Carlos Fuentes | Critical Essay by Maarten Van Delden

This literature criticism consists of approximately 26 pages of analysis & critique of Carlos Fuentes.
This section contains 7,718 words
(approx. 26 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by Maarten Van Delden

SOURCE: "Myth, Contingency, and Revolution in Carlos Fuentes's La región más transparente," in Comparative Literature, Vol. 43, No. 4, Fall, 1991, pp. 326-45.

In the following essay, Van Delden explores Fuentes's treatment of the "nature of the self and its relations to history and the community" in La región más transparente, and also examines some of the author's other works.

La región más transparente (1958), Carlos Fuentes's first novel, oscillates between two different perspectives on the nature of the self and its relations to history and the community. On the one hand, the novel outlines a view of the self that derives primarily from existentialist ideas found in the works of André Gide, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Albert Camus. In this view, the self is discontinuous, contingent, wholly unaffected by any kind of socio-cultural conditioning permanently separated from a stable and enduring core of meaning—and it is precisely for this reason that it possesses an absolute freedom to mold itself into constantly new shapes. On the other hand, the novel proposes a vision in which the self loses all its vestiges of autonomy; the individual merges entirely with the communal past, specifically with Mexico's Aztec heritage. This past is viewed as the origin and ground of an unalterable, culturally determined identity to which the self is inextricably attached. I will proceed to examine the conflict between these two views on a number of textual levels, after which I will conclude by arguing that the rather remarkable final section of the novel constitutes an attempt to resolve this conflict through the aesthetic embodiment of a concept of revolution. Fuentes expresses his vision of revolution by means of an inventive appropriation of the modernist technique of "spatial form." I will also show how the concept of revolution evolves in Fuentes's more recent work.

Toward the end of La región más transparente, Manuel Zamacona, the novel's intellectual spokesman, is senselessly murdered by a man he has never seen before. Afterwards, the killer coolly states that he did not like the way Zamacona had looked at him. The incident is reminiscent of the acte gratuit motif as it appears in the works of Gide, Sartre and Camus. Fuentes himself suggested a link with the existentialist tradition in a 1966 interview with Emir Rodríguez Monegal. In speaking of how the social and cultural realities of Mexico had somehow managed to anticipate certain artistic and philosophical currents in Europe and the United States. Fuentes made the following observation:

Hay un existencialismo avant la lettre, y muy obvio, México es un país del instance. El mañana es totalmente improbable, peligroso: te pueden matar en una cantina, a la vuelta de una esquina, miraste feo, porque comiste un taco. Vives el hoy porque el mañana es improbable ("Diàlogo")

Fuentes's comment can be read as a gloss on the scene of Zamacona's death, which stands, then, as an illustration of the existentialist quality of Mexican life.

However, the existentialist act in La región is presented in a manner radically different from similar incidents in the works of Fuentes's French precursors. Lafcadio Wluiki's gratuitous murder of a complete stranger—whom he pushes out of a moving train—in Gide's Les caves du Vatican (1914) and Meursault's unmotivated killing of an Arab in Camus's L'étranger (1942) are by no means identical actions, but what they have in common is that in each case the perpetrator is at the center of the narrative. The events are related from Lafeadio's and Meursault's points of view. In Fuentes, on the other hand, the perspective is completely inverted: the victim is the protagonist and the killer remains a shadowy, indistinct figure on the margins of the narrative.

The symmetry of this inversion is reinforced by a number of other details connected with Lafeadio's acte gratuit in Les caves du Vatican. Even before he thrusts his victim out of the train, Lafeadio has been planning to leave Europe for what he calls "un nouveau monde," the islands of Java and Borneo. And as he begins to speculate on the possibility of committing this unusual crime, he reminds himself that, in any case, the next day he will be "en route pour les iles," and so will never be found out. In this way, the two projects, the gratuitous murder and the voyage to a faraway place, become linked together. Both are strategies for asserting one's freedom, for rejecting the old, oppressive ways of Europe. "Que tout ce qui peut être soit! C'est comme ça que je m'explique la Création…." Lafeadio exclaims at one point, and throughout the novel he remains intent on demonstrating his love for what he calls "ce qui pourrait être…." The desire to transgress all limits, to expand the realm of the possible, is expressed both in geographical terms, in the plan to flee to the East Indies, and in ethical terms, in the unmotivated murder of a stranger. Both projects are ways of affirming that one is bound by nothing. Or, as Camus put it in L'homme révolté (1951): "La théorie de l'acte gratuit couronne la revendication de la liberté absolue."

In La región, Natasha, an aging singer from St. Petersburg, alerts us to a difference between Mexico and Europe that speaks directly to this question of freedom and the transgression of limits:

Poi le menos a nosotros nos queda siemptre eso: la posibilidad de s'enfuir, de busear el là-bas. El Dorado fuera de nuestro continente. ¿Pero ustedes? Ustedes no, mon vieux, ustedes no tienen su là-bas, va estain en él, ya están en él, ya están en su limite. Y en él tienen que escoger, vero?

