From “The Review of Contemporary Fiction,” Summer 1988, Vol. 8.2
DEBRA CASTILLO: All the critics that have spoken about your work have noted its diversity of style and genre. In Distant Relations, one of the characters says, “The art of narration is a desperate attempt to reestablish analogy without sacrificing differentiation.” How does that relate to your sense of your work?
CARLOS FUENTES: It relates to its very source, which is Cervantes, of course. I’m really paraphrasing my own idea of Don Quixote and why I think that it is the founding novel of the modern world. I think Don Quixote comes out of the medieval world, the world of chivalry he evokes and reads about and tries to enact, the world of the Middle Ages, which is basically a world of analogy, where everything has a meaning. All words have a precise meaning, a precise function, and all things have a precise place. This order is established by means of analogy on a scale that leads to God. Don Quixote goes out into a world where this is shattered; his search for analogy leads him into a world of proliferating differentiation. The wayside inns, the people he meets, Maritomes, the dukes, and, what is most important of all, the readers of Don Quixote he encounters tell him, “Your world doesn’t exist anymore. Your world of unity and analogy is shattered. We offer you this world of infinite diversity.” Don Quixote is a great hero of fiction and of philosophy—I think of thought as well—because he will not give up the idea of unity in order to understand the world of diversity. Yet he must admit the world of diversity in order to admit himself, since he is only “Don Quixote” because he is read, and he is read by a multitude of readers, not by only one reader. For me the great moment of Don Quixote and the great moment of the modem novel as well happens when Don Quixote and Sancho find out that they are read, when Sanson Carrasco comes and tells Sancho Panza, “Hey, there’s a book about you,” and Sancho Panza says, “They tell everything, even the things we have said in secret, in private to each other. Things that only God knew before, now the reader knows them as well.” The moment of the dedoubling of the readership and the giving of the readership to a multitude of people, to a multitude of points of view, is the founding moment of the modern world, of the modern novel, and this constant tension between analogy and differentiation makes up the tension of the modern world in effect.
DC: In terms of your own fiction, to what extent do you feel—or maybe you disagree—that in some way there’s something just the reverse happening: rather than looking for unity, you’re establishing difference where analogy has proliferated?
CF: Yes, because in a way I am Don Quixote, and every writer in the Spanish language is Don Quixote, in the sense that we too come from an orthodox and unitary and dogmatic language which is out of the Spanish counter-reformation. I think that to understand literature in the Hispanic world you have to understand that while Europe was going the way Don Quixote—or rather Cervantes—hoped the world would go, to the world of differentiation, Spain decided to restore unity, no matter at what price. The result was the world of the Spanish counter reformation and the language of the Spanish counter-reformation, which in effect killed the novel in the Spanish language. There’s nothing between Cervantes and Perez Galdos and Clarin and that is almost two centuries of silence in the narrative realm. It’s a tremendous gap when you realize the strong unity of narrative, of fiction, in the English language and the French language. We in Spain and in Hispanic America have had to reimagine two centuries, have had to reimagine a whole fictional universe. I think the only way to do it is to go back to Don Quixote and to reassert the rights of diversity vis-a-vis the very unitarian, dogmatic language of the counter reformation without losing the sense of unity, if one can.
But I am very interested in admitting this vast plurality, almost in the Bakhtinian sense. Here we come to another interesting aspect of it. This great diversity is indicative of what Bakhtin calls “the era of competitive languages” in which we live, and I would like that era of competitive languages to express itself as much as possible in my novels. I really shun the idea of purity, the idea of perfection, the idea of unity in the sense of an orthodox or closed system of signs. I’m looking for precisely the contrary, and sometimes if I am excessive, I think it’s like loving excessively.
DC: One of the things that seems to bring together this diversity is something new in your works. In the front of your latest novels, you’ve been taking all of this diversity and putting it together under a single heading, “La edad del tiempo” (The Age of Time).
DC: I would like you to comment on the kind of evolution, or the kind of unity that you see in this, and also in your choice of the overarching title, “La edad del tiempo,” where tiempo seems to have such a notable importance.
