Editors’ Note: The Spanish version of this article was published as “Carlos Mann” in INTI (Revista de literatura hispánica), 79-80 (2014), 117-126, and reprinted in Carlos Fuentes en el siglo XXI. Una lectura transatlántica de su obra, ed. by Julio Ortega. Xalapa, Veracruz, México: Universidad Veracruzana, 2015: 47-58.
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In early 1950, the 21-year old Mexican Carlos Fuentes saw the old, elegant, imperturbable Thomas Mann in the stands watching some lads in white playing tennis. This was in Zurich, and while everybody were moving their heads left and right, the venerable Mann was watching only one of the players: a young, hermaphrodite-like looking sportsman. “I remembered the fine innuendos whose weaving textures Mann’s 1912 novella, ‘Death in Venice’,” writes Fuentes in the last chapter, “Zurich,” of his alphabetically ordered En esto creo.1 Mann’s heroic irony (so salient in his classical works—The Magic Mountain, Joseph and His Brothers, Dr. Faustus, and Felix Krull, to keep the list short) is both suggested in the scene Fuentes recounts, and followed variedly in his own works, particularly in the “cubist” Death of Artemio Cruz, the fantastic “Aura,” the misery-mythical Christopher Unborn and the politically catastrophic The Seat of the Eagle.
“In Italy under the Borgias,” said Orson Welles as Harry Lime in The Third Man, “they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did they produce? The cuckoo clock.” The famous quip has since not let go of the Swiss.
Yet, before that, Zurich was the un-meeting place of a Russian conspirator, Vladimir Ilych Lenin; a weak-eyed Irishman, James Joyce; and Tristan Tzara, a young Romanian Jew. These inventors of three of Europe’s futures had Zurich for a place to adapt to during times of war, and leave for other times to come. And, after the second war, as Fuentes writes, “we turned our attention to another citizen of Zurich: Max Frisch […] got wind of Dürrenmatt […] we even realized that Jean-Luc Godard was, in fact, Swiss and that the proverbial cuckoo was as dead as the equally proverbial duck…” (330). And, in the absent centre of this undiscounted country, Thomas Mann:
… as I looked back on my impassioned reading of all that Thomas Mann wrote, from “The Blood of the Walsungs” to Doktor Faustus, I could not help but feel that despite the vast differences separating his culture and my own, both (that is, Europe, Latin America, Zurich, Mexico City) were cultures where literature, in the end, asserted itself through a relation between the visible and invisible worlds of narrative, between nation and narration. A novel, said Mann, should weave together the threads of many human destinies in the task of crafting a single idea. The ‘I’, the ‘you’, and the ‘we’ were dried and separated out by our own lack of imagination. I understood what Mann was saying and I was able to put those three ‘people’ together many years later, when I wrote my novel The Death of Artemio Cruz (330).
The Death of Artemio Cruz,2 a novel of barely sketched plotlines and an over-demanding exoskeletal structure, begins such:
I wake up… The touch of that cold object against my penis wakes me up. I didn’t know I could urinate without being aware of it. I keep my eyes shut. I can’t even make out the nearest voices. If I opened my eyes, would I be able to hear them?… But my eyelids are so heavy: two pieces of lead, coins on my tongue, hammers in my ears, a… a something like tarnished silver in my breath. It all tastes metallic. Or mineral. I urinate without knowing I’m doing it. I remember with a shock that I’ve been unconscious—maybe I ate and drank without knowing it. Because it was just getting light when I reached out my hand and accidentally knocked the telephone on the floor. Then I just lay there, face down on the bed, with my arms hanging, the veins in my wrist tingling. Now I’m waking up, but I don’t want to open my eyes. Even so, I see something shining near my face. Something that turns into a flood of black lights and blue circles behind my closed lids. I tighten my face muscles, I open my right eye, and I see it reflected in the squares of glass sewn onto a woman’s handbag. That’s what I am. That’s what I am. That old man whose features are fragmented by the uneven squares of glass. I am that eye. I am that eye. I am that eye furrowed by accumulated rage, an old, forgotten, but always renewed rage. I am that puffy green eye set between those eyelids. Eyelids. Eyelids. Oily eyelids. I am that nose. That nose. That nose. Broken. With wide nostrils. I am those cheekbones. Cheekbones. Where my white beard starts.