In Gide, the idea of the limit depends on a more fundamental conceptual division of the world into a center (Europe) and a periphery (the non-European parts of the globe). From the perspective of the center, the existence of the periphery guarantees the possibility of freedom and escape. From the periphery itself, however, things look very different. If one's existence is perceived as already being at the limit, then the possibility of further displacement is eliminated. The result is the undoing of the very concept of the limit, and the collapse of the chain of analogies whereby a writer such as Guide links the notion of the limit to the ideas of the escape to a new world, the acte gratuit, and freedom. This emerges very clearly in the case of Zamacona's death. Fuentes does not use the incident to demonstrate the absolute nature of individual freedom. Instead, with the focus now on the victim, the scene evokes the old Latin American theme of a violent and hostile environment from which there is no escape. And even if we were to extract from this episode a different kind of existentialist motif—such as the notion of the absurd—such elements would exist in a state of tension with the larger narrative pattern into which the episode is absorbed. For Zamacona is only one of many of the novel's characters who suffer a violent death on Independence Day, and this juxtaposition of death and celebration is clearly designed to recall the ancient Aztec belief that human sacrifices are necessary to ensure the continuity of life. The series of deaths at the end of the novel hints at the persistence of these mythical patterns beneath the surface of modern Mexico and at the fragility of the individual in the face of such forces.

This reading of Zamacona's death is at odds with the interpretation Fuentes himself offers in the interview with Rodríguez Monegal, where he proposes that we regard it as evidence of the instantaneousness of Mexican life, and not, as I have just suggested, of the continued power of ancient cosmogonies beneath the country's veneer of modernity. In fact, Fuentes never wholly eliminates either of these two possible readings. Two details in the scene of Zamacona's death indicate how Fuentes tries to hold together these alternative interpretations. First, when Zamacona gets out from his car and approaches the cantina, he recites a line from Nerval to himself: "et c'est toujours la seule—ou c'est le seul moment…." Nerval's idea that each moment in time is unique anticipates the existentialist conception of time, in which every instant is a new creation, disconnected from past and future. This notion of temporality is a focal point of Sartre's well-known analysis of Camus's L'étranger. Sartre describes Meursault as a man for whom "Seul le présent compte, le concret" (Situations, I). He links this vision of time to Camus's absurdist world-view in which God is dead and death is everything: "La présence de la mort au about de notre route a dissipé notre avenir en fumée, notre vie est 'sans lendemain.' C'est une succession de présents." Fuentes's use of the quotation from Nerval seems designed to allude to such ideas about time, and thus to prepare us for the sudden, inexplicable flare-up of violence that leaves Zamacona dead.

But if this leads to a view of Zamacona's death as an absurd, meaningless event, another feature of this episode suggests a quite different point of view; the emphasis on the eyes and on the act of seeing. Zamacona's killer, as I observed earlier, justifies his deed by saying that he did not like the way Zamacona had looked at him. Furthermore, the only mention of the murderer's appearance is of his eyes:

Uno de los hombres le dio la cara a Manuel Zamacona: desprendido como un uompo de la barra de madera, con los ojos redondos y sumergidos de canica, disparo su pistola dos, tres, cinco veces sobre el cuer po de Zamacona.

The killer's submerged and marble-like eyes link him to the realm of the invisible, subsisting beneath the surface existence of Fuentes's Mexico. Invisibility is generally associated in La región with Mexico's origins in its pre-Hispanic past, a connection captured most vividly in the figure of Hortensia Chacón, the blind woman who leads the powerful self-made banker Federico Robles back to his indigenous roots. Hortensia represents the beneficent side of the dark world beneath the country's semblance of progress and modernity. The killer, on the other hand, represents the violent, menacing side of this world: figuratively blind where Hortensia is literally so, this anonymous figure wishes to punish Zamacona for the look in his eyes, that is, for his location within the visible world of modern Mexico. Wanting to blind him as much as to kill him, he demonstrates the enduring power of Mexico's past.

There can be little doubt that the manner of Zamacona's death reveals the persistence of an atavistic violence lurking beneath the country's surface life. The question that remains unanswered, however, is whether this violence remains integrated with ancient cosmological rhythms, or whether it has lost its connection with ritual and has been expelled into a world of existential absurdity. This ambiguity is sustained in the development of the novel's plot after Zamacona's death.

It is difficult to ignore the connection between Ixca Cienfuegos's search, at his mother's behest, for a sacrificial victim with which to propitiate the gods, and the series of deaths that occur toward the end of the novel. But we can never be entirely sure that the sacrifices really are sacrifices, nor that they are responsible for a renewal of the life-cycle. Ixca's mother, Teódula Moctezuma, for her part, does not question the significance of these events. After Norma Larragoiti dies in the fire that burns down her house, Teódula tells Ixca that she believes the sacrifice has now been fulfilled, and that the normal course of life will be resumed. At the same moment, as if to confirm Teódula's vision of life's rebirth, the sun begins to rise.

