I’m the thousandth severed head so far this year in Mexico. I’m one of fifty decapitated heads this week.
—“Destiny and Desire”
Josue Nadal, the colorful, poetic, and exceptionally loquacious narrator of Carlos Fuentes’ “Destiny and Desire,” is uniquely situated to tell his whole life story from beginning to end: He’s dead.
More precisely, he’s a severed head who, in the opening pages of the novel, finds himself — sans body — dumped on a beach, “lost like a coconut on the shores of the Pacific Ocean, along the Mexican coast of Guerrero.”
Fuentes’ magisterial novel of ideas is hard to describe: It’s a take on Gustave Flaubert’s “A Sentimental Education,” about the intellectual awakening of two young men.
But it’s also an exciting, and ultimately very bloody, Cain and Abel thriller.
It’s a potent political and moral critique of contemporary Mexico, which has been embroiled in a vicious four-year drug war that has led to more than 30,000 deaths (12,456 in 2010 alone).
Yet again, it’s epic mythology about the nature and destiny of Mexico.
Set in Mexico City, “Destiny and Desire” follows the intensely intertwined lives of two boys, Josue and Jerico, from the moment they meet at a high school playground.
The boys bond quickly — both are orphans, and both have a voracious appetite for all things philosophical.
Their paths diverge after college, when they enter the service of two of Mexico’s most powerful oligarchs.
Jerico becomes an underchief and enforcer for Valentin Pedro Carrera, the nation’s cynical, opportunistic, and corrupt president (an amalgamation of a handful of recent Mexican leaders), whose idea of governance begins and ends with bread and circuses.
Law school grad Josue becomes an adviser to telecommunications giant Max Monroy (who is modeled after real-life billionaire Carlos Slim). An aggressive capitalist, Monroy is as corrupt as the president, but he tries to justify his sins by promising Mexicans a prosperous future.
The two giants clash. There’s espionage, conspiracy, murder, a coup attempt. By the time the dust settles, Josue is dead at 27.
It’s hard to admire either Monroy or the president, Fuentes admits in a phone interview from New York.
The 82-year-old writer, who has published more than 20 works of fiction and criticism, including “The Death of Artemio Cruz” and “The Old Gringo,” says “Destiny and Desire” explores the nature of power and its corrupting effects.
“Machiavelli is very much present in the novel,” he says, referring to the Renaissance philosopher and politician often derided for taking traditional moral considerations out of politics. “I wanted to describe some of the possibilities of power.”
People who acquire power, Fuentes says, often get diverted from their goals, and instead find themselves “used by power” for a different end — amassing more power.
Fuentes insists that his novel isn’t an abstract dissertation, but a critique of contemporary Mexico, which he says is in desperate need of “a new social contract” built on radical economic, political, and educational reform.
“We need to finish constructing a country that is only half-built,” says Fuentes, who served as Mexico’s ambassador to France in the ‘70s. “Our infrastructure hasn’t been developed since the 1950s and 1960s.”
The flight of the country’s workforce to the United States compounds the problem, says Fuentes, who believes Mexico’s economy has become too dependent on tourism and laborers’ remittances from north of the border.
Fuentes is a disappointed idealist, says Alfred MacAdam, cochair of the Spanish and Latin American cultures department at Barnard College in New York.
“He was an optimist in his earliest writings, (including) ‘The Death of Artemio Cruz,’” published in 1962, MacAdam says.
“It was written by a ... young man who is basically infused with existentialist optimism — the whole idea that we can take control of our own destiny.”
MacAdam says that for more than 40 years, Fuentes has backed any number of promising reforms — only to be disappointed.
“Everything that he has tried to work for, everything that he has hoped would happen to Mexico, has fallen apart,” says MacAdam. “It’s been a disaster, all these ironies.”
Fuentes no longer subscribes to that notion: In “Destiny and Desire” we don’t make our destiny, but are made — and unmade — by its crushing weight. Josue and Jerico, Fuentes says, started out as soul mates but were turned against each other by forces they couldn’t control.
Fuentes’ political concerns certainly figure in “Destiny and Desire,” but they hardly exhaust the novel, which balances out the story’s pessimism with its exuberant, at times extravagant, Joycean stylistic fireworks.
Wendy B. Faris, chair of the English department at the University of Texas at Arlington, says that for some readers, the novel’s heart and soul lie not in the story but in the numerous asides, digressions, disquisitions on St. Augustine, Nietzschean declamations against Christianity, allusive flights of fancy, and biblical and historical lessons that punctuate the story.
“It seems to me that all these authors in Latin America were trying to write the next “Ulysses,’” says Faris. “Fuentes finally did it.” (Faris counts the 1987 novel “Christopher Unborn” as Fuentes’ most Joycean effort.)
Faris, whose books include the biographical study “Carlos Fuentes: Life and Work,” says that like Joyce’s work, Fuentes’ novels experiment with style and are filled “with wonderfully joyous wordplays.” Both authors, she says, “worked with underlying strata of myth.”
“Destiny and Desire’s” translator, Edith Grossman, says that Fuentes, unlike Joyce, pulls the mythical and the political together, by “unmaking one myth of Mexico, and making a new Mexican myth.”
Fuentes laughs gently at himself when asked if that’s his goal: “I’m making a whole nation’s myth on my own?”