Saturday, August 09, 2008

Book review - This I Believe by Carlos Fuentes

Just finished 'This, I Believe', which is supposed to be an 'An A-Z of a Writer's Life'. The writer is Carlos Fuentes, who is described as Mexico's leading writer.

Fuentes has experienced life and remembers it well. His writing is honest and well crafted, but I found much of this book inaccessible because Fuentes seems to assume the reader is as well read as Fuentes, and boy is he well read. Endlessly referencing other people's work and thoughts with little explanation renders many chapters unreadable, in my opinion. I'm sure my understanding and appreciation would grow many times over if I could relate to all the references, as I imagine can most literary critics, but I do not see that as my job. Also, I see it as a clear failing because it turns the book from 'This I Believe' to 'This I Believe Of Other People'.

The other chapters that fail, in my opinion, are those that cover topics such as economics, globalisation, and man and the environment. I appreciated the quality of the writing in these chapters, and to each man his opinion, but I do not want to hear on these topics when others cover them so well.

The chapters which shine are those that concern the author's life, covering personal topics such as family, death, children, friendship etc. This is the true A-Z of the author's life, and most of these chapters are easier to read as they are lighter on quotes and references to other people's works. But they are too few in number. On the plus side, at least each chapter reads in isolation.

All in all, this book only has a few good bits but, on the whole, it is not interesting enough, and large swathes are unbearably difficult. It often reads like a rambling e-mail of the brain dump variety, albeit from a writer who knows his field inside out.


A few quotes from the book. First the terrible:

On Freedom: 'Freedom consistently fills the gap between interior and exterior action, the abyss between interior and exterior reality, the void between determinism and free will.'

On Time: 'But if we travel from one time to another and don't return to the present on time, we lose our memory of the past (if that is where we went) or our memory of the future (if that was the starting point).'

This video sums up my thoughts on such passages.

Now, the wonderful:

On Nature: 'All natural things and beings always seem to be in the right place. As human beings, we displace ourselves, we wish we could be something or somewhere else, and we are always out of place, unlike the Colorado canyons or the waterfalls of the Zambezi River or the tigers of Bengal ... Yes, we admire the order of natural beauty.

On London: 'London is good to me, for it is where I write in peace because nobody call me, nobody knows me. I look out of the window. I don't go out into the relentless rain. My voyage is my desk. My tropics are made of paper. I hear the incongruous telephone. The answering machine serves as testimony of my absence. I am here. I am not here. I write and I write. All I need to hear and understand, I hear from the mouths of my six or so English friends.'

On Don Quixiote: 'Despite his battles with reality, Don Quixote insists upon seeing giants where there are only windmills, and armies where there are only flocks of sheep. He sees them because he has read about them. He sees them because the things he has read have told him to see them that way. His reading is his madness.'

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