Fuentes does not always represent this idea of cyclical return with such solemnity. While Part Two of the novel concludes with the destruction or downfall of many of the central characters, Part Three resumes three years later with the description of a young couple falling in love. But both Jaime Ceballos and Betina Régules have such stale and conventional natures that we inevitably sense an element of the parodic in this vision of life's regeneration. The effect is reinforced when the scene shifts again to a party hosted by Bobó Gutiérrez, whom we observe greeting his guests with the exact same words he had used approximately three years earlier, near the beginning of the novel: "¡Caros! Entren a aprehender las eternas verdades." Bobó's eternal truths are clearly a mockery. We recognize here not return and renewal, but paralysis and decay.

Fuentes leaves his readers suspended between a world ruled by profound mythological rhythms, and an alternative, modern world of drift and contingency. He never fully decides which of these two pictures is finally truer of the reality of Mexico. This same conflict shapes the meditation on identity and authenticity that receives novelistic form through the contrasting careers of Ixca Cienfuegos and Rodrigo Pola. Although two other characters, Federico, Robles and Manuel Zamacona, are also central to the development of this theme, I shall focus on Ixca and Rodrigo, since their confrontation after Bobó's last party effectively brings the plot of the novel to a close, thus suggesting the importance of these two figure to Fuentes's articulation of the problem of subjectivity.

Rodrigo Pola is an emblematic modern personality—a type toward the definition of which the existentialists made a significant contribution. Rodrigo's connection with this tradition of the modern self is clear from the first words he speaks. Into a discussion about the social function of art, he interjects the following observation" "No todos tenemos que ser el cochino hombre de la calle o, por oposición, un homme révolté…." While Rodrigo appears to reject the opposition he posits here, these words in fact encapsulate the defining axis of his personality, a conflict between conformity and rebellion. The allusion to Camus is clearly meant to recall the existentialist emphasis on subjectivity, on the need for individuals to create their own values without references to a realm of a priori truths or to society's received notions. Initially, Rodrigo's actions are guided by a similar search for authentic self-definition.

As he grows up, Rodrigo—who wants to be a writer—has to struggle against the oppressive demands of his mother, Rosenda, who, having lost her husband during the Mexican Revolution, cannot bear the thought of her son also escaping from her grip. The conflict between Rodrigo and his mother revolves around the question of who creates the self and thus has power over it. Rosenda wishes the moment in which she gave birth to her son to be prolonged forever. She wants always to be the mother, the child owing its existence to her alone. Rodrigo speaks with horror of "ese desco de beberme entero, de apresarme entre sus piernas y estar siempre, hasta la consumación de nuestras tres vidas, dándome a luz sin descanso, en un larguísimo parto de noches y días y años…." To this idea of the enduring power derived from the act of giving birth to a child, Rodrigo opposes a notion of figurative birth in which the self engenders itself: "me senti … hijo, más que de mis padres, de mi propia, breve, sí, pero para mi única, incanjeable experiencia…." In this, he appears to be heeding the existentialist exhortation to free oneself from all forms of external conditioning.

It is worth recalling, however, that there were different phases within the tradition of French existentialism. While the earlier work of Sartre and Camus tended to emphasize the absolute nature of individual freedom and favored the themes of anxiety, absurdity, and superfluousness, their latest work sought to establish a more affirmative view of existentialist philosophy. In L'existentialisme est un humanisme (1946), for example, Sartre sought to demonstrate that existentialism provides a philosophical basis for an attitude of engagement with the world and commitment to one's fellow human beings. Camus's L'homme révolté interprets the act of rebellion against an intolerable situation not as an individualistic gesture, but as a sign of the fundamental truth of human solidarity. Rebellion, according to Camus, is always potentially an act of self-sacrifice, and so implies the existence of values that transcend the individual. Camus himself regarded the shift in his work from a concern with the absurd to a concern with rebellion as the sign of a new focus on the group instead of the individual: "Dans l'expérience absurde, la souffrance est individuelle. A partir du mouvement de révolte, elle a conscience d'être collective, elle est l'aventure de tous" (L'homme révolté).

Rodrigo, by opposing "l'homme révolté" to man in the mass ("el cochino hombre de la calle"), evokes the more strictly individualistic side of existentialist thought. But in the course of the novel, Rodrigo's efforts to assert his own uniqueness become increasingly fruitless. This failure implies a critique of the early version of existentialism, with its one-sided emphasis on self-creation and self-renewal as the path to authentic selfhood, and its neglect of the social dimension of human life. Rodrigo's pursuit of a total freedom from all external constraints leads first to feelings of alienation and inauthenticity, and eventually to a complete turnaround, an unconditional surrender to society's norms of success.

