By Carlos Fuentes
Translated by Edith Grossman
Bloomsbury £17.99; 332 pages
FT Bookshop price: £14.39
This is a big year for Carlos Fuentes. The Mexican writer turns 80 next month, and it is 50 years since the publication of his breakthrough novel, Where the Air is Clear (La región más transparente).
In Mexico, official colloquia and symposia will enshrine him as the country’s living national treasure. In Britain and the US the occasion is being marked by the launch of Happy Families (Todas las familias felices), Fuentes’s latest book to be translated into English. Billed by his publishers as a “choral novel”, it might more accurately be described as a collection of short stories about family life, interspersed with chorus-like vignettes on violence, macho rivalry, poverty and urban gang war.
Fuentes’s stated ambition is to represent the dizzying array of Mexican life, creating a literary equivalent to the work of Mexico’s famous muralists. It is not a task that sits naturally with the short form.
The title is ironic – Fuentes’s families are dysfunctional, sundered by betrayal, rebellion and hatred. They stagger on the brink of disintegration yet remain bound by ties of authority, bad blood and fear.
In the opening story, “A Family Like Any Other”, a redundant father endures his son’s pettiness and bemoans his own moral failure. Meanwhile, his daughter is intent on retreating into a world of internet chat-rooms and reality TV shows.
“The Disobedient Son” is a classic tale of filial duty versus free will. Isaac, descendant of one of the Catholic rebels who fought the lay government in the 1920s, expects his four sons to enter the priesthood. They, however, have other plans.
“Conjugal Ties”, written in two parts, and “The Secret Marriage” are the only truly linked pieces of narrative. The triptych untangles a web of marital deceit and explores the question of what, indeed, counts as infidelity. Cordelia is the submissive wife of a failed public official. Lavinia is the bored wife of an inattentive philanderer. What the two women have in common is their relationship with ladies’ man Leo, who is also fond of gnomic utterances.
Two stories revisit topics familiar to readers of Fuentes’s earlier novel, The Eagle’s Throne. The father-son rift in “The Official Family” is played out at the centre of Mexico’s political life, enabling Fuentes to elaborate once again on the nature of power. Father and sons also feature in “The Armed Family”, in which an army general must hunt down a rebel guerrilla leader who is also his youngest son. When the general’s elder son sells his brother out to protect his own interests, the father is forced to wonder if betrayal is more contemptible than disobedience.
These and other tales add up to a powerful indictment of the unhappiness caused by family life. “I come from a family in which each member hurt the others in one way or another”, is how one character sums it up.
The stories overflow with the kind of insights that only maturity brings. They are also painfully topical. “The Mariachi’s Mother” is based on the recent lynching of plain-clothes policemen mistaken for kidnappers by a mob in Mexico City.
Yet even as Fuentes keeps his finger on modern Mexico’s pulse – with nods to the internet, reality TV, gang slang – many of the stories have a fusty and oddly melodramatic air. The author’s views on class and relationships seem dated. Nowhere is this more apparent than in “The Gay Divorcée”, which charts the unravelling of a homosexual couple’s liaison.
Dialogues are overwrought to the point of implausibility – “Lavinia, forget about the arithmetic of coitus” is a typical line. The ever-present “Fuentes voice” – grave, ponderous, erudite – is put in the mouths of all his characters, whether they are precocious children, cuckolded husbands, upper-class society ladies or indigenous Mexicans.
The finest short story writers rely on tightness and silence, on things left unsaid. Not Fuentes. He does not believe in showing rather than telling. He is not one to imply when he can explain. Too aware, perhaps, of his global audience, he feels the need to enhance his narrative with capsules of anthropological information. While successfully showcasing his own intelligence, he underestimates that of his readers.
Such loquacity smothers even the best of the volume’s stories. The heartache and tenderness in “Mater Dolorosa”, which imagines the correspondence between a woman mourning the death of her young daughter and the man accused of her murder, are buried under the bombast.
This uneven collection gets no help from an uneven English version by Edith Grossman, one of the most highly regarded translators of Hispanic fiction. The bafflement that some of the writing elicits is, occasionally, the result of mistranslation.