The beginning of Fuentes’ Artemio Cruz captures more than the readers’ benevolence—it taps into their fresh, self-serving reserves of pity and disgust. As the tricked reader will later be invited to resent, Artemio, the protagonist and proto-agonist of Fuentes’ most famous novel, is anything but pitiable. Cruz, who rose to power and wealth through the Mexican revolution of 1910-20 and after, is cruel, calculated, villainous and as unavoidable as the reincarnation of his own type: a new Hernán Cortés ready at hand for Mexico’s twentieth-century re-conquistas. A composite image of past and probable dictators, chieftains, or caciques for whom Mexico—the immense, poor, sublime land of Paz’s two solitudes—is superficially refashioned into the realm of outstanding organic and inorganic reserves. Maybe, in that composite image, Cruz is not many; but for sure he is a few.
As a critic put it, “Throughout his life Cruz is incapable of integrating ego and conscience, self-serving ambition, and sense of social responsibility. Instead, he is constantly torn between preservation of his ego—of the façade of his virility—and attainment of spiritual union and communion with others that would require demolishing that ego. In the I-narrative, Cruz asserts that his only love has always been the material. Yet the third-person segments reveal his deep love for both Regina and Laura, who represent the spiritual side of his character” (Gyurko 14).
Winning on empty in the first person, accusatory and self-accusing in the second, and losing in the third, Cruz rides on the pronouns’ backs like a cubist monk who keeps pillaging country, souls, and syntax. The cubist grows out from and against the continuity of soul and matter, beyond death. The source is always baroque—after and before all, any source is baroque—thus ruptures are always subject to further raptures, like in Quevedo’s die-hard sonnet:
Love Constant Beyond Death That terminal shadow may with darkness seal my eyes shut when it steals white day from me, and in an instant, flattering the zeal of this my eager soul, let it go free. But on this hither shore where once it burned it shall not leave behind love’s memory. My flame can swim chill waters. It has learned to lose respect for laws’ severity. This soul that was a god’s hot prison cell, veins that with liquid humors fueled such fire, marrows that flamed in glory as I strove shall quit the flesh, but never their desire. They shall be ash. That ash will feel as well. Dust they shall be. That dust will be in love.
Amor constante más allá de la muerte Cerrar podrá mis ojos la postrera sombra que me llevare el blanco día, y podrá desatar esta alma mía hora a su afán ansioso lisonjera; mas no de essotra parte, en la riuera, dexará la memoria, en donde ardía: nadar sabe mi llama l’agua fría, y perder el respeto a lei severa. Alma qu’a todo un dios prissión ha sido, venas qu’umor a tanto fuego an dado, medulas qu’an gloriosamente ardido, su cuerpo dexarán, no su cuydado; serán ceniça, mas tendrá sentido; polvo serán, mas polvo enamorado.
Such a post-mortem, geological continuity, foregrounds an affect sick with desire, which is not so alien from Thomas Mann’s Aschenbach dying in Venice. Bodies rot in myriad parts, and while Mann’s sickly Aschenbach tries to mend it—dyeing his hair, putting make up on, dressing sveltely so as to attract Tadzio’s fugitive eye—, Quevedo’s body rots in plain view to leave out dust, care, and constant love. Fuentes plays one source against the other, though. To the totalizing vein in which both Quevedo and Mann wrote, he opposes the cubist ruptures that make up his novel and make it last. The ruptures in Artemio Cruz are the initial cause and persistent result of the experiment that history plays with man: a staying away from the daddy-lions and ill stallions of continuity. Fuentes’ Artemio Cruz brings everything out, way out; it eviscerates the body, petty soul, and burning spirit of Artemio Cruz and puts them on display on the operating table. The focus is on the fly. The plot is not yet achieved. There is more, there is more to come. Fuentes is the future. Fuentes is the source—of the future: a meeting of meets—a meeting of metonymy and metaphor, but not a synthesis. Rather a Thomas Mann as the mirror-source of Fuentes:
Through Mann, I had imagined that the products of his loneliness and this affinity were called art (created by one) and civilization (created by all). He had spoken with such assurance in Death in Venice about the duties imposed upon him by his own ego and the European soul, that I, paralyzed by my admiration of him, saw him that night in Zurich as something so distant that I was unable to imagine anything at all comparable in our own Latin American culture, where the extreme demands of a ravaged and often silenced continent very often annihilate the voices of men and turn the voices of society into a hollow political monster, sometimes even killing it into a kind of sentimental, pathetic dwarf. (331)
As if it were that easy. As if this novel were not one made up of intersections. As if humankind’s obsession with trinities did not deserve better than be sheltered in their incarnator, Artemio. As if Fuentes’ bow to Mann were not reflected in some fated mirrors.
