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Book Review

Offbeat tales from Mexico

By Ilan Stavans
December 4, 2008
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"Happy Families" is the latest work by Carlos Fuentes, one of Mexico's men of letters and a self-described chronicler of his country's tumultuous history. Taken together, the 16 somewhat interrelated stories offer a summation of Mexican family mores as Fuentes perceives them - through a fatalist's prism. Married couples cohabit in spite of mutual hatred. Men betray women. Loss defines the young and promising. In short, a gallery of doomed types, or stereotypes. In the last couple of decades, Fuentes's literature has been overwhelmed by generalizations.

Tolstoy, of course, is the inspiration behind the volume's title: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." But in Fuentes's pages, the sarcasm behind the Russian sentence becomes an excuse for excess.

And nothing fails like excess. I'm Mexican too, and I can't empathize with the ethos of these tales. I delved into "The Official Family," where the Mexican president Justo Mayorga fights to take his rebellious son under his wing for fear of embarrassment, and couldn't find a single silhouette that made me think of the people I know. Impossible, I told myself: Fuentes's Mexico and mine can't be the same.

Similarly, I sought some kind of insight in the plots about the abusers, rapists, and egomaniacs who abound in "Happy Families" but couldn't find any. Fuentes offers a violent circus of a nation, making even the most credulous reader sigh. As if that wasn't enough, the intervals between stories are Greek-chorus poems.

Fuentes's paradigm is like that of a fashion designer isolated in a world of mannequins. He's convinced the clothes he makes for them will fit everyone. But real people don't have a mannequin's body. They are fat and short and ugly and asymmetrical.

For better or worse, Mexico has changed dramatically in the last couple of decades. It's an old country in a new attire, or a new country with deep roots in the past. But Fuentes, 80, no longer feels the pulse of his surroundings. His early work ("The Death of Artemio Cruz") was in sync with the times. In fact, it helped precipitate much-needed social change. And his Balzac-like vision of Mexico's capital, "Where the Air Is Clear," helped the metropolis find its beat. In contrast, the depictions he offers of individuals today are fake. His portrait of Mexican society is trite.

American publishers, take notice: There are more daring authors from Mexico awaiting translation. Literature ought to be a dialogue, not a monologue.

Ilan Stavans is Lewis-Sebring professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College.

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HAPPY FAMILIES: Stories By Carlos Fuentes

Translated, from the Spanish, by Edith Grossman

Random House, 331 pp., $26

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