CF: Time is the subject matter of all my fiction. Of course Bakhtin has told us there is a chronotopia in every piece of fiction; there’s a time and there’s a space. My focus is on time, which is probably a mistake, you see, because probably by focusing on time I’m really just trying to divert your attention from my focus on space. The two things do not actually exist separately, but my conscious stress is on time. If this stress on time unconsciously reveals my idea of space, so much the better. I’d rather be very conscious of the time element and let the space element manifest itself in a more spontaneous manner, but the rector, the principle that organizes this narrative corpus, is a temporal conception.
DC: In other interviews you’ve spoken of your work as a whole as a kind of Mexican displacement of Balzac in which Where the Air Is Clear has one place and Aura has another, etc. The outline on the front of these last couple of novels seems to suggest that you have a far more specific scheme in mind than just trying to draw a kind of displacement of Balzac onto a mural setting.
CF: Yes, there would be a certain Balzacian conception in the interlinking of novels, or their etalage, through a temporal and spatial concept which is that of the geography and history of Mexico. This would be in a way the unifying factor, but it is not for nothing that at the head of the whole corpus I have put a title which is “El mal del tiempo,” which means not “the evil of time”—although it has that ambiguity. It means “le mal du temps”: in French, “the trouble with time.” I am dealing with it not as a specifically historical time or a time bound to a certain space, let us say Mexico, but our travails with time, our constant struggle in order to give meaning and sense and place to time, if I may be infinitely contradictory. Because, after all, the history of Mexico, the history of Latin America, and the history of the New World, including the United States, is a utopian project. Which is why we don’t have tragedy, alas, but we do have a lot of utopia and a lot of sick utopias, utopias that have not been accomplished because we have wanted to accomplish them in space, which is manifestly impossible. U-topos means there is no such place and we have been unable to imagine them in time. Therefore, I start with three stories that you cannot place historically or chronologically with ease. These are Aura, Cumpleanos (Birthday) and Distant Relations, in which basically I want to say we are uneasy with time. Time is a problem. How can we elaborate this problem, how do we create time, how does time create us, how do we envision time, how do we read time, how does time read us who live it, etc.? These are things that link these three novels, and therefore they come before the following novel, which is Terra Nostra, or before the novels that in a sense would follow a certain chronological idea of Mexican history starting with “El tiempo romantico (romantic time), which deals with history from the nineteenth century. These are stories set in the nineteenth century of Mexico, but I want to insist very much that the presiding element is not a chronological element.
DC: One of the things that struck me, for example, was that The Death of Artemio Cruz is not included in “El tiempo revolutionario” (revolutionary time) and people tend to read it as a revolutionary novel.
CF: I think that Artemio Cruz, since you mentioned it, escapes very much the ideological idea of revolution in order to enter a historical idea of time beyond ideology. For me, Artemio Cruz is very capital, not only because he is a very capital character in my work, but because he is saying constantly, against what most critics affirm, that his ideologies can be betrayed, but history does not betray itself. History evolves and it evolves in a contradictory and plastic and creative fashion, and, with all his defects and all his diseases, he belongs to that plastic sense of history. He does not belong to the frozen mask of ideology, and when we speak of the betrayal of the revolution in the twentieth century, we’re really being sanctimonious and rather hypocritical. We’re talking about the betrayal of a certain ideology, even if we do not respect it, even if we do not participate in it: “Ah, they should have stuck to their ideology, to what the ideology says.” No, you stick to history, and there is something of that faith in that imputation against Artemio Cruz, I think.
DC: Not only speaking to the history, but also the importance of myth, or the importance of a kind of a memory-of a storyteller’s memory rather than a historic memory. One of the other things I would like you to comment on is the importance of the oral tales, the importance of the storyteller role, which has been appearing in Distant Relations, Christopher Unborn, etc.
CF: The orality and the myth go together. They are both present in a tale of time, in the age of time. After all, the origin of time is in myth, as well as the origin of language. They come together. Vico told us that the first thing that the tribe creates is its language, and the first thing it creates with its language is its myths. Or you could even say the first thing it creates is its myths, and what it creates with its myths is its language; they’re inseparable. So at the very origin you have a preoccupation about time and language. You have a preoccupation about myth which in a way is the eternal present as it is lived by a community, and especially by the aboriginal peoples. Since, finally, the more you deal with time, you come to the conclusion that there is no time but the present. It is in the present that you remember the past; therefore, the past is in the present. And it is in the present that you desire; therefore, the future is in the present. All is present. The category, the literary form, that embodies the constant present is a mythical category. It is not journalism, it is myth.