In one episode, we see Rodrigo making faces at himself in the mirror, rapidly shifting expressions, "hasta sentir que su rostro y el reflejado eran dos, distintos, y tan alejados entre sí como la luna verdadera que nadie conoce y su reflejo quebrado en un estanque." This scene recalls a similar moment in La nausée where Roquentin studies his reflection in a mirror and is struck by the incomprehensible, alien appearance of his own face. Fuentes's adaptation of this motif suggests a similar perspective on the impossibility of discovering a stable, continuous identity, and the consequent susceptibility of the self to being constantly remolded into new shapes. For a moment, Rodrigo seems to recoil from his performance; he feels an urge to sit down and write, to leave what he calls "una sola constancia verdadera." Ironically enough, the text he produces articulates a theory of the self as a mask, a form of play. Everything becomes arbitrary and gratuitous. The self is cast loose from any serious attachment, even from that most fundamental attachment, the body itself. Thus, Rodrigo is at one point led to assert that it is a matter of indifference whether one's face is, in actual fact, ugly or beautiful; the act of self-creation can apply even to one's physical appearance. The material world, even in its most primary manifestation, is fully subject to the individual will: "El problems consiste en saber cómo se imagina uno su propia cara. Que la cara sea, en realidad, espantosa o bella, no importa. Todo es imaginarse la propia cara interesante, fuerte, definida, o bien imaginarla ridicula, tonta y fea."

If the theory of the mask is initially designed to free the self from all forms of predetermination, then Rodrigo's radical application of this principle appears to produce the opposite result. Rodrigo himself eventually recognizes that the histrionic self-display into which he has fallen effectively obliterates the possibility of achieving genuine freedom; he admits that he has become a captive of his own game: "Se vuclve uno esclavo de su propio juego, el movimiento supera y condena a la persona que lo inició, y entonces sólo importa el movimiento; uno es llevado y traido por él, más que agente, elemento."

A few pages later, the description of a thunderstorm dramatizes the extent of Rodrigo's estrangement from the world:

La tormenta lo envolvía en una peteusión líquida, implacable. Arriba, el espacio se canjeaba a sí mismo estrueudos, luz sombría: todos los mitos y símbolos fundados en la aparición de la naturaleza se concentraban en el cielo potente, ensambladon de un poderío oculto. Resonaba el firmamento con una tristeza ajena a cualquier circunstancia: no gratuita, sino suficiente.

Fuentes's conception of the natural world, as it emerges from this passage, has important implications for his view of the status of the perceiving subject. The storm's concentrated, implacable power, its relation to the deep, continuous rhythms of nature, and its aura of timelessness are at the farthest possible remove from the inconsequentiality and arbitrainess that define Rodrigo's relations to himself and to the world. The implications of this contrast for Fuentes's larger view of the self can perhaps be sensed most clearly through a comparison with certain passages in Sartre's La nausée that deal with the same issues.

Fuentes's use of the pathetic fallacy encourages a view of the realms of the human and the non-human as deeply interrelated. The reference to the sky's occult powers may appear to lift the natural world to a position that transcends the human, but it also implies that nature is pregnant with meanings that are of great consequence to human life. The use of the verb "envolver" defines the exact nature of the relationship: it is impossible to think of human beings as separate from the universe in which they live. Roquentin, in La nausée, recognizes this human ínclination to search for connections between ourselves and the physical world, to treat it, for example, as a text waiting for its meaning to be unveiled. At one point he describes a priest walking along the seaside as he reads from his breviary: "Par instants il lève la tête et regarde la mer d'un air approbateur: la mer aussi est un bréviaire, elle parle de Dieu." But Roquentin furiously rejects this attempt at humanization: "La vraie mer est froide et noire, pleine de bêtes; elle rampe sous cette mince pellicule verte qui est faite pour tromper les gens." In La nausée the world of objects and natural processes does not envelop the human world in a transcendent, protective manner; instead, it is conceived as a realm of brute, unredeemable fact from which a lucid consciousness will recoil in horror.

If Rodrigo is a failed existentialist, part of the explanation may lie in the way Fuentes has stacked the deck against him. In a world where natural phenomena exude such a compelling and inscrutable sense of purpose and power, the individual can hardly presume to play God with his own existence. Fuentes has created a character with existentialist features, but has placed him in a setting entirely different from the kind that would have been envisioned by the existentialists themselves. As a result, the existentialist project is effectively invalidated.

Ixca Cienfuegos represents, on the level of character, the same mythical forces which Fuentes evokes through his description of the thunderstorm. Ixca, whose first name derives from the Nahuatl word for bake, or cook, and whose last name alludes to the original time in Aztec mythology when fires lit up the universe, is a shadowy yet central presence in the novel. One character compares him to God because of his seeming omnipresence. Ixca's search for a sacrificial victim is part of an attempt to reintegrate Mexican society into a sacred, cosmic order, and thus to overcome the kind of self-division and self-estrangement suffered by a typical product of the modern world such as Rodrigo. The contrast between the two men emerges clearly in the description of an early evening walk they take along the Pasco de la Reforma:

Rodrigo miraba como el polvo se acumulaba en los zapatos amarillos. Se sentía consciente de todos sus movimientos nerviosos. Y Cienfuegos como si no caminara, como si lo feura empujando la leve brisa de verano, como si no tuviera esas piernas, esas manos que tanto estorbalan a Rodrigo.

