Carlos Fuentes: In The Best Company, by Ingrid Bejerman
22 June 2012

I first met Carlos Fuentes in April of 1998. He had been invited to the book fair in Buenos Aires by his good friend Tomás Eloy Martínez, who had written the foreword to a volume of Fuentes's memoirs entitled Retratos en el tiempo (Portraits in Time), which is based on a compilation of photos taken by his youngest son, Carlos Fuentes Lemus, of celebrities such as Jackie Kennedy, Norman Mailer, Muhammad Ali and Gregory Peck. "Behold the intimate journey of two human beings who could not be more different from one another," wrote Tomás Eloy. "The father has the advantage of having lived the story before his son could know it, but it is the son who sets the story, who freezes it in time, who sets the image through which it will be remembered."

Seeing a father and son on the podium in that room jam-packed with readers who came to revere them, there was no doubt: they could not be more different. The brilliant writer Carlos Fuentes – the father – spoke with the same eloquence with which he wrote, but it was also impossible not to notice that he had the looks and mannerisms of a movie star.  The young artist Carlos Fuentes – the son – was very quiet, and his eyes conveyed the same sensibility as his poetry: profound, with the heavy burden of someone who has lived too much for his young age. He died a year later, at the age of 25, of a heart attack as a result of his affliction, haemophilia.

At that time, in 1999, I was a little younger than Carlitos when I was invited to direct the Julio Cortázar Latin American Chair in Guadalajara, Mexico, by Raúl Padilla López, president of the prestigious international book fair in that city.  Raúl had been the rector of the University of Guadalajara in the late 1980s, and he remains the prophet of that cultural Mecca: in addition to having created the book fair, the Mexican Film Festival and the Juan Rulfo Latin American and Caribbean literature prize, worth $150,000, Padilla is responsible for the trust fund of the Cortázar Chair. Fuentes, who was his close friend, visited the book fair almost every year, filling rooms and creating mile-long queues when signing autographs. In 2008, to celebrate his 80th birthday, the organizers put together a talk about his novel Aura with one thousand young readers. “When the kids sang him Las mañanitas (the Mexican “happy birthday” song) in the Juan Rulfo auditorium," recalls Nubia Macías, director of the book fair," Fuentes could not hold back his tears. He was always warm and generous with his audience."

It was thanks to this relationship with Guadalajara, and more specifically with Raúl Padilla, that the Cortázar Chair was born. In order to ingratiate themselves with the elite group of veteran Mexican intellectuals – Carlos Monsiváis, Elena Poniatowska, José Emilio Pacheco and Sergio Pitol, among forty others – the government of Carlos Salinas de Gortari decided to establish a lifetime scholarship program at the National Council for the Culture and the Arts of Mexico (Conaculta). As “creators emeritus,” fellows would receive a generous sum of money for the rest of their lives. Fuentes decided to call Padilla in December of 1993 after a serious consultation with his friend Gabriel García Márquez, the great Colombian writer and resident of Mexico who had also been selected.

"Raúl, we want to do something with the University, Gabo and I," he said. "The Mexican government is honouring us with this recognition, and, frankly, we don’t want to receive it, but we don’t want to reject it." Thus arose the Solomonic solution: the Julio Cortázar Latin American Chair, led by Fuentes and García Márquez and baptized with the name of the “Bolívar of the Latin American novel," as Fuentes had called Cortázar. "He liberated us as he liberated himself," wrote Fuentes, "with a new language, airy, capable of all adventures: Hopscotch is one of the great manifestos of Latin American modernity. In it we see all our greatness and all our miseries, our deficits and our opportunities, through a free, unfinished verbal construction which never ceases to call on its readers in order to stay alive and endless."

And the Chair still evokes the Cortázarian spirit. It is a space for the exchange of ideas, a discussion forum to engage the brightest of minds – novelists, heads of state, musicians, scholars, poets – at the invitation of Fuentes and Gabo. It is also "a dialogue of humours," added Fuentes, "because without a sense of humour one cannot understand Julio Cortázar: it is thanks to humour that we can make the world bearable until we make it better, but the world must also tolerate us until we ourselves do better."

I was introduced to the Cortázar Chair the first time I was in Guadalajara, in November of 1998, when I organized a workshop with the brilliant Mexican journalist Alma Guillermoprieto during the book fair. At the time, I was working as program coordinator for the Foundation for a New Latin American Journalism, headed García Márquez. I was very curious about his university activities, because in his workshops he made no effort to disguise his contempt for the academic mentality.

We were all invited to the beautiful Enrique Diaz de Leon auditorium, the aula magna of the University of Guadalajara and a Mexican architectural gem that houses the murals "Man, creator and rebel" and "The people and the false leaders" by José Clemente Orozco, which take your breath away. In the presidium were Fuentes, García Márquez, former Colombian President Belisario Bentancur and future president of Chile, Ricardo Lagos, who was delivering his magisterial lecture. In the front rows of the auditorium was the crème de la crème of politics, literature, and the arts: Felipe González, Juan Goytisolo, José Saramago and Pilar del Rio, Hector Aguilar Camín and Ángeles Mastretta, among many others.