DC: What about the future?
CF: The future is part of desire, and desire is extremely important. I think it’s very important in my novels and it has to do with want, it has to do with yearning, and with the way we strive towards what we merely call the obscure object of desire. This is, of course, never an innocent operation because it implies not only having what we want, but changing it according to our conception of it, changing the other person. The other person might very well resist not only our desire but our wanting to take over and change. And therefore, conflict, and therefore, narrative, novels, drama, and many other things. But I cannot understand the future without the category of desire and all that desire implies.
DC: How does that relate to having chosen a fetus when you choose to speak of the future?
CF: It has everything to do with it, since the fetus is the link between the past, the present, and the future. One of the characteristics of Cristobal in the novel Cristobal nonato (Christopher Unborn) is that he is perfectly conscious of everything after he is ejaculated. From that moment on, as the song says, he is a living consciousness—which is probably a bad idea from a political point of view—but which serves the literary purpose to have a consciousness that remembers everything, that knows everything rather, because he is in immediate contact with his genetic chain, with all his genetic information. He is going to forget that the moment he is born when he is struck by the flaming sword of the angel of the Talmud. Then he will have to start learning and remembering all over again. It is nothing but a fiction; I hope it is not interpreted as an anti abortionist fiction, but still I wanted to have the contrast between the possibility of knowing everything, then forgetting everything, and then having to learn a parcel of what we probably knew and do not remember anymore.
DC: Because the moment of birth is the ending as well as the beginning?
CF: Well, it’s the ending of the fact that we have lived nine months before that, that we are all nine months old when we are born.
DC: You mentioned that you didn’t want to be taken in the ideological conflicts with Christopher Unborn. However, one of the things that I think any reader of Christopher Unborn in the context of current American-Mexican relationships or of Mexican politics will notice is that once again you’re making a habit of your prescience. In Mexico they’re now talking about the Crisis with a capital C. It seems that in this novel you have given a vision of the crisis before the fact.
CF: Two things have happened to me in Mexico over my career, which is now rather lengthy, and one is that I have devoured three generations of critics at least. I’ve always known more than the critics. I’ve always gone beyond the critics and their reservations, thank God, but then history has devoured me. No matter how audacious any of my forecasts may have been, they’re promptly transformed into the most banal, naturalistic reality. I was speaking to Jose Emilio Pacheco the other day. He said, “I wrote a piece for ABC in which I state that from Where the Air Is Clear to Christopher Unborn all of your forecasts have quickly come true.”
You know, when Where the Air is Clear appeared it was condemned as a filthy work. There were pieces in the newspaper, and in very conservative papers, saying the only thing to be done with this obscene piece of literature was to flush it down the toilet. Suddenly I find that the girls in the convent of the Sacred Heart read Where the Air Is Clear at age fifteen because they consider it a rather tame piece of literature that introduces you to Mexican literature and whatnot. Christopher Unborn is becoming true faster than I ever thought. I was speaking of the crises of the year 1990, and here we are in the crises of the year 1987-88. A friend called me and said, “You have no idea what has happened in Mexico over the last month. It makes Christopher Unborn look like a novela rosa [romance].”
DC: You talk in Christopher about the problems of the city of thirty million, a city the size of a country, and you mention Where the Air Is Clear, which nicely focuses the kinds of changes that have taken place in the city. How could you associate particularly those two novels, but also your fiction in general, with a kind of contemporary ideology of the city?
