The Crystal Frontier by Carlos Fuentes

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Reviewed by Alan Cogan

Cogan’s Reviews

If one were to believe that this is really a novel in nine stories, as the author and publisher claim, then one would have to say it was a failure. It simply isn’t a novel. And stringing some short stories together doesn’t make it a novel either, just because a few of them happen to share the same characters. However, having got that off my chest, I would like to say that, despite these structural flaws, I found The Crystal Frontier totally absorbing. I have no hesitation in recommending it to anyone who seriously wants to know more about Mexico and Mexicans.

The book consists of nine short narratives – stories, if you like – each one occurring in the hazy borderline between Mexico and America – what Fuentes chooses to call the crystal frontier. I say hazy borderline because only one of these stories is about the actual geographical border. One, for example, takes place on the fortieth floor of a New York skyscraper where a Mexican laborer and a New York career woman meet briefly. Another takes place in Ithica, N.Y., where a young Mexican medical student lives with a local family. Yet another takes place in one of the American factories south of the border where Mexicans toil for a fraction of the pay that an American worker would earn.

What Fuentes is saying is that the frontier between the two countries has become fluid, more interlocking and over-lapping as more and more Mexicans go, legally or illegally, to the U.S. and as more Americans establish contacts with Mexico. The border between the two cultures is now almost anywhere in time and space. The author has enormous fun exploring the situations that result. The stories themselves are often unwieldy and shapeless. However, what saves them is the sheer narrative force which Fuentes brings to them. He writes with enormous exuberance and passion. His frequent angry rants are what make this such an interesting read.

I don’t recall who coined the expression: “Alas, poor Mexico. So far from God. So close to the United States.” It might even have been Fuentes himself. In any event, all the stories in this collection revolve around that theme. In fact, he even does some improvising on the basic theme at the end of the book, with: “Poor Mexico, poor United States, so far from God, so near to each other.”

Most of the time he speaks through his characters, although there’s no mistaking who is really speaking. Here, for example, are the inner musings of a racist Border Patrol agent: “It was necessary to save the southern border. The enemy was entering through there. Today the nation was being protected there, just as it was at Pearl Harbor or on the Normandy beaches. It was all the same. There they were, provoking him indecently, grouped up on the Mexican side, showing their arms open in a cross, clenching their fists, saying to the other side: You need us. We come to the border because without us your crops would rot. There is no one to harvest them, there is no one to help in hospitals, take care of children, serve in restaurants unless we lend you our arms. It was a challenge, and Dan’s wife told him so with a brutal joke: ‘Listen, I need a nanny for the kid. Don’t tell me you’re going to turn Josefina in? Don’t be stubborn. The more workers that enter, the safer your job is, buster…'”

And here are the thoughts of a young Mexican woman in Ciudad Juárez about her country: “She was ambitious, disciplined, and what did it get her? Stuck there on the border…eager to leave Mexico every night, bored crossing over to Juárez every morning past iron skeletons, cemetaries of skyscrapers left half-built because of Mexico’s repeated bad luck: money’s all used up, the crisis has arrived, they’ve locked up the investor, the government functionary, the top dog, but not even then does the corruption stop, fucked-up country, screwed country, desperate country like a rat running on a wheel, deluding itself into thinking it’s going somewhere but never moving an inch.”

And it’s not only Mexican official corruption that comes in for criticism from Fuentes. For example, an American student explains a few facts of life to a visiting Mexican:

“Do you know what your landlord, Mr. Tarleton Wingate, does for a living? He inflates the budgets of companies doing business with the Pentagon. Do you know how much Mr. Wingate charges the air force for lavatories for its planes? Two hundred thousand dollars each. Almost a quarter of a million dollars so someone can shit comfortably in midair! Who pays the expenses of the Defense Department and the earnings of Mr. Wingate? I do. The taxpayer…Just ask Mr. Wingate if he wants the government to stop defense spending, stop saving failed banks, or stop subsidizing inefficient farmers. Ask him and see what he says. They’re a bunch of cynics. They want free enterprise in everything, except when it comes to weapons and rescuing thieving financiers.”

But it’s not all heavy political going. “Spoils” is a wonderful story about food in which the hero, Dionisio Rangel, expounds on the five great cuisines of the world – Chinese, French, Italian, Spanish and Mexican. And he gives lots of mouth-watering reasons why Mexican is up there with the best. He rates American cuisine among the worst, by the way. He has much to say about the 40 million obese Americans and their fast food diets. There’s a marvellous passage – too long to quote here – where he sits outside places like Pizza Hut and Taco Bell and Kentucky Fried Chicken in California and makes observations about the people going in and out.

In the story, “Pain”, young Juan Zamora wins a scholarship to study medicine at Cornell University. He is from a respectable but not very wealthy family in Mexico City. His late father was honest and missed many opportunities to enrich himself. Juan keeps up appearances and goes to school in suits and polished shoes while his American fellow students show up in torn jeans, their caps worn backwards. Juan recognizes that this is an American way of trying to erase class differences, in appearance at least. The well-to-do family he stays with are impressed with his appearance and imagine his family as wealthy hacienda owners back in Mexico.

“Charlotte, his “landlady”, was the first platinum-dyed white woman Juan Zamora had ever seen wearing an apron,” writes Fuentes. “How polite Spanish aristocrats are!” she would say. Charlotte never called Juan Zamora Mexican. She was afraid of offending him.

The story is full of neat little snobberies and class distinctions – all of which are put to even greater tests when Juan discovers he is gay and again, later, when the American family plan a surprise visit to his humble home in Mexico City.

Because Fuentes knows both countries so intimately everything he writes has complete authority. His knowledge of American idioms and folkways is perfect. What other Mexican author can make casual passing references to Beavis and Butt-head, Forrest Gump, Cathy Lee Crosby and Wayne’s World and get it all absolutely right?

The Crystal Frontier – A novel in nine stories
By Carlos Fuentes

Farrar Straus Giroux 1997

Available from Amazon Books: Hardcover

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Published or Updated on: February 15, 2000 by Alan Cogan © 2008
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