As if I were asking this novel of too many keys and too few locks: “Who is Artemio Cruz?”
As if the answer were: Artemio Cruz is I. Artemio Cruz is you. Artemio Cruz is he.
Cruz is also the exoskeleton (some would say, the diagrammatic prolegomenon) to Fuentes’ subsequent works; his immense vistas made to flesh out that schema called Artemio Cruz, the source of his own future as a writer. But this, only in retrospect.
One of those incarnations emerges as the epistolary novel The Eagle’s Throne,3 which starts with a letter by
MARÍA DEL ROSARIO GALVÁN TO NICOLÁS VALDIVIA
[She writes] You are going to think badly of me. You are going to say I’m a capricious woman. And you’ll be right. But who would have guessed that things could change so radically overnight? Yesterday, when I first met you, I told you, When it comes to politics, never put anything in writing. Today, I have no other way of communicating with you. That should give you an idea of how dire the situation has become. . . .
The year is 2020, the United States, whose President is Condoleezza Rice, have shut down the telecommunication satellite they had so kindly offered to Mexico (which had just voted against the US in the Security Council of the United Nations). Overnight, Mexico is depleted of fax, email, and even phone communications, so the Mexican politicians have to do something they never did before: leave stuff in writing. “I’m forced to send you this letter,” says María del Rosario Galván, “when all I’d want to do is wolf it down.” As cheap, unfunny, and bloody as a utopia, Mexican history unfolds in The Eagle’s Throne with unique focus, at least as Fuentes’ oeuvre is concerned. In his grand vistas, Terra nostra and Cristobal nonato (Christopher Unborn), even Los años con Laura Díaz (The years with Laura Díaz) the very learned Fuentes had jumped from age to age and place to space to surround Mexico with auras of intelligibility. But here he deals with Mexican political future history from beginning to no end. He knows what he’s talking about and how to say it. Since he was young, this cosmopolitan, multilingual, well-traveled son of a Mexican diplomat, assumed a political stand in the World Republic of Letters, as well as in republics that have recognizable names of the map. For a long time he’d been an influential mediator in Mexican, Latin American, and North American cultural politics. Probably he was the main catalyst of the Latin American Boom of the 1960s and 70s, the marketing hit of Latin American literature’s ‘coming out of the South’, with García Márquez, Cortázar, Vargas Llosa, and Fuentes himself as its main heroes. What Jakobson did for the Russian formalists and the Prague School—make them known in the West and put them in a fruitful dialogue with it—Fuentes did for Lat-Am lit. Arguably, Juan Rulfo is a better writer than Fuentes; I am not sure how Octavio Paz, the older Pope of Mexican letters, will compare to him in the future. But what’s clear is that Fuentes had the political savvy to help launch and maintain the interest in Lat-Am writers north of the border. Story has it (via Julio Ortega) that, in the sixties, Fuentes called José Donoso in Santiago from the US and told him that his first book would be translated into English, which at the time was a first. All Fuentes heard in the phone was a “bum!” Then Donoso’s wife picked up the phone and, alarmed, asked him: “What did you tell Pepe? He fainted and fell. I have to go now.” At the time of the many American boom-booms, the Lat-Am Boom started with Donoso’s fall. True, Borges was the Boom’s Pope and Donoso was among the first to be translated into English, but Fuentes was on the phone.
