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Critical Review by Paul Theroux
SOURCE: "An Affair She Seems Not to Have Remembered," in New York Times Book Review, October 22, 1995, p. 12.
In the following review, Theroux responds negatively to Diana: The Goddess Who Hunts Alone.
Sexual postures can look so funny and vulnerable that the very notion of the distinguished author of this inch-from-the-truth novel, Carlos Fuentes—the Mexican Ambassador to France from 1975 to 1977, winner of the Biblioteca Breve Prize, the Romulo Gallegos Prize and the Miguel de Cervantes Prize—engaged in buccal coition with an American actress in a hotel in Mexico City is irresistible to the point where it is almost possible to overlook the book's excesses and delusions. That Diana: The Goddess Who Hunts Alone also seems a seedy form of self-parody is one of the crueler wounds the author inflicts on himself, but this is a risk you run when you embark on autobiographical fiction. Another issue is the question of tone: are you boasting or complaining? Yet another is pomposity: "I began to be haunted by the idea that Diana was a work of art that had to be destroyed to be possessed." (Trust a philanderer to have a fancy prose style.) Last, there is the confessional mode, which, except in enormously talented hands, creates such embarrassment that the lesser writer is often on firmer ground telling blatant lies.
There do not seem to be any whoppers here, which is a pity. I wish this book had been more perverse. I quite like the idea of a faux roman a clef that is a key to nothing except greater enigma, that tells nothing, that conscientiously and artfully misleads the reader—an elaborate fiction that college kids might call post-modernist, yet that is probably a throwback to an earlier, yarn-spinning time. In such a novel the author would falsely disclose a ridiculous job, a successful disappearance, a shameful crime, then brazenly acknowledge a double life, and perhaps the seduction of an aristocrat, a confrontation with the supernatural. By moving freely from one life to another in a baffling fashion, the author would totally blur the line that separates reality and imagination, allowing the fiction to occupy some middle ground of post-modernist mendacity between Tropic of Cancer and The Larry Sanders Show.
But Diana is a tell-all roman a clef. Not a lot to tell, actually: the affair in question lasted less than two months. Much is obvious. Surely that panting figure on top is none other than Carlos Fuentes, and the diminutive person supine beneath him ("Diana Soren") is Jean Seberg; the photograph of last month's lover on the bedside table is unambiguously Clint Eastwood. From internal evidence—dates, places and so on—even the most casual filmographer gathers that we are on the set of a terrible 1970 movie called Macho Callahan, starring Seberg, Lee J. Cobb, David Janssen and David Carradine. All the characters in the novel are given unconvincing names, including Seberg's estranged husband, the novelist Romain Gary ("Ivan Gravet"), and another of her lovers, the Mexican revolutionary who called himself El Gato ("Carlos Ortiz" here).
The humiliating aspect for Mr. Fuentes is that Seberg's history seems to have ignored him. Not a mention anywhere in the authorized biographies. He was not alluded to in a lengthy and sympathetic piece about Seberg by Mel Gussow that ran in The New York Times Magazine a year after her death in 1979. Mr. Gussow wrote that during the filming of Macho Callahan, "she rekindled her romance with Gary while having an affair with a Mexican revolutionary." It is as though with Diana Mr. Fuentes is trying to make himself a footnote to history, since, in the thundering herd of Seberg's lovers, he was lost in the shuffle.
Some months before the Mexican episode, Seberg was in Clint Eastwood's trailer on the set of Paint Your Wagon, and a bit later it was a Black Panther, Raymond Hewitt, and later still, another marriage, more dalliances and a destructive affair with one Hakim Jamal. This last person, a borderline psychopath and murderer, resurfaced as a co-conspirator with "Michael X" in Trinidad, a hideous episode described by V. S. Naipaul in an extended investigative report. Yes, this is far from a tryst in the (perhaps) Pancho Villa Suite in the Mexico City Hilton, but it was part of Seberg's world of racial paranoia, sexual manipulation and political confusion in, to use the painter Francis Bacon's phrase, her gilded gutter-life. Added to this is the admission by the F.B.I. that in the 1970's it had planted news stories that were intended to damage the beleaguered actress because of the various radical causes she had advocated.
