By Carlos Fuentes
Translated from the Spanish by Alfred MacAdam
Farrar Straus Giroux. 266 pp. $23

Go to the first chapter of "The Crystal Frontier"

Go to Chapter One

Lord of the Borderlands

By Annie Proulx
Sunday, October 19, 1997; Page X01
The Washington Post

The crystal frontier emerges from nine stories as a loosely structured political novel concerned with the uneven and painful meshing of two North American cultures which catch at each other like warped gears forced to engage solely by the circumstance of inescapable physical contact. The crystal frontier is "the illusory crystal divider, the glass membrane between Mexico and the United States." Carlos Fuentes has intimate knowledge of both countries and has built an international literary reputation on that knowledge and his compassionate championship of the poor and oppressed. The Crystal Frontier, with its powerful writing and many fine passages, reinforces that reputation.

The central, though lightly sketched, figure in this novel is the gangsterish Leonardo Barroso. Rich, powerful, politically connected, fingers in every money pie on both sides of the glass wall, he is an amoral, self-made man who despises his poor relatives. His wife, with her friends, strips her "little Indian boy" servant naked and sends him around the room with the hors d'oeuvres. Barroso appears at his juicy worst after he decides that his goddaughter Michelina Laborde (decayed aristocracy on financial uppers) will be the wife of his son Marianito (withdrawn, stumbling intellectual). Following a disastrous evening out with the young woman, Marianito, blubbering and full of Jack Daniels, vomits on his father's silk robe. Don Leonardo says with some intensity, "You screwed her, right? Tell me you did." The reader sees how things will go.

A dozen assorted characters press against, slip or crash through the transparent barrier. A representative scene occurs in a glass-walled New York office building in a connection between an advertising copy writer trying to "come up with a nice catchy slogan for a Pepsi commercial" and a decent young Mexican man whose poverty forces him to fly north with a work crew to clean Manhattan office buildings over the weekend (a service lobbied for and engineered by Leonardo Barroso, who happens to be on the same plane -- in first class of course -- with his god-daughter/daughter-in-law/mistress). The scene closes with the copy writer and the young man writing their identities on the glass wall of her office and then pressing their mouths to each side in a cold symbolic kiss.

The people in these stories are stock composite characters, that is, made up of recognizable attributes that carry particular political/cultural messages. There is Barroso himself who comes to a bad American end; Juan Zamora, the good homosexual; Dionisio Rangel, a genius of Mexican cuisine ironically trapped in a lecture tour through "the gastronomic deserts of Kansas, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Indiana, or the Dakotas"; Emiliano Barroso, the ruined and incontinent ex-activist brother of Leonardo Barroso; Marina, a factory worker; the tourist-taxi driver who briefly becomes Barroso's chauffeur; the European-immigrant-descendant border guard who avoids the sunlight to keep his skin pale; the illegal border crosser; and others.

If these figures appear as silhouettes with little depth, if the respective cultures of Mexico and the United States are loaded with such pop tarts as male strippers and Mexican women workers on a night off stuffing the strippers' jockstraps with money, with such icons and brand names as Beavis and Butt-head, L.L. Bean, Taco Bell, Neiman Marcus, Cornell University, if we see nationalisms instead of cultural complexities, if we encounter glass walls and tunnels instead of landscapes, coincidence instead of plot development, it is because such sets and characters suit Fuentes's purpose. Miss Amy, a rich and elderly racist, herself a cliche, says to her nephew, "I forbid you to touch my cliches . . . They're the shield of my prejudices. And prejudices, as the word itself indicates, are necessary for making judgments. Good judgment, Archibald, good judgment is pre-judgment. My convictions are clear, deep rooted and unshakable." In such a construct, seemingly stilted dialogue emerges as savage and ironic commentary; the stories take on the weight of parable.

Fuentes presents Mexico as a country of poor, dignified, courteous, compassionate, hard-working people with a sense of history but afflicted by shame, pain and, above all, bad luck. The United States -- which a character jokingly calls "The United States of Amnesia" for its ignorance of the events of 1848 that "stripped us of half our territory -- California, Utah, Nevada, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas . . . " -- is peopled with the arrogant, the insulting, the fatly comfortable.

The character Dionisio, in his journeys across the United States, "was pleased to discover that beneath the commonplaces about a uniform, robotic society devoid of culinary personality (article of faith), there roiled a multiform, eccentric world, quasi-medieval in its corrosive ferment against an order once imposed by Rome and its church and now by Washington and its Capitol. How would the country put itself in order when it was full of religious lunatics who believed beyond doubt that faith, not surgery, would take care of a tumor in the lungs? How, when the country was full of people who dared not exchange glances in the street lest the stranger turn out to be an escaped paranoid authorized to kill anyone who didn't totally agree with his ideas, or a murderer released from an overcrowded mental hospital or jail, or a vengeful homosexual armed with HIV-laden syringes, a neo-Nazi skinhead ready to slit the throat of a dark-skinned person, a libertarian militiaman prepared to finish off the government by blowing up federal buildings, a county where teenage gangs were better armed than the police, exercising their constitutional right to carry rocket launchers and blow off the head of a neighbor's child?"

"All writing is political," says the Chicano literary activist character in The Crystal Frontier, Jose Francisco, mounted on his Harley-Davidson and carrying photocopied pages of Chicano stories to Mexico and Mexican stories to Texas, "literature from both sides so that everyone would get to know each other better." Fuentes ends his line of stories hung between the two posts of Mexico and the United States with an exhortation to the Mexican characters to speak, to communicate, for unless they do, nothing can change. The last gnawing lines are a variation on those tradition attributes to Porfirio Diaz, turn-of-the-century president of Mexico, and hold the compressed, central message of The Crystal Frontier:

poor Mexico,
poor United States,
so far from God,
so near to one another.

Annie Proulx, whose books include "The Shipping News" and, most recently, "Accordion Crimes," lives and writes in Wyoming.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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