The Eagle’s Throne displays Fuentes’ unfathomable understanding of Mexico, “the country of dynamic disasters,” where “every thought is an act of smuggling,” and in which “the only thing one should hope for is to sleep at night in the bed of one’s vanquished enemy.” The Mexico of these epistles, though, parodically goes against the grain. “Listen to the rumors in Mexico City, where everyone knows what goes unsaid,” says one character. “Write it all down. Nobody will believe you. Keep your mouth shut. They’ll find out.” As the city and the country have become too large to be ran by silence, whispers and rumours only, one must write. This is not Blanchot; this is Realpolitik, because “all that is superfluous belongs by right to the people who have nothing.” Like—the real; but unlike technology, which had to pay the admission price—to become a religion, technology had to become a subspecies of the fantastic, like all the others, and be revered beyond the point of mere usage. In the leap of faith from ‘how’ to ‘how much,’ “we must break laws in order to preserve customs,” writes one of the characters. The interruption of modern techno-communication that triggers the letters of The Eagle’s Throne pushes its actors to commit confessions. The letters become the real, with all its dangers and rust. In that, and via the characters, some tactically monstrous, some with funny names, some extraordinary, like María del Rosario Galván, the hereditary resentful mixture of Mme. de Maintenon and a rural Evita Perón, the fleshing out of paper-beings fulfils one of Artemio Cruz’s manifestoes. In that, also, Fuentes joins Thomas Mann’s opposition to the spirit of the avant-garde. Their shared real/isms stand firm against the “irresponsible freedom” called for by the never fulfilled avant-garde manifestoes. Fuentes went further than Mann: he planned in the early 80s a “system” of his published and projected work, something like Balzac’s La Comédie humaine that he called La edad del tiempo (The Age of Time), which kept growing up to fourteen different categories by the mid-nineties. Artemio Cruz is still the centrepiece of the whole, as the aging Fuentes went back to it, time and age again, as if to a source of his later work. It would not be wrong to call this the Realpolitik of his own oeuvre, devoted to the strategic deployment of his narrative troops in the air of time. The man thought large, with the weapons of elite-populism, and in this one senses a Thomas Mann effect, the ability of the German’s novels to project, not unlike the epic, a wide circle, a hyper-tautology, perhaps, meant to shelter its readers in the largest and most assuring cradle.
Fuentes gives two alternate endings to his tale of Zurich:
One… is the image of the Spanish writer Jorge Semprún, a Spanish Republican and Communist who was sent to the Nazi concentration camp of Buchenwald at age fifteen and who, when liberated by the Allied troops in 1945, could not recognize his own face, that of an emaciated young man who had been rescued from death, who would never speak of his wrenching experience until his face said to him, “You can speak again.”
In his extraordinary book, La escritura o la vida (Writing or Life), Semprún waits patiently until he is fully restored to life, even if it takes him decades (and it does) to speak about the horror of the camps. And so, one day, in Zurich, he dares to enter a bookshop for the first time since his liberation so many years earlier, and he surprises himself staring at his reflection in the shop window. Zurich has given him back his face. He does not need to rediscover the horror. Recovering his face is enough to tell us the whole story. The life of Zurich surrounds him.
As if the spectacular sentimentalism of the above scene was too much, Fuentes adds a second ending,
closer to my own memories. It happened that night in 1950 when, without knowing him knowing it, I left Thomas Mann sipping his demitasse as midnight was approaching and the floating restaurant of the Baur au Lac gently swayed and the Chinese lanterns slowly flickered and went out.
I will always be grateful to that night in Zurich for silently teaching me that in literature, you know only what you can imagine. (331)
In turn, I have two endings for this text.
In 1999 Argentinean writer César Aira published his novel, El congreso de literatura (Buenos Aires: Andanzas/Tusquets), whose action takes place in Mérida, Venezuela, where literati, professors, agents, and the like congregate to create clones of Carlos Fuentes. The first-person narrator gets a Fuentes’ cell, for a proper cloning. Aira, the fine man of the subplot, takes to task Fuentes, the man of the über-plot. The parody wouldn’t relent: all at the congress shared the same difficulty—where did the man end and his books begin? For them, all of this was ‘Carlos Fuentes’. And so Fuentes was meant to become the source of them all.
The second ending turns to Thomas Mann’s last and unfinished novel, The Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man. The Early Years (1954; tr. Denver Lindley. Penguin Modern Classics, 1955). Krull the grand trickster had been on Mann’s mind for almost half a century. In June 1909, he told his wife Katia of his fascination with the confessions of Romanian trickster, or chevalier d’industrie, or Hochstapler George Manolescu. A first section of Krull appeared in 1911, a sequel in 1920. The volume had to wait much longer to be unfinished. Mann was reading selections from Manolescu’s memoirs on that tour that eventually spawned Death in Venice. Mann considered the Confessions the most personal of his works; in Krull he displays a parodic version of Goethe, as well as a striking relationship with Nietzsche’s self-revelations in Ecce homo. They share “the air of heights”; the excuse of the mistakes done on patrilineal descent; of course, they are dismissive of their matrilineal heritage. “Both Nietzsche’s and Krull’s diseases are vague; they are also seriously taken, as are the self-mastery and the overcoming of self. Both argue tautologically for their natural superiority” (Picart 107).
