Like the elephant in D.H. Lawrence's poem that is "slow to mate," serious novelists are often years, if not decades and decades, behind in their calculi about what matters most dearly in their native lands.
In some cases, this occurs because of an accident of birth and time — Tolstoy, for example, was born decades after the military events in War and Peace. Samuel Clemens began a version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn before the Civil War, abandoned it and picked it up again 20 years later.
And now here is Mexico's premier novelist, Carlos Fuentes, playing catch-up with the consolidation of power by native oligarchs like billionaire communications magnate Carlos Slim — in Fuentes' fascinating new novel, Destiny and Desire, he is known as "Max Monroy" — even as his country weighs on our minds up north not as a place of staggering wealth and staggering poverty but as, to use Fuentes' own term, a "narconation."
If this suggests a certain disconnect between the present and the immediate past of our neighbor nation to the south, we might consider that Fuentes' great metaphor for presenting his story in this new and powerful novel comes in the form of a talking severed head, "lost," as the speaker says of himself, "like a coconut on the shores of the Pacific Ocean along the Mexican coast of Guerrero."
Quite a disconnect!
The talking head belongs to a recently murdered former law student from Mexico City named Josue. He and his childhood friend Jerico attended private school together and went on to career heights, the former as an assistant to the communications magnate Monroy and the latter as an underchief to the Mexican president (known here as Valentin Pedro Carrera).
Uncover a seemingly complicated plot in which these two apparent lifelong comrades stand opposed to each other in an attempt by one of them to create a coup against the sitting president. Throw in the beautiful Asunta Jordan, who manages Monroy's affairs (and is having one with him and, with his permission, with other lucky men now and then). Mix in a mysterious female aviator who charms Josue; toss in an old law school prof who may be guiding the friends in their seemingly random behavior. Flavor with a prisoner in Mexico's worst prison who is free to go but remains by choice in captivity — and add a layer of rhetoric to the narrative that makes for long passages that soar into the stratosphere but sometimes weigh down the plot.
Do all this, and you have the narrative equivalent of that antique Mexican dish called posole, a savory stew of corn, meat and spices.
You can endure the rhetorical element in the novel — the narrator himself points out that in Mexico "we mistake rhetoric for reality" — if you recognize it as part of the narrator's characteristic way of talking about the world, the same tendency that eventually gets him to lose his head. And it's that head itself, which you meet at the beginning, that gives you a neat horizon point as you read along, knowing that at any moment Josue will lose it.
Still, the rhetoric seems to be the fat on the meat in this stew, and I wish Fuentes had trimmed it away. With that layer still present, the novel seems merely an interesting story. Without it most readers would have declared the leaner book absolutely brilliant. Who doesn't want to get lost (and then found again) in a taut drama about the power politics and soulful fate of a great if tormented country?
Now and then in the mess of this stew, a delicious kernel turns up, as in a couple of references to another Mexican entrepreneur, Artemio Cruz, the main character of one of Fuentes' earlier novelistic triumphs, The Death of Artemio Cruz. I'm hoping we'll hear more about Max Monroy in the narconation novel that Fuentes, I hope and pray, recognizes he is destined soon to compose — if he can just keep his novelist head on his shoulders.