Streets of Mexico – March 2023

Octavio Paz and Carlos Fuentes

For half a century after La Revolución (1910-1917), two writers dominated Mexican literature. Octavio Paz became the preeminent poet, and Carlos Fuentes the outstanding novelist. The two were close friends, exchanging more than a thousand letters, but were eventually estranged.

Paz wrote, “A flower without a stem is beauty waiting to die. A heart without love is a tear waiting to cry.” He claimed poetry to be “the secret religion of the modern age.” And its purpose “. . . is to restore to mankind the possibility to wonder.” Ironically, his most famous work, The Labyrinth of Solitude (1950), was a series of essays, not poems, in which he mused ruefully about Mexican history, culture and character. But, like all great writers, he explored universal themes. “Solitude is the profoundest fact of the human condition. Man is the only being capable of knowing he is alone.”

“Art gives life to what history denied, silenced or persecuted,” Paz’s protégé Carlos Fuentes observed. “Art brings truth to the lies of history.” And many of Fuentes’s novels—he wrote more than 50, translated into 24 languages—including The Death of Artemio Cruz (1962), depicted how so many of the country’s leaders, corrupted by power, had betrayed the Revolution. Another, The Old Gringo (1984), became the first Mexican novel to become a bestseller in the United States, and was made into the 1989 movie starring Gregory Peck and Jane Fonda.

Fuentes’s last Twitter message just before his death was, like his novels, profound as well as grim: “There must be something beyond slaughter and barbarism to support the existence of mankind, and we must all help search for it.”

Paz and Fuentes had much in common in addition to their literary gifts. They both served in the foreign service, the former as the ambassador to India, the latter as ambassador to France; and both eventually quit their positions in disgust at the Mexican government. They initially embraced communism, but later became disillusioned with both the Soviet Union and Cuba.

When Paz decried the Sandinista uprising in Nicaragua while Fuentes supported it, a rift developed between them, one that became an impassable chasm after a magazine Paz edited published a scathing criticism of Fuentes, accusing him of being merely an opportunistic interloper and not a true Mexican. Many wonder if the article sabotaged Fuentes’s chance at winning a Nobel Prize, which Paz garnered two years later in 1990. Even so, Fuentes refused to publish in his own magazine an article lambasting Paz.

Biographer Malva Flores analyzed the extraordinary but tortured relationship between these two august Mexican writers: “What Paz valued most was criticism,” she explained, “and he was a very notable polemicist who asked people to criticize, and he did it with half the world . . . Fuentes preferred friendship and not criticism. So that was finally irreconcilable.”

Mexicans have usually been thus at war with each other.

This is a selection from Ellison’s forthcoming book, Mexican Streets: Tales of Tragedy and Triumph.

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David Ellison
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