All achievers

Carlos Fuentes

Author, Scholar and Diplomat

To read and write is a paradise.

Carlos Fuentes was born in Panama City, Panama, where his father was posted as a member of Mexico’s diplomatic corps. The family would soon relocate to Washington D.C., where the father served as legal counsel of the Mexican embassy. Carlos Fuentes received much of his primary education in the public schools of Washington, D.C. While his American classmates enjoyed their summer vacations, he returned to Mexico, to stay with his grandparents and attend Mexican schools. From his grandmothers, he absorbed Mexican history and folklore, while in Washington he was immersed in American popular culture. He followed the international politics of the turbulent pre-war era through the dinner table conversation of his diplomat father, his family and friends.

Carlos Fuentes at home in Mexico City in the 1980s. (© Sergio Dorantes/CORBIS)
Internationally acclaimed novelist and essayist Carlos Fuentes at home in Mexico City in the 1980s. (© Corbis)

A particularly dramatic moment came in 1938, when Mexico’s President Lázaro Cárdenas decreed that the country’s foreign-controlled oil fields would be nationalized and the country’s oil industry placed in the hands of a state monopoly, Pemex. American industrialists with interests in Mexico were outraged. They demanded that President Franklin Roosevelt intervene, with military force if necessary, as previous U.S. governments had done when Latin American governments had threatened U.S. business interests. Roosevelt refused, and negotiated a settlement, respecting Mexico’s sovereignty while ensuring that private interests were compensated. This turning point in U.S.-Mexico relations made a strong impression on the young Carlos Fuentes, who was impressed with Roosevelt’s diplomacy in reconciling the opposing parties. At the same time, Fuentes was made newly aware of his own identity as a Mexican in a foreign country.

During the years that followed, the Fuentes family would be assigned to duty in Chile, Argentina and elsewhere in South America. Carlos Fuentes, adapting to each new environment, acquired a respect for the differences between countries while developing a powerful sense of the shared heritage of the Latin nations. An enthusiastic reader, he resolved at an early age to become a writer, but at his parents’ insistence, he pursued the study of law, first at the National University of Mexico and then at the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva, Switzerland. Like his father before him, he entered the diplomatic service and served as Director of International Cultural Relations for the Ministry of Exterior Relations.

Carlos Fuentes in the study of his London home, 1985. (© Christopher Cormack/CORBIS)
1985: Mexico’s most celebrated novelist Carlos Fuentes in the study of his London home. (Christopher Cormack)

While fulfilling his government duties, he pursued a literary career in his spare time. With the success of his novel Where the Air is Clear, Carlos Fuentes could afford to leave the foreign service and pursue a career as a full-time writer. In 1962 he published The Death of Artemio Cruz, an epic panorama of Mexican history from the revolution to the present. This work, inspired in part by the stories his grandmothers had told him of the revolution and its aftermath, has become an acknowledged masterpiece of world literature and one of the signature works of el boom, a period of intense creativity in Latin American fiction, when writers like Fuentes and his friend, the Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez, captured the imagination of readers around the world.

Fuentes continued to write novels throughout the 1960s and ’70s, including The Good Conscience, A Change of Skin, and Aura. In addition to his fiction, his journalism and political commentary made Fuentes one of the most recognizable public intellectuals in the Spanish-speaking world. This visibility also created difficulties. For many years he was denied a visa to enter the United States, as were many other prominent European and Latin American intellectuals, presumably for his criticism of American foreign policy, although no reason was ever given publicly.

Carlos Fuentes listens to questions during a UNICEF conference, "Latin America between two millenniums, challenges and hopes." Guatemala City, August 28, 2001. The eyes shown on the poster behind Mr. Fuentes are his own. (Photo by Jorge Silva © Reuters/CORBIS)
August 2001: Novelist Carlos Fuentes listens to questions during a UNICEF conference, “Latin America between two millenniums, challenges and hopes” in Guatemala City. (Photo by Jorge Silva © Reuters/Corbis Images)

The publication of his 1975 novel Terra Nostra confirmed his reputation as one of the most inventive novelists writing in Spanish or any other language. The Mexican government recognized his growing international stature by asking him to return to public service once more, this time as Ambassador to France, a post he held from 1975 to 1977. After stepping down, he resolved to devote himself entirely to literature, but the press of current events often compelled him to speak out on public issues. In the 1980s, he became one of the world’s most outspoken critics of U.S. policy in Central America; he was also vocally critical of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, for whose revolution he had once held high hopes.

Fuentes presented a lifetime of reflection on the shared cultural heritage of the Spanish-speaking countries in a television series, The Buried Mirror. His companion volume for the series proved immensely popular around the world.

