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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