Adam in Eden

  • Carlos Fuentes, translated by E. Shaskan Bumas and Alejandro Branger
  • Dalkey Archive
  • 220 pp.

In this novel newly translated from Spanish to English, the reader is treated to a witty, satirical and poignant take on life in contemporary Mexico.

Reviewed by Keith Donohue

In May last year, Carlos Fuentes died at the age of 83. The New York Times lionized him as “Mexico’s elegant public intellectual and grand man of letters,” and he left behind a legacy of more than a dozen novels and story collections. Often mentioned as a possible Nobel Prize nominee, Fuentes received the prestigious Miguel Cervantes Prize and the Latin Literary Prize. Readers in the U.S. may know him best by his 1985 novel, The Old Gringo, which was a national bestseller and later was made into a film with Gregory Peck in the title role.

A few of his novels have yet to appear in English translation, and the Dalkey Archive Press is remedying that situation. The latest title, Adam in Eden, was originally published in Spanish in 2009, and it is one of Fuentes’ funniest and most satirical takes on life in contemporary Mexico. The novel reads like a fable in the style of Italo Calvino, told in a series of vignettes that sometimes veer off into the surreal and postmodern direct addresses to the reader.

The narrator of Fuentes’ fable is Adam Gorozpe, a respected businessman living in his own private Eden in Mexico City. Early in life he married Priscilla, the daughter of a wealthy baker, and now he leads a life of luxury and petty power. (One of the recurring telenovela, Mexican soap opera, gags in the novel is when Priscilla “loudly slaps the maid,” for no apparent reason.)  His brother-in-law, Abelardo, dreams of escaping the world of business for the world of art, aspiring to become a soap opera writer. In addition to his power and status, Adam also enjoys his mistress, L., who lives and loves with passion for the present moment.

Into the narrator’s paradise comes a snake — another Adam, the venal director of national security, who is the secret force behind the ruin of everyday life in Mexico City. He is responsible for the creation of shanty towns for the poor and the disappearance of innocent citizens as a way to cover up the fact that he allows drug cartels free rein. This Adam, Adam Gongora, has fallen for Priscilla and wants her for himself, so much so that he had a contract put out on Adam Gorozpe. The plot is propelled forward at a giddy pace as our Adam tries to rid Eden of its snakes.

What saves the allegory from imploding under its own weight is Fuentes’ relentless invention and reckless style. It is a mixture of high and low rhetoric, at once allusive to the great works of Spanish and Latin American literature cheek by jowl with the conceits of soap opera. Even in translation, you can hear the influences — the famous Boom movement — where myth and history, Spanish and English, magic and realism collide. While critics differ as to when the Boom begins precisely, it is through the work of writers like Fuentes, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Julio Cortazar, Mario Vargas Llosa, and other modernists who turned Latin American literature on its ear and won international acclaim.

The Boom — the explosion of influences — is the controlling metaphor for the story. Adam in Eden begins with a comet trailing across the sky. A boy appears on the street in stick-on angel’s wings and starts drawing crowds to hear his parables. The forces of history and art are conspiring in Mexico for a paradise regained.

Adam in Eden is an astonishing late work in the Fuentes bibliography, reminiscent in some respects to the late work in a minor key of a Mark Twain or a Kurt Vonnegut, filled with loose biting satire, devil-may-care comedy, and a simmering rage and hope. Fans of Fuentes’ other wild novels will not be disappointed, and any reader with a passing interest in our neighbors to the south will be richly rewarded by this poignant take on contemporary Mexico. I found myself alternatively charmed and baffled, but ultimately, in awe of the passion and humor in Adam in Eden.

Keith Donohue is the author of three novels, The Stolen Child, Angels of Destruction, and Centuries of June.

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