Carlos Fuentes Conquers the Land of the Gringos with a Haunting Tale from South of the Border

updated 03/03/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/03/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

A stiff breeze rattles the treetops in Harvard Yard. On a bright winter's day a man in an ambassadorial dark suit and trench coat quickens his pace as he crosses the 17th-century enclosure. Mexico's prizewinning novelist, Carlos Fuentes, is hastening to the Science Center, a bleak outpost at the edge of the college's historic heart. There, in a huge auditorium, 200 students are about to submit to the rigors of a final examination.

Fuentes, 57, a longtime observer of the literary scene, and one of the stars of the university's first semester, is merely lending an elegant and symbolic presence to the undertaking. A proctor and seven teaching assistants will be standing at the ready during the three-hour examination on history and fiction in Latin America. As the proctor gives the go-ahead, Fuentes flashes a discreet thumbs-up signal. Minutes later Fuentes hurries back across the Yard to his office. "What if my students were examining me," he wonders, "all 200 of them?"

Fuentes would undoubtedly fare well on such an examination. Often mentioned as a possible Nobel laureate, he is one of Mexico's most distinguished men of letters. At a time when interest in Latin American literature is at an all-time high, Fuentes is experiencing a bright burst of success with his latest novel, The Old Gringo (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $14.95). Published here last fall, Gringo has enjoyed a critical and popular acclaim unusual for a foreign novel. It has also attracted Jane Fonda, who bought the screen rights and plans to produce and star in a movie based on the book. And when Gringo flashed onto the New York Times best-seller list, it gave its author the distinction of becoming the first Mexican writer ever to appear on its rolls. Fuentes maintains a cool good humor about his current popularity. "Warhol once said, 'Everybody will be famous for 15 minutes,' " he says. "I think the truth is nobody will be famous for more than 15 minutes."

In Gringo Fuentes has written a strong piece of fiction about the last days in the life of the crusty American journalist Ambrose Bierce, who vanished into Mexico during the 1910 Revolution and was never heard from again. Fuentes' fictional Bierce, the old gringo of the title, stashes a sandwich, a safety razor and a toothbrush in his suitcase at the outset of his journey. The novel lays out in stark detail the love-hate relationship between Mexico and the United States and the tangled bonds that enwrap Bierce, American school teacher Harriet Winslow and Tomás Arroyo, a general in the revolutionary army of Pancho Villa. "The beauty of The Old Gringo," Farrar, Straus and Giroux President Roger Straus comments, "is that it works on every level—as a history, a good read and as a philosophical statement."

Fuentes has been intrigued by Bierce's mysterious disappearance for years. In 1964 he wrote 10 pages on the subject as he traveled by rail through the states of Chihuahua, San Luis Potosí and Zacatecas. But it proved to be a false start. Then, in 1970 during a monthlong visit to Durango, Pancho Villa's home state, he met and interviewed the last survivors of the bloody campaigns of the revolution. "One of the things that came up," says Fuentes, "was the memory of an old gringo, a tall man with blue eyes and a snowy thatch of hair who had appeared one day in the desert. Nobody knew what his name was. Nobody knew what his destiny was. He vanished again. But I thought it must be Ambrose Bierce."

Finally, three years ago, Fuentes repaired to a village near Mexico City called Tepoztlán. There, against a backdrop of high cliffs and lush vegetation, he hammered out his novel in three short months. In the end, Fuentes wrote Gringo for the same reason he writes all his books. "One wants to tell a story, like Scheherazade, in order not to die," he says. "It's one of the oldest urges of mankind. It's a way of stalling death."

Fuentes, who speaks English with the ease of a native, is no stranger to the United States. From the age of 4 to 11, he lived with his family in Washington, D.C., where his father, a diplomat, had been posted. Carlos sopped up American culture, listening to The Green Hornet and Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy on the radio, and he fit in easily at school until the day in 1938 when President Lázaro Cárdenas of Mexico expropriated American-owned oil company properties. "I ceased to be popular," says Fuentes. "I became a kind of leper. It made me realize I was Mexican. It sealed a pact of loyalty between myself and my country. Otherwise I could have become a child gringo."

