Author Carlos Fuentes, who played a dominant role in Latin America’s novel-writing boom by delving into the failed ideals of the Mexican revolution, died Tuesday in a Mexico City hospital. He was 83.
Fuentes died at the Angeles del Pedregal hospital where he was taken after his personal doctor, Arturo Ballesteros, found him in shock in his Mexico City home. Ballesteros told reporters outside the hospital that the writer had a sudden internal hemorrhage that caused him to lose consciousness.
The loss was mourned worldwide via Twitter and across Mexican airwaves by everyone from fellow Mexican authors Elena Poniatowska and Jorge Volpi to reggaeton artist Rene Perez of the group Calle 13. “I deeply lament the death of our beloved and admired Carlos Fuentes, a universal Mexican writer,” said President Felipe Calderon on his Twitter account.
The prolific Fuentes wrote his first novel, Where the Air is Clear, at age 29, laying the foundation for a boom in Spanish contemporary literature during the 1960s and 1970s. He published an essay on the change of power in France in the newspaper Reforma on Tuesday, the same day he died.
His generation of writers, including Colombia’s Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Peru’s Mario Vargas Llosa, drew global readership and attention to Latin American culture during a period when strongmen ruled much of the region. Fuentes was the driving force in bringing together the Latin writers who collectively became known as “The Boom”, said Raymond L. Williams, a professor of Latin American literature at the University of California, Riverside. “It took Fuentes’ vision to say if we unite forces and provide a common political and literary voice, we’ll have more impact,” Williams said. “His home in Pedregal (an upscale Mexico City neighborhood) was the intellectual center what brought a lot of writers together.”
The Death of Artemio Cruz, a novel about a post-revolutionary Mexico, brought Fuentes international acclaim. He was asked in an unpublished 2006 interview why he didn’t mention in the book the target of his criticism, the long-ruling, autocratic Institutional Revolutionary Party, known by its Spanish initials PRI. The PRI is now poised to take back the presidency in July 1 elections. “There was no need to mention the PRI,” Fuentes answered. “It is present by its absence.”
The strapping, mustachioed author dressed smartly, ate well and moved easily between the capitals of Europe and Mexico City with his equally elegant wife, journalist Silvia Lemus.
His other classics included Aura, Terra Nostra, and The Good Conscience. Many American readers know him for The Old Gringo, a novel about San Francisco journalist Ambrose Bierce, who disappeared at the height of the 1910-1920 Mexican Revolution. That book was later made into a 1989 film starring Gregory Peck and Jane Fonda.
Mexican historian Enrique Krauze was considered Fuentes’ harshest critic, saying the writer was out of touch with Mexico. But Krauze acknowledged his talents on Tuesday, calling Fuentes an “author of lasting novels and short stories, a vigorous, enriching presence.”
“That’s all I should say,” he told The Associated Press.
Fuentes was often mentioned as a candidate for the Nobel prize but never won one. True to his name, which means “fountains” in Spanish, he was a prolific writer, producing plays and short stories and co-founding a literary magazine. He was also a columnist, political analyst, essayist and critic.
And he was outspoken. Once considered a Communist and sympathizer of Cuba’s Fidel Castro, Fuentes was denied entry into the U.S. under the McCarren-Walter Act. Having spent some of his childhood in the U.S. as the son of a Mexican diplomat, he said it grated on him that his left-of-center politics meant he often was portrayed as anti-American. He was critical of American governments and of a rich country that should attend to its poor, but not of Americans and American culture. “To call me anti-American is a stupendous lie, a calumny. I grew up in this country. When I was a little boy I shook the hand of Franklin Roosevelt and I haven’t washed it since,” he said with characteristic good humor in an unpublished 2006 interview in Los Angeles.
More recently, as a moderate leftist, Fuentes strongly opposed U.S. tactics in the crackdown on immigration as part of the war on terrorism. He warned about Mexico’s religious right but also blasted Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez as a “Tropical Mussolini.”
He was very critical of Mexican drug violence that has killed more than 47,500 people since 2006, something he blamed on a failed policy by Calderon to attack organized crime. His 2008 book, Destiny and Desire: A Novel, was narrated by a severed head.
Fuentes, like his good friend Garcia Marquez, belonged to the tradition of literary author as social commentator. “I wear two hats,” he said in the 2006 interview, likening himself to Honore de Balzac in producing a combination of human comedy, acute social portraits and ghost stories.
He said at the time he believed he had many more books in him. “If I thought I had already peaked, I wouldn’t be sitting here. There’s always another book in there,” he said. There is “the psychosis of the empty page” he admitted, but he said “I sleep, dream, get up, write something.”
He had no favorites among his many books: “They are all my children. Maybe some are cross-eyed, but I love them all.”
A tweet from Mexican writer Hector Aguilar Camin said of Fuentes: “One of a kind. An era, his own genre. A writer for all seasons.”
Fuentes himself ventured onto Twitter for only one day, March 19, 2011. His last message read: “There must be something beyond slaughter and barbarism to support the existence of mankind and we must all help search for it.”
The author in 1987 won the Cervantes Prize, the Spanish-speaking world’s highest literary honor. He also was named in 1997 a commander of the National Order of Merit, France’s highest civilian award given to a foreigner. Spain gave him a Prince of Asturias Award for literature in 1994.
Throughout his life, Fuentes also taught courses at Harvard, Princeton, Columbia and Brown universities in the United States.
He served as Mexican ambassador to Paris beginning in 1975. He resigned from the foreign service again in 1977 when former President Gustavo Diaz Ordaz was appointed ambassador to Spain, saying he wouldn’t serve with the man who ordered a student massacre in Mexico City, which activists said killed up to 350 people.
A believer that literature allowed him to say what would be censored otherwise, Fuentes also was the subject of censorship. His mystery novel Aura, which narrates a romantic encounter beneath a crucifix with a black Christ that some officials claimed was too racy, was banned from public high schools in Puerto Rico. It also sparked controversy in Mexico in 2001 when a former interior secretary asked the novel to be dropped from a suggested reading list at his daughter’s private junior high school.
Fuentes was born in Panama on Nov. 11, 1928, to Mexican parents. He lived most of his life abroad, growing up in Montevideo, Uruguay; Rio de Janeiro; Washington; Santiago, Chile; and Buenos Aires, Argentina. He later divided his time between homes in Mexico City and London, where he did most of his writing.
Fuentes was married from 1959 to 1973 to actress Rita Macedo, with whom he had his only surviving daughter. After the couple divorced, he married Lemus, and they had two children together. Their son Carlos Fuentes Lemus died from complications associated with hemophilia in 1999, and Natasha Fuentes Lemus died in 2005 after a cardiac arrest. Fuentes also acknowledged having affairs with actresses including Jeanne Moreau and Jean Seberg.
As he grew older, Fuentes left many novels unfinished with imperfections and, he said, “wounds that make the book bleed.” He continued to publish essays and do public speaking to the very end, including the day he died. In an opinion piece in the newspaper Reforma, he expressed optimism for the new government of Francois Hollande, who was sworn in Tuesday as president of France. Fuentes said he hoped it would be “defined less by its technocratic profile and more by what the French understand as ‘humanism’.”
One subject Fuentes always postponed was writing about himself. “One puts off the biography like you put off death,” he said. “To write an autobiography is to etch the words on your own gravestone.”