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?
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.
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.