Sunday, March 11, 2007

Carlos Fuentes on Reading

During my (slightly extended) break from blogging I’ve been delving into books left, right and centre. I’ve started several, including Memoirs by Pablo Neruda, One L: The Turbulent True Story of a First Year at Harvard Law School by Scott Turow and The Sin of Father Amaro by Portuguese writer Eça de Queiroz.. I’ve also been dipping into Neruda’s poetry as I go. On top of these, I started (some time ago now) Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands as well as The Obscene Bird of Night, both of which are staring accusingly from my shelves. Abandoning books before completion is not usually a problem I encounter and it is definitely not a habit I want to get into – apart from anything else it is very frustrating to have half-finished books lying around. I feel like a sloppy reader!

Another book I’ve been dipping into when the urge takes me is a book of essays by Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes, called This I Believe: An A-Z of A Writer’s Life. I’m gaining such immense pleasure from his writing, I’m going to include some extracts from his essay on Reading here. What I love about Fuentes are his ideas and his obvious love for Mexico, indeed all of Latin America, and belief in the power of books. The spirit of forward motion, toward a better life and better society that is evident in his words is something I’ve noticed in Latin American cinema recently. One interview I read with Mexican actor Gael García Bernal showed the same spirit (and, now I’ve read some Fuentes, I see where some of the things Bernal discussed came from. If I read some Buñuel, I think I’d find some more.) It is something I especially admire, not least because to me, it seems absent from British society.

José Vasconcelos, the first Education Secretary of the Mexican Revolution, published a collection of universal classics, beautifully bound, sometime around 1923. Why publish Cervantes in a country with a 90% illiteracy rate, people asked him and criticised him in his day. But today the answer is self-evident: so that the illiterate, once they are no longer illiterate, will be able to read Don Quixote instead of Superman.

Over the past century, in every Latin American country, we have all witnessed and participated in the creation of a great circle, a circle that travels from writer to editor to distributor to bookseller to the public and then back to the writer. Unlike what has happened in countries with more mercantile development but less intellectual stimulation, in Mexico and Latin American there are books that never disappear from the shelves. Neruda and Borges, Cortázar and García Márquez, Vallejo and Paz; they are always present in our bookshops.

They are always present because their readership is constantly being replenished, never depleted. They are young readers, between fifteen and twenty five years old. They are men and women of the working class, middle class, or somewhere in between, carriers of the changes and the hopes of our continent.

Today, the succession of economic crises endured by Latin America since the 1980s is the greatest threat to the continuity of the reading tradition, which is a reflection of society’s continuity. Various generations of young Latin Americans have discovered who they are by reading Gabriela Mistral, Jorge Amado or Juan Carlos Onetti. A break in this circle of reading would signify a loss of identity for any young people. Let us not condemn them to abandon libraries and bookshops only to get lost in the subterranean world of misery, crime and neglect.

In 1920, as the Dean of the National University of Mexico, Vasconcelos ordered the printing of a collection of beautifully bound volumes of Homer and Virgil, Plato and Plotinus, Goethe and Dante – a collection of true bibliographical and artistic jewels. But for a population of illiterate, indigent and marginalised people? Yes, precisely; the publication of these classics at the University was a way of saying to the majority of Mexicans: one day you will be at the centre, not at the margins of society. One day you will have the resources to buy a book. One day you will be able to read and understand those things that now, in our day, all Mexicans understand.

The book is the intimacy of a country, the inalienable notion we create of ourselves, of our time, of our past and our remembered future, experienced throughout the ages as verbal memory and desire in the here and now.


Bookgirl said...

Glad to see you are back! Thank you so much for this post. As a Mexicana I am always so happy to hear readers appreciating the writing from Latin America. Unfortunately I've tried a couple of Carlos Fuentes' books and it's very hit or miss for me. Some I'm completely confounded over and others I've liked (Burnt Water and The Years with Laura Diaz). I hadn't heard of this book of his essays but I will look for it.

Nyssaneala said...

What a great excerpt! You've piqued my interest with Fuentes.

I have Neruda's Memoirs, and have been saving it for when I have time to also delve into his poetry. I'm thinking it would be a fun summer project.

Imani said...

I thought it was beautiful excerpt, filled with such hope and near tangible expectation.