While Rodrigo is severely afflicted with the modern disease of self-consciousness, Ixca is entirely at case, in possession of an unfissured consciousness that exists in harmony with the natural world. Ixca does not search for an increasingly intense awareness of his own separateness from others. He is deeply at odds with the idea of a unique, individual personality waiting to be liberated from external oppression. Fuentes shows him in an intense, sometimes conflictive relationship with his mother, in which he submits to her wishes instead of rebelling, as Rodrigo does. Ixca advocates self-forgetfulness rather than self-regard: "Olvidarse de sí, clave de las felicidades, que es olvidarse de los demás; no liberarse a sí: sojuzgar a los demàs." His vision ultimately evolves out of his belief in the absolute nature of the nation's origins, and the priority of these origins over the claims of contemporary individuals. Mexico, he claims, "es algo fijado para siempie, incapaz de evolución. Una roca inconmovible que todo to tolera. Todos los limos pueden crecer sobre esa roca, pero la roca en si no cambia, es la misma, para siempre." At one point, Ixca urges Rodrigo to choose between the two Mexicos, the ancient and the modern: "Acá scrás anónimo, hermano de todos en la soledad. Allá tendrás tu nombre, y en la muchedumbre nadie te tocará, no tocarás a nadie." The possession of a name becomes an emblem of the barren, atomistic individualism that rules over the contemporary world. In the mythical world Ixca believes in, the individual is absorbed into a larger order of fraternal belonging.

Neither Rodrigo nor Ixca offers a satisfying solution to the problem of authenticity. Rodrigo's inner restlessness seems so gratuitous and self-indulgent that it comes as no surprise to see him eventually give up his rebellion against the world. If each new mask is the result of an arbitrary choice, then why not choose the mask that will bring success and prosperity? By the end of the novel, Rodrigo has become a successful writer of screenplays for the movie industry, a back who has cynically mastered a simple formula for success.

But if Rodrigo's cult of individuality ultimately proves fruitless and self-defeating. Ixca's violent attack on the notion of a personal life does not seem much more appealing. His behavior becomes increasingly menaging, at times literally poisonous. We may note, for sample, the terror he inspires in little Jorgito Morales when he meets him outside the Cathedral and offers to buy him some candy. In order to escape from Ixca's grip, Jorgito bites his hand, drawing blood. But the next time we see him, over a hundred pages later, the boy is dead. Since it is never clear that the regeneration Ixca is after actually takes place, we are left simply with the image of a man who goes around causing havoc in the lives of others. If Rodrigo's emptiness is that of a life lived without reference to the transcendent, then Ixca displays the perhaps more sinister emptiness of someone who has voided himself of all human emotions: "en realidad Ixca se sustentaba sobre un imenso vacío, un vacio en el que ni la piedad, ni el clamor, ni siquiera el odio de los demás era admitido."

The final confrontation between Ixca and Rodrigo, three years after the main events of the novel, brings the plot to a close, and seems designed to show that while their respective destinies are diametrically opposed, they are equally stunted and unfulfilled. While Rodrigo scales the heights of social success, Ixca disappears from Mexico City altogether, living in obscurity with Rosa Morales, the cleaning lady, and her remaining children. On the surface, Rodrigo has been transformed into a new person, yet he is haunted by the post: "¿Crees que porque estoy aquí ya no estoy allá?… ¿Crees que una nueva vida destruye a la antigua, la cancela?" Ixca, on the other hand, while having apparently reconciled himself to the demands of the mythical past, now finds himself abandoned in the present, divided from the very past he thought he was embracing. He describes his condition in the same plaintive tones as Rodrigo: "¿Crees que recuerdo mi propia cara? Mi vida comienza todos los días … y nunca tengo el recuerdo de lo que pasó antes…."

Wendy Faris has drawn attention to Fuente's fondness for the rhetorical figure of the chiasmus, which he employs not only at the level of individual sentences but also at the level of plot-structures. The paths followed by Rodrigo and Ixca trace a chiastic design. If at the beginning of the novel Rodrigo represents the present-oriented pole, and Ixca the past-oriented, then the final confrontation between the two men constitutes a complete reversal of this relationship. By the end of the novel, Rodrigo can no longer escape the past, while Ixca lives his life as though it were starting anew at every instant.

The result of this chiastic pattern is to lead the novel into an impasse. The plot of La región offers no clear resolution to the problems of authenticity and national identity which the novel articulates. Fuentes rejects the existentialist project of liberating the self from the past, of investing life with value simply through the agency of free individual choice, but he also rejects the attempt to provoke a return to the cultural origins of Mexico. Both these approaches to the problems of subjectivity and community are shown to be fruitless, even self-cancelling.