Krull shares with the Faustian Adrian Leverkühn the laughter of the elect and with Joseph (from Joseph and His Brothers) the laughter of the illicit. Like Joseph, Felix is a Hermes figure: both charming and cunning, a Don Juan who gratifies those of whom he takes advantage. Like Hermes, he is strongly phallic, so much of an alpha male that he can afford to be generous, “and claims that the joys and expenditures achieve an unprecedented depth in his person. Unlike Joseph, he elicits homosexual fantasies (the wealthy Scottish lord, Nectan Strathbogie, and the French restaurant director, Monsieur Stürzli), but he ends on a toto-sexual note: his lovemaking scene at the very end of the novel to Doña Maria Pia Kuckuck, the mother-double of his intended conquest, Zouzou, looks like a corrida, with the stress on the Señora’s mightily heaving queenly bosom and her cries of “Hole! Heho! Ahe!”, as if in encouragement of the bull’s and the toreador’s dance of death” (Picart 130; 134).
Isn’t Felix Krull the opposite of Death in Venice’s Gustav from Aschenbach? Whereas the latter falls into temptation, Krull is temptation. Yet, if memoirs are to be trusted, Mann was reading Manolescu’s tricky confessions when he started working on Death in Venice. As Aschenbach is looking at Tadzio and is dying of—the gay’s? the pedophile’s?—fascination, so perhaps was Mann looking at that young tennis player in Zurich in 1950. While everybody moves their heads to properly watch the game, his gaze is fixed on that double object of his gay desire. But is it only that? Isn’t Mann looking, perhaps and also, through that lad? Isn’t his gaze not only enamoured but also a trick? A trick meant to take himself away from crass desire and to imagine himself Felix Krull-like, able to trick everyone and especially himself? After all, Thomas Mann was accustomed to obscurity like the blind and the orphan.
Ultimately, Mann’s denial of Nietzsche’s influence is inescapably Nietzschean, exhorting his followers to deny him. Fuentes had no Nietzsche to deny, at least up to his last novel Federico en su balcón (Friedrich on His Balcony; Barcelona: Alfaguara, 2012). His Quevedo was no Cervantes, to take him for a ride, the ride of rides for any novelist. Fuentes was thus institutionalized, a master of his victimhood to institutions, to becoming a prize, and a chair, and a top-down author for the people, and his country’s main writer when the country needed it most: after the passing of Octavio Paz, when Fuentes was rightly touted as Mexico’s writer laureate, though not by the local institutions that preferred Carlos Monsiváis to the ‘prodigal son’ Carlos Fuentes as the true inheritor to the throne of Paz. Like Mann, Fuentes always was a minister without portfolio; his work was a portfolio in need of ministers. Between Fuentes and the readers a phallic velodrome was erected for priests to go ’round to minister his work. Monumentalization does not lack in movement.
Fuentes was more than once called the Thomas Mann of Latin America. This is as proper as calling Thomas Mann the Carlos Fuentes of Germany would be amusing. To fulfill its message, this dissymmetry calls for a coincidence. For years, during the 60s and 70s, Fuentes had problems with the US Department of Immigration, and his entry visa to the US was denied on a few occasions. After making inquiries, he was pointed in the direction of one senior official of the department who seemed to be the source of those refusals. Fuentes called him and invited him to discuss the issue over lunch. The official accepted, met with him, and in telling him that Fuentes’ public pronouncements on Castro’s Cuba were not appreciated in Washington, warned him that the INS will not change its position. The official’s name was Thomas Mann.
- This I Believe. An A to Z of a Life. English translation (of En esto creo, Barcelona: Seix Barral, 2002) by Kristina Cordero. New York: Random House, 2005.
- Translation into English (of La muerte de Artemio Cruz, México: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1962) by Alfred Mac Adam. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1991.
- English translation (of La silla del águila, Madrid: Santillana Ediciones Generales, 2003) by Kristina Cordero. New York: Random House, 2006.
Gyurko, Lanin A. “Structure and Theme in Fuentes’ La muerte de Artemio Cruz.” Symposium 34.1 (Spring 1980): 29-41; reprint in Carlos Fuentes’ The Death of Artemio Cruz, Harold Bloom, ed. New York: Chelsea, 2006: 5-18.
Picart, Caroline Joan (“Kay”) S. Thomas Mann and Friedrich Nietzsche: Eroticism, death, music, and laughter. Amsterdam & Atlanta: Rodopi, 1999.