Carlos Fuentes, one of Mexico’s greatest novelists – if not the greatest – has died this week aged 83. Renowned for novels such as La región mas transparente (Where the Air is Clear, 1958), La muerte de Artemio Cruz (The Death of Artemio Cruz, 1962) and the epic Terra Nostra (Our Land, 1975), Carlos Fuentes’ social function continued right until the end of his life. A guard of honour is currently accompanying the novelist in the Palacio de Bellas Artes (Palace of Fine Arts) in Mexico City and he will be cremated and interned in Montparnasse Cemetry, Paris, alongside his deceased children, Carlos and Natasha, and greats such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Samuel Beckett. As reported in La Jornada, Fuentes commented a few weeks ago at an International Book Fair in Buenos Aires, ‘I have a very nice monument waiting . . . It’s about time to fill it’. In the same interview he conducted with the Argentine newspaper La Nación, he also continued his commentary on the problem of drug trafficking in Mexico and the need to move from treating it as a unilateral problem in Mexico towards recognising it as a bilateral (U.S.-Mexico) dilemma.
His social role in Mexican state and civil society relations was a complex and shifting one. Where the Air is Clear offers a snapshot of the post-revolutionary state and its national-popular ideology in Mexico, including issues of modernisation and the gulf between social classes within the bustling urban expansion of Mexico City in the 1950s. The Death of Artemio Cruz offers social and political criticism of the outcome of the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920) that delineates the corruption of the emergent capitalist class through a fragmented and experimental chronology. The 350,000 word Terra Nostra is a panoramic history of Latin America dealing with issues of identity and knowledge as well as a rewriting of the history of Spain. This history is notably played out by the character Ludovico, a student of theology and expert translator of Latin, Hebrew and Arabic loosely based on the philologist and philosopher Giambattista Vico (Ludovico = I play Vico).
Kerstin Oloff has astutely noted that Terra Nostra is an ideologically charged vision of the history of the uneven development of capitalism in Latin America, set within a Marxist narrative of class struggle and dispossession.
My own assessment is similar but broader. In my recent Revolution and State in Modern Mexico: The Political Economy of Uneven Development (2011) a detailed chapter traces the combination of critical opposition and accommodation characterised by Carlos Fuentes’ social function. I also had the fortunate opportunity to conduct two detailed interviews with Carlos Fuentes in London and Mexico City. As a result, my key argument is that specific spaces of intellectual production characteristic of modernity inMexico and Latin America have to be situated within the uneven conditions of capitalist development. This move enables me to highlight the overall social function of Carlos Fuentes as an intellectual and mediator for class forces in Mexico often working within the shadow of the state.
In his last BBC interview on the war on drugs in Mexico he claimed that ‘the old Mexico is perishing before our very eyes’ and that a new movement for change was underway. Days before his death, Fuentes wrote a two-part opinion editorial for the Mexican newspaper Reforma, entitled ‘Viva el socialismo. Pero . . .’ [Long live socialism. But . . .]. He covers the recent electoral victory of François Hollande in France and wider geopolitical issues. On one hand, he fondly recalls his friendship with Francois Mitterand as ‘neighbours in the same Parisian street in the 1970s’ and the possibilities of social reform that Mitterand sought within the capitalist system. On the other hand, Fuentes outlines the ‘response of France to the great challenge of civil society that faces all governments: the collapse of authoritarianism in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia’. Across Europe, in the face of the ‘Occupants’ – Berlusconi, Cameron, Merkel and now Hollande – there is the impatience of the ‘Occupiers’, the emerging movement of civil society. It was between these pressures of the relations between ‘state’ and ‘civil society’ in Mexico that the social function of Carlos Fuentes was so often caught.
His concluding comment in this diptych on socialism and reform was: ‘Mexico note – I am worried and impatient that these great issues today are beyond the discussion of the candidates for the presidency of Mexico, dedicated to defects found in one or the other and leaving aside the agenda of the future’.
As a great commentator on the past, as active memory in the present, and also as an essential part in the desire to shape the future, it remains to be seen how 2012 will play out in Mexico without one of its most astute intellectuals-at-large.