I’m on a Carlos Fuentes kick right now. A Latin American kick, really, but Fuentes seemed like a good place to start, if for no other reason than I’ve been meaning to read The Crystal Frontier for a while, and because I recently read an excerpt from Terra Nostra that blew me away (and another one that, unfortunately, really didn’t). Of course, being me, I didn’t actually start with The Crystal Frontier, but with the 1962 short novel Aura, relatively unknown to English-language readers, but arguably Fuentes’ most popular work among the Spanish-language reading public, and one that a Mexican blogger once wrote me was his favorite of Fuentes’ “horror stories.” Oh, and look: there on my bookshelf, patient and forgotten, is the collection Constancia, and other stories for virgins (1989) — I don’t go down my to-be-read pile in the order of purchase, and, well, sometimes things fall through the cracks. Or off my bedside table, as the case may be.
So, Aura first, Constancia next. This was a fortuitous ordering, because the novella Constancia (the first novella from the collection) is in many ways Aura revisited….
Aura is the narrative (told in second person) of Felipe Montero, a young scholar who is hired by an elderly widow to edit the memoirs of her late husband, the General. It’s a live-in position, and in Señora Llorente’s house Felipe meets the señora’s niece, Aura. Of course, he falls desperately in love with her, but there is something that ties Aura to her aunt, something that, well, complicates the relationship….
Constancia is the first-person narrative of Whitby Hull, surgeon, native of Savannah, Georgia, a Southern gentleman to the core. Hull went to Seville on the GI Bill to study after World War II, where he met Constancia, Andalusian to her core. He fell in love — yes, I’d say his love was desperate, too — married her, and brought her home to Savannah, where they have lived for forty years. The Hulls have a neighbor, Mr. Plotnikov, former stage actor and set designer, refugee from Communist Russia. On the day Plotnikov will die, he comes to Dr. Hull with a strange request: that Hull will come to visit him only on the day of Hull’s own death. Their well-being depends on it, Plotnikov says. And at the moment Plotnikov dies, Constancia collapses with a mysterious illness….
Peter Straub, writing about the work of Robert Aickman, describes the feeling of a ghost story as “composed in part of mystery, fear, stifled eroticism, hopelessness, nostalgia, and the almost violent feeling granted by a suspension of the natural rules.” This is true of both these Fuentes stories as well — for they are both ghost stories, though it isn’t obvious at the outset. As the character says in Edith Wharton’s famous story, “You won’t know till afterward…long, long afterward.”
As in Fuentes’ earlier story “Chac Mool,” history is a prominent theme in these stories: the interplay of the past and the present; memory as a force to bring back the past, to keep it alive. Aura is also about obsessive, perhaps irrational, love, about the fear of growing old, losing one’s beauty and vitality, about childlessness as the inability to project oneself into the future (which matters more to the women than the men, in these stories). And Constancia, while outwardly such a different tale, is about these things, as well.
Constancia has more of the “familiar” Fuentes, to English-language readers, I mean, whom I would say think of Fuentes mostly as a political writer and social commentator. There’s a touch of this in Aura: General Llorente was a monarchist, a supporter of Maximilian I, exiled to France after the overthrow of the Second Mexican Empire. He’s Eurocentric in outlook — his memoirs are in French. This outdated royalist sensibility is fading away from the country, much like Señora Llorente’s home in the old city center is becoming walled in, devoured, by modern Mexico City. Perhaps one point of Aura is to suggest (as “Chac Mool” does vis-à-vis indigenous Mesoamerican cultures) that, for better or worse, this part of Mexico’s past has not died, that it is still struggling to come back, to reassert itself.
Constancia‘s political references are more direct. In the space of sixty-five pages, Fuentes works in references to the American Civil War, Franco’s Nationalists, the Holocaust, the Russian Revolution, and the Salvadoran Civil War. He reflects on the oppression of art by political ideology. He also, in the person of Whitby Hull, pokes gentle fun at the U.S. self image: “agent of civilization, bearer of spiritual values, which did not conflict with prosperity” — bringers of transformation, the positive kind of course. Saviors of the world. But he also points out that, quite often, the world takes us up on our claim, though not always on our terms, whether we are party to it or not. So we might as well embrace it.
Aura is the more beautiful story, more dreamlike: the second-person narration, the play of light and shadow, the religious imagery, the odd non-sequiturs (what was it with the cats? or the rabbit?). Constancia simmers and meanders, like the heat and mazelike geometry of Savannah — or Seville. Of the two, Constancia is more accessible, partly because it’s a little closer to one’s idea of a ghost story; I won’t say it’s all sewn up, but it’s a little less open-ended and ambiguous than Aura. It’s also more uplifting, which is odd, because technically, I think Aura is supposed to have the happier ending.
Or at least, at the end of Constancia, Hull understands his inevitable fate — but in the meantime, he has found a purpose to his life. In Aura — well, I think everyone’s gotten what they wanted, but to me, it feels bleak. People don’t always want what’s good for them.
They’re both worth reading.
I’m still working my way through the Constancia collection. The second novella, La Desdichada, is a nice weird tale (perhaps supernatural, perhaps not), a Fuentian riff on E.T.A. Hoffman’s “The Sandman” — and also on Aleksandr Chayanov’s “The Tale of the Hairdresser’s Mannequin.” It’s quite plausible that Fuentes read the first; I’m not so sure about the second (seems unlikely) — but hey, at least I could make the connection, for whatever that’s worth.
I’ve interrupted my Fuentes binge briefly; this week marks the centennial of the birth of Julio Cortázar, my absolute favorite magical realist. So I spent yesterday re-reading Cortázar short stories… but that’s a subject for another post.
A Postscript: Here are Carlos Fuentes’ own words on writing Aura, from The Paris Review:
Aura is written in the second person singular, the voice poets have always used and that novelists also have a right to use. It’s a voice that admits it doesn’t know everything, and after all you are a novelist because you don’t know everything. Unlike the epic poet who does know everything…. But this poetic voice says that we are not alone, that something else accompanies us…. Aura came to me from a great Japanese film, Ugetsu Monogatari. In it, a man goes to war just after he marries a young courtesan, who becomes the purest of wives. When he comes back, he finds she has committed suicide. The town had been taken by some soldiers and in order to avoid rape she killed herself. He goes to her grave and finds her beautiful body perfectly preserved. The only way he can recover her is through an old crone who captures the girl’s voice and speaks to him. This is an extraordinary tradition: the old woman with magic powers. Here I insert myself into a tradition that goes back to Faulkner, to Henry James, to Miss Havisham in Dickens, to the countess in Pushkin’s Queen of Spades, and back to the White Goddess. I’m very much in agreement with Virginia Woolf when she says that when you sit down to write, you must feel the whole of your tradition in your bones, all the way back to Homer.
Photo of Mexico City street: Vecindad, by Eneas De Troya. Used under a Creative Commons Licence.
First painting: My Heart Cries for the Past, Fernand Khnopff, 1889. Source: WikiArt
Second painting: Still Life with Prism, Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, 1920. Source: WikiArt