Mr. Fuentes sheds no light on any of this wickedness in his novel about a recently divorced Mexican novelist, a self-proclaimed Don Juan, who believes he has effectively seduced an American actress. After a few weeks of sexual bliss a cloud appears, about the size of a photograph of Clint Eastwood. Then the novelist overhears nighttime telephone conversations between his lover and a person in America who is black and very fierce. The novelist withdraws to consult his friends, among them the distinguished director Luis Bunuel. On his return to the actress, the novelist discovers she has taken another lover, a Mexican. No wiggle room here: Don Juan beats a retreat. End of novel.
So what are we left with? The affair is so brief that it is like coitus interruptus. It is lacking in substance, it is mainly hyperbolic and devoid of any insight, a credulous infatuation with a rather pathetic young woman of the sort other women describe by saying "She's sad, plus she's got real low selfesteem." Soren/Seberg is distracted, needy and manipulative. She is lovely. She knows a few sexual tricks and she is deft with the needle. "You have no imagination," she cries to the novelist, and, as if this is not lacerating enough, later she says, "You're like an American liberal." Finally she accuses him of giving her no sexual pleasure.
Curiously, this proud Mexican does not in the least feel castrated by these remarks; he displays a more emotional reaction when he loses at Scrabble. He embarks on a number of excursions regarding the subject of Mexican machismo: "Women are great at the art of making us feel guilty" and "We Mexicans descend from the Aztecs but also from the Mediterranean" and then blah-blah-blah "Phoenicians … Greeks … Jews … Arabs … medieval Spain." Here and elsewhere I scribbled in the margin, "Tell that to the Zapatistas!"
This is advertised as a book about a great passion, but really the passion is not sexual; it is political and cultural. The novel was a hit in Mexico, and you can easily see why. First the author establishes his literary credentials; "literature" is his license to chase women. "I try to justify sex with literature and literature with sex" and "Literature is my real lover" and "If I wasn't being unfaithful to literature, I wasn't being unfaithful to myself." This word "literature" is interesting; if he called it "writing," would his sexual license expire?
In a fluent translation by Alfred Mac Adam, the novel contains extensive rants against the United States, barking with the sounds of old Albania. Here is a sample of the observations directed at Mexico's neighbor to the north, "a country that lost its soul in the 12 Reagan-Bush years of spurious illusions, brain-killing banalities and sanctioned avarice." The "sacrosanct streets" of our suburbs are "profaned by crime," with "fast-food customers machine-gunned with hamburgers still in their mouths." We hold parades for the "grand liars in the Iran-contra conspiracy." "Hollywood has been the U.S. Sodom that waves revolutionary flags to disguise its vices." There's more: "North Americans detest what they're doing because all of them, without exception, would like to do something else so as to be something more" (that "without exception" made me laugh out loud). The words "Americans," "North Americans" and "Yankees" give way, under stress perhaps, to the rather offensive and intentionally insulting word "gringo" (interesting—in Spanish it also means "gibberish"): "one of the most repulsive institutions in the world, the gringo cocktail party," and "I'd never taught in a gringo university," and yattering on about "the inevitable theme of the loss of innocence, which so obsesses the gringos." This man was a diplomat?
It seems he has totally identified himself with poor paranoid Seberg/Soren, weak and tricky, compulsively allowing herself to be seduced and then rejecting the men—using her connections, describing herself inaccurately as an exile, blaming America for all her ills. But Seberg/Soren really was persecuted and used—as much by her lovers as by the F.B.I. No wonder she rejected her lovers and husbands and fled from the F.B.I. by killing herself and leaving a bitter suicide note.
One of the odd lessons of this book by a novelist of world-class stature is the way it demonstrates the artlessness and banality of machismo. The character of Diana Soren has a weak ego and so she takes revenge on men, because they represent the authority of the United States. The novelist-narrator sees Americans as "without exception" problematical and lacking in substance, and so he rants. He is Mexico. You are a gringo. She is your victim. It makes for an entirely humorless and strangely sclerotic novel.
This section contains 1,541 words
(approx. 6 pages at 300 words per page)