CF: I was always a reader fascinated by the literature of the city. I think that for me literature became a reality the moment I read Balzac, the moment I read Dickens, the moment I read Dostoevsky, Gogol; the writers who introduced us to the modern city, in a word, and later Dos Passos, Doblin, Joyce, who have dealt with the modern city. But before that were those four writers: Gogol, Dostoevsky, Balzac, and Dickens, because they made me realize, my God! here I am surrounded by a Paris, a London, a St. Petersburg of my own and nobody has dealt with it. Here are the lessons of the opening of Histoire des treize (History of the Thirteen), the opening of Ferragus in Balzac, the incredible lyrical description of the night of Paris, the most incredible metaphors about Paris piled one on top of the other by Balzac in a great kind of overture. For me the real overture in “The Human Comedy” is the overture to Histoire des treize. Then the sense of London in Dickens, especially the incredible scene in Our Mutual Friend where Hexam and Lizzie, his daughter, at three o’clock in the morning are in the boat fishing cadavers out of the Thames and stealing their watches, money, or whatever. Or Raskolnikov in a yellow, summer stenchy Petersburg; all these things struck my imagination. I’m evoking things of the night, you see; every single scene I’ve evoked is a night scene, and I say to myself, “Who’s the only individual in creation who never sleeps, who never closes his eyes?” Do you know who that is?
CF: No, no, no: God winks, God dozes off from time to time. It’s the devil; he is condemned not to sleep. It means that God dozes off, has siestas. It’s evident he has them; there are so many lapses. Whereas Lucifer is wide awake all the time. This is something I later read very beautifully developed in Fanger, in his book on romantic realism. It is how the devil incarnates himself in Vautrin, in Raskolnikov, in Fagan. These are incarnations of Lucifer, who is the only man who can guide us through the city at night and guide us with his disguise. My Vautrin, my Fagan, my Raskolnikov is called Ixca Cienfuegos in Where the Air Is Clear. So, more than the easy associations that were made at the time with Ulysses and Alexanderplatz, Berlin and Manhattan Transfer, I think it is going back to the creators of the literature of the city, the ones I’ve mentioned.
DC: The question comes back in a kind of circular way to your thinking about utopia, which, as you mentioned earlier, is the place with no place. Then speaking so much about specific places such as Mexico City whether they’re displaced in time or imagination. . .
CF: I think that utopia is evidently linked to the idea of nature. I mean there are two ways. The great contradiction of utopia is that it is a Janus-faced proposition. It looks backward to the Golden Age—that means to a perfect harmony between the individual and nature—and it also looks forward to another golden age in the future when again there will be harmony between man and nature. I think both propositions have basically failed; we cannot help exploiting nature in the past or in the future. Whatever else we might do, we will not stop exploiting nature because we depend on it to live. As Adorno says, we will not let nature express itself, we will not let it speak with its own voice because it would mean our death, finally. And so we jump from Adorno to Benjamin, because when he says that the writer derives his authority from death he’s talking about the death of nature, the death of the natural world which permits the writer to exist. That is why the city, which is an artificial creation by definition, which is the compromise between topos and u-topos, becomes such a tremendous protagonist of both the organic and the artificial life of the modern society, which I think finally excludes the idea of utopia. Does it give us the idea of tragedy? I don’t think so; I don’t think it guarantees that we can restore a “sentimiento tragico de la vida” [ ref. Miguel de Unamuno, a tragic sense of life] which I would like. It is one of the great achievements of the human spirit to be able to understand life and recreate it in the tragic manner, but perhaps we can’t do that anymore. We’re destined to farce and irony and it’s the best solution we have at hand.
DC: Paz says someplace that the Mexican people, after more than two centuries of experiments and defeats, have faith only in the Virgin of Guadalupe and the national lottery. Christopher Unborn shows that very well. Taking the Virgin of Guadalupe and replacing her with Mamadoc is a very interesting move, and provides a kind of alternative dystopic vision of the feminine in that novel.
In all of your fiction Mexico has probably been the central space, although your works have ranged through European settings as well. You’ve lived outside of Mexico for most of your life, and your work still always comes back to that particular place, which I would imagine is a kind of utopic vision by now. Could you comment on that a little bit more?
