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'This I Believe'

By Michael Dirda
Sunday, January 30, 2005; Page BW15

THIS I BELIEVE: An A to Z of a Life

By Carlos Fuentes

Translated from the Spanish by Kristina Cordero

(Henry Romero/reuters)

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Random House. 331 pp. $26.95

As a title, This I Believe sounds a rather Lutheran note, and the innocent may well anticipate a ringing declaration of Christian faith. Rest assured: Mexico's greatest living novelist here offers instead a series of meditative essays on the great passions and ideals of his life. Arranged alphabetically, these themes reveal an urbane and cosmopolitan sensibility, above all a man who adores women, values democratic principles, reveres artistic genius, looks with a cold eye at Time and Death, and loves this restless, fallen world in all its tawdry and sometimes glorious splendor.

This I Believe is just the sort of book that mature readers like best -- personal, idiosyncratic, packed with fresh anecdotes and illustrative quotations, digressive, lyrical, sexy, at once surprising and wise. Fuentes's reflections on beauty and friendship, on Balzac, Faulkner and Kafka, on happiness and the cinema, on history and Mexico generally shoot off into the autobiographical but then gradually settle back into the mildly philosophical. Again and again, there are sentences and paragraphs one reads, then rereads, then finally copies into a notebook:

"Experience itself -- good or bad -- makes sure to remind us that, time and again, we will fail to rise to the opportunity of the day. We will turn our backs on those who need our attention, we will not even listen to ourselves. Time and again, what we thought to be permanent will prove to be fleeting. Time and again, what we imagined to be repeatable will never occur again."

Throughout its history the moral essay obsesses about the "big questions": love, experience, friendship, education, courage in the face of sorrow, civic life, marriage, death, God. These Fuentes takes up with a finesse that recalls such masters as Montaigne, Simone Weil, E.M. Cioran. Let me quote a clutch of examples:

"A couple begin to know each other because, first and foremost, they know so little of each other. Everything is surprise. When there are no surprises left, love can die. Sometimes love yearns to recover the wonder of its earliest moments but inevitably comes to realize that the second time around the wonder is nothing more than nostalgia."

"[W]e remain decrepit, ruined prisoners of the last great cultural revolution, which was Romanticism . . . ."

"Perhaps we will die knowing all the things that there are to know in the world, but from then on, we will only be a thing. We came and were seen by the world. Now, the world will continue to be seen, but we will have become invisible."

"In the university, everyone can be right, but nobody has the power to be right by force, and nobody has the force to insist upon one single way of perceiving what is or is not right."

"The terrible thing about the loss of friendship is abandoning all those days to which the friend gave meaning."

"To have desires and to know how to sustain them, correct them, abandon them . . . what is the path of this experiential ideal? It is precisely that very delicate balance between the moment that is active and the moment that is patient."

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