Carlos Fuentes, 2003 (Sassier/Gallimard)
2003: Carlos Fuentes’ best-known novel, The Death of Artemio Cruz, was published in 1962 and is “widely regarded as a seminal work of modern Spanish American Literature.” The novel is influenced by Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, and attempts literary parallels to Welles’ techniques including close-up, cross-cutting, deep focus, and flashback.

Fuentes continued to produce novels, including The Hydra Head and Distant Relations. His novel The Old Gringo concerned the fate of the U.S. writer Ambrose Bierce, who disappeared in Mexico in 1913 during the revolution. The novel became a bestseller in the United States in 1985, the first novel by a Mexican author to achieve this status. A film version, starring Gregory Peck and Jane Fonda, appeared in 1989. The same year saw the success of Fuentes’s novel Christopher Unborn, a philosophical fantasy told from the point of view of an unborn child who will enter the world on the 500th anniversary of the European discovery of America. These were followed by Diana: The Goddess Who Hunts Alone and The Crystal Frontier. More recent novels include Inez, and The Years with Laura Diaz, another saga of 20th century Mexican history, as seen through one woman’s very long life.

Besides his 15 novels, Fuentes produced books of short stories, essays and political commentary. He wrote a regular column for the Mexico City daily newspaper La Reforma. A compelling lecturer and public speaker, Fuentes served as Simon Bolivar Professor at Cambridge University in England. After the ban on his travel to the United States was lifted, he was invited to teach at numerous American universities as well. He was the first to hold the Robert F. Kennedy Chair of Latin American Studies at Harvard University, and was a visiting professor at Princeton University and a Professor-at-Large of Hispanic Studies at Brown University.

Carlos Fuentes is presented with the Golden Plate Award of the American Academy of Achievement by Patron and Council member Carlos Slim Helú, Chairman of Teléfonos de México, in Los Angeles, 2006. (© Academy of Achievement)
Carlos Fuentes is presented with the Golden Plate Award of the American Academy of Achievement by Patron and Council member Carlos Slim Helú, the Chairman of Teléfonos de México, in Los Angeles, California, June 3, 2006.

A collection of essays, This I Believe: A Life from A to Z, received the Prize of the Royal Spanish Academy for Best Book of 2004. The same year, he published Contra Bush, a critique of the U.S. administration. He continued his meditations on history and public affairs in his last works of fiction. The Eagle’s Throne (2006) is a mischievous satire of Mexican politics set in the not-too-distant future. His 2011 novel, Destiny and Desire, threads a tale of friendship between two old school friends through a dense tapestry of fantasy, history and mordant reflections on the state of contemporary Mexico.

With his wife, Mexican television journalist Sylvia Lemus, Fuentes divided his time between homes in Mexico City and London, England. Fuentes had one grown daughter by a previous marriage. The two children of his marriage to Sylvia Lemus died in adulthood of natural causes. Carlos Fuentes died in Mexico City at the age of 83.

Inducted Badge
Inducted in 2006

For 50 years, Carlos Fuentes was one of the leading literary and political figures of the Spanish-speaking world. A giant of Latin America’s literary boom of the 1960s and ’70s, his novels, including the classics Terra Nostra, The Death of Artemio Cruz and The Old Gringo, are passionate explorations of the history and identity of the Latin American nations, and of their contentious relationship with the superpower to the north.

The son of a Mexican diplomat, Fuentes spent much of his childhood in Washington, D.C., returning every summer to his grandmother’s home in Mexico. As Mexico’s best-known public intellectual, he served as Ambassador to France in the 1970s. His work was recognized with the most prestigious awards in Spanish letters, including the Miguel de Cervantes Prize, awarded by the King of Spain. He was the first recipient of the Latin Civilization Award, presented jointly by the Presidents of Brazil, Mexico and France.

In 1992, he produced and narrated a documentary television series on the history of pan-Hispanic culture, The Buried Mirror. An independent political thinker with a profound instinct for social justice, Carlos Fuentes is one of those rare writers who, by the sheer power of his literary art, defined the cultural and emotional identity of an entire continent.

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You have been so prolific in your writing — novels and essays and commentaries. How do you decide what to write and when to write it?

Carlos Fuentes: It’s very curious, because there is an element that comes into this which is very fascinating and inexplicable.

Keys to success — Vision

I say, “I’m going to write this book,” and now I sit down and I start sorting out chapters and imagining the book and saying, “Tonight, I think that tomorrow I will write such and such.” I go to sleep. I wake up in the morning. I go to my table. I take the pen and something totally different comes out, which means that perhaps dreams are dictating part of your writing life in a very mysterious way. You have silly dreams. We all have silly dreams. We are naked on the street. How terrible! We fall off a roof. We’re drowning in the sea. Those are the dreams you remember. But what about the dreams you don’t remember? I think these are the really important dreams in your life, the underground dreams, the subterranean dreams that come out somehow in your life, and in my case, through literature. Because I can’t explain otherwise why I write certain things I have never thought about before. And always on the day after a dreaming night.

