Carlos Fuentes and the art of cosmic dying
No one lives forever, not even a writer like Carlos Fuentes, a dominant presence not only in Spanish-speaking literature but in the world as well. He lived the kind of jet-set, literary life that many of us would envy, and it wouldn't have been surprising if he'd even managed to broker a special deal with the Grim Reaper that allowed him to taste eternity. His death this week proved, well, that some things aren't negotiable.
Look back at his work and you find, 50 years ago, that Fuentes was already thinking about last things when he wrote of dying with a ferocious, cosmic intensity in his 1962 masterpiece, “The Death of Artemio Cruz.” It is this reviewer’s favorite (OK, maybe “The Old Gringo” deserves a share) for many reasons, and especially for the way the final pages of that book are like a shot across the bow of all those skeptics who treat deathbed visions as nothing but a misfiring of the brain’s software (see Richard Dawkins’ “The God Delusion”).
What Fuentes gave us there, so insightfully, and exuberantly, was the possibility that death brings transcendence and freedom even as the body is failing and one feels hopelessly earthbound. As Cruz dies, he recalls the formative moments of his life. He has been many things, and all of them are corrupt: a politician, soldier, landowner, among others. Then, feeling his life force ebbing, his thoughts turn fragmented, ecstatic, fiercely lucid — but not delirious: “I touch … I smell … I see… I taste … they bring me … I pass, touching, smelling, tasting, seeing, smelling the sumptuous carvings.”
It doesn't end there. Thank goodness it doesn't. Instead, Cruz explodes with feverish desire (in a translation by Alfred MacAdam):
Sitting down, catching your breath, you will open to the vast, immediate panorama: the light of the sky crowded with stars will reach you constantly and forever… The earth will spin in its uniform course around its own axis and a controlling sun... the earth and moon will revolve around each other, around the opposite body, and both around the shared field of their weight ... The entire royal court of the sun will move within its white belt and the stream of liquid dust will move before the external conglomerations, around this clear vault of the tropical night, in the perpetual dance of entwined fingers, in dialogue without direction and within the frontiers of the entire universe ... and the winking lights will go on bathing you....
Glorious. Simply glorious. Artemio ecstatically expresses our deepest wishes about dying -- that it will be a door that blows open onto something galactic, infinite. Not just the brain playing a final trick on itself as the batteries are fading.
Mourning the passing of that old chronicler of Mexico’s identity in the world, I hope his final moments were like Artemio’s.
Photo: Pallbearers carry the coffin of Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes to the Fine Arts Palace in Mexico City on May 16, 2012. Credit: Alexandre Meneghini/Associated Press