The novel, however, does not end with the conversation between Rodrigo and Ixca. After the two friends separate, the text undergoes a series of unusual transformations, Ixca gradually sheds his corporeality, and little by little absorbs the different facets of the surrounding city, until eventually he and the city become a single entity. In a subsequent transformation, Ixca becomes the characters of the novel itself, so that finally Ixca, the city, and the book become metaphors for one another, in an operation that may be understood as an attempt to life the novel onto a plane distinct from ordinary narrativity. In a final transition, Ixca disappears into his own voice, but the voice that speaks in the novel's concluding chapter is one no longer tied to a particular space on time; it is a voice that aims to give a total and instantaneous vision of Mexico, as well as of the novel Fuentes has written about it. This final chapter, entitled "La región más transparente delaire," suggests an attempt to recapitulate and condense the novel; it is a mélange of densely metaphorical descriptions of the Mexican people, scenes from Mexican history, and echoes of the main narrative of the novel itself.

The guiding conception behind this remarkable novelistic flight is the attempt to escape from linear time, to propose and embody an alternative vision of temporality in which, as Fuentes writers, "todo vive al mismo tiempo." Among writers of the present century. Fuentes clearly does not stand alone in his fasination with the break with linear time. For Octavio Paz, for example, the idea of a zone of pure time, beyond chronology, provides the very basis for his definition of poetry: "El poema es mediación: por gracia suya, el tiempo original, padre de los tiempos, encarna en un instante. La successión se convierte en presente puro, manantial que se alimenta a sí mismo y trasmuta al hombre" (El arco y la lira). In the area of the novel, one of the most influential codifications of the modernist aesthetic is Joseph Frank's 1945 essay "Spatial Form in Modern Literature"; it centers precisely on this attempt to create forms that are not dependent on linear, chronological methods of organization. Frank's essay, particularly his discussion of the basic features of spatial form, and the type of content it conveys, clarifies Fuentes's relationship to modernist writing. It also contributes to an understanding of the function of the novel's final chapter, in which the techniques of spatial form are most emphatically deploved and appear to constitute an effort to escape from the impasse with which the actual plot of the novel concludes.

According to Frank, in the works of poets such as Eliot and Pound, and novelists such as Joyce, Proust, and Djuna Barnes, the normal temporal unfolding of the text is repeatedly interrupted, with the result that the unity of these works is no longer located in a continuous narrative progression, but in the reflexive references and cross-references relating different points in the text to one another. The reader, in reconstructing these patterns, must ignore the aspects of temporal flow and external reference that are fundamental to more conventional works of literature. The reconstructed patterns must be perceived simultaneously, as a configuration in space. Frank goes on to argue that the most important consequence of the deployment of spatial form in literature is the erasure of a sense of historical depth. Different moments in time become locked together in a timeless unity that evokes the world of myth rather than history. Clearly, numerous objections could be made to the concept of spatial form, in particular to the term itself, which may seem inappropriately metaphorical. My interest here, however, is not in the accuracy of the term itself, but in the narrative techniques the term was designed to describe, and in the revolt against linear, progressive time implied by the use of these techniques.

Fuentes's attempt, in La región, to disrupt the straightforward temporal flow of the novel is not restricted to the final chapter. To the extent that the novel as a whole constitutes an attempt—along the lines of James Joyce's Ulysses (1922) and John Dos Passos's Manhattan Transfer (1925)—to recreate the life of a city within its pages, the rejection of a sequential organization of the text appears entirely fitting. What Frank would call the "spatializing" technique of the juxtaposition of unrelated textual fragments corresponds to the essentially spatial entity being represented. A typical instance of this technique occurs near the beginning of Fuentes's novel, where the narrator, in a decidedly small-scale imitation of the "Wandering Rocks" chapter of Ulysses, traces the simultaneous activities in different parts of the city of various characters on the morning after one of Bobó's parties. The revolt against linear time is also apparent in those moments in the text when past and present are conflated within the mind of an individual character. This device is used most strikingly in the case of Federico Robles, who, as a firm believer in economic progress and a builder of post-Revolutionary Mexico, represents the attachment to the singularity of chronological time in one of its most powerful forms. Although he rejects the past, Robles nevertheless, at Ixca's urging, undertakes the perilous journey inward, and is eventually led to an almost Proustian apprehension of pure time freed from the habitual constraints of consecutiveness. In one scene, while making love to Hortensia, Robles bites the woman's hair, an act that suddenly evokes an image from the day he fought at the battle of Celaya during the Mexican Revolution, and bit the reins of his horse as he rode into the fray. The menaging of past and present is underscored by the paratactia arrangement of the following two sentences: "I Jano ensangientado de Gelaya. Guerpo húmedo y abierto de Hortensia." Robles's vision is particularly significant since it seems to be at least partly responsible for his decision to abandon his public role as a powerful financier in the nation's capital and return to his obscure roots in the country. His decision constitutes an explicit rejection of the rigorously linear time of economic progress.

