Fuentes’s Tropical-Mexican Gothic

Posted by Ilse Marie Bussing on December 19, 2008 in Blog tagged with

    Carlos Fuentes, born in Mexico in 1928, is one of the most important contemporary writers of Latin America.  One of his latest works, published in 2003, Inquieta Compañía (Restless Company) is a noteworthy collection of Gothic stories that provide a glimpse at the peculiarities and importance of this genre in a Latin American context.   I have chosen to discuss a single element from the story ¨Calixta Brand,¨ despite the tale´s complexity and offer of multiple analyses.

   The story is about Calixta Brand, an American Comparative Literature student and writer who marries Esteban, a wealthy Mexican landowner.  Calixta moves to her husband´s hacienda, and little by little, transforms the rundown house and garden into the magnificent place that it once was.  In this short piece, I wish to discuss the topic of organicity and regeneration that is present in this story, and to relate it directly to the Gothic essence of the text. 

   In the story, house and garden are inseparable organic entities.  After her arrival, Calixta´s constant care gives them their long-lost grandeur.  She not only restores the plants which make up this luscious tropìcal Eden, but the house, which is a fascinating hybrid of indigenous, Spanish and Moorish architecture, so prevalent in some of Mexico´s oldest buildings (the Spanish-Andalucian settlers and their architecture reflected the 700-year-old Moorish occupancy of Spain).  The garden and the home acquire voluptuous and lush qualities, typical of their their tropical context; furthermore, in the Gothic context of the story, this organic quality acquires magical and uncanny proportions (the excessive growth of plants is supernatural, not natural and has to be regularly controlled by Calixta´s constant trimming and pruning). 

   This aspect of growth and vitality, however, is opposed to the issue of degeneration, present in the weakening and decadence of the marital relationship between the protagonists.  Esteban proves to be an envious and eventually cruel husband who resents Calixta´s ability to create, not only by restoring the hacienda, but through her writing.  Her creative skills of planting, restoring, and writing only highlight Esteban´s lack of creativity and capacity to regenerate something.  His constant attacks only worsen when Calixta begins suffering from a degenerative disease that confines her to a wheelchair, thus depriving her of her ability to continue producing).  At this point an enigmatic character steps in, a young Arab who nurses both Calixta and the garden into their previous healthy state (this character will eventually mirror the figure that appears in a mysterious painting in the house).  At the end of the story, the threat of degeneration has been thwarted by this mystical character.

   I was interested in bringing up the topic of regeneration and organic growth in this story because of how it relates to Gothic.  Like in other Latin American examples, Fuentes´s story presents the topics of excessive growth and regeneration as Gothic qualities, going against some examples from other countries, where degeneration in nature shapes Gothic texts.  In Hawthorne´s ¨Rapaccini´s Daughter,¨ for instance, the garden´s exuberance is perceived as malignant and as eventually leading to degeneration and death, not regeneration.  In ¨Calixta Brand¨and other Latin American Gothic stories, the uncanny force of nature is perceived as positive if restrained successfully by characters like the protagonist.  Threats of degeneration in this story do not originate in nature´s uncanny force.  They originate from a human source, from Esteban´s destructive jealousy and its causing Calixta´s degenerative disease.    

  I have just begun to think about this topic, but I believe that much can be done with it.  Topics of lushness, regeneration and the role of vegetation abound in Latin American Gothic texts.  These issues point to a quality that is particular to Latin American Gothic- its tropical context and the innevitable protagonistic role of nature in these tales.

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