The Crystal Frontier: A Novel in Nine Stories


From Mexico’s preeminent man of letters, “a Balzacian novel in nine masterly stories” (Vanity Fair) that explores the “uneven and painful meshing of two North american cultures” (Washington Post Book World). A New York Times Notable Book of the Year. A Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year. Translated by Alfred Mac Adam.

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The Crystal Frontier: A Novel in Nine Stories

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From Mexico’s preeminent man of letters, “a Balzacian novel in nine masterly stories” (Vanity Fair) that explores the “uneven and painful meshing of two North american cultures” (Washington Post Book World). A New York Times Notable Book of the Year. A Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year. Translated by Alfred Mac Adam.

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Editorial Reviews

E. Annie Proulx
Carlos Fuentes has intimate knowledge of both countries and has built an international literary reputation on that knowledge and his compassionate champoinship of the poor and oppressed. The Crystal Frontier, with its powerful writing and may fine passages, reinforces that reputation. -- Washington Post Book Review
Miami Herald
As compelling as anything the author of The Old Gringo and Terra Nostra has given us...Unique and memorable.
Jay Parini
[A]cute observation. . .a fine sense of satire.
The New York Times Book Review
La Jornada
This exuberant fiction contains and alludes to journalism, politics, economics, famous tall tales, and picaresque adventures, all united by the "vitality, variety, and narrative force that Fuentes always gives his work.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Though subtitled "a novel in nine stories," the nine pieces that make up Fuentes's latest are a bit too fragmented to warrant that description. True, their protagonists all share some connection to Leonardo Barroso, a powerful, somewhat shady Mexican businessman, but the real common thread, a thin one, is Fuentes's interest in intersections and miscommunications between the U.S. and Mexico. The book opens strongly enough, with "A Capital Girl," a tale of a young woman who falls in love with Barroso but marries his troubled son instead. Yet the second story about a young Mexican man who discovers his homosexuality while studying medicine at Cornell at Barroso's expense, rings false in its depiction of American collegiate life. Indeed, for a book that seeks to depict the ways in which Americans misunderstand Mexicans and Mexico, there are a surprising number of stereotypes and clichs of life in the States. The most prominent offender is "Girlfriends," the heavy-handed story of a racist rich old Angla and her long-suffering Mexican servant. While the best entries here, the moving "Malintzin Las Maquilas," about the difficult friendship among three exploited female factory workers, and the title story, an offbeat tale of a Mexican window washer's encounter with an American executive, display Fuentes's rich imagination and subtle touch, too many of the characters and situations take a back seat to what are clearly didactic intentions.
Library Journal
Leonardo Barroso is an unscrupulous Mexican oligarch whose fortress of a villa is only a short drive from the "crystal frontier" of the title, and each one of the nine stories comprising this work explores the life of someone touched by him. There's Juan Zamora, whose medical studies at Cornell were made possible by the stratagems of Barroso; the beautiful Michelina from Mexico City, whom Barroso marries; off to his son and then takes as his own, and the working girls of Barroso's maquiladoras, who lust after the gringo male dancers of the clubs. The outrageous racism of Fuentes's Anglo characters, such as Miss Amy Dunbar and border patrol Dan Polonsky, may seem excessive and stereotyped, but it is also hard to deny that such attitudes exist along this troubled border. Fuentes masterfully interweaves Mexican politics, economics, and history within the individual stories, giving a brilliant update on relations between an extremely poor country and the richest in the world. A recent (1995) and highly recommended work by Mexico's premiere novelist. Jack Shreve, Allegany Community Coll., Cumberland, Md.
La Jornada
This exuberant fiction contains and alludes to journalism, politics, economics, famous tall tales, and picaresque adventures, all united by the "vitality, variety, and narrative force that Fuentes always gives his work.
Kirkus Reviews
A sardonic "novel in nine stories" about relations between the US and Mexico, by the latter country's acclaimed author of such cosmopolitan fictions as Terra Nostra (1976) and The Campaign (1991), among others.

