This section contains 1,684 words
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Critical Review by Michael Kerrigan
SOURCE: "In Realms of Gold," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4758, June 10, 1994, p. 23.
In the following review, Kerrigan offers a favorable assessment of The Orange Tree.
Carlos Fuentes established his international reputation over three decades ago, with The Death of Artemio Cruz (1962). That novel goes in search of the identity of a protagonist who is modern down to his Volvo, and Mexican down to the parasites in his gut, but the quest ends up taking in a past of conquest and revolution, and looks far beyond Cruz's native Veracruz to the shores of the Mediterranean. Like the stars Cruz sees overhead—"only the ghost of the light that began its journey countless years ago, countless centuries"—the past informs the present. Its churches the reconsecrated shrines of Indian deities and its public buildings based on Spanish models, modern-day Mexico is unthinkable without this past.
Not that history is necessarily glorious or even dignified, nor can it be relied on for comfort or support. The grotesque story of Queen Joanna of Spain stands as both example and fable: allowed sole possession of her philandering husband only by his death, she roamed the land with his cadaver, wandering dementedly from monastery to monastery, shunning convents in her terror that even in death he might prove unfaithful. Faced with the prospect of lugging such an uncomfortable history about with them, many in Latin America and Spain have sought to deny the past. Fuentes, however, has always urged them to acknowledge and embrace it, to carry the corpse, however unappealing. The imaginative task he has pursued in an extensive and inclusive corpus of fictional work has been the exploration of what he sees as a distinctive Hispanic condition. Rummaging through the historical archives of Spain and Spanish America, leafing' through its literature, poring over old masters, Fuentes has sought to reanimate history and reveal the Hispanic world to itself. It is a paradoxical world in which time plays tricks, in whose present the past everywhere comes blazing through. It is a world whose America contains its Europe and its Europe America. Its articulation has required innovative, often difficult forms-most controversially the fathomless epic of allusion Fuentes invented in Terra Nostra (1975), for some critics a glorious El Dorado of Hispanic culture and life, for others a vast Escorial of barren academicism.
A novel in five novellas, The Orange Tree is a more manageable work altogether, and it provides the English-speaking reader with an excellent introduction to these realms of gold. Stout Cortés stands at the centre of the first story, a savage personification of the European will to conquest. There is more to him than rapacity and lust, however, and less force to his will than he himself could have imagined. These are important themes in a book which finds in history a cycle of conquest and resistance which changes conqueror as much as conquered. The orange tree provides a recurrent emblem for this process. Its name derived from the Arabic narandj, the orange was native to the East. Its delicious, fragrant fruit, round and red as the sun or a gold coin, was brought back as booty by Syria's Roman invaders. When they set out to conquer the wild Celtiberians, the orange went with them. In the fullness of time, conquered became conquistadors, and the tree completed its westward journey. It ran wild in America, and its fruit acquired a different, more bitter taste. Taking five years to reach fruition, it could symbolize patient endurance; sleeping and gaining strength in winter, it drew life from death.
The first narrator in The Orange Tree speaks from his tomb, having just died of plague, but that is logical enough, once you accept the cyclical view of time at work. Death is where all the ladders start; for the Aztecs, it was the only guarantee of continuing life, the darkness that executes the sun and clears the way for a new dawn; for Fuentes, it is the path to understanding and the obvious place to begin. It is, none the less, strange to read a story which moves from experience into innocence. Cortés's interpreter, Jerónimo de Aguilar, is a wilfully unreliable narrator, telling his tale backwards, a caprice which cannot, however, make up for the authorial power he has lost. For a brief moment the only man capable of representing one world to another, he has fancied himself holding history in his hands and shaping events. Mistranslating Cortés's self-serving blandishments as the dire threats they concealed, Jerónimo offered Moctezuma the chance to avert catastrophe, to see the true nature of the brigand he was welcoming as a god. But the Aztec refused to see; his ancient fatalism was unready to comprehend a man like Cortés, a European who never doubted his freedom to fashion his own destiny.
