This year, the Inprint Margaret Root Brown Reading Series celebrates its 30th anniversary. Since its inception, the program has presented writers recognized with the Nobel, Pulitzer and Booker Prizes, as well as the National Book Award. Carlos Fuentes was featured as part of the 2010- 2011 program, dedicated to the world’s best contemporary writers, giving Literal, Latin American Voices the opportunity to hold a conversation with him.
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Rose Mary Salum: In 2010, Vlad was published. Why the vampire theme?
Carlos Fuentes: This was before the theme became fashionable. I used to watch vampire movies when I was a child. Bela Lugosi would give me a terrible fright whenever I saw him. So I said, Dracula the Vampire is always hanging out in Europe. When is he coming to America? Well, he came in to New Orleans in the Tom Cruise movie, but he’s never come to Mexico. Perhaps because he would be competing with too many local vampires… it’s terrible. But he finally came to Mexico and settled down there, under the name of Vlad.
RMS: The vampire metaphor seems very powerful to me. This act of blood-sucking has become very meaningful since 2008.
CF: As far as blood sucking is concerned: they’ve been doing it to us our entire lives.
RMS: As an editor and writer living in the United States, it concerns me that not enough books are being translated. In your opinion, what’s going on?
CF: What’s going on is that this country, the United States, has become very provincial. When I started out, my editors, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, were publishing Francois Mauriac, Alberto Moravia, and ten or fifteen foreign novelists. Now there’s no one. Those of us who have been established for a long time, like Gabriel García Márquez, Vargas Llosa, or myself, have kept on publishing, but almost out of condescendence. There is no interest in new writers, in the vast quantity and quality of writers we have in Hispanic Ameirca. This country has become very self- absorbed and preoccupied, and it still does not understand what is going on in the world. Barack Obama, who is a great president, is trying to tell Americans, “We are not alone, we are not the only ones,” but it is very hard for them to accept that the era of the United States is over.
RMS: And perhaps this has to do with deteriorating standards of education…
CF: They have deteriorated terribly; education is no longer the priority it once was. But above all, the issue is how the United States sees itself in relation to the rest of the world.
RMS: You have spoken countless times about the Baroque, in your book The Buried Mirror you discuss the theme and your literary style is strongly influenced by it.
CF: The Baroque is a vital theme in Mexican history, a Baroque that was a sensual response to Catholicism and Protestantism. The New World Baroque became a mode of expression for mulattoes and blacks in the community. The approach toward the Baroque is different in Latin America than in Europe. But then came the Enlightenment, with Voltaire and all the thinkers from that era, and the nation attempted to modernize following the lead of the United States. We wanted to be what we cannot be. The ejido or community ownership concept was destroyed in favor of private property, because that was what modernity demanded. In literature, the Baroque is a way to resuscitate the totality of the past. We are not progressive or linear, we are circular and confusing, and we wish to continue to be so.
RMS: What has been the influence of Faulkner on your work?
CF: We have a saying: Latin American literature began in Mississippi.
RMS: In your books, you have explored the issue of violence in Mexico. Today, when one speaks of violence, one inevitably speaks of illegal narcotics. I know that you form part of the commission to legalize drugs. Up until now, what has stopped us from legalizing them?
CF: First of all, if we are talking about violence, the violence in Mexico is historic, political, and revolutionary. This is the first time that crime is the origin of such considerable violence. The theme is not limited to Mexico; it is global, and it can only be resolved globally. Holland has decriminalized and now the entire world goes there to take drugs. Mexico is next-door neighbor to the United States, and what we can do depends on the gringos. So, if this is not discussed in a global fashion, it will be extremely difficult to attack the problem. Presidents Cardoso, Gaviria and Zedillo have made this point very well.
RMS: But for the time being, the only viable solution is legalization.