In spite of a nomadic existence—during the 1940s Fuentes and his family lived in Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and Ecuador—one element in his life remained constant: his strong passion for writing. He published his first story at the age of 11 in a Chilean magazine. Fuentes' parents were pleased with their son's precocious display of talent, until he hit his late teens. Recalls Fuentes: "I wanted to go to parties and bed ladies and get drunk, and my father said, 'If you want to lead this life, do it at your expense and find some work.' " Under pressure from his family, Fuentes reluctantly considered studying law. "My father and mother said a writer dies of hunger in Mexico. You can be a writer, they said, but first be a lawyer."

While he was at the Colegio Francés Morelos in Mexico City, Fuentes continued to write. "I had fantastic energy," he reports. "I went to law school from 8 in the morning until 11, then I worked in the foreign ministry from 11 to 3, then I went home and at 4 I was writing my novel. At 71 went out to cocktail parties, to see girls, to dance the mambo, all the things you did at that time. The next day I was up at 6 o'clock and ready to go again."

Fuentes never had to struggle to make a name for himself in the world of letters. He published his first novel, Where the Air Is Clear, at 28. It was critically acclaimed in Mexico. "If there has been any struggle," Fuentes says, "it is to keep up with that early success." Over the years he has published 12 novels, among them The Death of Artemio Cruz (1964), A Change of Skin (1967) and Terra Nostra (1976). Next year Farrar, Straus and Giroux will publish his 13th, Christopher Unborn, a story of modern Mexico.

In spite of his consistent output, Fuentes feels he must deal with different problems from those he confronted as a young writer. "When you are 25, you can face the blank page with courage, like Sir Galahad, and say, 'Hey, I am going to write today. I am going to defeat the blank page.' It's like your windmill. But in your 50s you have to discover strategies. The one I found is that I write in my head very well. Now I can write faster than I did when I was younger and with less tension, too."

Fuentes has not been content to spend his entire life cooped up in his study. From 1975 to 1977 he served as Mexico's ambassador to France. Since then his method of breaking the solitude of writing has been to spend several months a year teaching at an American university. (This spring will find him at Cornell.) "It is very important," he says, "that I talk to generations and generations of Americans who are going to govern this country and try to get through to them the existence of a Latin American personality, of a Latin American culture."

Fuentes has, over the years, developed close personal ties to the U.S. "Some of my best friends are gringos," he says with a laugh. But he also remains an outspoken, if friendly, critic of U.S. policies. "I don't always understand the present Administration," he says. "It has sometimes acted as if it wants to undermine Mexico. Mexico offers the United States a peaceful southern border. If the United States creates a war in Central America, say goodbye to the stability of Mexico. The war will extend south to Colombia, northward to Mexico. Are they so blind? Can't they see there are things to be done with political will and diplomatic imagination before you send in your boys and they come home in body bags?"

Fuentes, a devoted family man, has three children: a daughter, Cecilia, 22, by his first wife (Mexican actress Rita Macedo) and Carlos, 12, and Natasha, 11, by his second wife, Sylvia Lemus. Every year he and Sylvia, a television producer in Mexico City, spend at least six months at their house in a village near the capital. From their terrace they can see the volcano, Popocatépetl, as well as the green forests of Aguso. Every morning Fuentes retreats to his study. As he writes, with the speed of a man eyeing death, the sounds of playing children drift in through the open windows.

Fuentes shifts in his chair in a Cambridge hotel lobby. The author of The Old Gringo is heading off to lunch with his wife. But he fields one last question. If he, like Bierce, were to vanish forever into Mexico, what would he take in his suitcase? Fuentes' laugh is warm. "I would certainly carry Don Quixote," he says, "because that is a book I read every year. And yes, I would take memory. And pleasure. But I would also take a bottle of Dom Perignon to propose a toast to my survival. I must find ice in the desert. That would give me a reason to live."

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