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Fuentes's Destiny and Desire

In this novel, the award-winning author pits his characters against the contradictions of Mexico

En español | When he hit his 80s, Carlos Fuentes could have retired his pen, confident that his place in Latin American letters was secure. Instead, with a long, illustrious career behind him —  including 23 books and numerous awards — Mexico’s most famous living writer has done just the opposite. He is still scribbling away, and with the verve and bravado of a young man. This vigor is on display in his 24th novel, Destiny and Desire, released in Spanish in 2008 as La voluntad y la fortuna and now available in English. Edith Grossman, up to her usual high standards, presents an excellent translation, managing to transmit Fuentes’s wordplay while also capturing his often grandiose style in Spanish.

Considering the youthful voice that drives the novel — as opposed to the somber, elegiac tone many older writers are drawn to — it is perhaps only fitting that the plot concerns two youngsters, Josué and Jericó, as they come of age in modern-day Mexico City. That voice belongs to Josué, or rather to his severed head, which lies sentient and talkative on an Acapulco beach after his decapitation. This grotesque yet comic opening prompts the principal question running through the novel: How does Josué end up there?

 Renée Comet

If Fuentes loses focus occasionally, he compensates with his deep understanding of Mexican society and history.

It is a long journey to the headless finale, and to get there the story begins in Josué’s boyhood, when he first meets Jericó and they become fast best friends. They both are parentless (or are they?), both receive monthly checks from a mysterious benefactor and both cherish a precocious passion for philosophy. If this sounds Dickensian, that’s because it is, a quality which makes his references to Justin Timberlake and HBO’s Entourage seem somehow out of place, even if the story is clearly grounded in present-day Mexico.

But this is all part of the game Fuentes is playing, highlighted by his constant references to Greek mythology and the Bible. At the start of their relationship, Josué and Jericó fancy themselves as Castor and Pollux, the adventurous twins whom Zeus turns into the Gemini constellation. By the end of the novel, a different set of famous brothers insinuates itself into the way Josué and Jericó see themselves: Cain and Abel.

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