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An incomplete alphabet

From Fuentes, an uneven series of essays

This I Believe: An A to Z of a Life
By Carlos Fuentes
Translated, from the Spanish, by Kristina Cordero
Random House, 331 pp., $26.95

Carlos Fuentes, Mexico's most distinguished novelist, has almost written an autobiography. His publisher is billing his new book not as a memoir but as a compilation of ''profound insights and personal reflections." But it includes segments about his education (he was born in Panama in 1928, the child of a diplomat), his wives and children, and other intimate affairs. The information isn't chronological, though. It is organized alphabetically, starting with ''Amor" and finishing with ''Zurich." In between are 40 other chapters, three to 15 pages in length, on topics as disparate as Luis Buñuel, beauty, William Faulkner, God, Don Quixote, sex, and xenophobia. This is, then, a series of manifestos that amount to what Matthew Arnold called ''a life examined."

At first sight the structural approach, used before by people like Ezra Pound and Czeslaw Milosz, appears intriguing. It allows for disquisitions on large thematic motifs. Unfortunately, it takes no time to realize this is a hodgepodge of material previously published in newspapers and magazines that has been assembled here abruptly and without clearheadedness. On freedom, for instance, Fuentes says: ''Whether we consider freedom to be absolute free will, or circumscribed to heritage, nature, inevitability, or chance, the mere mention of the word is already an act of hope." Or is it? Try to decipher the enigma wrapped in this sentence and you'll find out it is . . . well, hopeless.

Then there is the chapter on Shakespeare. Has Fuentes actually read the Bard? He starts by comparing Hamlet to Don Quixote (Harold Bloom has already done it) but quickly falls off the tracks, choosing to dispense opinions on a handful of recent Shakespeare-based movies and the work by Ralph Fiennes in ''Richard II" and ''Coriolanus." Is one supposed to approach the plays through their interpretation on the large screen? Fuentes doesn't answer the question.

When it comes to reading, Fuentes lets us know he wants people to read. And so he offers odes to a growing public. ''Let the book, even as it is being commercialized, transcend commerce," he states. And, ''The book tells us that our lives are a repertory of possibilities that transform desire into experience and experience into destiny." Is this the antidote to the dismaying news, announced by the National Education Association last year, that readers are an endangered species? If so, I now understand why.

I was a Fuentes devotee years ago. What drew me away from him, primarily, was his incapacity to mature as an artist. His early novels -- say ''Aura" and ''The Death of Artemio Cruz" -- are so similar in tone and tune to his latest work as to appear contemporaneous. Fuentes started as an enfant terrible, and in his oeuvre he has tackled with gusto his country's troubled modernity. But his flashiness has grown monotonous, and so has his name-dropping. He writes with broad strokes. His characters are cartoons, incapable of insight.

In his nonfiction, Fuentes has fared even less admirably. His essays are never argumentative. Their objective isn't to persuade but to impress. He never presents different sides of a debate, endorsing the one he prefers. Rather, he piles up information, as if to announce, ''Look how much I know and how many people I've met." ''This I Believe" proves the point. The majority of these pieces appear to be written in a rush. This was Fuentes's opportunity, in his mid-70s, to look back on his odyssey. Readers are well acquainted with his opinions; what they needed was a full-fledged autobiography. But he failed to give the endeavor the time and depth it deserved.

The book is dedicated to his son Carlos Fuentes Lemus, who died in 1999, at the age of 26. There are affecting paragraphs on him, his two sisters, and the difficult relationship the father had with them. There is also a part on Fuentes's wife, Silvia, the shortest in the volume, in which she is described as ''the galaxy itself." These sections amount to sheer glimpses of the man behind the mask. The rest is a gimmick.

Toward the end, Fuentes has a section called ''Zebra," a topic he has never written a word about. I thought: finally, herein some unexplored territory. Yet the chapter has little to do with zebras. It's about monsters. Or maybe about Edgar Allan Poe, who, we are told, was Stalin's favorite author. Or about imaginary animals of the type Kafka and Borges enjoyed . . . I honestly don't know. Upon rereading it, these lines stuck in my mind: ''Once upon a time, the zoologists tell us, there were zebras that only had stripes on their head, neck, and breast. One day there will be zebras that exist only in the imagination and that will be worthy representatives, as in this book (instead of Zanzibar, Zeus, Zacatecas, Zapata, zagal, zafarrancho, zapato, zanahoria, zorro, zumo, or zoology), of the most difficult letter in my personal A to Z." In other words, Fuentes realized he needed one more entry for the letter Z and, for no other reason than its opening letter, zebra made the cut.

Ay, if only he truly believed in the zebra!

Ilan Stavans is the Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College. His book ''Dictionary Days" comes out in April.

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