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They're All Alike
A dozen dark stories about unhappy families from a Mexican master.

Reviewed by Roxana Robinson
Sunday, October 12, 2008

HAPPY FAMILIES

By Carlos Fuentes

Translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman

Random House. 332 pp. $26

Ever since Tolstoy used the phrase "happy families" to begin his masterpiece about one of the unhappiest families in literature, no one can use it without evoking the Russian giant. So it's courageous of Carlos Fuentes to title his new collection of stories Happy Families and risk a comparison.

Fuentes, the distinguished Mexican novelist, is known for his own brand of narrative that features lush, imaginative language, shifting points of view, an elastic sense of time and a powerful sense of political outrage. All these elements appear in these 16 new stories, which alternate with short free-verse choruses.

The title, of course, is ironic. None of these families is remotely happy, nor will they ever be: A dead father has imposed a diabolical ritual of mourning and servitude on his daughters; a husband betrays his beautiful wife with her homely cousin; a gay lover cheats on his trusting partner. These are all family members bound in an excruciating dance of hatred, resentment and despair.

"A Family Like Any Other," the opening story, presents the nuclear unit: The Father, The Mother, The Daughter, The Son and one outsider, The Boss. The Father spends his life working for this ruthless employer, who exploits and finally ruins him. The Mother sings romantic melodies that offer a refuge from real life: "The lyrics authorized her to believe, to really believe, that ' true affection, with no lies, no wickedness,' can be found when ' love is sincere.' " The promising Son drops out of school and ends up working for the perfidious Boss. The Daughter "made an effort to find a place in the world," but without an education, she is hired only for her beauty, and she is overwhelmed by sexual harassment. The Boss, largely responsible for the family's failure, views it with callous equanimity.

The story is told through passages in which each character explains his or her plight. As a study in misery, it's a good introduction to Fuentes's dark world, where the lower classes are crushed by fear and inertia, and the future holds no hope. The Father explains the larger issue: "The country slipped from our hands . . . and so the ties that bound us together were broken . . . by forgetting, corruption, deceit. . . . I worked very hard to feel like a moral man."

But morality plays no part in this dystopia, where "being a man doesn't mean not being a child anymore but beginning to be a criminal." It's not possible to feel like a moral man in Fuentes's sulfurous, steaming "makesicko seedy," or Mexico City. The city inspires some of his most inventive and disturbing passages. During a lynching, "the nocturnal crowd from the neighborhood watched over by the forces of law and order that are provoking the power of disorder in the smoke and fog from tires set on fire and cars overturned and policemen burned alive sizzling with the smell of hair and rubber and indigestible guts. . . . Bursting from knifed stomachs are the countless insignias of death."

Fuentes's furious vision horrifies on every level. The corrupt political system, the murdered policemen and the burning garbage are all interlocking pieces of an infernal jigsaw, the portrait of a society gone amok. Everyone with power is complicit here: the government, the plutocrats, the businessmen, the military and the church. It's a violent, pitiless, lawless place.

The domestic world might offer solace of a private, intimate form, but it doesn't: Fuentes's world contains no emotional solace. These family members -- parents and children, priests and wards, homosexual couples, lovers and spouses -- are just as cynical and manipulative as the bosses, politicians and priests. Feelings are superficial and solipsistic, passion is sexual, desire is political, and love merely a word. Another story, "Conjugal Ties (1)," chronicles a sadistic triangle that conflates cruelty and desire and holds the idea of love abstract: "I am like an island adrift that would like to unite with a continent," the lover declaims. In "The Father's Servant," a priest nurses an unholy passion for his adopted "niece." In "Sweethearts," two lovers meet and reminisce, long after their romance. "It's all fiction," the woman says. "We decided to create a nostalgic past for ourselves. Nothing but lies. . . . There was no past. There's only the present and its moments."

These stories have a mythic, allegorical tone and occur in a kind of timeless state. The narratives swing from past to future but seem locked in an endless present. Since time doesn't really pass, change can't really occur. The characters are abstract and emblematic and reveal themselves mostly through exposition and monologue. The absence of action and dialogue and the eerie lack of future produce an unendurable sense of claustrophobia. Fuentes's world is a somber, stifling, suffocating space. It would be nearly intolerable to read his stories all at once; we can hardly draw breath in these locked and airless chambers.

And what about Tolstoy? Fuentes's corrosive voice is powerful, and there's nothing small or timid about his vision. But if we compare Fuentes to Tolstoy, we remember that one of the Russian's great strengths is his direct access to the emotions. The darker ones are present in his world, but love is also there. Tolstoy's understanding of that rich and vital force in all its forms -- filial, romantic, parental, erotic, fraternal -- illuminates his writing, and the wide spectrum of these feelings makes his somber tones more somber and his brights more brilliant.

Fuentes chooses here to reveal only the darker emotions, like a lens that shows only black and white. This bold image reveals a kind of cruel truth. We may recognize that truth, but we long for what's left out. Perhaps it's Fuentes's intention to leave us like this, longing, our lungs bursting for air. ยท

Roxana Robinson's most recent novel is "Cost."

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