Carlos Fuentes | Critical Review by Nicolas Shumway

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of Carlos Fuentes.
This section contains 1,075 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Nicolas Shumway

SOURCE: "In the Embrace of Spain," in New York Times Book Review, April 26, 1992, p. 9.

In the following review, Shumway offers a mixed assessment of The Buried Mirror.

In 1856, Argentina's first great historian, Bartolome Mitre, published a collection of short biographies titled Gallery of Argentine Celebrities. In the foreword he wrote: "Argentine history has been rich in noteworthy men…. The glory of those men is the Argentine people's richest heritage; rescuing their lives and qualities from obscurity is to gather and use that heritage, for our honor and our improvement." Mitre's affirmation of Argentina's greatness came at a time of serious crisis. Two opposing governments claimed to rule the country, and the threat of lasting fragmentation loomed at every juncture. Yet Mitre denied even the possibility of permanent failure. Whatever the problems of the moment, his book held that Argentina was a spiritual unit with a glorious past that can instruct an equally glorious future. Mitre, of course, was not the only historian of his century with such attitudes. In the 19th century, history was often written to undergird newly formed nations needing a sense of cultural and spiritual unity to justify their existence.

The Buried Mirror by the Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes is a recent installment in this historiographical tradition. Mr. Fuentes confesses the gravity of today's political and economic crisis in Latin America, yet, like Mitre, he discounts such difficulties as a thing of the moment and claims a magnificent future to be had by unearthing the buried mirror of cultural identity that will reveal to Latin Americans their forgotten, spiritually authentic history. This book, he tells us, is "dedicated to a search for the cultural continuity that can inform and transcend the economic and political disunity and fragmentation of the Hispanic world."

The result of such concerns is an unusual book, both compelling and disturbing. As history it is anachronistic and occasionally unreliable, as narrative and commentary it is forceful and beautifully written. Two major items, however, separate Mr. Fuentes from historians like Mitre. First is the scope of his book. Mr. Fuentes seeks to retell all of Spain's and Latin America's cultural history, a daunting task by any standard. Second is his intended audience. Ostensibly he, like Mitre, addresses other Latin Americans. Yet when he uses images in which Gibraltar reminds "us" of insurance companies and Numantia—where the ancient Iberians resisted for decades the Roman conquest of Spain—becomes "a sort of Vietnam for Rome," he clearly hopes English-speaking Americans are listening. Indeed, since his book is meant to complement, albeit not duplicate, a television series co-produced by the Discovery Channel and the BBC and also called The Buried Mirror, it sometimes seems that North Americans are his principal concern.

The range of the book is both its principal defect and its chief virtue. Beginning with the prehistoric cave paintings at Altamira in Spain and ending with contemporary street art in East Los Angeles, Mr. Fuentes seeks to cover all of Spanish and Spanish-American history, with frequent digressions on a particular artist, political figure, novel or painting. Given the size of such a project, it is no surprise that The Buried Mirror covers too much to do all of it well. Yet what Mr. Fuentes does manage to distill in so few pages is truly astounding. With his considerable gifts as a narrator, he captures much of the sweep and drama of Hispanic history and culture without bogging down in details. Although he devotes only a few paragraphs each to important figures like Alphonse the Wise, Miguel de Cervantes and Benito Juarez, what he loses in detail he often captures in essence.

In a year when bashing Columbus and the Spanish conquest is becoming a popular parlor game among the politically correct and minimally informed, Mr. Fuentes calls attention to the complexity of Hispanic culture and history. He frankly describes the cruelty of men like Francisco Pizarro, but he also portrays vividly the heroism of figures like the early missionary priests and historians Bartolome de las Casas and Toribio de Benavente (always called Motolinia, a name the Indians gave him), who battled tirelessly to protect America's native populations.

Unfortunately, not all of Mr. Fuentes's narrative is equally felicitous. His need to generalize and encapsulate inevitably distorts. For example, he makes a great deal about bullfights and gypsies as symbols of all Hispanic culture. In fact, these are the hoary cliches that play better in 19th-century French operas than in modern Latin America. Even more puzzling is his repeated insistence that Hispanic countries should seek inspiration for their political institutions in their own past and cease imitating English and French models. While this point strikes a nice emotional chord, he never explains which English and French models are inappropriate or why, nor does he specify which elements of the Hispanic past should be reproduced to solve today's problems.

But perhaps the biggest problem in The Buried Mirror is its basic premise: that the Hispanic world forms a coherent unit reducible to a single cultural continuity. A parallel study of the English-speaking world would assume that England, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Jamaica, Ireland, South Africa, India and the United States form a single cultural unit because England "embraces us all" (as Mr. Fuentes says of Spain). Virtually any generalization about England and England's former colonies would surely be greeted with at least a "Yes, but…." Similar doubts rise from Mr. Fuentes's insistence on continuity throughout all places and periods of the Hispanic world. Hispanic countries differ tremendously from one another, so much so that even using a term like "Latin America" can signal an intellectual laziness that refuses to recognize their complexity and variety. It would surely be ironic if The Buried Mirror, rather than bringing greater awareness to North Americans, merely contributed to our lamentable penchant for seeing everything south of the Rio Grande as a single entity.

For these reasons I read much of Mr. Fuentes's book with a "Yes, but …" I am grateful for his attempting such a large task, impressed by his phenomenal narrative gifts and happy to own the book, both for what Mr. Fuentes says and for the extravagant reproductions of Hispanic artworks generously included. But the book leaves me feeling like a tourist who sees 12 countries in seven days. The places visited are beautiful and fascinating, but on my next visit, I want to take more time in fewer places. I will see less but know more.

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This section contains 1,075 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Nicolas Shumway
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