The important question is whether, as Frank would argue, the disruption of a continuous temporal progression within a narrative necessarily implies a return to the timeless world of myth. It seems doubtful, if only because it is not altogether clear why we should be looked into a binary opposition between history conceived purely in a linean fashion, on the one hand, and myth as the eternal repetition of the same, on the other. The question, then, is what purpose does Fuentes's use of these techniques serve? In answering, I want to focus in particular on the relationship between the main body of the narrative and the poetic finale with which it concludes. One of the most remarkable features of La región is that while most of the devices Frank enumerates in his article on spatial form are in evidence throughout the novel, they are most spectacularly exploited at the end, in a manner without real equivalent in the texts Frank discusses. This does not mean, however, that the reader is now truly transported into the realm of myth. I would suggest, instead, that the final section of the novel ought to be read as an attempt to lift the text onto a completely different level, in the hope of offering a resolution to the ambiguities with which the plot concludes. Since these ambiguities center on the opposition between the mythical and the existential views of life, it seems unlikely that such a resolution would take the form of a more determined affirmation of the mythical, a move that would simply eliminate one of the poles of the opposition.

We can begin measuring Fuentes's distance from the mythical approach by looking at the principal features of Frank's definition of myth. Frank quotes Mircea Eliade, who identifies myth as a realm of "external repetition," where time becomes "cosmic, cyclical and infinite" (The Widening Gyre). Frank discovers a similar emphasis on repetition and uniformity in the works of modernists such as Joyce, Eliot, and Pound, whose techniques of juxtaposition and allusion he believes underline the fundamental sameness of the human condition through the ages. Octavio Paz, in his discussion of the poetic technique of simultaneísmo (which we may regard as another term for spatial form), reaches a similar conclusion: he argues that Pound and Eliot developed their experimental poetic in order to "reconquistar la tradición de la Divina Comedia, es decir, la tradición de Occidente" (Las hijos del limo). Both projects, the return to myth and the recapture of tradition, are driven by a search for cultural coherence and identity.

Fuentes has frequently discussed the notion that different temporal planes may have a simultaneous existence, but he has a very different understanding of the implications of this fact. When he discusses "la simultancidad de los tiempos mexicanos" ("Kierkegaard en la Zona Rosa") which he opposes to the linearity of European time, he does not mean that the juxtaposition of these different temporal levels would reveal an underlying continuity between the various phases of Mexican history. Nor is this the effect he pursues at the end of La región. The torrent of images, names, and historical episodes he unleashes here evokes a tumultuous, unrestrained multiplicity. In the same essay Fuentes writes that Mexican time "se divertee con nosotros, se revierte contra nosotros, se invierte en nosotros, se subvierte desde nosotros, se convierte en nombre nuestro." These verbs describe not continuity and coherence, but an unceasing process of metamorphosis. He argues that the simultaneous existence in Mexico of all historical levels results from a decision of the land and its people to maintain alive all of time, for the simple reason that "ningún tiempo se ha cumplido aún." Fuentes's Mexican past, in other words, is profoundly different from the past to which the Anglo-American modernists wished to return. It offers not the fullness of an established tradition, but a variety of unfinished projects. Fuentes attacks the proponents of modernization in Mexico, with their cult of the present and of progress, for having suppressed this feature of Mexican time. To return to the cultural and historical multiplicity of Mexico constitutes an act of liberation, a rebellion against the enslaving prejudices of modernity. Fuentes believes that such a rebellion in fact took place during the Mexican Revolution:

Sólo la Revolución—y por eso, a pesar de todo, merece una R mayúscula—hizo presente todos los pasados de México. Lo hizo instantáeamente, como si supiera que no sobraria tiempo para esta fiesta de encarnaciones. ("Kierkegaard")

This view of the Mexican Revolution is explicitly expressed in La región by Manuel Zamacona, who declares at one point that "La Revolutión nos descubre la totalidad de la historia de México," a statement that exactly replicates statements Fuentes has made elsewhere in his own name. It is an idea that can be traced on Octavio Paz, who in El laberinto de la soledad described the Mexican Revolution as "un movimiento tendiente a reconquistar nuestro pasado, asimilarlo y hacerlo vivo en el presente." My argument is that at the end of La región, Fuentes tries to reproduce on the aesthetic level this revolutionary resuscitation of Mexico's many-sided past. He creates a textual model of ferment, upheaval, and open endedness. This vision of the simultaneous coexistence of all times overturns the linear approach to time represented by Rodrigo Pola, and by the new Mexican bourgeoisie's deification of progress. But the constant process of change and dispersal implied by this vision of time as "fiesta" also subverts the obsession with the unity and singularity of origins expressed in the figure of Ixca Cienfuegos. Fuentes's alternative is his concept of revolutionary time, a vision of simultaneity that promises freedom and possibility, but does not dispense with a strong sense of the shaping powers of the past. This paradoxical fusion of freedom and necessity, of futurity and pastness, is made possible by an ambiguity in the word "revolution" itself, which generally refers to a clean break with the past, a drastic change in the social order, but, in an older version of the word, which Fuentes clearly wants his readers to recall, indicates a process of cyclical return. In the imaginative space Fuentes creates at the end of La región these two meanings are held together in an ultimately utopian gesture.

