Robert Siegel talks to Ilan Stavans, professor of Latino Studies at Amherst College, about the legacy of Carlos Fuentes. The Mexican writer died Tuesday at the age of 83. Stavans has taught and written about Fuentes' work.
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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
One of Mexico's greatest writers has died: Carlos Fuentes. He was 83. Fuentes was a central figure in the Latin American literary boom of the 1960s and '70s. And he was publishing fiction and essays until the end, including an essay published today in the Mexican newspaper Reforma. I'm joined by Ilan Stavans, professor of Latino Studies at Amherst College. And, Professor Stavans, give us a sense of the broad sweep of Fuentes' career and what made his work so important.
ILAN STAVANS: Carlos Fuentes was a renaissance man. He really perfected the job of the international man of letters. He was fluent in several languages. He knew many audiences well, audiences in different parts of the world. He really became the most important Mexican fiction writer of the second part of the 20th century. And in doing so, he also turned himself into an ambassador, not only of his own country but of the entire Latin American region in front of the United States and Europe.
Now, this comes with some ambivalence because many in Latin America believe that Fuentes did it more for himself than for his people. And in that, he tend to turn the Hispanic population into a caricature, into a cartoon that fitted his own vision of the world.
SIEGEL: We should just say that when you say he was an ambassador, that's not a figurative statement only. He was literally an ambassador, a Mexican ambassador.
STAVANS: Oh, he worked...
STAVANS: Indeed, he worked for the Mexican diplomatic service in a number of opportunities. He was an ambassador in France. And his connection with the ruling party in Mexico and with other figures of power was a constant push and take, and he saw himself as the spokesperson for the oppressed. He was a man of the left. And very often, he used the microphone, the camera in order to present Mexico to other countries in a much more multifaceted and complex way than it had been presented before him.
SIEGEL: In the past, you've described Carlos Fuentes as the Diego Rivera of literature, citing the great muralist. What did you mean by that?
STAVANS: I meant that he liked to see Mexico in epic tones and with a very broad brush and scope of things. He used history as the main engine that drove Mexico. And he tended to reduce the different aspects of Mexican society into archetypes or stereotypes or prototypes, certainly in characters, in a long narrative that in his view had a progressive nature and ultimately would come to a moment where everybody would feel comfortable and have a clear identity. The issue of identity for him was crucial. He was forthcoming in the idea that Mexicans were always looking for a collective identity, and he could help them dig in and shape that identity in a clearer fashion.
SIEGEL: For people who have not read Fuentes' fiction, what would you recommend as an introduction to the man?
STAVANS: Probably his most interesting, his most durable novel is one of the early ones, and it's called "Where the Air Is Clear." It is really a recreation of Mexico City in its symphonic ways. He also is the author of an endearing, hypnotizing novella, very short novel called "Aura." That is a retelling of a Henry James story in a Mexican way that I think is probably going to be his lasting contribution to literature - to world literature.
SIEGEL: Professor Stavans, thank you very much for talking with us today.
STAVANS: My pleasure. Thank you for having me.
SIEGEL: That's Ilan Stavans, professor of Latino Studies at Amherst College, talking about Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes, who died today in Mexico City. He was 83. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.