Incontemporary Mexico City, two “orphans,” Josué Nadal andJericó—brothers, it turns out, though they don’t know it early on—are bestfriends, both surviving on the largesse of an unknown benefactor. Withoutfamily to watch over them, they lose innocence prematurely—Jericó, forinstance, has sex with the seductive nurse who replaces his tyrannical housekeeperMaría Egipciaca. When they come of age, the attorney Sanginés—omnipresent inthis heady new novel from Carlos Fuentes—directs them to opposed destinies: Josuéworks for Max Monroy, the founder of Mexico’s leading telecommunicationscompany, whose aim is to put a communications device in the hands of everyMexican, while Jericó works for President Valentín Pedro Carrera, charged withdistracting the masses with entertainment. Josué lusts for Monroy’sheir-apparent and part-time lover, Asunta Jordán, while Jericó foments anill-fated, old-fashioned coup d’état—both ventures ending in predictabletragedy.
In this overly schematicplot, Fuentes seems more interested in commenting on his own earlier novelsthan providing a seductive narrative flow. What exactly is he up to?
Fuentes has always had hisfeet in two worlds, the literary and the practical; as a diplomat from the 1950sto the 1970s, he had firsthand acquaintance with the realities of internationalpolitics, as Mexico struggled to realize the earlier promise of the Revolution,and of the New Deal-style Cardenas regime. Since his first novel, Where theAir is Clear (1958), Fuentes has addressed questions of powernot through Balzacian realism but through Cervantean fantasy. As the founder ofgroundbreaking literary journals in the postwar years, Fuentes fashioned aLatin American identity centered around a class politics suited for thecontinent. But the new element in the mix is the postmodern informationeconomy, 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-centuryBildungsroman’s principles of individual growth, but also the notions ofheroism that appear in the author’s own earlier novels. Great Expectationsprovides the most apt contrast: there’s an invisible benefactor, Monroy, whoturns out to be the boys’ father. But the freedom allowed the boys is onlyillusory. Mexico is a “country of betrayal,” says Josué, narratingthe novel after he has been decapitated—and the greatest of betrayals is notbeing able to keep one’s rendezvous with destiny.
As Josué and Jericó growin adolescent confidence, we detect backhanded compliments to Latin Americannovelists’ depictions of secular, humanist consciousness contestingauthoritarian Catholic schooling. Mario Vargas Llosa’s irreverent spirit hoversfutilely over Josué and Jericó’s relationship with their early guide FatherFilopáter, and with assorted prostitutes and mother figures. However, this isnot a novel of consciousness. This is a novel of grotesque mismatches, whereintellectual rebellion proves meaningless.
All information seems topass through Licenciado Sanginés, who advises both Carrera and Monroy. Fuentesis contrasting Sanginés’s authority, rooted in secrecy, with technology’s dreamof democratic utopia. As Monroy lectures Carrera: “I believe ininformation and try to communicate that to the majority. You [politicians]believe in conspiracy reserved for a minority.” Although these two forcesfight for ascendancy, the struggle between Carrera’s old-style politics ofpatronage and corruption and Monroy’s techno-utopian consumerism never ascendsto all-out war. Our expectation of a climactic showdown between Josué andJericó, let alone Monroy and Carrera, is never satisfied.
The novel also returns toFuentes’s longstanding obsession with the idea of Mexico City. But there is notmuch purchase for any character’s story in such a relentlessly baroque milieu:
Sacrificedafter all, we die on the cement perimeter that reflects and celebrates a newcity that has shed its old skin, its lacustrian sensuality, its igneoussacredness, displaced first by another beauty, baroque, name of the pearlbeyond price, the misshapen jewel of the unborn oyster that Mexico Cityostentatiously displays in its second foundation of volcanic rock, marble,smiling angels and demons even more jovial as if to compensate for the tears ofblood (this isn’t a bolero) of its tortured Christs in adjoining chapels sothat the altar will be occupied by the tears that are pearls of his mother theVirgin who floats above the horns of the Iberian bull, our sacred animal.
How can one imagine Josuéand Jericó finding their individual destiny in this Cubist urban miasma?
The structure of the novelis analogous to the DNA helix—revolving around an axis of emptiness. Josué andJericó can never separate themselves from each other, as is true of Monroy andCarrera, while Sanginés stands aloof to watch the show reach its denouement. Sanginésserves as Fuentes’s closest stand-in, observing the programmatic match of witsbut not getting excited about it. Fuentes keeps mentioning the Castor andPollux analogy for the two brothers, but is never willing to push it to itslogical conclusion. He tries the Cain and Abel analogy too, but that works evenless well. He seems to be bidding farewell to the mythology of his earliernovels. As Jericó puts it, “The times of the hero are over.”
Another analogy Fuenteshalf-heartedly pursues is Josué as Nietzsche and Jericó as St. Augustine: Dionysiandemocracy versus authoritarian control. But this analogy peters out because inthe new information economy ideology of any type is moot. Events are real orunreal—to what extent is Jericó serious about his coup d’état?—according to theviewer’s perspective; yet the viewer/reader’s own position is alwaysindeterminate. As Monroy tells Carrera, in saving him from the coup by turningJericó in: “Everything’s on file. There’s no subversive movement that isn’tknown.”
For a novelist likeFuentes, if no subversion can occur in political life, what is there to writeabout? What happens to full-bodied characters wrestling down their desires tomeet a greater destiny? What happens to characters as vehicles for nationalistnarration?
A novel cannot functionwith a vacuum of power, yet Fuentes’s great accomplishment in Destiny andDesire is to pull off precisely this feat. He has vacated his own ambitionsas a novelist trying to imagine a better future for Mexico. The state used tobe the aggregator of the diverse ambitions of people of many classes, andthough the transnational corporation may harbor similar ambitions, the novelsuggests that this is mostly delusional. The power of the generals—familiarfrom Garcia Marquez’s The Autumn of the Patriarch (1975)—has become subsidiary to inchoatepost-enlightenment longings. Monroy’s potency—like that of his media counterpartsin the U.S.—is illusory. He, “like God…is everywhere,…[yet] no one can seehim.” Yet obviously the novelist can see him, and shred his potencyeven as he describes his alleged invisibility. In Orwell’s 1984, power was everywhere manifest and overt; in Destinyand Desire, it is everywhere invisible and covert; that’s the distance themodern state has traveled to the postmodern one.
Interestingly, anothernovel published at the time of Destiny and Desire‘s 2008 publication inMexico—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 cannever again be controlled tightly, and with that the project of nation-buildingaccording to any ruling elite’s wishes, whether democratic or dictatorial, isalso passé. What fills the void, no one knows yet.
AnisShivani is the author of Anatolia and Other Stories (2009), Against theWorkshop: Provocations, Polemics, Controversies (2011), and TheFifth Lash and Other Stories (2011). His just-finished novel is calledThe Slums of Karachi. His criticism and book reviews appear inmany newspapers, magazines, and literary journals.