Mexico is mourning the death of Carlos Fuentes, one of its greatest writers.
Fuentes died Tuesday. He was 83.
Wednesday, he was honored at a ceremony in Mexico City’s National Palace of the Arts.
Fuentes was known throughout the world for his novels, many of them critical of modern-day Mexico.
Anchor Lisa Mullins speaks with Julio Ortega, a friend and biographer of Fuentes, about his role in Mexico as a public intellectual.
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Lisa Mullins: Mexico is mourning one of its greatest writers today. Carlos Fuentes died yesterday at the age of 83. Today he was honored at a ceremony in Mexico City’s National Palace of the Arts. Carlos Fuentes was known throughout the world for his novels, many of them critical of modern-day Mexico. His final novel addressed the brutality of the drug war, as he recently told Canada’s CBC.
Carlos Fuentes: I have a novel which is narrated by a head, floating in the sea, cut off by druglords. So, I have it in my own imagination, there it is: this talking head, killed by these thugs.
Mullins: That’s Carlos Fuentes speaking in a CBC interview late last year. Julio Ortega is Professor of Hispanic Studies at Brown University. He’s the author of a biography about Carlos Fuentes. Now, Professor Ortega, you can’t get much more topical than that , especially because there are, as you well know, 49 torsos just discovered earlier this week along a highway near the Mexican city of Monterey. How was it that Carlos Fuentes could take such a grisly detail as a severed head, making that a main character in his last novel, and turn it into a literary metaphor? How did he pull that off?
Julio Ortega: Well, really, it’s a literary tradition in the Spanish novel. Violence and dismemberment of the body has been present many times in our literature. It’s perhaps an excessive intimacy with death with the Spanish, but obviously, Fuentes’s imagery in his last novel is more shocking because it is also the reality imitating fiction, not otherwise. But yeah, he had strong postions on current issues, and sometimes these positions take shape in his novels.
Mullins: Well, it’s one example, anyway, of how what’s happening in Mexico made it into one of Carlos Fuentes’s novels. Outside of his fiction writing, though, outside of his novels, how outspoken was he on, for example, the drug violence in Mexico, or on other issues.
Ortega: He was outspoken, and he was present in forums and colloqiums, and in the press, of course. He has been really against the violence and the business. Obviously, we know what is going on in Mexico with the cartels, and practically in all of Latin America, but he also points to the United States because we here are the big consumers. If the U.S. stopped consuming drugs, the business would end, probably in great part. So, he was not an expert. He never claimed to be. But he was trying to discuss this very complex issue, but nobody has a practical solution for this.
Mullins: You presumably knew Carlos Fuentes well, since you wrote his biography. I wondered if you can just tell us when you met, and, personally, how your friendship evolved.
Ortega: We met in the summer of ’69, in Mexico City. We managed to keep our friendship placed in literature and common interests, and then in 1996 he became a professor at Brown. He was…he had every spring…we organized a lot of conferences, colloqiums especially catered to new writers. He was very much interested in the new voices.
Mullins: What was he like to hang out with?
Ortega: Well, it was an intense activity. Because he was…he had an incredible energy. Everybody was, at the of the session, was tired but him. He was ready to keep going. Really, he was amazing, because he was probably one of the last public intellectuals in the Spanish War, one who was responsible for public opinion, and taking stands, and criticizing dictatorship’s interventions. The main thing is that he was really one of the most free writers, because he was free from the state influence, or patronage, and also free from the market. He never wrote for the market. So he’s a very strange, unique case of that freedom.
Mullins: Julio Ortega, friend and biographer of the late Carlos Fuentes. Professor Ortega’s most recent book is ” Dialogues in Latin American Literature”. Nice to speak with you. Thank you.
Ortega: Thank you.
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