THE INVENTION OF THE FRANKENSTEIN MONSTER
Interview with Carlos Fuentes
[This interview originally published in: Freitag 31, July 23, 2004 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web, http://www.freitag.de/2004/31/04311101.php.]
[Carlos Fuentes, born in 1928 in Panama, was an ambassador to Paris and a professor at Harvard. The Cervantes-Prize winner is regarded as Mexico’s most respected intellectual.]
FREITAG: For a long time, you were a prominent dialogue partner of the United States. Now you are among those who see the US as the main cause of world problems in how the US government acted since September 11.
CARLOS FUENTES: One cannot simply delude a nation, offer false evidence and win the war to lose the peace as happened in Iraq. Terrorism only continues growing when the division of the world is promoted as Samuel P. Huntington does with the West and Islam. Thus Islam becomes the enemy of the West and Islam sees the West as the enemy. This is certainly not the right way. Islam is a multi-layered reality. Islam is not a granite block any more than the West. This is the very first thing that must be remembered about the Islamic world that produced many of the terrorists. The most important breeding ground for terrorism is global injustice. The West and the whole world were ignorant of this problem, unable to focus on this 80 percent of humanity living in poverty or the 50 percent who manage with two dollars or less each day. Many millions of dollars are spent for weapons that could be used for the infrastructure, education and health care in many countries of the third world. In other words, disparity favors terrorism. This must be recognized and combated. The terror of the terrorists would end by drying up the swamp where the mosquitoes thrive.
FREITAG: Since the non-ratification of the Kyoto treaty on the environment, you have become the sharpest Latin American critic of the Bush administration. Some Latin American countries undoubtedly supported a Bush presidency before the 2000 election. They cited his experiences as governor of Texas that sensitized him for the interests of Latinos in the US and for the countries of the sub-continent.
CARLOS FUENTES: Do you see this table? (He knocks on the table.) Do you believe this table has sensitivity? Bush is like this table. He has no sensitivity. He is a person with the sensitivity of a hippopotamus. He doesn’t notice anything. I think he doesn’t understand anything. Strictly speaking, he is directed by a group of the ideologically extreme rightwing. The United States and all of us suffer in this regime on account of the superpower of this state.
FREITAG: The opinion of former US security advisor Brzezinski was defended in the first months after 9/11 from “El Excelsior” in Mexico to the “Folha de Sao Paulo”. Seeing terrorism, a combat tactic or method that existed in many epochs, as a metaphysical unity is intellectually incoherent. Speaking of “the axis of evil”, “the terror” against which war is declared and the interpretation of the Bush administration that terrorism can be seen separated from its historical and social sources is politically disgraceful as you said.
CARLOS FUENTES: Saddam Hussein was Saddam Hussein because the United States gave him all possible support. The United States gave him weapons and logistics and looked the other way when thousands of Kurds and Shiites were killed. The United States is extraordinarily gifted in creating monsters like Frankenstein. Then one fine day they discover that these Frankensteins are dreadful. However for 20 years they were the spoilt children, their protégés, and the babies of the United States. Since the Second World War, there has not been a catastrophe comparable with the US attack against Iraq.
FREITAG: At the beginning of the invasion of Iraq, the US Air Force had to ask permission from Donald Rumsfeld for every attack where more than 30 civilians would be killed. There were 50 requests. Rumsfeld approved all of them. None of these attacks were successful and there were many civilian victims. This information and the tortures of Abu Ghraib have put military conduct in question again. Do you discuss this theme in your book “Contra Bush” that will appear in Spanish, English and French in August?
CARLOS FUENTES: “Contra Bush” is my journal on the Bush presidency. It begins before the election when I noticed the danger represented by Bush and Cheney on account of their interest in oil and ends with the latest catastrophes of the tortures. The journal shows the total failure of the war and the moral defeat of the North American armed forces. One must settle accounts with the Bush administration because it has changed international order into a total international disorder. I say to those who conjure the specter of anti-Americanism: We are not against you, we do not hate you, we only plead that the nor5ms of international law not be violated.
