Reading Destiny and Desire means entering a world that straddles the real and the imaginary, where time and place are fluid and truth is malleable. Carlos Fuentes, perhaps Mexico’s most internationally renowned living writer, is a member of the aging generation of Latin American authors who burst on the world literary stage in the 1960s and ’70s with their brand of magical realism. Over time, that once-startling narrative technique has become commonplace even in mainstream fiction, but Fuentes remains a stalwart practitioner of its purest form. His challenging novels are not for the fainthearted.

Consider, for instance, that Destiny and Desire is narrated by the decapitated head of one of its central characters. The severed head belongs to Josué Nadal, a young man of indeterminate birth. At Catholic boarding school, Josué meets his blood brother, Jericó—much is made of the Biblical correlation of their names—and the two boys come of age as intellectual and emotional soul mates who share everything from philosophical discourses to prostitutes at the local brothel. The two are separated for a time when Jericó goes to study in Paris (or so he claims—Josué suspects his friend has been in the United States), then reunited as each is poised to follow the professional route that will lead to his inexorable destiny.

Josué goes to work for Max Monroy, a mysterious businessman who seems to control much of Mexico’s industrial wealth, and he falls under the sway of two corrupting influences: Asunta Jordán, Max’s seductive frontwoman, and Miguel Aparecido, a murderous convict. Jericó becomes advisor to the president, who seeks to control the masses with facile promises of happiness. This basic plot device of the disparate paths chosen by two “brothers,” the stuff of countless parables, novels and movies, is the mere framework on which Fuentes hangs a complicated allegory of Mexico’s intertwined politics, religion and culture. It is a fable, really, populated with archetypes and prophets, set in slums and cafés and even in the celestial netherworld between heaven and earth. In the world Fuentes creates here, it is not unusual for a woman dressed as Amelia Earhart to drop from the sky into a man’s arms, or for a conversation with the dead to illuminate the past as well as the future. Mexico is “a country destroyed by its own epic,” confides Max’s mother from the grave, “and in Mexico the epic of the revolution justified everything, progress and backwardness, construction and corruption, peace and politics.”

Certainly this is not a book for the casual reader, and a workable knowledge of Mexico’s history will go a long way in helping make sense of the many subtleties in Destiny and Desire. Fuentes’ prose (exactingly rendered into English by the acclaimed translator Edith Grossman) is dense, his rich imagery ever shifting and sometimes hard to pin down. Yet lovers of muscular, philosophically stimulating fiction will relish the visionary nightmare Fuentes conjures of his homeland and its fragile place in the larger world.

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