cortazar from Argentina, were at the forefront of a movement called the Latin American literary boom that really renovated world literature and do so by presenting Latin America as a factory of dreams and as a factory of thought that others had to be taken — had to take into consideration.

At one point, one of his friends, and eventually his enemies, Octavio Paz, said that it was at that time that Latin America entered the banquet of the West, and it was thanks to these writers that it was possible to do so. Certainly, Fuentes was at the forefront of that movement.

RAY SUAREZ: But he was hardly from central casting for that role, was he? This was a man who was born outside his country, in Panama, into a diplomatic family, spent much of his formative years in the United States, didn’t even really live in Mexico full-time until he was a teenager.

ILAN STAVANS: And that was in some measure the element that caused lots of resentment in Mexico toward Fuentes.

He was a man that was both admired, celebrated, but also ended in the — and pushed aside, pushed to the distance in some ways. Certainly, in the last period of his life, he believed that he was the spokesperson for Mexico, the voice for the voiceless in his country.

But many in his own country and in other parts of the world questioned, to what extent did he really — was he really part of Mexico? And I think that we finally have gone beyond that kind of stereotypical approach: You have to be born in your country. You have to go through the education in it in order to represent it.

He was a global man that had as its base Mexico.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor, we will continue our conversation online.

Ilan Stavans, thanks for joining us.

ILAN STAVANS: It has been a pleasure. Thank you for having me.