The narrator of Carlos Fuentes’ hauntingly timely new novel is one of the most unlikely storytellers in fiction.
Not because Josue Nadal isn’t an eloquent and engaging tale-spinner — far from it. It’s because, when we first meet him, Josue is a severed head, oozing his last remaining life onto a Pacific Coast beach.
Anyone familiar with the macabre nature of Mexico’s current, four-year-old “war on drugs”, in which more than 30,000 people have perished, knows that such grisly scenarios have become as commonplace as saints’ days for our southern neighbors.
But in Destiny and Desire Fuentes, the 82-year-old author of more than 20 works of fiction and nonfiction, including The Old Gringo, The Buried Mirror and The Death of Artemio Cruz has his eagle-eyed vision and prodigious imagination trained on far more than mere topicality.
Here, Fuentes attempts nothing less than a critique and dramatization of multilayered Mexican society as it has evolved over the century since the bloody revolution of 1910-20, an anniversary that’s being marked this year with much pomp and political opportunism, even as the country endures relentless waves of violence.
It’s an endeavor that only a writer of Fuentes’ formidable literary skills, broad historical knowledge and well-earned self-assurance would be advised even to attempt. And it’s one that largely succeeds. This grand operatic fantasia is a book that’s by turns comic and cosmic; erotic and sinister; mythological, theological and scatological; darkly satirical and poetically tragic.
That’s the sum of the narrative that flashes before Josue’s dying eyes as he relates it to us. Most central to his short, sordid life is his relationship with Jerico, his lifelong soul mate/alter ego, “the reverse side of my coin.”
If “dueling siblings” and “rival blood brothers” isn’t the freshest motif in the Western canon, it’s legitimately one of the most durable. The two orphans meet as schoolboys — Josue, skinny and self-conscious, his face capped by a heroically large proboscis, as proud as Popocatepetl; and Jerico, gregarious, robust and perpetually on the make. They bond, irrevocably, through shared lovers and (mis)adventures of an increasingly ethically compromised character.
As twenty-somethings they part ways, temporarily, when Jerico is recruited by a cynical Mexican president, bearing more than a passing resemblance to the flag-waving, pro-business, former President Vicente Fox and current President Felipe Calderon, in a strategy to pacify the impoverished proles by offering circuses without bread. Meanwhile, Josue goes to work for Max Monroy, a financial potentate bearing more than a passing resemblance to Carlos Slim, the real-life gazillionaire who controls much of Mexico’s telecommunications industry.
Like the novel’s two main characters, these entities, business and government, are depicted as each other’s dark twin, seemingly adversarial but actually collusive, reflecting back their parallel corruptions. Collectively, they imprison the country in a grotesque and grimly humorous hall of gleaming but secretive baroque surfaces that conceal as much as they reveal, recalling the Knight of the Mirrors in “Don Quixote.”
Literary references and allusions abound in “Destiny and Desire,” to Odysseus, Sinbad and Cyrano, as well as Kafka, David Copperfield, Anne Frank and other innocents whose sentimental educations were corrupted and confounded by forces beyond their control. The mysterious lawyer who pays the boys’ bills and holds the keys to their futures could’ve popped out of a Dickensian tract like “Great Expectations,” or a Hobbesian or Darwinian one, for that matter.
In the best traditions of the college-dorm bildungsroman, Josue and Jerico indulge in entertainingly written, Dostoevskian debates about St. Augustine vs. Nietzsche, and questions of whether salvation is attained through intermediaries or a personal conduit to the Divine. Spanning a polytheistic pantheon, the novel aptly cites Castor and Pollux and Cain and Abel, and includes a couple of celestial cameos by the Prophet Ezekiel.
Fuentes’ erudition here, though not exactly worn lightly, isn’t simply showmanship. With “Destiny and Desire,” he transcends the North American marketing trope of “magical realism,” which helped make the reputations of the now geriatric writers of “Latin American Boom” of the 1960s, and spins a cloth of a much rarer and more intricate weave: a genuine living mythos, made of equal parts captivating dream logic, surreally converging plotlines and dead-on observation of the benighted world we actually inhabit.
Among the expertly drawn secondary characters are the boys’ pampered friend, Errol Esparza, and his shady, bullying father; a female aviatrix, Lucha Zapata, whose cartoonish name masks a deadly serious drug habit; Elvira Rios, the epitome of a defiantly deferential servant; and the gentle, meditative Father Filopater, a priest laboring to awaken the better angels of the boys’ nature, before it’s too late. Looming over them all, like a raging volcano, is Miguel Aparecido, a fallen angel of a man, incarcerated and reincarcerated by his own choice.
But possibly the novel’s most vivid character, as in previous Fuentes novels, is Mexico City, where the story takes place. Shimmering in the haze of its bad air, earthquake-wracked and utterly magnificent, the great capital in Destiny and Desire”\ is madhouse, penal colony and purgatory, a fearsome holding pen for ruined souls that Dante might’ve trembled to behold. This is a chilly, postmodern Mexico City, embodied by places like Santa Fe, a sterile canyonland of corporate office towers built over a former dump, spooked by the phantasms of the city’s brilliant, gory past.
Superbly translated by the indispensable Edith Grossman, Destiny and Desire arrives in English-language form in the wake of another sweepingly ambitious novel that scrutinized the meaning of free will in the early 21st century, Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. But while Franzen mostly serves up Midwestern middle-class disgruntlement, Fuentes puts forward the infinitely more challenging, if not heretical, notion that “the only freedom is the struggle for freedom,” at least in what is patronizingly called “the developing world.”
A perceptible gasp of rage, remorse and heartbreak echoes through this novel, as Fuentes, following Thomas Mann’s example in his lamentation-damnation of Germany, Dr. Faustus, justifies the ways of God (“vast” but “not intelligent”) to Mexico, his friend, his ancestral fatherland. As Fuentes imagines it here, the gigantic penitentiary that is modern Mexico, built out of ancient corruptions and ill-gotten nouveau gains, is a Minotaur’s lair, with one entrance and no exits, where the monster always lies in waiting.