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BOOK REVIEW

‘Destiny and Desire’: a novel of violence, betrayal, and irony

Daniel Aguilar/Reuters Author Carlos Fuentes’s latest novel includes a torrent of his trademark digressions. Daniel Aguilar/Reuters
Author Carlos Fuentes’s latest novel includes a torrent of his trademark digressions. (Daniel Aguilar/Reuters)
By Clif Garboden
January 15, 2011

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Revered Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes presents his latest, “Destiny and Desire,’’ as a first-person narration delivered by a severed head. That unlikely premise establishes a peculiar distance between the protagonist, Mexican orphan Josué Nadal, and the action, his life story. It is not an easy novel. Nor is it for everyone — especially not for anyone misled by its bodice-ripper title to expect some sort of fiesta of romantic drama.

Josué’s autobiography is parceled out amid a torrent of Fuentes’s trademark digressions — elaborate absurdist fantasies, insightful streams of analysis, parable-grade anecdotes, and pseudo-mythic metaphors — which, taken together, manage to define the characters and to advance the narrative without the reader being aware it’s moved forward.

Not that the plot has that far to go. At school, Josué teams up with a fellow student known only as Jericó. These self-identified twins’ fortunes travel together along an intimate and complex intellectual path, then diverge into eccentric approximations of “good’’ — Josué, who studies law and works for a high-tech industrial magnate — and “evil’’ — Jericó, who enters politics and makes a pathetic attempt to foment a political coup.

Fuentes’s association with Charles Dickens was critically established with his 1989 novel “Christopher Unborn’’ (narrated by a developing fetus), whose prologue, echoing “David Copperfield,’’ is titled “I Am Created.’’ Dickensian elements abound in “Destiny and Desire.’’ There are unseen benefactors, fortuitous mentors, manipulated fortunes, innocents bootstrapping their picaresque way through a life overrun with colorful but one-dimensional iconic characters, recurring coincidental reunions, intersecting fates, and strongly foreshadowed revelatory family relationships. Similarities end with the devices, though. Where Dickens offered justice, Fuentes resolves things with grim violence, cynical betrayals, and heavy-handed ironies.

The novel’s overpowering characteristic, though, is neither its story line nor its characters, who, as defined solely by Josué, often act without clear or typical motivations. Even the theme of the book defies focus as the chapters navigate a jumble of arguments — personal aspirations vs. inevitability, Catholicism vs. Protestantism, Latin vs. North American, and, for good measure, economic deconstructions of Mexican politics and history.

No, it’s Fuentes’s sometimes spot-on, sometimes narcissistic, digressive ruminations that leave the strongest impression. Fuentes is famously brilliant and overeducated, and he uses “Destiny and Desire’’ as a platform from which to showcase both shamelessly. The author is riding his reputation as a thinker and literary experimenter at full tilt and counting on his readers to indulge his excesses. His overreaches can be deadly. Enumerating 18 synonyms for “the devil’’ is tedious to read and adds no weight to the discussion.

But when these mini-essay caprices work, they can be poetic. Within Fuentes’s acres of erudite prose lie buried some brilliant diction. Fuentes observes that devout priests “would have put out the sun with the smoke of incense’’; characterizes a hatefully married couple as “[t]wo enemy ghosts who left a dead smell behind them’’; describes security checkpoints as “the triumphal arches of universal suspicion’’; and casually injects poli-sci dictums such as “The revolutionary masses are the invention of the revolutionary vanguard.’’

“Destiny and Desire’’ would likely work as well if edited down by half, but it is indisputably impressive as is. You can’t help but be awestruck by the freedom of imagination and quality of mind that allows Fuentes to think, remember, and express such a cascade of philosophical speculations, observations, and insights. Even careful readers won’t necessarily be able to repeat what they’ve learned, but they’ll know they’ve been taught by a higher-than-average intellect.

Clif Garboden is a Boston-based freelance writer and editor. He can be reached at cgarboden@gmail.com.

DESTINY AND DESIRE By Carlos Fuentes

Translated, from the Spanish, by Edith Grossman

Random House, 415 pp., $27