CF: You had several questions and one has to do with Mexico and the fact that I grew up outside Mexico. I’m sort of going to do a biography here. I had to imagine Mexico before I ever lived in Mexico, so when I went to live in Mexico, the first thing I had to do was to contrast my imagination of the country to the reality of the country, which is the kind of tension from which literature is born. For me, literature was born from that very dramatic contrast between my Mexican utopia, the Mexico I had to defend (I felt I had to defend Mexico and the Mexican revolution and Mexican culture against the gringos when I grew up in this country and I was subjected to the kind of slights and tensions any Mexican boy is subjected to in the United States). And I had to oppose a vision that was nurtured very much by my father teaching the history, the geography, the values of Mexico. Then I went and saw the real country and this created a conflict in me and from that conflict was born Where the Air Is Clear to begin with, but then a whole sense of criticism that I feel is our way of being optimistic in a growing nation such as Mexico. To abstain from criticism is, I think, a way of being pessimistic; to engage in criticism is to be concerned with the matters at hand and with the country.
DC: Do you feel that Latin America, having been relegated to the margins for so long, is now in some way converting itself into a central point of view from which to see other cultures?
CF: The discourse follows this way. When you exercise criticism, you create a culture. There is no modern culture that is acritical, and the criticism of culture in Latin America has permitted Latin Americans to see something very clearly, and it is that in spite of our recurrent political disasters, in spite of our profound political Balkanization and disunity and disgregations of times, we have an extraordinary continuity of culture. Cultural criticism reveals this: that in culture we have great strength, that in culture we have great, great continuity and this is an important thing to know, to understand. First, because when most of the socioeconomic models have just fallen flat on their faces and crumbled during the present crisis, what has remained on its own two feet is what we have created culturally: our poems, our novels, our music, our old traditions, our paintings, our films, our dances….This is what is there, the rest has become sort of a problem; you know, Corn Flakes with lots of milk in it. It isn’t real. What is real, what is standing is the culture.
This is very important because I think we’re headed towards a world in the twenty-first century which is no longer this anachronistic, bipolar world traded by the Yalta agreements with two great powers. It’ll be a world of multipolar, and therefore multicultural, reality. I don’t think you can have a multipolar world unless you have a multicultural world in which the participation of great constellations such as Latin America, Black Africa, the Moslem world, Europe, Japan, China, India will be based on the constellation of culture that they represent, the diversity of culture which represents the multiplicity of power at the same time. So for me, it’s a very, very important subject as we enter the twenty-first century with all the pluses, and now the minuses, that have become evident as this century ends.
DC: In your own fiction you seem to have been moving closer and closer towards this kind of multiculturality or complexity. You have a French storyteller in one of your novels and a gringo in another. Have you considered writing fiction in other languages than Spanish?
CF: No, though sometimes I get tempted to do it in English, which is the language after Spanish that I know best. But since I have yet to have a dream in English, it becomes very difficult, you know, or since insults in English don’t mean a thing to me and insults in Spanish do. Again, since words of love in English are alien to me and I make love in Spanish: all these things make it difficult to write fiction if you don’t have the background of love and insult and dream.
DC: That’s also interesting in terms of the kind of vexed relationship that you’ve spoken about in your own life—and also historically—between the United States and Mexico, where American tastes have had such a profound effect while at the same time culturally there is a very strong antipathy. In what way is the United States a countersite for you?
CF: Very much so. That again is a biographical thing because I grew up in this country, because I’m bilingual, because I know the United States well and admire its culture and its institutions, and I’m appalled by its policies towards Latin America, and in general by its incapacity to understand the world or to accept a diminished place in the world, and since, whatever else we might think, we’re going to live together for as far as we can forecast. Or as la Cuarraca, Damiana Cisneros, says to Juan Preciado in Pedro Paramo [the novel by Juan Ruflo] “Be quiet because we’re going to be here buried in this tomb for a long, long time together, so hug me.” The same is true between Mexico and the United States: we’re going to be neighbors. Probably many Mexicans would like to sort of drift away to Polynesia, far from the United States, even if that means being further from God, but also maybe the United States would like to see Mexico go away. No, we’re not going away. We’re going to share problems, we’re going to share labor, we’re going to share diplomacy, we’re going to be at odds. We don’t have the same culture, we don’t have the same conception of things, we don’t pray to the same people, but we will have to live together. For me this is a paramount fact of our life, of our existence. It is an important sounding board also in the sense that I think it should make Mexico understand that we gain nothing by living culturally and politically and economically in isolation vis-a-vis the United States. We have to find many sources of support and identification in the world, notably in Europe and the Pacific Basin. Our work is cut out for us, but in the great measure it is determined by our vicinity to the most powerful nation in the world. It’s the only case in the world where you have a highly developed military and industrial power living next to a developing country.
