Delivering the second Nadine Gordimer lecture at Wits University and extending the transatlantic dialogue programme at Brown University -- where Fuentes is professor at large -- are key to that hemispherical interchange. "Transatlantic culture must include South Africa," he says. "So this is a north-south visit, or south-north, if you prefer."
Trim, deploying vigorous hand gestures and mobile eyebrows, Fuentes belies his 77 years. He’s dressed in simple, writerly fashion: slightly rumpled white shirt with pen and spectacles peeking out from the pocket, coal-grey slacks, blue socks and light-brown shoes. Hair is brushed back from his forehead and the peppery moustache is neatly trimmed.
Quixote forms the basis for his Gordimer lecture, so I ask about the Tobias Smollett translation of 1755 and the 2003 Edith Grossman version. Fuentes is on record as saying that Smollett’s is "the one where the feeling and the tone both come through ... the homage of a novelist to a novelist."
"Every translation reflects the taste and style of the time," Fuentes begins. "The Smollett hadn’t been published since the 18th century. I discovered a copy in the library of the University of Virginia, and took it to my publishers.
"The translation is in the style of Smollett’s own work, a picaresque novel of the 18th century; it is contemporaneous. The merit of the Grossman translation is that it does not pretend to be cute. It’s a straightforward, very readable version in contemporary English."
He doesn’t agree with literary theories that the second half of the 20th century belonged to Latin-American writers. "That’s right and wrong, because there were also others. The community of writers and novelists creates a special sense of belonging. I don’t feel alone reading Pamuk, Gordimer, Grass. This is the positive aspect of globalisation."
What is he reading? "Writers have periscopes! But I don’t get enough time to read everything I want to. Coming to South Africa, I am reading Nadine’s books again, and others. But I don’t like making lists, only of the bad. I read for inspiration, or to escape from what I am writing."
He learned English at the age of four in Washington, DC, where his father, a career diplomat, was posted. But whatever the vagaries of the peripatetic life of a diplomat’s son -- he was also raised in Buenos Aires and Santiago -- he was sent home, each June to September, to his grandmothers.
"I write novels thanks to my grand-mothers. They are the novelists. They kept alive my love of the Spanish language. I dream in Spanish, I insult in Spanish, I make love in Spanish, which causes complications."
Don Quixote and Carlos Fuentes are inextricably entwined. In his novel, The Old Gringo (1985), Fuentes has the title character (based on legendary American journalist and wit Ambrose Bierce) set off for Mexico with a copy of Cervantes, saying, "All my life I’ve wanted to read the Quixote. I’d like to do it before I die. I’ve given up writing forever."
Not so Fuentes. His new book, The Eagle’s Throne, both revives the epistolary novel and pays homage to Machiavelli’s The Prince. It is set in 2020, when Condoleezza Rice is president of the United States, Mick Jagger is still touring and Fidel Castro is going strong. America has cut off all electronic communication to and from Mexico and so people have to be in touch by letter (or cassette tape).
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