FREITAG: You are an expert on the problems of North American policy connected with the idea of Manifest Destiny. What prospects do you see in the case of a change in government in the US after the November election?
CARLOS FUENTES: With Kerry, I see the possibility of restoring the Atlantic Alliance and negotiating over the war in Iraq. Therefore it is so important that there is a Kerry who can make up for Bush’s mistakes. Bush cannot repair his own errors. Kerry would be an element of trust for the international community, for Europe and Latin America that would allow restructuring the international order with the participation of the United States. No international agreement can exist without the United States. However at the moment there is an international disorder with the United States.
FREITAG: In his new book “Who are We. The Challenges to America’s National Identity”, Samuel P. Huntington sees Mexican immigration as the greatest domestic danger for the core North American Anglo-Protestant identity. He speaks of the “reconquista demografica” (demographic reconquest) of the territories that the United States amputated from Mexico between 1836 and 1848, a third of the Mexican territory. The journal “Foreign Affairs” called Huntington’s position “hysterical”. Do you agree with his theses? How do you evaluate his positions on “white nativism”, which he calls the “plausible response” to the challenge of Hispanics? You described him as a “closet racist”.
CARLOS FUENTES: One part of the United States needs an external enemy to exist. Melville in Moby Dick told us the great epic fable once for all time. He explained where the white whale exists and that one had to go out to kill it. Even if this led to catastrophe, the captain and his ship had to go out to pursue the whale. This is a constant in the history of the United States. The United States is a land where the Manichean melodramatic element is very evident. In the West those with the white hats are easily seen as the good and those with the black hats as the bad. The world is divided in the good and the evil.
Latin Americans come from the tragic European culture. We cannot see the world this way. “Nothing succeeds like success except sometimes failure.” For us there must also be the experience of failure. One part of the United States needs an outward enemy. With the disappearance of the enemy, communism, the Manichean spirit of the United States lost control. It needed another enemy. Where is the evil? Who do we fight? Then Huntington comes with the anti-Islamic flag. Islam is the evil. We are crusaders and will stamp them out in the name of faith. Now Huntington discovers that there is an inner enemy: Latinos in general and Mexicans in particular.
First of all Mexicans were the first to live in this territory for a long time. However they did not raise a claim to these territories. Moreover the Mexican population lives very dispersed in the United States today. They aren’t concentrated in the states of California and Texas. Chicago for example is a city of Latinos as New York has been for a long while. Mexicans, Dominicans, Colombians and others live there. Boston is Latin-Americanized. Many Indians live in Oregon. Labor is globalized, not only finances and markets. Our people who live in the United States support the United States with their labor that no one else wishes to do. A single strike day of Mexican workers in the US would paralyze the country or bring the country to a standstill. They fulfill a function. They pay more taxes and consume more than they receive from the United States as benefits in health care or education. Unlike what Huntington says, they are not a burden. I watched the very rapid ascent of Mexicans in Los Angeles, California and Texas who arrived barefoot, owned a small business in the second generation and were entrepreneurs in the third. Everything that Huntington says is a myth to create an accessible enemy. The dividing line is set in the South if it isn’t set in Iraq. The main thing is that “it scares”. The Latino danger is much more than a myth; it is a deceit invented by professor Huntington to support a certain public opinion in North America that needs an enemy. Without an enemy, it feels incomplete.
FREITAG: Three areas overlap with Thomas Mann, an author whom you admire: the novelist who wrote for a broad public, the stylist of aesthetic renewal and the public intellectual. This overlapping doesn’t seem possible any more today. Nevertheless a broad public is reached in your works: “The Old Gringo”, “The Years with Laura Diaz”, experimental wonders like “Aura” and books like “Terra nostra” that are paradigmatic for post-modern literature. You embody the figure of the public intellectual in the international civil society. Is this possible because you are a Mexican, Latin American author?