As a writer, is it important to have a daily routine?

Keys to success — Perseverance

Carlos Fuentes: A writer is no different than a bricklayer or a bus driver in that sense. You must have discipline. Oscar Wilde said that writing is 10 percent genius, 90 percent discipline. You must have discipline for writing. It is not an easy task. It is very lonely. You’re all alone. You are not in company. You are not enjoying yourself in that sense. You are enjoying yourself in another sense. You are delving into your depths, but you are profoundly lonely. It is one of the loneliest careers in the world. In the theater, you are with companions, with directors, actors. In film. In an office. In writing, you are alone. That takes a lot of strength and a lot of will to do it. You must really be in love with what you’re doing to tolerate the huge loneliness of writing.

Author Carlos Fuentes in Paris, September 1979. (Ulf Andersen/ Getty Images)
Author Carlos Fuentes in Paris, September 1979. Fuentes served as Mexico’s ambassador to France from 1975 to 1977, resigning in protest of former President Gustavo Diaz Ordaz’s appointment as ambassador to Spain. (Getty)

As part of your process, how important is rewriting?

Carlos Fuentes: Not that important. I seem to rewrite in my head a great deal. I write in these English ruled notebooks. So I write on the right, and then I correct on the left. Then, when it’s typed out, I even make another correction, and then maybe in the typed sheets also. But not that much. I seem to have a great facility to go right into what I want to say. I do correct, but not like Balzac, who went crazy over the printing presses. He was correcting at the last minute.

What about the proverbial writer’s block?

Carlos Fuentes: No, no. I have never suffered that.

Keys to success — Perseverance

I have friends who have practically died from writer’s block. I had a good Chilean friend, José Donoso, a novelist, who had such a writer’s block that I think it killed him eventually. He was so anguished. He suffered so much from that. I have never, thank God, suffered from writer’s block. Never. That’s why I produce so many articles and speeches and lectures at the same time, because when I do have writer’s block for literature, I say, “Now is the time to write that speech. Now is the time to write that op-ed piece.” So I am a well-oiled writing machine. I am always on the job.

How can a writer not suffer?

Carlos Fuentes: You suffer in another sense. Not from writer’s block. There are other anguishes — of expression, of not finding the right adjective, of doubting what you have written and throwing a lot of things into the wastebasket and all that kind of thing. Yes, that happens, but not writer’s block in the sense of not being able to sit down and write. That I have never had, as long as I can write trash and then destroy it. But that’s not the same as writer’s block.

Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes, at home in London, 1985. (© Christopher Cormack/CORBIS)
Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes, at home in London, 1985. Fuentes taught at Cambridge, Brown, Princeton, Harvard, Columbia, University of Pennsylvania, Dartmouth and Cornell. (© Christopher Cormack/CORBIS)

In any career — and now I’m just speaking of your career as a writer — there are disappointments. There are setbacks. Have you experienced that?

Carlos Fuentes: Not career-wise. There are difficulties, tragedies, disappointments in life, but not so much in reading and writing — it is a pleasure always. It is a great paradise. To read and write is a paradise.

What about criticism? How do you handle that?

Carlos Fuentes: I don’t read it.

At the same time that you were writing, presumably every day, you had another career in government, in diplomacy. How did you manage that?

Carlos Fuentes: That has been kind of a vacation. Only twice in my life have I been in government.

I was in government as a very young man, in the diplomatic service of Mexico when I was in my early twenties. Then, with the success of my first novel, Where the Air is Clear, in 1958, I left the bureaucracy, and I did not come back until the 1970s, when I was Ambassador to France for a couple of years. That’s it. I have been offered, by other presidents “nearer-to-us” posts as ambassador, but I have always refused them, because I know from my experience that I am unhappy in diplomatic and governmental posts. I am happy when I am a free agent, writing what I like.

Carlos Fuentes
Carlos Fuentes’ 1985 novel The Old Gringo is loosely based on American author Ambrose Bierce’s disappearance during the Mexican Revolution and became the first U.S. bestseller written by a Mexican author. The novel tells the story of Harriet Winslow, a young American woman who travels to Mexico, and finds herself in the company of an aging American journalist (called only “the old gringo”), Tomás Arroyo, a revolutionary general. Like many of Fuentes’ works, it explores the way revolutionary ideals become corrupted. The novel was made into a film.