DC: I would like to ask you about another countersite. Gombrowicz remarked in an essay that “any artist who respects himself ought to be, and in every sense of the term, an emigre.” How would you compare your sense of exile with Gombrowicz’s?
CF: Listen, I’ve been traveling all my life because my father was a diplomat, so I’ve always had a sense of displacement. I think I can top Gombrowicz, who lived a long time in exile in Argentina and France and knew what he was talking about certainly. I think I have something to top that, and it’s the quotation from the medieval academic transmigrant monk Hugo de San Victor, who is quoted by Edward Said in his reflections on exile. What San Victor says is that an individual who feels he is best, most comfortable, in his own homeland is a tender beginner. An individual who feels at home everywhere is a bit more interesting and complex, but only the individual who feels that he is an exile everywhere, including his own home, can call himself the perfect man. Right now I’m in stage two. I have not attained a state of perfection. I feel at home in many places. I feel at home in the United States, I feel at home in Brazil, in Argentina, Venezuela, France, England, Spain. I feel less at home in my home because I’m more in tension there. I feel more of an exile in Mexico. It’s probably where I’m most perfect, then. I’m basically in stage two; I’m a man who is at ease in many places: imperfect, imperfect.
DC: We’ve been coming back to biography and history several times. I need to ask you a question that one of your characters asks in Distant Relations: “What relation can there be, tell me, between living something and telling something?”
CF: For me, life without literature is inconceivable. I think that Don Quixote in a physical sense never existed, but Don Quixote exists more than anybody who existed in 1605. Much more. There’s nobody who can compete with Don Quixote or with Hamlet. So in the end we have the reality of the book as the reality of the world and the reality of history. The great possibility not only of literature, but of art in general, is to be the only presence of the past, the only way of being in the present, and the only way of being a perpetually potential event that can project itself into the future. That is the reality of art. Nothing else except art becomes a potential reality projected from the dawn of mankind, or from 1605 to our present day, and nothing that we will do today will be able to be a presence in the future except probably the art we do today. The rest will be dead; it will become old very quickly.
DC: You have delimited the cultural scheme you’ve been discussing by what you call “operative questions.” Without recapitulating a whole semester of lectures, can you briefly comment on these questions? They are: who desires, who dreams, who speaks, who has power, and what faces can we see?
CF: This is the question in Latin America. The monopoly of language in Latin America has been a tremendous fact. The fact that Montezuma, the Aztec emperor, had as his official title Heutlatoani, “he of the great voice,” he who has the monopoly on speech, the monopoly on language. A character such as Pedro Paramo is so important because he has a kind of monopoly on the discourse of verbal sphere from which only one character escapes, and it is Susana San Juan. He can’t have her because she is captured in her own delirious, mad monologue, whereas he decides that people exist or don’t exist in the measure that they enter or not the verbal sphere that he determines constantly. So in Latin America there is constantly a question, and that is why literature is so important, why poetry and the novel have been so important in Latin America. To an extent which is not even suspected by a Frenchman, or an Englishman, or an American, it means saying, “I’m taking voice, I’m taking language, I’m taking dream for myself. You do not have the monopoly.” Since here or in Western Europe you think you spread it out so well, it is not a problem for you. And there is the First Amendment and there is a series of protections. But for a man living in the Venezuelan Guyana in a novel by Romulo Gallegos or in the plains of Jalisco in a novel by Juan Rulfo, there to be able to dream and to be able to speak is an extraordinary affirmation of humanity. Therefore the poet, the novelist who gives people that possibility, becomes a central reality of our societies.
DC: So would you say that between Europe and the United States on one hand and Latin America on another, the difference is in the role of the imagination?
CF: Yes, I think that for you these problems I’m speaking about are no longer things to be won, but rather things to be preserved at the most. And sometimes not even that. Sometimes you very easily lose consciousness of values that you have and let them go. Otherwise you couldn’t understand certain events in the politics of the United States, where it comes so easily to indifference or extremism, or is taken in, is bamboozled so easily in this society. Whereas in Latin America it is not a question of preserving values, but of conquering values for the first time. It’s a very different thing.