A high-protocol dinner followed at the Casa Cortázar – headquarters of the Chair and residence of the visiting scholars – which I really wasn’t in the mood to attend.  It was a Friday night and I longed to go out for some micheladas with my fellow journalists from the workshop. Fortunately I decided to fulfil my work obligations. I ended up being taken in the SUV with both chairholders Lagos and Betancur, who were in the back seat, riding next to Fuentes and his elegant wife, Silvia Lemus, in the middle row. Fuentes talked about a novel by Kenzaburo Oe, which he had just finished reading, with the precision of an engineer disassembling a mechanism. He described it with the fascination of a child who sees the sea for the first time. His passion and intellect were palpable: he delivered a master class on Japanese literature as one would talk about the weather.

Raúl Padilla asked me to direct the Chair that very night. He wanted to give it a fuller Latin American dimension, and this involved including a little bit more of my country, Brazil, which often remains on the outside due to the language barrier. I accepted immediately, and began my work in mid-1999.

I met many intellectuals who were excited to share their stories about Fuentes: the Argentines Noé Jitrík and Rodolfo Terragno, the Brazilians Nélida Piñón and Bella Jozef, the Peruvian Alfredo Bryce Echenique, and the Saint Lucian Derek Walcott, who told me the funniest one of all. It turns out that when they met in the hallway of a hotel in Miami, where they were both attending a literary function, Walcott bowed deeply to Fuentes, as a joke.  And Fuentes, in reverence for the Nobel Prize recipient for Literature, threw himself to the ground.  There was the Cortázarian spirit, the "dialogue of humours" which Fuentes spoke of: laughing, the Caribbean poet referred to his Mexican host as a great writer with a great sense of humour.

I left my job at the Cortázar Chair in 2001 when I returned to Montreal, to continue my academic career. I knew I could never stop promoting Latin American literature, so I joined the programming committee of Blue Metropolis, which organizes an international literary festival in that city. It is a polyglot festival – unique in the world – that holds literary events in various languages, from Chinese to Farsi, thanks to the multicultural population here, which goes far beyond the eternal conversation between English and French.  Fuentes was the winner of their literary grand prix in 2005, the same year Montreal was named World Book Capital by UNESCO. The World Book Capital activities kicked off with Blue Metropolis, which in turn started with the ceremony to honour the Mexican writer.  On that occasion, in an auditorium that was filled to capacity, Fuentes delivered a powerful reading of Terra Nostra: first in perfect French, then in perfect English, and finally – and I don’t think I have to say it – in perfect Spanish. He had just published Against Bush, and to the Canadians in attendance he offered the following variation of an old adage: "You can’t choose your neighbours, but you can choose your friends."

Carlos Fuentes at Blue Metropolis Festival in Montreal, 2005 [Photo: Monique Dykstra]

Not surprisingly, there were many Mexicans in the audience. It was wonderful to see the pride they felt before their idol, the antithesis of the Mexican stereotype propagated in the “gringo” movies: one who wears a sombrero, always has a revolutionary moustache, drinks tequila and naps next to a cactus. Some of them were employees of the Hyatt, where the festival was taking place, who had long anticipated seeing Fuentes up close. They also went to his lecture on Don Quixote, his all–time favourite book, which turned 400 that year.

Fuentes seemed very happy at that time, very much in love with Silvia, who was with him almost all the time. She also took the opportunity of the festival to work, interviewing his friend Alberto Manguel for her television program Tratos y Retratos (Treats and Portraits) on Channel 22 in Mexico City. 

Fuentes was very gracious with his hosts and the festival audiences, with a chivalry that was unsurpassed. On the last day of his stay in Montreal, the festival's artistic director, Linda Leith, came to say goodbye to Carlos and Silvia. Hers was the arduous task of finding the resources to bring the world’s best writers before the festival’s audiences.  She asked Fuentes if he could please help her gather support for bringing more Latin American writers. "I will be your soldier," said Fuentes, the gentleman. He made Linda’s knees shake.

At one point, I spotted Fuentes in the hotel bar, enjoying a whisky in a moment of pure repose.  For him, of course, because for me – used to having to hold back the crowds that converge on writers at literary events – this meant a moment of panic. "Mr. Fuentes," I asked, "how come you’ve been left here all alone?"

"I accompany myself," was his prompt reply. He could not have been in better company.


© Ingrid Bejerman 2012

This is Ingrid Bejerman's own translation of her article in La Nacion (Buenos Aires). 

Ingrid Bejerman has served as reporter and columnist for the major São Paulo (Brazil) daily O Estado de S. Paulo, as program coordinator for the Foundation for a New Iberian-American Journalism in Colombia, and as director of the Cátedra Latinoamericana Julio Cortázar at the University of Guadalajara, Mexico. Her doctorate, from McGill, is on the institutionalization and professionalization of journalism.

Hear Ingrid Bejerman talk about Carlos Fuentes here. Podcast courtesy The Guardian (U.K.)


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