Happy Families, Carlos Fuentes (trans. Edith Grossman). Random House. 352pp, 26.00.
Carlos Fuentes’ Happy Families begins with a mystery: A wink. It is the wink of Pastor Pagan. He is the patriarch of “A Family Like Any Other,” a title that the reader soon discovers is Fuentes’ pointer to Tolstoy’s famous statement that “happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
Fuentes uses the pastor’s wink to ironic effect: it is a type of Gogolian synecdoche, first seeming to represent “a way to be courteous” to business partners, but then later coming to stand for a dark complicity with corruption. To double the irony, not even the pastor is in on the true nature of these winks, until “it is too late” and he is put out to pasture with a pension and house shaped like an Aztec pyramid. In the eyes of his boss, “Pastor did not commit the crime of asking for a taste, he committed the crime of being honest.”
And so begins Carlos Fuentes’ Happy Families. It’s a beginning that is madcap in its grotesquery, deeply ironic, angry past the point of heat. It’s also the first story of what Carlos Fuentes describes as a “choral novel,” a work composed of thematically linked stories interspersed with free verse poems in which a chorus of the dispossessed and working classes of Mexico offer sincere, disturbing protest or deeply scathing commentary.
Fuentes writes not just of characters but of ideas: politics, philosophy, anthropology, history, economics. For this reason there is a sense that Fuentes may be less focused on creating sympathetic characters than exploring the forces that have created unhappy families and unhappy individuals—in short, an ailing, corrupt society. The ties that bind the unhappy individuals and that make for the knot-of-vipers dynamic in each of these “happy” families begins with the sardonic piece “A Family Like Any Other” and ends with the final story, “Eternal Father,” a narrative reminiscent of Shakespeare’s King Lear; in it, three sisters are insufferably tied to their father’s arbitrary will and whims. The undercurrent that links and orders the pieces found in between is subtle. It has to do with chances and failed attempts to be in harmony with others, the land, and with the past, particularly Mexico’s indigenous past. These themes are intensified and deepened by the activities of seeing, hearing, and remembering.
In “A Family Like Any Other,” family members coexist but hardly see or hear each other, nor do they fully face the grim realities of life in modern Mexico. Pastor Pagan, believing he is bonding with his son Abel while he buys him drinks in a cantina and shares his nostalgia for the Mexican revolution, is naively mistaken:
We are children of an ill-starred revolution, Pastor had said to his son, who looked at him with uncertainty and suspicion and a kind of distant forgetfulness close to indifference. What revolution? What was his father talking about? The technological revolution?
Abel, a failed university student and a privileged child of Mexico’s middle class, cannot appreciate a working class uprising and hopes for a radical redistribution of wealth and property. Pastor goes on to explain that the lack of “connection” between people has to do with the loss of ideals, which he calls “illusions.” Pastor’s wife, Elvira must create the “illusion” of happiness in her marriage, visiting salsa dance halls to dance with Pastor and conjure up memories, to be lost in the sentiments of the bolero. Pastor’s daughter, Alma, scarred by contact with society, lives a vicarious existence based on reality shows and chat rooms. She cannot understand why the “education” she is receiving from a “reality television show” makes her feel both more “informed” than her parents and more vulnerable.
Mexico rages around the Pagan family. People are slaughtered on reality TV. Pastor Pagan’s old boss makes it clear that with “modern technology” employees are dispensable, including Abel. The Pagans’ “unreality,” or perhaps their relative comfort, is addressed by a chorus of the forgotten, the voices of the street:
Exita gave birth in the street
Half the girls on the street are pregnant
They’re between twelve and fifteen years old
Their babies are newborn up to six years old
A lot of them are lucky and miscarry because they’re giving a beating
And the fetus comes out screeching with fear
The chorus is a sharp contrast to “A Family Like Any Other,” both in tone and material. The visions are stark and deeply disturbing, the voices direct. The reader is confronted with the fallout of an “ill-starred revolution”: malnourished children, children nursed by substance-abusing mothers, children earning money on street corners lighting gasoline in their mouths, children who hate themselves so much they beg their mothers to teach them self-love.
“The Disobedient Son,” which follows, locates the narrative in a rural setting and tells the tale of a man who enjoys land, but who tortures his sons with an obligation: to honor the memory of their grandfather, Abraham, who rose up with the Catholics of Jalisco to fight against the atheistic laws of the Mexican revolution. He teaches his sons about his ranch, Los Camilos, “named in honor of the congregation founded in Rome in 1856 to care for the dying.” The narrator, the eldest son, describes the effect of the land upon him, an effect that has nothing to do with his grandfather Abraham’s memory or his father’s fierce faith:
For this were our land, and its miracle, to my young eyes, was that nothing had killed it, neither war nor peace. . . . It was enough to see and love this land to re-create in the soul a vigorous equilibrium typical of complete men, conscious of possible mistakes and reluctant to accept premature glory. Nature in Los Altos de Jalisco is frugal, parsimonious, sober, like the appearance and speech of the inhabitants. And still there was a latent power in the herds and cornfields, in the clouds of slow urgency, in the wind trapped in the caves that didn’t allow me to live absently, without ambition and even without rebelliousness. When the mountain approaches and the wheat rises, the brambles retract and the beeches grow until they reach their dense green coronation, a man is transformed along with nature and the senses are nourished by the smells and tastes of the countryside, smoke and tar and stables and sometimes the flashing passage of half-seen butterflies, more fragile than a rainbow, that blinded me with their rapid flight, as if saying, Follow us, Marcos, come with us, let yourself go . . .
