[ by Charles Cameron — in memory of Carlos Fuentes, requiescat in pace ]
Carlos Fuentes‘ great novel, Terra Nostra, opens with these words:
Incredible the first animal that dreamed of another animal.
It’s a sentence to stop you in your tracks, a sentence to give pause to time itself, circling back on itself like the serpent that eats its own tail, a dream of a sentence, a dream sentence.
Monstrous the first vertebrate that succeeded in standing on two feet and thus spread terror among the beasts still normally and happily crawling close to the ground through the slime of creation. Astounding the first telephone call, the first boiling water, the first song, the first loincloth.
How does a mind move so agilely among these many and diverse firsts — the sleeping, the archeo-anthropological, the technical, the musical, the shameful or sinful or perhaps decorative, even erotic? In a single paragraph — the first in a book that will run 890 pages and not tire?
And Fuentes continues:
About four o’clock in the morning one fourteenth of July, Pollo Phoibee, asleep in his high garret room, door and windows flung wide, dreamed these things, and prepared to answer them himself.
Pollo Phoibee dreamed these things, Carlos Fuentes dreamed Pollo Phoibee…
And we are in Paris, Paris of the artists, of the garret, and yet a Paris where the Seine is boiling, where the Louvre has become crystalline, the black eyes of the gargoyles of Notre Dame see “a much vaster panorama”…
Carlos Fuentes died today, and I am saddened — remembering him signing my short, fat British Penguin paperback of Terra Nostra (its fondly remembered cover image above) and commenting that it was his preferred English edition, since one could slip it into one’s pocket…
And Terra Nostra was special to me, both as a great and tumultuous fiction, and as a fiction that quoted Norman Cohn‘s In Pursuit of the Millenniun, the book that back in my Oxford days introduced me to the history of apocalyptic thought… a fiction also familiar with Frances Yates, another scholar I greatly admire, and her writings on the Memory Theater…
Carlos Fuentes, the imagination that conceived Terra Nostra, is no longer with us.
He had been a diplomat, this great imagination. Born into a diplo family, he had served as Mexican ambassador to Paris — Paris of the diplomatic banquets, but also of the artist’s garret, of this New World imagination spanning continents and centuries as though they were a playground, the playground of a single, multiple, cosmopolitan and erudite mind.
The poet Paul Claudel, French ambassador to Japan, was reproved by the Surrealists in 1925 with the words:
One cannot be both ambassador for France and poet!
The poet Saint-John Perse was secretary to the French Embassy in Peking, and later General Secretary of the French Foreign Office. The poet Giorgos Seferis was Royal Greek Ambassador to the United Kingdom. The poet Pablo Neruda was Chilean ambassador to France… The poet Octavio Paz, Mexico’s ambassador to India.
Among novelists, it was Lawrence Durrell — an Englishman born in India with what he described as “a Tibetan mentality” — one who found life in England itself “like an autopsy … so, so dreary” — who was British press attaché in Alexandria, Egypt, during World War II, where as they say:
Ostensibly working, Durrell was in reality closely observing the assortment of sights, sensations, and people that wartime Alexandria, a crossroads of the East and West, had to offer.
The result was his masterpiece, The Alexandria Quartet.
Fuentes is heir to many lineages: of Mexico, of the world, of literature, of diplomacy, of the imagination.
In honoring him today, my researches turned up this apposite quote from Aldo Matteucci at the Reflections on Diplomacy blog:
To survive, a diplomat needs poetry. Filed amidst the many layers of the brief, the short poem will refresh the bleary mind. Poetry brings distance – hence perspective and insight. Poetry reminds the diplomat that the best professional is the amateur.
Most deeply – poetry is truth.
Carlos Fuentes survives us all.