Table of Contents


Contact Information

Irish Mexican, Latino Irlandés: Fountains of Literary Invention
By David Vela


Fuentes's novel The Death of Artemio Cruz in language, style and in structure borrows from Joyce's innovations in prose, and the Vicoesque, circular sense of history, and deriving from this, from Joyce's study of Vico. [19] Joyce's shorter works, the fiction he wrote with astonishing grace and technical precision, Dubliners, exerted an influence on Carlos Fuentes's novel Distant Relations, and his short stories from the text Burnt Water. A number of critics have noted that Fuentes's short stories are his achievement, not the novels, yet Joyce's influence on both is apparent in Fuentes's attempts to capture the essence of Mexico City in shorter works. Like Joyce, Fuentes experiments with language, time and voice, and with the employ of differing points of view in one text. [20]

Life-size bronze of James Joyce 
in Zurich's Fluntern Friedhof
(Milton Hebald, 1966)

James Joyce's use of language, his playfulness with English, has been mimicked by Carlos Fuentes in Spanish. From his first novel Where the Air is Clear to his last epic novel The Years with Laura Diaz, Fuentes uses calembours and portmanteau words, (palabras compuestas) engaging the reader - as he does throughout Christopher Unborn - in word association games, embedding historical events in sentences pages long, capturing and describing continuous thought, while also working in vivid descriptions, ideas that congeal into a plot, and interior monologues that play out entire personal histories (see especially The Death of Artemio Cruz).

What Joyce biographer Richard Ellmann describes of Joyce in his monumental biography is apt to Fuentes: 'Joyce was as local and as scrupulous in vision as Dante but he put aside Dante's heaven and hell, sin and punishment, preferring like Balzac to keep his comedy human, and he relished secular, disorderly lives which Dante would have punished or ignored' (4, James Joyce). [21] Argentine author Julio Cortázar, another author who is very heavily influenced by Joyce, so much so that he was criticised as being afflicted with 'Ulyssomania', wrote that Fuentes's first novel was a 'comedia humana', magical and metaphysical, achieving with language what Ulysses achieved. However, Cortázar ascribes to the Irish writer 'más fines literarios'. Fuentes's book, for Latin America, in contrast, is a beginning. Cortázar continues: 'Joyce puts the accent on technique with the intention of rupturing traditional models or moulds of writing the novel.' [22]

Fuentes's novels run a range from the comical to the tragic, but they are notable for the choice of depicting commonplace and middle-class Mexico. In many instances, the figures he depicts are images raised in artistic relief against the foundation myths of Mexican culture. Fuentes also criticises Mexico, its economic and social disparities, its reliance on the United States for so many essential things, its failure to acknowledge positive influences that other cultures have brought to education, law, language - even cuisine. [23]

Argentine Two Pesos coin 
in memoriam of Jorge Luis Borges

Both Joyce and Fuentes offer an artistic portrayal, imagined visions of Dublin and of Mexico City. While Fuentes's works also illustrate an opinion pointedly critical of the upper classes and their yearning for North American values, Joyce's works examine the emerging identity of Irish people in the modern world. If Joyce's works can be compared to the modernist style of painting, Cubism, which Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque so creatively and vigorously pioneered in drawing, painting, and in sculpture, then Fuentes's early works are aptly compared to the new style of painting of the Mexican student of Picasso's cubist works, muralist Diego Rivera. Pablo Neruda, James Joyce, and Carlos Fuentes share this blurring of artistic visions and artistic merging of styles, genres and fora for expressing the inexpressible. [24]

Fuentes's first novel, La Región Más Transparente (Where the Air is Clear) confirms the impressions Joyce's works had already made on the young Fuentes, and on Fuentes's use and manipulation of language. It is as if Fuentes has declared 'I can do anything with the Spanish language.' In his novels, Fuentes uses poetic chiasmic structures, anaphora, and long prose-poem descriptions to introduce chapters. Fuentes, borrowing from Joyce's Hiberno-English marks the greatest literary borrowing that changed the novel and literature in Spanish; notably, this borrowing occurs between two (self-imposed) exiles.

Pablo Neruda recording poems at the U.S. Library of Congress, 20 June 1966
(Library of Congress, Hispanic and Portuguese Collections

Another of Fuente's massive and comprehensive works, Terra Nostra is placed by critic Gerald Martin among the seminal Ulyssean works. If Fuentes's first novel, Where the Air is Clear, speaks with Joycean language, then Terra Nostra continues to grapple, after The Death of Artemio Cruz and A Change of Skin, with the linguistic challenges Fuentes faced in creating a Ulyssean novel. Martin states that the novel Terra Nostra was a 'monumental attempt to review the whole psychological and political history of Spain and Spanish America [and that] its relative failure ... marks the impossibility after the late 1960s to write Ulyssean novels based on coherent historical cycles, epiphanic insights and optimistic conclusions.' [25] So, as with all protean authors, Fuentes changed the shape of the Latin American novel and wrote Cristóbal Nonato (1987), a Finnegan's Wake-influenced novel that, along with Mario Vargas Llosa's Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter (1977) and Guillermo Cabrera Infante's Three Trapped Tigers (1967) (Cuban, another bilingual who read Joyce in English), celebrate laughter in the Latin American novel.

For Fuentes, Borges, and Neruda the English language, like French for T.S. Eliot and for Beckett, was a beacon, a way to change Spanish. Joyce's two monumental novels, Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, provide the poetic prose model that the writers from the Americas would use for their own literary projects. Even writers who did not know English as well as the bilinguals, and writers who did not know English at all, chose Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses - and fewer, but still some, Finnegans Wake - as examples to mimic and from which to borrow, and to learn how to modernise the Spanish language. [26]

In their poetry, essays, short stories, and novels, throughout the twentieth century in Spanish, and sometimes in English, Latin American authors have found in Joyce's works complements, guides and literary signals to their own inventions. The Boom writers and those poets who were beacons in changing the language looked to James Joyce when carrying out their own projects, sometimes in silence, many in exile and most with cunning. [27]

When asked if there is a shared attitude Latin American authors have toward the Spanish language, Fuentes's reply is instructive about Joyce's influence in their forming a critical attitude toward that language: 'We [the Boom writers] had the sensation that we had to invent the language, that we had to fight with the canons of the language, that it is false to believe that an established Spanish language exists ... Joyce had the same attitude toward English.' [28]


David Vela

* Past President of the Irish Literary & Historical Society, San Francisco, California. Instructor of English, Diablo Valley College, California, USA.


1 - 2 - 3


Copyright © Society for Irish Latin American Studies, 2007

Online published: 1 March 2007
Edited: 07 May 2009

Vela, David, 'Irish Mexican, Latin Irish: Fountains of Literary Invention
' in "Irish Migration Studies in Latin America" 5:1 (March 2007), pp. 5-10. Available online (www.irlandeses.org), accessed .


The Society for Irish Latin American Studies

 Copyright Information