By Marcela Valdes
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, February 1, 2011; C02
Carlos Fuentes is known for writing serious books about Mexico, and despite all its silliness, his latest novel, "Destiny and Desire," is clearly not intended as an exception. The book fairly smokes with acid commentary on Mexican history ("It has all been betrayal, lies, cruelty, and vengeance") and political manipulation ("Throughout Latin America homage is paid to the law only to violate it more thoroughly").
Giving himself fuel to burn, Fuentes sets "Destiny" in a law school, a prison, a presidential palace and the headquarters of a telecommunications billionaire who bears an uncanny resemblance to Mexico's richest citizen, Carlos Slim. For those who like a flash of magic, there's also a heaven where angels play poker and a windy graveyard dominated by the ghost of Mexico's old ideals.
The novel opens, however, in a much sweeter location: the postcard-perfect beaches of Mexico's Pacific Coast. There lies our narrator: the decapitated head of 27-year-old Josue Nadal. A bloody noggin may be a surprising choice for raconteur, but Josue's story feels familiar. It starts with his idealistic strivings and ends with his disastrous introduction to the backrooms of Mexican power.
The day that marks his fate occurs when Josue is 16. Bullied by classmates for his long, thin nose - "Anteater snout," they call him, along with "Monster schnoz" and "Elephant honker" - he finally defends his honor by punching the schoolyard leader. He's saved from a retaliatory beating when one of his tormentors suddenly turns coat and jumps to his aid.
Josue's new ally is Jerico, a 17-year-old as mysterious as James Bond: He claims to have no family and no last name. Such freakish isolation might give a normal young man pause, but Josue's domestic situation is equally strange. He has no memories of a mother or father; he's been raised by a chilly guardian who barely speaks, and, like Jerico, his expenses are all covered by an invisible and anonymous "senor."
Having triumphed over the epithet-shouters, Josue and Jerico seal their alliance by committing themselves to a "project for life." Their goal is intellectual independence: "We would not permit anyone to inculcate in us opinions that weren't ours" - no small feat for two lonely musketeers enrolled in a stern Catholic school. Their first step is to debate the merits of Saint Augustine and Friedrich Nietzsche in the gym showers. Nietzsche, however, proves a kind of gateway drug. Soon enough, the boys have moved from sharing books to sharing mentors to sharing an apartment to sharing a favorite whore.
What they don't share is Jerico's will to power. The older he gets, the more Jerico craves public position, while Josue aches mostly for love. They might have run happily along parallel courses - one chasing votes, the other chasing skirts - if it weren't for two interfering factors. Powerful men have stakes in their careers. And Jerico likes criminals. "Above all things," he tells Josue, "I admire the man who murders what he loves."
In theory, all of this - cynical social commentary, anonymous benefactors, dangerous friendship - could be marvelous. But the unavoidable fact is that not a single character in "Destiny and Desire" won my affection, or even my curiosity. Fuentes suggests alternately that Josue and Jerico are like the Greek demigods Castor and Pollux or like the biblical brothers Cain and Abel. Sure. The problem is that they feel too much like ideas, not enough like men.
And their female paramours are worse: a mute whore whose husband becomes paralyzed after an energetic sex act; a femme fatale who is all ice and calculation; a drug-addicted nymphomaniac who nicknames one of the boys "Savior." Had these women strutted through an old Chandler novel, I may well have enjoyed them, or at least enjoyed laughing over them. But Fuentes lacks Chandler's lightning style. On being asked by a taxi driver, "Where to chief?" Josue falls into high-toned reverie:
"Where to? It was enough to look outside the car at the vast desert of the Anillo Periferico, the outer beltway that foreshadows the funeral that awaits us if we don't choose to turn ourselves into ashes first. Sacrificed after all, we die on the cement perimeter that reflects and celebrates a new city that has shed its old skin . . ." and on and on for more than a page. Wading through this soliloquy, I found myself empathizing with the cab driver, whom I imagined drumming his fingers on the wheel, impatient for the plot to lurch ahead.
But let's give Fuentes the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps he adopts such turgid prose intentionally, to convey something about Josue's character. Something like: Aching to be a great intellect, Josue has trouble seeing reality. Or maybe: Abandoned by his parents, Josue finds reality so painful that he defends himself with abstractions.
Either of these could be true. Nevertheless, the author's job is to make the reader want to stay with a novel page after page. Fuentes never really pokes fun at Josue's self-importance, never gets around the young man's humorless perspective, the way Howard Jacobson got around his narrator's delusions in "The Finkler Question."
Instead, we're trapped inside the mind of a tendentious young man who is by turns boring, pretentious, insightful and ridiculous. Reader, I would have decapitated him, too.
Valdes recently received the Roger Shattuck Prize for Criticism from the Center for Fiction.
DESTINY AND DESIRE
By Carlos Fuentes.
Translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman.
Random House. 415 pp. $27