This section contains 1,239 words
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Critical Review by David Gallagher
SOURCE: "Stifled Tiger," in New York Times Book Review, February 4, 1968, pp. 5, 40-1.
In the following review, Gallagher offers a primarily positive assessment of A Change of Skin.
In an interview Carlos Fuentes once said that the Latin-American novel was now firmly out of its epic, Manichean stage. Before World War II, the problems depicted by Latin-American novelists looked relatively straightforward. Primitive men confronted primitive nature; oppressors and oppressed were easy to classify; the struggle between good and evil was a clear one. The postwar generation has delved deeper into the life of the continent, investigating Latin-American history with a greater regard for its complexity.
Fuentes, naturally, concentrated on the complexities of Mexican history. He has been particularly energetic in his denunciation of what seems to him the inauthenticity of Mexico's "institutional" revolution. One oligarchy was exchanged for another; the process could not be reduced to obvious villains and obvious saints; and facades were established—of middle-class prosperity, decency, democracy, "good conscience." In Where the Air Is Clear (1958) and The Good Conscience (1959), Fuentes skillfully explored the insecurity, the poverty and the violence lurking behind those respectable facades. In The Death of Artemio Cruz he told the story of one of the new men—from his early fight for his ideals to his eventual corruption by the opportunity to exploit the revolution for personal gain—with dispassionate honesty, without condemnation.
For Fuentes, Mexico is a tiger that has been artificially tamed. He appears to wish that the energies of the enchained animal be authentically unleashed. A Change of Skin is his most ambitious—if not his best—novel to date, because his notion of the stifled tiger is extended in it beyond Mexico to the whole of mankind.
At its simplest level, this complicated novel explores the attempts of a married couple approaching middle age to grip on to something of the initial vitality of their love. The man, Javier, is a failed Mexican writer, always ready to blame his Jewish-American wife for blocking his creative spirit with too many concrete emotional demands. Fuentes comes out with many perceptive remarks concerning Javier's and Elizabeth's problems, though one often wishes that he took this couple and they took themselves less seriously. There is a great deal of portentousness in their stylized reminiscences, their insistent exchange of lapidary phrases and dubious maxims, sometimes as bad as this: "The distance that separates us has not only more value but also more meaning than the closeness that joins us."
But A Change of Skin is a great deal more than just a love story. And to complicate matters, we are presented with another pair, Franz and Isabel, who accompany Javier and Elizabeth on a journey from Mexico City to Cholula. The fictional status of Franz and Isabel is more dubious than that of the first couple, Franz and Isabel being perhaps just phantom alternative versions of Javier and Elizabeth, although Elizabeth, being a generation older, could equally represent Isabel's potential future.
Just in case there is any doubt that all four characters are in fact wholly apocryphal, there is also a narrator who intervenes in their lives, yet at the same time flamboyantly exhibits his omniscience. He underlines the fact that the entire action of the novel is an apocryphal game conducted in his own mind, which is, of course, a figment of Fuentes's.
There is a great deal of mischievous skill in the manner in which much of the story is told—in the form of a second-person dialogue between the narrator and the characters. For the narrator takes the liberty not only of reminding his characters of events in their past life—which we, as readers, usefully get to know about simultaneously—but also occasionally hints playfully and conceitedly at their future: "Tonight one of you will die, Elizabeth. But don't worry about it. I won't and God won't."
Fuentes strains to reveal the apocryphal quality not only of his characters' love life, but also of their environment. History itself comes under the scrutiny of his hectic suspicion of reality. And when Franz's background as the resident architect of Theresienstadt is recalled, we are asked to contemplate the elusiveness even of life in the concentration camp. Moreover, since Javier and Franz are potential versions of one and the same being, we are asked to meditate on the fact that if Franz, being a "Sudeten German," was involved in the murder of women and children, so would Javier have been, if only he had been a Sudeten German. (Javier is after all himself capable of the murder of an innocent child by abortion.)
Descriptions of the concentration camp are interspersed with evocations of Mexico's own fascist (Aztec) past, or with extracts describing violence and hysteria in the European Middle Ages and Renaissance. History in short, repeats itself, nothing changes, and all men have an equal capacity for evil, which they make manifest in so many different fictions.
The description of life in Theresienstadt reads like a tourist propaganda pamphlet. Whenever Fuentes describes a cathedral or a palace, whether in Prague or Cholula, he sounds as if he had taken his material straight out of dubiously sophisticated guide-books. When Elizabeth describes her childhood in the United States or Franz his youth in Prague, the scenes evoked come straight out of the movies. Reminiscence and history, then, are fictions, the events they recall having been edged into fiction not only by the nature of language itself, but also by environmental pressures controlled by mass media: the documentary or the tourist pamphlet turns concentration camps into fictions; the movies turn a childhood into a fiction.
The trouble is that Fuentes does not give the impression that he is always content to remain so impassively on the surface of his "pop" novel. He is not always content to accept the distance between all the events he describes and a more "real" world. I felt that there was at any rate one phenomenon in the novel which was posturing as "real": that is, that vital tiger lurking under the skin not only of Mexico but also of Franz's "German" and perhaps of all mankind.
Fuentes serves us up a great deal of dubious, hipster-existentialist, sub-Mailerish philosophy in A Change of Skin,—harmless enough in its praise of "the hipster, the son of man who lives on gut, must gamble everything, for only by doing so can he fuse opposites," but potentially objectionable when applied to the "Nazi experiment." It is all very well to (rather ludicrously) hail the Beatles for "setting us free from all the false and murderous dualisms" of our civilization. But is not Fuentes's anti-Manichean zeal being carried just a little too far when the Nazis are congratulated for enacting "that true freedom to accept all, not only what man is but what he may be," or having "the will to continue to the end, to the edge, to the precipice"?
Of course, all these passages that sound like undergraduate variations on Nietzsche may be just so many more fictions. Poor Fuentes's novel was, after all, recently banned in Spain for being "Communistic, pro-Jewish and anti-German." Yet I got the uncomfortable feeling that, beneath all his illusive facades, Fuentes was clinging to some sort of hipster life-force which apparently the Nazis (or the Beatles) had been most competent to enact.
At any rate, politically objectionable or not, Fuentes has written a challenging and interesting, if occasionally silly and pretentious, book, and he has been well served by his translator, Sam Hileman.
This section contains 1,239 words
(approx. 5 pages at 300 words per page)