As sorry as I was to lose Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes last week, I was nonetheless deeply pleased that he reached the age of 83. I almost killed him when he was 37.
By Gary Schwartz.
As sorry as I was to lose Carlos Fuentes last week, I was nonetheless deeply pleased that he reached the age of 83. I almost killed him when he was 37. We were in Rome together in October 1965, with my sister Carol, and I felt that I owed it to my dignity as a fresh, all-but-dissertation Ph.D. in art history to show the son of the former Mexican ambassador to Italy a sight he had not yet seen. I settled on the underground San Clemente, one of the most fascinating places on earth. The Romanesque church above ground itself is enough to knock you over, but beneath it are even more unusual structures: the remains of a fourth-century basilica, a first-century sanctuary of the Persian-Roman god Mithras, and a Roman street at a depth of 57 meters below the surface.
I should have noticed by the time we got to the Mithraeum that Carlos was panting and looking pale, but I was too excited to give up and I pressed on. At a given moment, he had to ask if we could leave. He was fresh from Mexico, and he was already running a flu from the autumn Roman weather. Looking like he was about to collapse, he got into a cab to go back to his hotel. I hardly dared to speak to him after this incident, but he didn’t hold it against me.
The way we met was characteristic of the man. The month before, September 1965, we were fellow passengers on the S. S. France from New York to Le Havre. Carlos was booked in first class and I in tourist—insanely luxurious for a graduate student but affordable at, as I recall, some $300. The sumptuousness of the crossing was augmented when the Frenchman with whom I was supposed to be sharing a cabin took one look at me and disappeared, leaving a double cabin for me alone. (Unfortunately, the gorgeous girl who hesitantly visited the cabin also left me alone in the end.) Carlos ate his meals in the first class dining room, but he spent the rest of his time below decks. “The people in tourist are more interesting,” he explained simply.
I saw him for the last time in 2006 when he came to Leiden to give the Huizinga Lecture in the Pieterskerk, which I missed, and a lecture at the university that I attended. His presentation was lively and intelligent and anything but academic. He spoke about literature and life, politics and humanity, in direct and sympathetic terms.
I should have seen him more.
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