CARLOS FUENTES: My last book that recently appeared in German is titled “My Beliefs”. It goes from A to Z beginning with “Amor” and ending with “Zurich”. Why does it end with Zurich? When I was 20 and ate dinner at the hotel Baur-au-Lac, I noticed a man who ate with two women at the next table. This man was none other than Thomas Mann. To meet Thomas Mann at age 20 was an extraordinary experience for me… Imagination represents the original form of knowledge. In literature, imagining something means knowing something. This was one of Thomas Mann’s great lessons for me.
Thomas Mann embodied the three areas that are not alien to Latin American literary life. There is a great tradition in Latin America to write for a broad public, to write with the intention of an aesthetic search and simultaneously to take one’s place in the general public. Writers today increasingly fulfill the first two but not the third. This has a reason. In the past including my youth, if the writer did not raise his voice, no one did. We had military dictatorships. There was censorship. What was the first thing that happened in a dictatorship? Writers were eliminated. Writers were sent to prison, camp or into exile because they offered different ideas and another language than the state. Today the situation has changed with the well-supplied civil societies. Freedom of the press, political parties and a congress independent of the executive exist. That the writer is the public voice of society is less urgent. In Latin America, writers have a choice. Becoming a public voice is their personal decision.
I continue. The present demand on authors has nothing to do any more with Jean-Paul Sartre’s principle to take public positions. Their only obligation is to the imagination and language. This is a social commission that counts for the most lyrical among writers. One takes part in the public debate more as a citizen than an author. I observe this citizen function. Others do not and I don’t criticize them. Everyone should have this freedom of decision. Still I feel obliged to what happens in Mexico, my homeland, Latin America and the world. I write and speak about this. Others do not and I don’t accuse them. I don’t feel I’m to blame in view of the intense need to intervene. I am responsible for my own errors.
FREITAG: Hemingway advised young burning novelists not to climb in the ring with Tolstoy. But you did climb in the ring with Dos Passos of the “Manhattan Transfer” and with the Lawrence of “The Feathered Serpent”. Afterwards “Don Quixote” and “Tristen Shandy” were your counterparts. You are still famous today for writing with a fou9ntain pen. What do you advise writers today in the age of the Internet?
CARLOS FUENTES: I climb into the ring with Tolstoy because the ring is the battleground of words. I have great doubt whether the modern technology of the media will annul the printed word, the novel, the genus that is the trademark of identity in the modern age. In the past, the novel withstood all challenges. In general, art has survived every technological challenge. More people hear Mozart’s Don Giovanni today than in the composer’s lifetime. However photography, radio, move theaters, TV and other electronic media cannot equal the mystery, satisfaction and wealth of sitting down with a book. This silent act of communication is not mechanical at all. Reading is something very intimate comparable with sexuality. This cannot replace any public medium. Opening a book and going over its pages with eyes and fingers is an act of the senses. Turning on a machine doesn’t leave behind any trace. One tastes and smells nothing.
FREITAG: What do you advise young writers?
CARLOS FUENTES: That they carry on. Garcia Marquez writes with the computer. I cannot do that. I still write on paper with my pen. Without that, I could not write. If I can’t feel and hear the scratching of the pen on paper, I simply cannot write. Without that, a distance is produced that I cannot bridge. Everyone catches fleas in his own way according to the Mexican proverb.
FREITAG: The first half of the 20th century was defined by North American literature and the second half by Latin American literature. How do you see the situation today? What has changed in world literature?
CARLOS FUENTES: Goethe’s idea of world literature has more validity today than ever because literature is no longer assigned to a geographical space. Who would have said 50 years ago that one of Africa’s colonial lands like Nigeria would produce three great writers Wole Solinka, Chinua Achebe and Ben Okry? Everything that constituted the British Empire has dissolved and created space for great writers. Today we have a pluralist world literature whose center cannot be fixed geographically in any part of the world. Literature belongs to the whole globe.