Mexican Masks – Carlos Fuentes & Octavio Paz

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More Mexican literature from the 1960’s, today something a little different again. Carlos Fuentes’ novel ‘The Death of Artemio Cruz’, translated by Alfred MacAdam, covers, in non-linear fashion, the period 1889 to 1960, by joining Artemio Cruz on his deathbed, where various prompts that cause him to recall his past are presented to the reader.

At some later stage I will present my thoughts on the novel as a whole, however early in the book there is a passage that aligns wonderfully with Octavio Paz’s ‘The Labyrinth of Solitude’, more specifically the Spanish and Aztec history. Artemio Cruz, on his death bed, is thinking and addressing himself in the second person:

Because you will have created the night with your closed eyes, and from the depth of that ocean of ink, a stone boat – which the hot and sleepy midday sun will cheer in vain – will sail toward you: thick blackened walls raised to protect the Church from Indian attacks and also to link the religious conquest to the military conquest. The rough soldiers, Spanish, the troops of Queen Isabella the Catholic, advance toward your closed eyes with the swelling din of their fifes and drums, and in sunlight you will traverse the wide esplanade with a stone cross at its center and with exterior chapels, the prolongation of the native religion, theatrical and open-air, at its corners. At the top of the church built at the end of the esplanade, the vaults made of tenzontle stone will rest on forgotten Moorish scimitars, sign of yet one more bloodline imposed on that of the conquistadors. You will advance toward the portal of the early, still Castilian, baroque, already rich in columns wound with profuse vines and aquiline keystones; the portal of the Conquest, severe and playful, with one foot in the old, dead world and the other in the new world that didn’t begin here but on the other side of the sea: the new world arrived with them, with a redoubt of austere walls to protect their sensual, happy, greedy hearts. You will go further and will penetrate into the nave of the ship, its Castilian exterior conquered by the macabre, smiling plenitude of this Indian heaven of saints, angels, and indigenous gods. A single, enormous nave will run toward the altar of gilt foliage, somber opulence of masked faces, lugubrious and festive prayer, always urgent, for this freedom, the only one granted, to decorate a temple and fill it with tranquil astonishment, with sculpted resignation, with the horror of emptiness, the terror of the dead times, of those who prolonged the slow deliberateness of free labor, the unique instants of autonomy in color and form, far from that exterior world of whips and branding irons and smallpox. You will walk to the conquest of your new world through a nave devoid of blank spaces: angel heads, luxuriant vines, polychrome flowers, red, round fruits captured in trellises of gold, white saints in chains, saints with astonished faces, saints in a heaven invented by Indians in their own image and likeness: angels and saints wearing the face of the sun and the moon, with the hand to protect harvests, with the index finger of the hounds, with the cruel, unnecessary, alien eyes of the idol, with the rigorous face of the cycles. The faces of stone behind the pink, kindly, ingenious masks, masks that are, however, impassive and dead: create the night, fill the black sails with wind, close your eyes, Artemio Cruz…

Octavio Paz writes extensively on the image of the mask, Chapter Two of ‘The Labyrinth of Solitude’, translated by Lysander Kemp, is titled “Mexican Masks”. It opens;

The Mexican, whether young or old, criollo or mestizo [Criollo: a person of pure Spanish blood living in the Americans, Mestizo: a person of mixed Spanish and Indian blood.], general or laborer or lawyer, seems to me to be a person who shuts himself away to protect himself: his face is a mask and so is his smile. In his harsh solitude, which is both barbed and courteous, everything serves him as a defense: silence and words, politeness and disdain, irony and resignation. He is jealous of his own privacy and that of others, and he is afraid even to glance at his neighbor, because a mere glance can trigger the rage of these electrically charged spirits. He passes through life like a man who has been flayed; everything can hurt him, including words and the very suspicion of words. His language is full of reticences, of metaphors and allusions, of unfinished phrases, while his silence is full of tints, folds, thunderheads, sudden rainbows, indecipherable threats. Even in a quarrel he prefers veiled expressions to outright insults: “A word to the wise is sufficient.” He builds a wall of indifference and remoteness between reality and himself, a wall that is no less impenetrable for being invisible. The Mexican is always remote, from the world and from other people. And also from himself.

I also love Carlos Fuentes’, ”one foot in the old, dead world and the other in the new world that didn’t begin here but on the other side of the sea” a beautifully simple explanation of the Mexican psyche.

There are extensive chapters in Fuentes’s novel that address the Mexican Revolution, my starting point for this reading project, however the breadth of his work is possibly better to be explored at a broader level, but more on that when I finish the novel and check in again.

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