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'This I Believe'

If Fuentes's book has a small fault, it lies in a stylistic proclivity common to the romance languages: a natural bent for grandiloquence, a taste for the slightly abstract rhetorical flight. English speakers don't like to wander too far from the earthy and anecdotal. Most of the time Fuentes counters this coloratura tendency by drawing on his own wide reading of history and literature. Take his discussion of memory and forgetting in Shakespeare. The novelist makes some brilliant points, noting for example that Lear and Othello "do not know their fate but the audience does," while Richard II and Coriolanus "possess an absolutely perfect knowledge of who they are, and the audience is aware of this as well." This is shrewd and useful. But the larger argument is further leavened with a haunting non-Shakespearean example:

"In his magnificent story 'Instructions for John Howell' Julio Cortázar offers us yet another clue to the question of memory and forgetting. The eponymous character attends a play in a theater. A look of sheer terror comes across the face of the actress, who whispers to Howell, the spectator: 'Save me. They are trying to kill me.' What is happening? Has Howell entered the play, or has the heroine entered the daily life of Mr. Howell?"


(Henry Romero/reuters)

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Michael Dirda's email address is dirdam@washpost.com. His online discussion of books takes place each Thursday at 2 p.m.

The précis of this story suggests another virtue of This I Believe: It will send you out to read, or re-read, the stories and authors that Fuentes mentions.

Perhaps the loveliest pages in this lovely book are those subsumed under the title "Urbanities." Here Fuentes recalls the distinctive qualities of the major cities in his life. As the son of a diplomat father, the writer spent much of his boyhood in Washington, which he once adored and now detests as "nothing but a cemetery that stretches out toward the vast nothingness of Highway 1." But he still loves New York and Cambridge and Venice and Geneva (where he remembers the Café Canonica with a convenient "view of the lake for chatting up hookers with dyed-blonde hair and lapdogs") and Mexico City and Quito and many others, not least Buenos Aires, "where I became a man and loved and walked about freely, and read Borges and refused to repeat the fascist mottoes of the regime, and understood why tango is a sad thought that one dances, and how a man could fall in love to the point of dishonour because of a woman like Mecha Ortiz or Tita Merella."

Mecha Ortiz or Tita Merella? What man hasn't known them, albeit under some other names?

While Fuentes can show admirable originality and idiosyncrasy, he also knows when the conventional wisdom is absolutely right:

"I adore the cities that instead of burying or hiding themselves away, stretch out, show themselves off, expose their spaces like jewels spread out on velvet. Paris is the perfect city in this sense. It changes, but it does not hide. It expands, but it does not disappear. Those of us who are inveterate lovers of this city can bemoan the disappearance, here and there, of a bookshop, a café, a market. . . . But in its essence, Paris does not change. The literary and musical references are always there. A novel by Balzac is a novel by Proust is a novel by Le Clézio. A poem by Villon is a poem by Apollinaire is a poem by Prévert. A song by Piaf, by Patachou, by Jean Sablon or Georges Brassens, or the marvelous Barbara, never grows old. The places cited are encircled forever by names like Pigalle, Montparnasse, the Rue LePic, the Pont Mirabeau, the Place Dauphine where dead leaves will fall forevermore."

There's really no end to the varied intellectual plenitude of This I Believe. A glimpse of Thomas Mann in Zurich, intently watching a beautiful young man play tennis. An elegy to the author's son who died young. Reflections upon "the impossible dream of simultaneity" in modern literature. The ardent plea for serious aid for education in the so-called Third World. Not least, a quotation from Conrad's Under Western Eyes: "Remember, Razumov, that women, children and revolutionists hate irony."

Daringly, Fuentes also includes a short essay, titled "Silvia," about his wife. He tells us that he himself is punctual, while Silvia is invariably late. "This is part of her charm. To be waited for." (He adds, with a smile, that "the Europeans of the seventeenth century hoped that death would arrive from Spain, so it would arrive late.") In the course of this homage, Fuentes imagines the great lesson that Silvia imparts to him: "Pay attention, or you will not have the right to love me and be loved by me." It is good advice for all couples but also sums up Carlos Fuentes: As a writer and as a thinker, as a husband and father, as a man and as a man of the world, he pays attention. And from those acts of attention he has produced this latest addition to one of the most varied and admirable literary oeuvres of our time. •

Michael Dirda's e-mail address is dirdam@washpost.com. His weekly online discussion of books takes place each Wednesday at 2 p.m. on washingtonpost.com.


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