Although I know that it is a service, and I do not look down on it — on the contrary. My father was a career diplomat, so I respect diplomacy and government service very much. Simply, I’m not happy in it. Why? Because I am away from my writing desk.

When I was Ambassador in France, I could not write a single line, because I was constantly on the call for functions, for memoranda, for speeches, for this, for that. There was a time difference with Mexico, so I had to be with the French during the day and then with Mexico from 7:00 p.m. on, because of the time lag. So I never had any time for myself, which was okay. It was interesting. I got to know France well, a fascinating country. So many levels of interest and artistic community, business, ecclesiastical, the army, the political parties — everything is interesting in France. Gastronomy. So I didn’t have time for writing there. I did other things. That was a parenthesis in my life.

Although you were a prominent writer, the son of a diplomat, and a diplomat yourself, in the 1960s you were denied a visa to the United States. Could you tell us about that?

Carlos Fuentes: Yes. I was invited by NBC in 1962, I think, for a debate with Richard Goodwin — who was then the Under Secretary of State for Latin America at the State Department — on the Alliance for Progress. I said, “Sure, sure. Let’s go. He has the advantage of being in the administration, of speaking English better than I do, and all these things, but I’ll be happy to do that.” So I was invited. I accepted the invitation.

Keys to success — Courage

I went to the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City, and was promptly denied a visa. I asked why, and they said, “We can’t tell you why. It’s a secret.” So I was left stranded and classified forever under the Undesirable Aliens list. I asked once, “Do you ever get out of that list? Can I ever get out?” and they said, “No, no, no.” I said, “Even hell has its limits. Even in hell you are promised that one day everybody will go to purgatory or to heaven; hell is not forever. Surely, the denial of a visa is not forever.” They said, “No, no, you can come out with a visa.” How? “If you demonstrate your allegiance to the cause of anti-Communism.” I said, “Well, that is something I will never do just on the principle of it. I am not a Communist, but I will not go to that McCarthyite length.”

Author Carlos Fuentes addresses the Academy of Achievement in Los Angeles, 2006. (© Academy of Achievement)
Author Carlos Fuentes addresses the delegates at the 2006 International Achievement Summit in Los Angeles.

So I was there on that blacklist. I was denied entry into Puerto Rico in 1967. And then Senator Fulbright took the floor and demanded that I be given a special waiver so that I could come to the United States, lecture and be in this country without problems. So I got that waiver, which was very extraordinary, because it meant that I applied for a visa and I was denied the visa on the presence of the Unwanted Persons Act — the McCarran-Walter Bill it was called. Then I applied again, and I was granted the visa on the strength of the Fulbright Act. So it was very Kafkian — we’re speaking of Kafka today, but this is an actual Kafkian situation.

It wasn’t until the Clinton administration that this list became history, and all us who were on the list — García Márquez, Yves Montand, Simone Signoret, Foucault, Graham Greene, myself — it was a very distinguished list. We were very happy to be on the “unwanted persons of the United States” list. Then we were all free from that and now we can come and go as we wish. It was a ridiculous Cold War situation. You know, McCarran and Walter were very, very reactionary senators. Arthur Miller tells in his biography how he was put in the unwanted persons list and was denied a passport to travel from the United States, but he went with Marilyn Monroe to see Senators McCarran and Walter, and on the strength of the presence of Marilyn Monroe, they gave him back his passport.

Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes poses in front of his library during an interview with the AFP news agency, in Mexico City, on November 6, 2008. Mexico launched, on November 11, 2008, a series of events including discussions, presentation of art works, operas, and conferences to pay tribute to the 80-year-old Fuentes, one of the most prolific Latin American writers, and also to celebrate the book which established his reputation 50 years ago, "La región mas transparente" ("The Most Transparent Region"). (AFP PHOTO/Ronaldo SCHEMIDT)
Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes in front of his library in Mexico City, on November 6, 2008. That year, Mexico launched a series of events including discussions, presentation of art works, operas, and conferences to pay tribute to the 80-year-old Fuentes, one of the most prolific Latin American writers, and also to celebrate the book which established his reputation 50 years ago, “La región mas transparente” (The Most Transparent Region).

At the time, in the wake of the Castro revolution, when you were denied a visa to America, you were quoted as saying, “Books are my bombs.” What did you mean by that?

Carlos Fuentes: I was very, very amazed that I would be denied a personal visa to enter the United States when one of my books was published in translation. In 1963, my publisher — Roger Strauss of Farrar Strauss — invited me, and I was promptly denied the visa. And I said, “The real bombs are my books, not me. I’m not going to put a bomb in a post office in the U.S.A. But my books may be more dangerous than I am. They maybe should ban the books, not the person.” It was logical.