It is the land in all its natural beauty that inspires the “disobedient son” to oppose the will his father, offering an alternative to the religion that the latter places so much trust in. As in “The Disobedient Son,” happiness in this “choral novel” resides along a continuum, defined by the wholeness of one’s reconciliation with the natural world, with one’s country and its inhabitants. It is a definition of happiness in turn with Alvin Greenberg, who in his essay “The Revolt of Objects: The Opposing World in the Modern Novel” posits that the novel is where humanity, having alienated itself from nature, can be revealed in its struggle to once more achieve balance with the larger cosmos.1 In its few bright spots, Happy Families reveals characters making strides, however short-lived, toward this balance.
In “A Cousin Without Charm,” a middle-aged man whose quest for beauty is enlivened by poetry finds it, oddly enough, in his wife’s plain cousin, with whom he has an adulterous affair. His stream-of-conscious declaration of love likens his discovery to encountering an unknown country: “I am the discoverer of your true beauty the beauty seen only by the man who loves as I love you because I have discovered you and I cannot abandon the earthly body of my exploration . . .” This metaphorical, natural world–drenched flow of happiness is echoed in “The Armed Family,” wherein General Miles, having at last settled a violent dispute in his own family, “returns with pleasure to the sierra in Guerrero.” There, General Miles rediscovers happiness in his passion for nature:
He loves the plants and birds of the mountains. Nothing gives him greater pleasure than identifying a tropical almond from a distance, the tall lookout of the forests, catching fire each autumn to strip itself bare and be renewed immediately: flowers that are stars, perfume that summons bumblebees, yellow fleshy fruits. And also, close up, he likes to surprise the black iguana—the garrobo—looking for the burning rock of the mountain. He counts the five petals of the basket tulip; he’s amazed that the flower exists outside a courtyard and has made its way into the dense growth. He looks up and surprises the noisy flight of the white-faced magpie with its black crests, the long throat of the social flycatcher and its spotted crown, the needle beak of the cinnamon-colored hummingbird. The clock-bird makes the hours with its dark beak, conversing with the cuckoo-squirrel with its undulating flight.
Indeed, if anything redeems the corrupt, impoverished Mexico found in Happy Families it is the passages that sing of the natural world and the happiness it can bring. Perhaps in Fuentes’ world, happiness cannot be found in the social networks we construct for ourselves, be it the family, the larger society, or democracy itself. These only serve to break the individual, to alienate him or her from a deeper communion with the self and severely cripple his or her capability for relating to others. The “message” of the book, and for Fuentes it is usually safe to say that there is one, is that until this kind of harmony can be restored, one in which Mexico is reconciled to her land and its native people, “happy families” will remain an ironic construct the country uses to describe itself, a country in which half of one hundred million inhabitants are living in dire poverty, and this according to a rebel, the General’s son of “The Armed Family.” The General loses himself in the natural beauty that is Mexico. Would that all of the country was able to follow suit.
In Happy Families Fuentes has created a picture of a country torn by the forces of European domination, a failed revolution, capitalistic greed, dire poverty, and racial tension. It is far from clear that Fuentes would say that these are the only causes of unhappiness. It seems just as likely that narcissism, divisiveness and a tendency toward destruction—of others as well as of the self—is inimical to being human. Perhaps that is why the “ideals” of revolutions can only be “illusory.”
There is very little light in Carlos Fuentes’ Happy Families, but is Fuentes’ vision any less valid because of it? Does the chorus speak for actual people? And if blindness, corruption, and greed were not fundamental aspects of our nature, would it even exist? These are the questions of conscience Fuentes raises both powerfully and skillfully. A prophet is not easily accommodated and assimilated, and Fuentes seems to have no desire to create an easily digestible, commodified vision of “reality” for the sake of anyone’s comfort. It is hard to hear truth, but Fuentes’ vision is clear.
Meg Sefton graduated from Seattle Pacific University in 2008 with an MFA in creative writing. Her short story “Deborah” appears in Relief: A Quarterly Christian Expression, and she has a review of Sean Thomas Dougherty’s The Blue City upcoming in the eighth issue of Double Room. Meg lives in Florida with her husband, her son, and a very large bouvier.
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