Destiny and Desire

In contemporary Mexico City, two "orphans," Josué Nadal and Jericó—brothers, it turns out, though they don't know it early on—are best friends, both surviving on the largesse of an unknown benefactor. Without family to watch over them, they lose innocence prematurely—Jericó, for instance, has sex with the seductive nurse who replaces his tyrannical housekeeper María Egipciaca. When they come of age, the attorney Sanginés—omnipresent in this heady new novel from Carlos Fuentes—directs them to opposed destinies: Josué works for Max Monroy, the founder of Mexico's leading telecommunications company, whose aim is to put a communications device in the hands of every Mexican, while Jericó works for President Valentín Pedro Carrera, charged with distracting the masses with entertainment. Josué lusts for Monroy's heir-apparent and part-time lover, Asunta Jordán, while Jericó foments an ill-fated, old-fashioned coup d'état—both ventures ending in predictable tragedy.

 

In this overly schematic plot, Fuentes seems more interested in commenting on his own earlier novels than providing a seductive narrative flow. What exactly is he up to?   

 

Fuentes has always had his feet in two worlds, the literary and the practical; as a diplomat from the 1950s to the 1970s, he had firsthand acquaintance with the realities of international politics, as Mexico struggled to realize the earlier promise of the Revolution, and of the New Deal-style Cardenas regime. Since his first novel, Where the Air is Clear (1958), Fuentes has addressed questions of power not through Balzacian realism but through Cervantean fantasy. As the founder of groundbreaking literary journals in the postwar years, Fuentes fashioned a Latin American identity centered around a class politics suited for the continent. But the new element in the mix is the postmodern information economy, which makes traditional class politics, indeed nationalism itself, passé. Destiny and Desire grapples with this dilemma head-on.

 

In Josué and Jericó, Fuentes gives us two characters who contradict not only the nineteenth-century Bildungsroman's principles of individual growth, but also the notions of heroism that appear in the author's own earlier novels. Great Expectations provides the most apt contrast: there's an invisible benefactor, Monroy, who turns out to be the boys' father. But the freedom allowed the boys is only illusory. Mexico is a "country of betrayal," says Josué, narrating the novel after he has been decapitated—and the greatest of betrayals is not being able to keep one's rendezvous with destiny.

 

As Josué and Jericó grow in adolescent confidence, we detect backhanded compliments to Latin American novelists' depictions of secular, humanist consciousness contesting authoritarian Catholic schooling. Mario Vargas Llosa's irreverent spirit hovers futilely over Josué and Jericó's relationship with their early guide Father Filopáter, and with assorted prostitutes and mother figures. However, this is not a novel of consciousness. This is a novel of grotesque mismatches, where intellectual rebellion proves meaningless.

 

All information seems to pass through Licenciado Sanginés, who advises both Carrera and Monroy. Fuentes is contrasting Sanginés's authority, rooted in secrecy, with technology's dream of democratic utopia. As Monroy lectures Carrera: "I believe in information and try to communicate that to the majority. You [politicians] believe in conspiracy reserved for a minority." Although these two forces fight for ascendancy, the struggle between Carrera's old-style politics of patronage and corruption and Monroy's techno-utopian consumerism never ascends to all-out war. Our expectation of a climactic showdown between Josué and Jericó, let alone Monroy and Carrera, is never satisfied.

 

The novel also returns to Fuentes's longstanding obsession with the idea of Mexico City. But there is not much purchase for any character's story in such a relentlessly baroque milieu:

Sacrificed after all, we die on the cement perimeter that reflects and celebrates a new city that has shed its old skin, its lacustrian sensuality, its igneous sacredness, displaced first by another beauty, baroque, name of the pearl beyond price, the misshapen jewel of the unborn oyster that Mexico City ostentatiously displays in its second foundation of volcanic rock, marble, smiling angels and demons even more jovial as if to compensate for the tears of blood (this isn't a bolero) of its tortured Christs in adjoining chapels so that the altar will be occupied by the tears that are pearls of his mother the Virgin who floats above the horns of the Iberian bull, our sacred animal.

How can one imagine Josué and Jericó finding their individual destiny in this Cubist urban miasma?

 

The structure of the novel is analogous to the DNA helix—revolving around an axis of emptiness. Josué and Jericó can never separate themselves from each other, as is true of Monroy and Carrera, while Sanginés stands aloof to watch the show reach its denouement. Sanginés serves as Fuentes's closest stand-in, observing the programmatic match of wits but not getting excited about it. Fuentes keeps mentioning the Castor and Pollux analogy for the two brothers, but is never willing to push it to its logical conclusion. He tries the Cain and Abel analogy too, but that works even less well. He seems to be bidding farewell to the mythology of his earlier novels. As Jericó puts it, "The times of the hero are over."

 

Another analogy Fuentes half-heartedly pursues is Josué as Nietzsche and Jericó as St. Augustine: Dionysian democracy versus authoritarian control. But this analogy peters out because in the new information economy ideology of any type is moot. Events are real or unreal—to what extent is Jericó serious about his coup d'état?—according to the viewer's perspective; yet the viewer/reader's own position is always indeterminate. As Monroy tells Carrera, in saving him from the coup by turning Jericó in: "Everything's on file. There's no subversive movement that isn't known."

 

For a novelist like Fuentes, if no subversion can occur in political life, what is there to write about? What happens to full-bodied characters wrestling down their desires to meet a greater destiny? What happens to characters as vehicles for nationalist narration?

 

A novel cannot function with a vacuum of power, yet Fuentes's great accomplishment in Destiny and Desire is to pull off precisely this feat. He has vacated his own ambitions as a novelist trying to imagine a better future for Mexico. The state used to be the aggregator of the diverse ambitions of people of many classes, and though the transnational corporation may harbor similar ambitions, the novel suggests that this is mostly delusional. The power of the generals—familiar from Garcia Marquez's The Autumn of the Patriarch (1975)—has become subsidiary to inchoate post-enlightenment longings. Monroy's potency—like that of his media counterparts in the U.S.—is illusory. He, "like God…is everywhere,…[yet] no one can see him." Yet obviously the novelist can see him, and shred his potency even as he describes his alleged invisibility. In Orwell's 1984, power was everywhere manifest and overt; in Destiny and Desire, it is everywhere invisible and covert; that's the distance the modern state has traveled to the postmodern one.

 

Interestingly, another novel published at the time of Destiny and Desire's 2008 publication in Mexico—Salman Rushdie's The Enchantress of Florence—also grapples with Machiavellian notions of power. Fuentes certainly knows that the genie is out of the bottle—information can never again be controlled tightly, and with that the project of nation-building according to any ruling elite's wishes, whether democratic or dictatorial, is also passé. What fills the void, no one knows yet.


Anis Shivani is the author of Anatolia and Other Stories (2009), Against the Workshop: Provocations, Polemics, Controversies (2011), and The Fifth Lash and Other Stories (2011). His just-finished novel is called The Slums of Karachi. His criticism and book reviews appear in many newspapers, magazines, and literary journals.

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