A utopian vision of revolution has been a consistent element in Fuentes's work. In the 1980s. Fuentes has continued to discuss revolutions, in Mexico and elsewhere, in the same terms he used in the 1950s. In his 1983 Harvard commencement speech, for example, he declared that the Mexican Revolution had brought to light "the totality of our history and the possibility of a culture" (Myself with Others). He went on to connect the Mexican experience with that of other countries now passing through revolutionary phases:

Paz himself, Diego Rivera and Carlos Chácez, Mariano Azuela and José Clemente Orozen, Juan Rulfo and Rufino Tamavo: we all work and exist because of the revolutionary experience of our country. How can we stand by as this experience is denied, through ignorance and arrogance, to other people, our brothers, in Central America and the Caribbean?

In Gringo viejo (1985), Fuentes once again explores his ideas about the Mexican Revolution. At one point in the novel, the soldiers in the rebel army of Pancho Villa occupy the mansion of a wealthy family that had filed the country. When the soldiers enter the ballroom, with its huge mirrors, they are astonished at the sight of their own reflections; for the first time in their lives they are seeing their own bodies in their entirety. In this way, the Revolution has finally allowed these men and women to discover who they really are. A similar notion is articulated in the broad opposition the narrative constructs between Mexico before and Mexico during the Revolution. Before the Revolution the country was merely an aggregate of static, isolated communities. The Revolution sets the country in motion: the people leave their villages and towns and finally begin to discover the common purpose that binds the nation together as a whole. The Revolution, in this view, constitutes an explosive moment of self-recognition in the nation's history.

Fuentes's most recent novel, Cristóbal nonato (1987), however, reveals a distinct shift in perspective: revolutions, both past and present, are now seen in a far less sanguine light. The spirit of the Mexican Revolution is recreated in a mocking, though affectionate, manner in the figure of General Rigoberto Palomar, who owes his high military rank to a somewhat unusual feat: at the age of eighteen he was elevated in one stroke from trumpeter to general for having recovered the arm General Alvaro Obregón lost during the battle of Celaya. In the novel's present, at the age of ninety-one, General Palomar is the last survivor of the Revolution, in which he maintains an irrational faith premised on two contradictory assumptions: "1) la Revolutión no había terminado y 2) la Revolutión había triunfado y cumplido todas sus promesas." This discrediting of the concept of revolution takes on a less light-hearted form when it comes to a depiction of the revolutionary spirit of the late twentieth century. The embodiment of this spirit is Matamoros Moreno, whose leadership of the revolutionary forces of Mexico is both absurd, in that it grows out of the resentments of a frustrated writer, and somewhat sinister, in that his name, the "Ayatollah," links him to a reactionary religious fanaticism. In this way, the belief in the possible emergence of a new, more benign, order is severely attenuated.

A final element in Fuentes's revised view of the nature of revolution consists of his rethinking the relationship between the erotic and the political. Wendy Faris has observed that in much of Fuentes's work "love and revolution are allied, the physical upheaval and implied freedom of eroticism often serving as analogues for social liberation, both moving us toward some kind of utopia" ["Desire and Power, Love and Revolution: Carlos Fuentes and Milan Kundera," Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 8, No. 2, 1988]. In Cristóbal nonato, however, the personal and the political are no longer so easily reconciled: the relationship between these two dimensions of existence turns out to be fraught with difficulties. When young Angel Palomar abandons his wife in the middle of her pregnancy in order to pursue an infatuation with the vain and superficial daughter of one of Mexico's richest men, he managers to convince himself that he is doing it in order to keep alive his iconoclastic and rebellions spirit. He is, in other words, chasing Penny López for the right ideological reasons. But Angel is not entirely convinced by his own attempt at self-justification, he continues to be perplexed by "la contradicción entre sus ideas y su práctica" and he is finally unable to find the correct adjustment between his sex life and his politics: "Su sexualidad renaciente, era progresista o reaccionaria? Su actividad política, debía conducirlo a la monogamíao al harén?" The only possible conclusion is that these two realms are in some sense incommensurable: "ante un buen acostón se estrellan todas has ideologís." In this way, revolution, deprived of a clear basis in personal experience, becomes a far more complex, baffling and even improbable event. Whether Cristóbal nonato signals a major shift in Fuentes's work it is too early to say. What is clear, however, is that it is precisely Fuentes's persistent engagement with the question of the interrelations between the private and the public, between the individual self and its historical circumstances, that constitutes his most powerful claim on our interest.

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