Each story portrays a conflict involving a family member, intimate, or business associate of "the powerful political Leonardo Barroso," a deal- and king-maker with a foot in both countries and a shadowy demeanor and personal history. For example, "A Capital Girl" traces the emotional vacillations endured by Michelina, an impressionable young woman who idolizes her godfather, Leonardo, as a result accepting marriage to his deeply unstable son Mariano. These and other characters reappear in several stories, a few of which are rather too nakedly discursive (e.g., the wheelchair-bound narrator's monologue in "The Line of Oblivion," and a predictably manic-depressive relationship between a wealthy white matron and her abused Mexican housemaid in "Girlfriends"). Indeed, most of the stories are too frequently interrupted by ironic commentaries on both American arrogance and myopia and Mexican illiteracy and inertia. However, "Spoils" presents a delicious characterization of its protagonist Dionisio, a cooking expert and gourmet explorer of several species of appetites. And in "Malintzin Las Maquilas"—a lively, sexy story whose sociopolitical content emerges naturally from its character relationships—Fuentes vividly depicts the volatile bonding among three women factory workers. The long (and uneven) climactic story, "Rio Grande, Rio Bravo," explores in too pat a fashion the human and diplomatic ramifications of "crossing the border," and brings the volume to a stagy (if perfectly logical) violent end.

A vast improvement over Fuentes's recent self-indulgent metafiction Diana (1995), and a pretty creditable dramatization of the mocking rhyme with which the book leaves us: "Poor Mexico,/poor United States,/so far from God,/so near to one another."

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780156006200
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 10/1/1998
  • Series: Harvest Book Series
  • Edition description: 1 HARVEST
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 276
  • Sales rank: 818,069
  • Product dimensions: 5.25 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.62 (d)

Meet the Author

Carlos Fuentes is the author of more than a dozen novels, including Terra Nostra , The Old Gringo , The Crystal Frontier , and The Years with Laura Diaz , as well as numerous literary and political essays. He divides his time between Mexico City and London.

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Read an Excerpt

For Hector Aguilar Camin

There is absolutely nothing of interest in Campazas." The Blue Guide's categorical statement made Michelina Laborde smile slightly, disturbing for a moment the perfect symmetry of her face. Her "little Mexican mask" a French admirer had called it--the perfect bones of Mexican beauties who seem immune to the ravages of time. Perfect faces for death, added the admirer, which Michelina did not like one bit.

She was a young woman of sophisticated tastes because she'd been educated that way, brought up that way, and refined that way. She was of an "old family," so even a hundred years earlier her education would not have been very different. "The world has changed, but we haven't," her grandmother, still the pillar of the household, would say. Except that there used to be more power behind the breeding. There were haciendas, demurral courts--for throwing out perfectly good lawsuits "that did not warrant legal action"--and Church blessings.

There were also crinolines. It was easier then to cover up the physical defects that modern fashions reveal. Blue jeans accentuate a fat backside or thin legs. "Our women are like thrushes," she could still hear her uncle (May he rest in peace) say. "Thin shanks, fat asses."

She imagined herself in crinolines and felt herself freer than she did in jeans. How wonderful, knowing you were imagined, hidden, that you could cross your legs without anyone's noticing, could even dare to wear nothing under your crinolines, could feel the cool, free breeze on those unmentionable buttocks, on the very interstices of modesty, aware all the while that men had to imagine it! She hated the idea of going topless at the beach; she was a declared enemy of bikinis and only reluctantly wore miniskirts.

She was blushing at these thoughts when the Grumman stewardess came by to whisper that the private jet would soon be landing at the Campazas airport. She tried to find a city somewhere in that panorama of desert, bald mountains, and swirling dust. She could see nothing. Her gaze was captured by a mirage: the distant river and, beyond it, golden domes, glass towers, highway cloverleafs like huge stone bows. But that was on the other side of the crystal frontier. Over here, below--the guidebook was right--there was nothing.

Her godfather, Don Leonardo, met her. He'd invited her after their meeting in the capital just six months earlier. "Come take a look at my part of the country. You'll like it. I'll send my private plane to get you."

She liked her godfather. He was fifty years old--twenty-five years older than she--and robust, half-bald, with bushy sideburns but the perfect classic profile of a Roman emperor and the smile and eyes to go with it. Above all, he had those dreamy eyes that said, I've been waiting a long time for you.