DC: We’ve talked about utopia and I’d like to just shift a little bit to the heterotopia. Foucault gives us as extreme examples brothels and colonies, and he says that the boat that goes back and forth is the heterotopia par excellence because it represents the great reserve of imagination. According to Foucault, in civilizations without a boat, dreams dry up and police take the place of pirates. Could you speak a little bit more about what you have called your own ship of fools?
CF: We’re touching on an essential subject on the present state of culture in Latin America and what we can expect from the future. I think we’re rapidly entering a world that Max Weber best defined as a polyphasm of values. The idea of an organic, unitary world of perfect identity- perfect national identity, for example—is impossible. We’re going to have to struggle in a world where we must preserve our national identity but in competition with the alterity of the world. Otherwise we’ll be left out of instant communications, of technological developments, of developments in science, economic competition; we’ll be left out of a million things. We’ll be left out of the competition of languages Bakhtin talked about. Suddenly we’re faced with the fact that if we’re going to enter the twenty-first century, we’re going to enter with the personality, the identity we have been able to reach right now. It’s almost like being suddenly thrown on a roller coaster ride in which you are left forever frozen until the ride is over with the expression you had when the ride began. Because it is so breathtaking and so sudden, that if you were with your mouth open you remain with your mouth open, and if you close your eyes you remain with your closed eyes, if you made grimace “A” you stay with grimace “A” until you reach your destination. So here we are, we’re going to go into this world with our identity as Mexicans, as Argentinians, as Peruvians, as Latin Americans in order to face this or else we’re going to close ourselves in and we’re going to perish. Well, I would rather be a Greek than be an Aztec frankly. I would rather participate in the world, feel the challenge of the world, struggle with the others, struggle with what denies me, struggle with the alien, than close myself in and be amazed to death and die of absolute astonishment like the Aztecs did. So I’m willing to take on the challenge and the risk of the world and as many ships of fools as the world sends us, as many ships of fools as we can send to the world….
DC: Plying your way back and forth?
CF: Yes, I feel I’m in the ship. I feel I’m in the ship, absolutely. I don’t know, maybe I’m just the one working in the stoke down below. Not the congressman, or the cartographer, not Thomas More or Erasmus. Maybe a busboy, that would be my role.
DC: I’d like to end by talking briefly about your last two books. First, The Old Gringo, which is one of your most successful books here, a New York Times best-seller. The question I wanted to ask was about the role of memory in this text. Is memory in narrative always and necessarily a metatext?
CF: If I might violate your own sense of pudeur for a minute, Debra, I think you’ve put it best in your own essay on Gringo viejo in which you recall, and I don’t think other critics have, that this is “gringa vieja” remembering. The whole novel is bracketed between the memories of an aging American woman who’s recreating this memory, and without that memory there would be no text. The text creates the memory, but at the same time the text is dependent on the memory. Of course, in literature we know that memory is not precisely the effect of any given cause, but there is a way which writers constantly break the principle of causality and make the effect precede the cause. So that you are not only remembering but creating the past. The present is the cause of the past in a novel, and therefore memory is a play of mirrors which in some way creates the present in which we are reading by the virtue of the memory which in fact is being created in the present, which creates that past as a result of the mnemonic activity in the present. What we have is in reality a series of metatexts which are both created and create simultaneously, so that literature appears always as a simultaneous event in space. No matter how much history and causality and chronology you might pump into literature, the fact is that Kafka and Cervantes are coexisting in literature at the same time.
DC: The last question is, I think, more a cry for help than anything else. What precautions can you give us about reading Christopher Unborn?
CF: Oh, plunge yourself into it. Why don’t you swim with it? I think that what Cortazar asks the good reader of Lezama Lima’s Paradiso is the advice I would give the good reader of Christopher Unborn. That is, to jump into your mother’s belly as a swimming pool, as an Olympic swimming pool, and don’t try to avoid drowning. Be comfortable with the quality of the fetal fluid; it will keep you afloat. And do somersaults, and dive in, and jump around, and do all kinds of crazy things. The good reader of Laurence Sterne should be a good reader of Christopher Unborn.