Carlos Fuentes: Federico en su balcón (Nietzsche on His Balcony)
This is the last novel Fuentes wrote and was only published after his death earlier in the year. The Spanish title gives nothing away but my English translation hints at the subject. I will be curious to see what the official translation is. The book starts with the narrator leaving his unventilated room at the Hotel Metropol in an unnamed and fictitious city, undoubtedly, at least partially, based on Mexico City. He is going out onto the balcony to escape his unpleasant room. It is still dark but dawn is about to break. While on his balcony, he sees another man on the neighbouring balcony. He does not know the man but he does look vaguely familiar. He finds his very large moustache and eyebrows somewhat odd and starts wondering about the man. Suddenly the man asks him – surprisingly using the familiar tu form – if he had read the papers. The narrator has not. The man asks him what he thinks might have happened to Aarón Azar, whether he has been killed or has fled. The man then introduces himself. He is Friedrich Nietzsche, though Fuentes continues to use the Spanish for his first name, Federico. It is, indeed, the philosopher, translated to (more or less) contemporary times in this Spanish-speaking city.
The two agree to talk about the people they know and we are given a rundown of various characters, with the novel divided up into sections, with each section devoted to an individual character. The first person we learn about is Aarón Azar. He is, initially at least, a lawyer, who lives a solitary almost ascetic life. He has two people to defend. The first is Rayón Merci, a man who is obsessed with the undergarments of adolescent girls and cannot resist touching them, particularly when they are wearing them. He also breaks into their rooms to fondle the garments and eventually, kills one of the girls, which is why he is now up before the judge. Azar gets him off on an insanity plea and he is sent to Dr Ludens’ asylum. His next case is a twelve year old girl, Elisa. As a child she had been brutally abused by her mother and mother’s boyfriend. She had been rescued and adopted by a couple called Borman. When she was ten, she poisoned the Bormans. Now, two years later, she is on trial for the murder. Again, Azar gets his client off, this time on the grounds that she was only a child at the time and therefore not responsible for her actions. She is also sent to Dr. Ludens’ asylum, though she is then taken away by Azar to meet his friends.
Dante (who will also be called Dantón, when he is involved in more revolutionary activities) and his brother Leonardo are the sons of Zacarías and Charlotte (nee Colbert) Loredano. Zacarías is a cruel father, locking his sons in a cupboard for long periods when they misbehave and only releasing them on the plea of their mother. What he does not know is that they consider being locked in the cupboard quite an adventure. Zacarías is a typical corrupt Mexican (Fuentes will actually call him a Mexican later on in the book), bribing, dirty deals and so on. When Charlotte discovers him burning incriminating documents, she packs her bags and returns to the ancestral home in the Dordogne. Dante will go on to be a liberal and then a revolutionary while Leonardo will follow in his father’s footsteps. There are two other characters in this part of the book. Dorian Dolor (dolor is the Spanish for pain) is a high-class prostitute. She chose her first name from The Picture of Dorian Gray, having liked the picture of the cover (she cannot read so had to ask the title) and chose her last name because, as she says, using the English word, she does feel pain. Gala is the daughter of Lilli Bianchi, a famous film star. Because Gala did not have Lilli’s classical beauty, Lilli despised her. However, as with much in this book, there will later be some doubt as to whether Gala is indeed Lilli Bianchi’s daughter.
While the first part of the book follows these characters’ early life and background, albeit through the eyes of Nietzsche, the second changes. The country is in uproar. Three friends, Azar, Dante Loredano and Saúl Mendés, a Jewish revolutionary who is living with an ex-nun, María-Águila and who is opposed to violence, get together in a park and discuss revolution. This part of the book will follow the course of the revolution against President Solibor. The revolution is bloody and brutal and the three friends, as well as Basilicato, the working class man of the people, and Andrea del Sargo, a soldier who has returned from the country’s foreign wars, will fall out and turn against one another.
We also follow Nietzsche’s comments on life, based on the real Nietzsche. He comments on madness (it starts when you are offended that other people think that you are like them), fate (do we have some control over it or is it arbitrary?) and the linearity of history. We also follow, to a certain extent, his actual life, particularly his platonic relationship with Lou Andreas-Salomé. In short, despite having been transferred to early 21st century Mexico, this is still the historical Nietzsche.
As a swansong, this is certainly an interesting book and something of a clever deceit to bring Nietzsche into our times, make him Spanish-speaking and have him look at contemporary Mexico but, of course, this daring is part of what makes Fuentes a great writer. The ending is somewhat convoluted but the book still remains a testament to a great writer that is well worth reading.
First published by Alfaguara in 2012
First English translation by Dalkey Archive Press in 2016
Translated by Ethan Shaskan Bumas and Alejandro Brange