Modern Mexican mystery from master Carlos Fuentes

Book Review: "Destiny and Desire," by Carlos Fuentes. Random House, $27.

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Just as travel to parts of Mexico might give you pause these days, the reader journeying to the contemporary Mexico City of Carlos Fuentes' latest novel would be well advised to prepare for a challenging trip.

The book is classic Fuentes, exploring the quest for Mexican national identity -- past, present and future -- through a complex narrative steeped in multiple mythologies, history, politics, philosophy, strong eroticism and a good dose of the fantastic.

A tale filled with illusions and allusions, fueled by dark secrets, it could be subtitled "The Mysteries of Mexico City."

Mr. Fuentes, one of the most celebrated Mexican writers of the past half century and a leading figure in the Latin American literary "boom" of the 1960s and '70s, remains protean and prolific at 82.

In this coming-of-age story of friendship and betrayal in the modern city he calls "the thousand-headed hydra" -- the country he decries as the Narconation -- Mr. Fuentes strives for current relevance. References to Justin Timberlake, the TV show "Entourage," iPhones, and a visit to an emo music club seem a bit calculated.

This epic jam-packed book can cause the reader's head to spin, but that likely is the intent. After all, the story's narrator is a disembodied head, recently severed by machete from the body of Josue Nadal, an orphan of unknown origins.

Josue recounts the events in his short life that led to his head bobbing in the Pacific Ocean, starting with the fateful meeting as a schoolboy with another orphan, Jerico (who has no surname), with whom he forms a close bond based in large part on their shared interest in profound philosophical questions from Nietzsche, St. Augustine and Spinoza.

Not content with the biblical symbolism of his character's names, Mr. Fuentes provides additional mythic weight by extended comparisons to Castor and Pollux, the Dioscuri or Gemini of Greek and Roman mythology.

The first section of the novel bears the twins' names, while the last section is portentously titled "Cain and Abel," both telegraphing the answer to at least one of the book's many secrets.

The two friends share everything, including their sexual initiation with a veiled prostitute whose distinctive tattoo identifies her when she later reappears in an unexpected role. But as they reach adulthood they drift apart.

The idealistic Josue enters into law studies (writing his thesis on "Machiavelli and the Modern State") but soon ends up working for a high-tech communications mogul, Max Monroy, while the cynical Jerico becomes an aide to the president of the republic.

During this period, his chief source of insight and information about his enormously powerful boss comes from graveside conversations with Monroy's long-dead mother, Antigua Concepcion. Why not?

Meanwhile, after gaining considerable influence with the president, Jerico ultimately becomes an enemy of the state ("Jerico Iscariot"), precipitating the final shift in the friendship/brotherhood. Knowing from the first page that Josue has been murdered, we finally find out how and why, and leave him in the arms of the prophet Ezekiel, his destiny on Earth fulfilled.

The substantive and rhetorical richness of "Destiny and Desire" is dazzling, but at times overwhelming, and readers with little knowledge of Mexican history may find parts of the book hard going.

The wordplay and puns provide some welcome lightness; for this, the remarkably skillful translation by Edith Grossman must be acknowledged.

While the overstuffed nature of the book at times seems self-indulgent, it is nevertheless a major achievement of storytelling and social commentary by one of the masters of modern fiction, with ample rewards for those willing to accept the rigors of the journey.

Eileen Weiner is a Pittsburgh-based writer and works for Global Links.


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