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In Writing, Fuentes Shed Light On Poverty, Inequality

Mexican author Carlos Fuentes poses for a photo after a news conference in Mexico City on March 12. Fuentes died Tuesday at a hospital in Mexico City. He was 83. (AP)

Carlos Fuentes was the son of a Mexican diplomat and spent years living abroad, including in the United States. But Mexico — the country, its people and politics — was central to his writing.

Fuentes, one of the most influential Latin American writers, died Tuesday at a hospital in Mexico City at the age of 83. He was instrumental in bringing Latin American literature to an international audience, and he used his fiction to address what he saw as real-world injustices.

Fuentes' style has been called "cinematic," like in his 1962 novel The Death of Artemio Cruz, when a Mexican millionaire lies on his deathbed describing his body's decay:

"Your chin will tremble. Your breath will be bad. Your armpits will smell. Everything between your legs will stink, and you'll be left there without a bath, without a shave."

The fictional Cruz, however, is not to be pitied. He begins as a young revolutionary fighting for ordinary Mexicans, but greed takes over and Cruz becomes a corrupt business mogul:

"And then you will sit down with Padilla to count your assets. That will amuse you a great deal. An entire wall of your office is covered with the diagram of the vast businesses you control: the newspaper, the real estate investments."

Cruz represents all that Fuentes despised about the ruling classes that took over Mexico after the revolution, says Raymond Williams, a professor of Latin American literature at the University of California, Riverside.

"Mexico was being applauded in the international scenario for its 'progress,' but at the same time Fuentes saw the massive, uneven distribution of wealth and the poverty," Williams says.

Fuentes was born in 1928 and spent much of his childhood in Washington, D.C., while his father was in the foreign service. In 2002, Fuentes told NPR he had wanted to be a writer for as long as he could remember, but his father the diplomat discouraged it.

"Of course, my father said, 'Listen, Carlos, a writer in Mexico will die of hunger. You'd better have a law degree,' " Fuentes said.

So Fuentes got a law degree, and he said it helped his writing. In the 1970s, he was even Mexico's ambassador to France.

One of his most famous novels was The Old Gringo, about an American writer who travels to Mexico to die. It was made into a Hollywood movie starring Gregory Peck as the writer and Jimmy Smits as a Mexican general.

The Old Gringo became the first novel by a Latin American writer to make it to The New York Times best-seller list. Fuentes was extremely prolific, but he told NPR that even though Mexico figured prominently in his work, he had difficulty writing when he was there.

"Mexico City, you know, first of all, there's the altitude. Then there's the air that is no longer clear. You have lunch from 3 to 6. Then you have dinner from 11 to 2," he said.

In other words, when Fuentes was in Mexico City, he was too busy enjoying life to write about its heartaches.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Anybody who's paid attention to Latin American writing, anytime in the past several decades, has come to know the name of Carlos Fuentes. He brought the region's literature to a worldwide audience. He used his fiction to call attention to what he saw as injustice. And when he died, yesterday, in Mexico City at the age of 83, many people remembered the words he left behind. Here's NPR's Elizabeth Blair.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: Carlos Fuentes was the son of a Mexican diplomat and spent years living abroad, including the United States. But Mexico, the country, its people and politics, was central to his writing.

His style has been called cinematic. In his 1962 novel "The Death of Artemio Cruz," a Mexican millionaire lies on his deathbed describing his body's decay.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Reading) Your chin will tremble. Your breath will be bad. Your armpits will smell. Everything between your legs will stink, and you'll be left there without a bath, without a shave.

BLAIR: But the fictional Artemio Cruz is not to be pitied. He begins as a young revolutionary fighting for ordinary Mexicans, but greed takes over and Cruz becomes a corrupt business mogul.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Reading) And then you will sit down with Padilla to count your assets. That will amuse you a great deal. An entire wall of your office is covered with the diagram of the vast network of businesses you control: the newspaper, the real estate investments.

BLAIR: The fictional Artemio Cruz represents all that Fuentes despised about the ruling classes that took over Mexico after the revolution, says Raymond Williams, a professor of Latin American literature at the University of California Riverside.

RAYMOND WILLIAMS: Mexico was being applauded in the international scenario for its, quote, unquote, "progress," but at the same time Fuentes saw the massive, uneven distribution of wealth and the poverty.

BLAIR: Carlos Fuentes was born in 1928. He spent much of his childhood in Washington, D.C., while his father was a diplomat. In 2002, Fuentes told NPR he wanted to be a writer for as long as he could remember, but his father discouraged it.

CARLOS FUENTES: Of course, my father said, Listen, Carlos, a writer in Mexico will die of hunger. You'd better have a law degree.

BLAIR: So Fuentes got one and said it helped his writing. In the 1970s, Carlos Fuentes was Mexico's ambassador to France.

One of his most famous novels was "The Old Gringo," about an American writer who travels to Mexico to die. It was made into a Hollywood movie starring Gregory Peck as the writer and Jimmy Smits as a Mexican general.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE OLD GRINGO")

GREGORY PECK: (As Ambrose Bierce) I thought you didn't drink.

JIMMY SMITS: (As General Tomas Arroyo) Oh, I don't drink with the living. But tonight I come to visit my dead to celebrate with them. Do you visit your dead ones, amigo?

PECK: (As Ambrose Bierce) No. Sometimes they come to visit me.

BLAIR: "The Old Gringo" became the first novel by a Latin American writer to make it to The New York Times bestseller list.

Carlos Fuentes was extremely prolific, but he told NPR, even though Mexico figured prominently in his work, he had a hard time writing when he was there.

FUENTES: Mexico City, you know, first of all, there's the altitude, then there's the air, which is no longer clear. You have lunch from three to six. Then you have dinner from 11 to two.

BLAIR: In other words, when Carlos Fuentes was in Mexico City, he was too busy enjoying life to write about its heartaches.

Carlos Fuentes died there on Tuesday.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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