Yet was Moctezuma really so mistaken? asks Fuentes. Did Cortés really make history, or did history make him? A strikingly unreflecting man in this tale, Cortés acquires an appreciable psychological and moral dimension only in the second, in which his two sons tell his story after his death. "Is reality only the sum total of physical events?", the Roman general Scipio wonders, in The Two Numantias, the third story here: "Are mental events only and always consequences of those material acts? Do we fool ourselves by thinking that it's the other way round …?" The Cortés who emerges in his sons' accounts is an unexpectedly tragic figure, his relationship with the land he conquered intimate, compelling and finally self-destructive. Mexico changed him, though that change is plainly registered only in his children. Both named Martín, one is legitimate and white, with all the sense, pride and entitlement that entails, and the other illegitimate, born to Cortés's Indian mistress and hence the first mestizo. Together they are the first modern Mexicans, and the first to revolt as Mexicans against Spanish rule.
Hard as they have striven to overturn his work, the Martíns represent part of their father's story, what he was and what he accomplished. Rather than asking what posterity has done for us, we have to see, implies Fuentes, that it is only in time and in other people that we are created at all. The notion of sacrifice is crucial to Fuentes as it was to the Aztecs, though it can take many different forms. There are the innumerable roads not taken: "What would have happened if what did happen didn't?" asks Jerómino, "What would have happened if what did not happen did?" There are the thousands who must live in poverty so that Artemio Cruz can have his wealth and power, their anonymity the price of his ego; there are the men who, in Terra Nostra, spend their lives building a royal mausoleum. And there are the warriors of Numantia who kill themselves so that their women and children can eat their flesh. We are part of a cycle of death and rebirth, Fuentes suggests; the idea that we exist as individuals is a problematical one.
The discovery of the New World shattered Spain's sense of itself, overturning all assumptions, and complicating everything with the revelation that things could be quite otherwise. To a nation which had laboured long and hard to establish a single, "Spanish" culture, purified of every trace of Moor and Jew, which offered sacrifices in the shape of heretics to the honour of One Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, the discovery of a second world came as a profound shock, especially when this world was so full of strange peoples, plants, animals and other "things not mentioned in the Bible". However unsettling that shock, the Spaniards hurled themselves into the task of possessing this world as if their lives depended on it; as if, indeed, something vital to life had been lost with the denial of multiplicity at home, something which now had to be sought abroad. This common project would do more than anything else to unite the rival kingdoms of Iberia into a single Spain.
In our own time—time measured out to the minute by a digital watch—an Irish actor, Vicente Valera, the protagonist in The Orange Tree's fourth tale, dies during a visit to Acapulco. As he looks at the whores he has gathered around him, he feels, for the first time, how artificial and provisional is the person he has been:
In all of their eyes, I saw a time which disregarded my individuality. Above all, I saw those Mexican children and felt afraid of escaping from my own more or less protected individuality, constructed with a certain care and lots of patience so I could face a helpless humanity in which circumstances neither respect nor distinguish anyone.
I realized what had happened. In death, I had become a Mexican.
Once more, however, the American dimension offers the European gain as well as loss. Poor and powerless as he may be, buffeted as he is by a violent, uncomfortable history which affords him no individual recognition, the Mexican has a share in a collective immortality. As Jerónimo puts it, "the greatness of power fell; the small lives of the people survived". The challenge and the opportunity The Orange Tree presents its reader are those of escaping from "a more or less protected individuality" into a wider existence of multiple possibility and a cyclical history which holds past and present in simultaneity and in ceaseless renewal. It is difficult to maintain negative capability faced with so many alternative possibilities; the temptation is always to reach for synthesis; reading such a history it is hard to resist trying to square the circle. But the rewards are immense: each of its five short novellas reflecting and refracting the last, The Orange Tree contrives to project—if only in image in hints and suggestions—the story of a world. The most important stories, the novel implies, are the interminable annals of the poor. What strikes the reader first in Fuentes's work may be his erudition and intellectual rigour, but what remains in the mind is his sympathy, his concern to commemorate the countless lives sacrificed in pain and obscurity so that we might live.
This section contains 1,684 words
(approx. 6 pages at 300 words per page)