Carlos Fuentes: “You Have to See the Face of Death in Order to Start Writing Seriously”

“I think you have to see the face of death in order to start writ­ing seri­ous­ly,” Car­los Fuentes said in his 1981 Paris Review inter­view. “There are peo­ple who see the end quick­ly, like Rim­baud. When you start see­ing it, you feel you have to res­cue these things. Death is the great Mae­ce­nas, Death is the great angel of writ­ing. You must write because you are not going to live any more.”

Fuentes died Tues­day at the age of 83. He wrote seri­ous­ly right up to the end, pub­lish­ing more than 50 books in his life­time, includ­ing Where the Air is ClearThe Death of Artemio Cruz and Ter­ra Nos­tra. He was one of Latin Amer­i­ca’s lead­ing voic­es of the past half cen­tu­ry, and Mex­i­co’s most renowned nov­el­ist. Despite his deep con­nec­tion with his native coun­try, Fuentes lived a sig­nif­i­cant part of his life abroad. As the son of a Mex­i­can diplo­mat he was born in Pana­ma and began his school­ing in Wash­ing­ton D.C.. Lat­er he accept­ed his own diplo­mat­ic and aca­d­e­m­ic post­ings abroad. As he told the Paris Review, the sep­a­ra­tion helped him as a writer:

I am grate­ful for my sense of detach­ment because I can say things about my coun­try oth­er peo­ple don’t say. I offer Mex­i­cans a mir­ror in which they can see how they look, how they talk, how they act, in a coun­try which is a masked coun­try. Of course, I real­ize that my writ­ings are my masks as well, ver­bal masks I offer my coun­try as mir­rors. Mex­i­co is defined in the leg­end of Quet­zal­coatl, the Plumed Ser­pent, the god who cre­ates man and is destroyed by a demon who offers him a mir­ror. The demon shows him he has a face when he thought he had no face. This is the essense of Mex­i­co: to dis­cov­er you have a face when you thought you only had a mask.

To learn more about Fuentes, you can watch the brief video above from AARP Viva, which is in Span­ish with Eng­lish sub­ti­tles, and a 19-minute inter­view below with Char­lie Rose. Both were record­ed last year. In 1981, when the Paris Review inter­view­er asked Fuentes what hooked him and made him want to begin writ­ing, he said: “That won­der­ful thing Ham­let says about ‘a fic­tion, a dream of pas­sion.’ My fic­tion is a dream of pas­sion, born of a cry that says ‘I am incom­plete.’ I want to be com­plete, to be enclosed. I want to add some­thing.”

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