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Carlos Fuentes: A Master Mind

After more than 50 years of putting pen to paper, Mexico's revered author speaks out about his life

En español | The stoic exterior is classic Carlos Fuentes: crew-neck sweater, set jaw, closed lips nearly hidden by a now-gray mustache. But behind the gaze of one of Mexico's most revered living writers hides a man who, like his characters, is multidimensional.

"Carlos is an intellectual, a man of ideas," says Silvia Lemus, his wife of 37 years, "but he's also an ordinary man, with the emotions we all have." And at 82, each facet of Fuentes's life continues full force.

"I'm not old. Who told you such a thing?" he sternly asks his interlocutor. Then he grins. "Retiring is the worst thing you can do for your mind. Then what? You ride around on a bicycle? You have to work until the very end."

After all, he explains, artists, musicians and writers live longer; they're always planning ahead. And who's most fit? Orchestra conductors; they're always exercising. He laughs, then conducts his own invisible orchestra.

"First comes love, for one's wife, children, family and friends. Then comes what we do as writers."
— Carlos Fuentes

That laughter, erupting when least expected, counterbalances Fuentes's serious side. For that, thank his grandmothers, with whom he spent his childhood summers in Mexico. Like indelible ink, each left her mark. One, from Sonora, was funny, feisty and happy. The other, of German descent, was severe and punctual. "They gave me two things," Fuentes says. "On one side was severity, punctuality and discipline; the other gave me joy and creativity."

Melding discipline and creativity has won him the world's major Spanish-language literary prizes: Mexico's National Prize in Literature, the Miguel de Cervantes Prize and the Príncipe de Asturias Award. Among his best-known works are Terra Nostra, The Death of Artemio Cruz and The Old Gringo, which was made into a movie.

But his father, a diplomat whose position took the family throughout Latin America and to Washington, D.C., always wanted him to study law — a wish young Fuentes resisted until a family friend, attorney Alfonso Reyes, sat him down and said: "We are all hot cups of coffee. If you hold the cup directly, you'll burn your fingers. You have a handle to lift it. In Mexico, that handle is called 'Mr. Attorney.' Study law."

Fuentes did, and served as a diplomat in London and ambassador to France. And while his deep desire to write ultimately determined his destiny, his political experience and knowledge of the law play major roles in his works — and in his views on society.

Along with Nobel laureates Mario Vargas Llosa, Gabriel García Márquez and others, Fuentes in the 1960s forged the "Latin American Boom" generation of writers whose works were infused with political and social themes.

Destiny and Desire, Edith Grossman's English-language translation of his 2008 novel, La voluntad y la fortuna, is no exception. It came 50 years after his first major novel, Where the Air Is Clear, focused a critical eye on Mexico's social and political structure. In Destiny, released in January 2011, he remains mesmerized, angry and frustrated with his nation's ills yet charmed with its rich cultural gifts.

"I wanted to underscore the extraordinary difference between Latin America's permanence and cultural richness, and its economic and political poverty, especially the political," Fuentes says of Destiny. "What we've done culturally in no way corresponds with what we still have to do politically. The culture is first-rate and universal. The politics remain Third World."

Fuentes decries Mexico's powerful crime cartels and rampant murders, but insists they don't reflect the entire nation. "It hurts all Mexicans that this situation exists," he says, adding that Mexico and the United States share responsibility for drug- and arms-related crime. He calls for the decriminalization of drug use, advocates rehabilitation and says drugs must be confronted globally.

And he faults Mexico's politicians for not educating everyone. "Without education, there's no knowledge. Without knowledge there's no development. Without development there's no progress. Everything is linked," he says.

Such declarations reflect his commitment to social change, says his longtime editor and publisher, Marisol Schulz: "He's always aware of what's happening to Mexico, and that's a unique form of community service, a very powerful way of being part of change." And, she says, he supports new and young writers.

One such author is Jorge Volpi, probably best known for his international bestseller, In Search of Klingsor. Reading Terra Nostra was "an awakening" that led Volpi to become a writer and Fuentes's friend. At Fuentes's request, Volpi helped coordinate Mexico's celebration of the author's 80th birthday. "Fuentes is one of the most generous writers I know," Volpi says. "In a field characterized by its meanness and hypocrisy, he never speaks ill of anyone, in public or in private. If there's something to be admired it's his integrity and consistency."

Silvia Lemus. Thirty-seven years haven't dimmed the joy on Fuentes's face upon hearing the name. The two met while he was married to the late Mexican actress Rita Macedo, with whom he had a daughter, Cecilia Macedo Fuentes, now a TV producer in Mexico.

The couple cleaves to their relationship, but not as if to a life raft. "There's always a sense of mystery between a couple," Lemus says. "That's what's most attractive to me, never knowing exactly what keeps us together." Not so mysterious is their shared passion for opera, art, travel and "magnificent food," she says. Then, giggling like a schoolgirl with a crush, she adds, "I don't just love him, I like him."

Fuentes gets serious when he describes their marriage. "We've made a life together by respecting one another. [Our love] springs from our differences, from respecting each other's professions," Fuentes says, referring to Lemus's work as a television journalist. He, too, talks of their shared passions. Then he pauses. "And we had children, whom we lost. The pain, the memory; that also unites us."

Carlos Fuentes Lemus died in 1999, at age 25, from complications of hemophilia; Natasha Lemus Fuentes died in 2005, at age 30, of undisclosed causes.

As parents, each has found a way to cope. "I once was told that when someone dies, you need to let them go in order to go on with your own life," Lemus says. "Not I. I won't let them go. But they don't want to leave, either."

Loss writes itself on Fuentes's face with every mention of his children's deaths: His jaw tightens, his lower lip disappears and his head dips slightly.

"Now they live in my books," he says. "I didn't have to think about them when they were alive because they were right there. But when they died, I brought them into my writing, into my work. I don't write a single line without thinking of them. It's my way of keeping them alive, and it helps me a lot to keep them close."

As his children inhabit his works, so does his soul. "Carlos is each one of his books, each one of his works," Lemus says. "Even when a writer puts on a mask, it's his own mask, the one he chose."

Whichever mask he chooses — political analyst, funny man or grieving dad — Fuentes knows it is painted by life itself: "First comes love, for one's wife, children, family and friends. Then comes what we do as writers. Without that life, I couldn't have written those books; without those books, I wouldn't have lived."

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