Michelina would have rejected pure perfection; she'd never met an extremely handsome man who hadn't disappointed her. They felt they were better looking than she was. Good looks gave them unbearably domineering airs. Don Leonardo had a perfect profile, but it was offset by his cheeks, his baldness, his age. His smile, on the other hand. said, Don't take me too seriously--I'm a sexy, fun-loving guy. And yet his gaze, again, possessed an irresistible intensity. I fall in love seriously, it said to her. I know how to ask for everything because I also know how to give everything. What do you say?

"What's that you're saying, Michelina?"

"That we met when I was born, so how can you tell me that only six months ago we--"

He interrupted her. "This is the third time I've met you, dear. Each time it seems like the first. How many more times do I get?"

"Many more, I hope," she said, without thinking that she would blush--although, since she'd just spent ten days on the beach in Zihuatanejo, no one would have been able to tell if she was turning red or was simply a little sunburned. But she was a woman who filled the space wherever she happened to be. She complemented places, making them more beautiful. A chorus of macho whistles always greeted her in public places, even in the small Campazas airport. But when the lover boys saw who was with her, a respectful silence reigned.

Don Leonardo Barroso was a powerful man here in the north as well as in the capital. For the most obvious reasons, Michelina Laborde's father had asked Don Leonardo, the then minister, to be her godfather: protection, ambition, a tiny portion of power.


It was ridiculous. Her godfather himself had spelled things out for them when he was in the capital six months before. Mexico's health depends on the periodic renewal of its elites. For good or ill. When native aristocracies overstay their welcome, we kick them out. The social and political intelligence of the nation consists in knowing when to retire and leave open the doors of constant renewal. Politically, the "no reelection" clause in the constitution is our great escape valve. There can be no Somozas or Trujillos here. No one is indispensable. Six years in office and even the president goes home. Did he steal a lot? So much the better. That's the price we pay for his knowing when to retire and never say a word again. Imagine if Stalin had lasted only six years and had peacefully turned power over to Trotsky, and he to Kamenev, and he to Bukharin, et cetera. Today the USSR would be the most powerful nation on earth. Not even the king of Spain gave hereditary titles to Mexican creoles, and the republic never sanctioned aristocracies.

"But there have always been differences," interrupted Grandmother Laborde, who was seated across from her cases of curios. "I mean, there have always been 'decent' people. But just think: there are people who presume to be of the Porfirio Diaz-era aristocracy--all because they lasted thirty years in power. Thirty years is nothing! When our family saw Porfirio Diaz's supporters enter the capital after the Tuxtepec revolution, we were horrified. Who were these disheveled men from Oaxaca and these Spanish grocers and French sandal makers. Porfirio Diaz! Corcueras! Nonsense! Limantours! An arriviste! In those days we decent people followed Lerdo de Tejada."

Michelina's grandmother is eighty-four years old and is still going strong. Lucid irreverent and anchored by the most eccentric of powers. Her family lost influence after the revolution of 1910-20 and Dona Zarina Ycaza de Laborde took refuge in the curious hobby of collecting junk, bits and pieces of things, and most of all, magazines. Every single doll (male or female) that enjoyed popularity--whether it was Mamerto the Charro or Chupamirto the Tramp, Captain Shark, or Popeye--she would rescue from oblivion, filling an entire armoire with those cotton-stuffed figures, repairing them sewing them up when their innards spilled out.

Postcards, movie posters cigar boxes matchboxes bottlecaps comic books--Dona Zarina collected all of them with a zeal that drove her children and even her grandchildren to despair until an American company specializing in memorabilia bought her complete collection of Today, Tomorrow, and Always magazines for something like $50,000. Then they all opened their eyes: in her drawers in her armoires the old lady was stashing away a gold mine, the silver of memory, the jewels of remembrance. She was the czarina of nostalgia (as her most cultured grandson aptly put it).

Dona Zarina's gaze clouded over as she looked out from her house on Rio Sena Street. If the city had been taken care of as well as she had maintained the Minnie Mouse doll ... But it was better not to speak of such things. She had remained and witnessed the paradoxical death of a city that as it grew bigger diminished, as if it were a poor being who was born, grew, and inevitably died. She plunged her nose back into the sets of bound volumes of Chamaco Chico and did not expect anyone to hear or understand her lapidary phrase: "Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose."

