Yet this description of their relationship reveals practically nothing of what happens between the two over the course of the novel, just as the summary above doesn’t even begin to capture its sprawling plot. Among other things, there is an underground penitentiary with a strange prisoner who refuses to leave even when he can, a technology magnate named Max Monroy, a plot to overthrow the Mexican government and an alluring junkie named Lucha Zapata. (A reference to the revolutionary Emiliano Zapata is just one more playful point in Fuentes’s connect-the-dots of allusions.)
Despite the complexities of the story — or because of them, perhaps — Destiny and Desire would have benefited from closer editing. At various moments philosophical discussions and monologues go on too long, tipping into tediousness. And the high-flown language of big ideas sometimes gets gummed up in its own overreaching. Take this infelicitous phrase: “Do you want to believe that sex is like a great baroque poem whose exterior is the insidious ornamentation on limpid profundity?” Spanish: "¿Quieres creer que el sexo es como un gran poema barroco cuyo exterior el el decorado insidioso de una límpida profundidad?" Even Grossman’s translation skills couldn’t help that one.
But if Fuentes loses focus occasionally, he compensates with his deep understanding of Mexican society and history. His descriptions of the Distrito Federal conjure up a landscape as well as a mindscape, as in this description of billboards along the beltway advertising products exclusively with rich blonds: “A succession of images of desire, because none of them corresponded to the physical reality or economic possibility or even the psychic makeup of residents of the capital.” Spanish: "Una sucesión de imágenes del deseo, porque ninguna de ellas correspondía ni a la realidad física, ni a la posibilidad económica, ni siquiera al manquillaje síquico de los capitalinos."
Descriptions like these, with their sharp sociological eye, pay tribute to the complex country Fuentes has been grappling with for decades. His characters’ experiences — played out on the backdrop of Mexican life with its billboards and plazas — reveal his ongoing frustrations with and affections for his country. With his critical imagination, Fuentes pits his characters against the vast contradictions of Mexico, even if it sometimes means that, like poor Josué, they lose their heads.