CF: Yes, but there is an ideal of liberty that is only an illusion: it consists of everyone doing whatever they want, and it just isn’t so. Because in the end, the drugs cross the Mexican border, and where they end up, who manipulates them, who is making the money, is a mystery. Of that we know absolutely nothing, it’s almost as if there were a conspiracy of silence regarding the destination of drugs. We know who the Mexican drug lords are, we know what goes on in Ciudad Juárez, but once the drugs go across, we know nothing. It would be an information challenge for all of you to discover what happens after the drugs enter the United States.
RMS: So the responsibility is ours.
CF: It is also yours.
RMS: I have always thought that education is a fundamental issue not only in Mexico, but around the world. Yet in Mexico today, aside from the fact that we lack the kind of education we had under Vasconcelos in the 1920s or Torres Bodet in the 1940s, a proposal of that caliber simply doesn’t exist.
CF: No, it doesn’t, but it should. Education is the foundation for everything. Productivity, generation of wealth: it all depends on the quality of education. Vasconcelos understood this very well. The great leap Mexico made from 80% illiteracy in 1920 was because Vasconcelos’s campaign was tremendously effective in creating that awareness. An awareness that has been lost, and must be reawakened. Now that we have reached a population of 110 million, education must be revisited as the basis for development. Without education, there can be no development.
RMS: Especially now that young people are graduating but they have no opportunities, so they go into organized crime.
CF: They go wherever they can, if there aren’t any opportunities. What Mexico needs is in- depth reform. A new Social Contract, one might say, to take advantage of the country’s enormous strength. We have 60 million young people in Mexico, but what are they to do? Will they go into crime, become jobless, or find gainful employment? We must offer and organize job opportunities.
RMS: Currently do we have the means for a Torres Bodet, a Vasconcelos, to exist?
CF: Of course we do, the country is very wealthy, it has marvelous people. The political situation has simply prevented all the wealth the country possesses from manifesting itself. We have a three-way particracy. Politicians fight amongst themselves, they say things in Congress, and then they say the opposite, but there is no ordered program. A program for the future that says we are going to seriously rescue education. We are going to create a country capable of confronting the problems Mexico faces instead of continuing to dodge them, or come up with partial solutions. Until the present we have relied on tourism, oil. We have become overly dependent on tourism, oil, and laborers’ remittances. Now we need to rely on the Mexican workforce. That is the great Mexican Revolution.
RMS: Motivating production?
CF: Why not, given the amount of work we have before us? We have hard-working, marvelous, intelligent people. Caramba! We are falling short.
RMS: Not long ago, during the Bicentennial, we reflected on centuries past in Mexico: in 1810 there was Independence, in 1910, a Revolution, and now, in 2010, the drug problem.
CF: Don’t be a prophet, now, don’t start foretelling things you shouldn’t (laughter).
RMS: But it’s as if wild Mexico never went away.
CF: Wild Mexico has never gone away. Sometimes it calms down, it dissimulates, but in the end it manifests itself when there are no political solutions. But there ought to be, so that wild Mexico can be creatively channeled.
RMS: Immigration is a deeply complex problem. There are divergent ways of thinking about this. What is yours?
CF: It is a problem that can be viewed from different angles. In the first place, Mexicans come to this country because they are needed. They do the work that many Americans won’t. I wish they would stay in Mexico, because we need them there. We don’t have the workers we need to renew the country, to rebuild the infrastructure. We have to do what we can to keep them from going, because we need them. But once they reach the United States, they should be treated as workers, because that is what they are. Not criminals, or illegal aliens. This has also become a global problem and should be settled globally. This has got to change, because these workers are needed in Mexico, just as they are needed in the United States. This country cannot function without them.
RMS: But so little has been done from this side to make that change happen.
CF: Federal laws are needed. Here they have what I call Arizonitis. But a federal immigration law is required.
RMS: And the obligatory question: what projects do you have for the future?
CF: I won’t discuss those, because if I do, they’ll be frustrated…
Rose Mary Salum is the founder and director of Literal, Latin American Voices. She´s the author of Delta de las arenas, cuentos árabes, cuentos judíos (Literal Publishing, 2013) among other titles.