To go on being "decent" people, to maintain the style to which they were accustomed, their culture, and even--though this was pure delusion--their name in the world, the family took refuge in the diplomatic corps. In Paris, Michelina's father was assigned to accompany the young deputy Leonardo Barroso, and with each glass of burgundy, with each monstrous dinner in the Grand Vefour, with each tour of the Loire chateaus, Don Leonardo's gratitude toward the diplomatic attache of venerable family grew, eventually extending to the attache's wife and immediately thereafter to his newborn daughter. They didn't ask; he himself made the offer: "Let me be the kid's godfather."

Michelina Laborde e Ycaza, the young lady from the capital. You all know her because her photo's been in the society pages so often. A classic creole face: white skin but with a Mediterranean shadow--olive and refined sugar--perfect symmetry in her large black eyes protected by cloudlike eyelids and the slightest of tempests in the shadows beneath, symmetry in her straight, immobile nose, vibrant only in the disquiet of those tempests, on their disquieting wings, as if a vampire had tried to escape from the night enclosed in that luminous body. Also her cheekbones, seemingly as fragile as quail eggs behind her smiling skin, trying almost to open that skin beyond the time allotted and expose her perfect skull. And finally, Michelina's long black hair, floating, glistening, scented more from shampoo than from hair spray--the wondrous, fatal annunciation of her other, hidden soft hair. Every time, every thing divided: her upper lip, the deep comma in her chin, the separation of her skin.

Don Leonardo thought all this when he saw her grown up, and instantly he said to himself, I want her for my son.

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Table of Contents

I A Capital Girl 3
II Pain 29
III Spoils 55
IV The Line of Oblivion 89
V Malintzin of the Maquilas 114
VI Las Amigas 145
VII The Crystal Frontier 166
VIII The Bet 190
IX Rio Grande, Rio Bravo 215
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Reading Group Guide

1. The narrator credits Laura Diaz with filling his life "with all those kinds of memory that are both involuntary and voluntary, both a privilege and a danger: memories that are simultaneously expulsion from home and return to the maternal house, a fearsome encounter with the enemy and a longing for the original cave." How does each kind of memory enumerated here play a role in the lives of the narrator, Laura Diaz, and others? What roles do memories play in all our lives?

2. What political, religious, and other manifestations of authoritarianism and toleration appear in the novel? How is the conflict between these two attitudes played out in the various areas and phases of Laura Diaz's life? What other conflicts affect the lives of the characters? Which of these conflicts do you see at work in your life and the world today?

3. Beginning with the white crow at her grandmother's funeral, what objects, events, and persons provoke Laura Diaz to follow them "beyond the limits of what she knew"? To what specific consequences-at the same time fantastical and actual, mythical and time-bound-do these portents lead Laura and others?

4. How does Fuentes deal with the theme of power, its uses, its privileges, and its consequences? What is the relationship between power and money in the world of Laura Diaz? In what ways and to what degree, in Laura's world and ours, does "the rationale of power" have its way?

5. What is the impact on Laura Diaz of each death that occurs in her life? To what degree do you agree or disagree with Fuentes's claim, "We weep for the dead once and only once, and then we try to do what they could no longer do"? In what ways does Laura try todo what her deceased loved ones can no longer do? To what extent does "her existence have no other meaning except that of completing unfinished destinies"?

6. What kinds of revolution occur in The Years with Laura Diaz? What "old order" does each revolution seek to overthrow, and what "new order" does each hope to establish? Why do so many "revolutions," including the Mexican Revolution, fail? What are the implications of Jorge Maura's words to the German Communist, Renn, to the effect that "aristocrats and workers always lose revolutions while the bourgeoisie wins them"? What are the associations between political and social revolution and artistic innovation and achievement?

7. In what ways might Maria de la O's words to Laura, after the loss of the Kelsen hacienda-"I've done nothing but celebrate my going through life...I celebrate the world, I know I came to the world to celebrate life" reflect Laura's and Fuentes's shared attitude toward living? Does Fuentes, directly or through his characters, voice a contradictory attitude anywhere in his novel?

8. In The Years with Laura Diaz, in what ways do changing times and circumstances affect the role of women in Mexican society and the opportunities open to them? What is the relation of the gigantic female stone figure in the forest of Veracruz-the "marvelous feminine figure staring at eternity" to Laura, Frida Kahlo, and other women in the novel? What other "ancient stone queens" or mythic feminine figures appear? What might Fuentes want to say about the social, cultural, and religious/supernatural role of women?

9. What "ritual moments" acquire significance in Laura's life and in the lives of those close to her? How and why are those ritual moments important, and what lasting impact do they have? Why is ritual important in all our lives? In what ways, in Laura's words to her mother, does "the world become too flat without ceremonies to mark the passage of time"?

10. What does Juan Francisco's revolutionary comrade mean when he says, "In Mexico, even cripples are acrobats"? How might this comment apply to politicians in any country, at any time?

11. How might we explain Laura's not only leaving Juan Francisco, but also leaving her sons in Xalapa? What kind of independence does Laura create for herself? At what costs and with what rewards? What does she learn from Frida Kahlo and others in this regard?

12. How convincing are Fuentes's portraits of the artist, as presented in the persons and aesthetics of Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, and Santiago the Younger? To what extent is he correct in writing of the artist, "his art does not reflect reality; it establishes it"? What are the implications of the thought attributed to Frida Kahlo-as "she drew more and more rapidly and feverishly" in her hospital bed in Detroit-that "it doesn't matter what animates the body so long as it gives it form . . ."?

13. What incidents of and references to twentieth-century fascism- "the solemn cloistered enemy...with his infinite fascist reactionary gloom"-does Fuentes include in the novel? How do we learn about the author's and his characters' political preferences? What contradictions and inconsistencies inform twentieth-century history and politics as presented by Fuentes?

14. In what ways do Fuentes's characters, when the occasion arises, "respond to the challenge of heroism"? What kinds of heroism do the women and men of The Years with Laura Diaz display?

15. What kinds of faith are professed by Fuentes's characters-in God, in a political system, in philosophy, for example? Jorge Maura asks, "Why do we believe and act in the name of our faith knowing full well we shall never be rewarded for the sacrifices faith imposes on us as a test?" What answers to these questions does the novel state or imply? What is the relevance of Maura's question to each of the quests for faith in the novel? What resolution, if any, does Fuentes offer regarding the ultimate issue that Maura faces on Lanzarote: ". . . whether faith can give meaning to the madness of being here on earth"?

16. How can Laura rationalize her several betrayals of her husband and sons and yet refuse to forgive Juan Francisco for his betrayal of the nun who sought refuge in their home? What kinds of betrayal do Fuentes's characters commit? To what extent might some of those betrayals be more forgivable than others? In what ways might prolonged mourning, as Fuentes writes, be "a betrayal of the dead person's life."

17. How does Fuentes position his characters in relation to the evils of the twentieth century and to the question of evil itself? To what extent are they caught up in the century's evils or merely instruments with which Fuentes conducts an examination of those evils? What are the nature and consequences of what Jorge Maura calls "the impossible evil" committed by the Nazis?

18. To Harry Jaffe's characterization of the McCarthy period in the United States as a three-act tragicomedy-from reason, through heroism, to victimization-Laura remarks that "the epilogue has to be reflection, the effort of intelligence to understand what happened, why it happened." To what extent may The Years with Laura Diaz be read as Carlos Fuentes's epilogue to the drama of the twentieth century?

19. Long after her son Santiago's death, Laura realizes that his painting of "the naked man and woman staring at each other without touching" is a revolutionary portrait of Adam and Eve ascending, not falling, a painting in which "the drama of the Earthly Paradise was a triumph of human freedom over God's tyranny." What other representations of this "triumph" does Fuentes present in his novel? To what extent is Fuentes's novel, itself, an attempt to portray the "triumph of human freedom over God's tyranny"?

20. In her sixties and now a famous photographer, Laura realizes "that for years the Spanish Civil War had been the epicenter of her historical life." To what extent do you think Fuentes views the Spanish Civil War as the epicenter of twentieth-century history? What facts might support such a judgment?

Copyright (c) 2001. Published by Harcourt, Inc.
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