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By Carlos Fuentes
Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Sayers Penden
New York: Picador – Farrar Strauss Giroux, 1997
ISBN: 0-374-51988-9 231 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
October 2015

This is a hodge-podge collection of stories which seem not to have any consistent theme, but covers a significant span of topics and issues. Each of the stories is well-told and one learns a good deal from each, but there simply is no consistent them that unites them all. However, each of them involves tragedy, sadness and often a bit of the occult. I will comment briefly on each of the stories.


The narrator had gone to Acapulco to claim the body of his friend, Filiberto who drowned while on a vacation there. He had gone there quite a few times before. However, on the way back home Filiberto’s friend finds some journal notes in Filiberto’s bag, and other items. One thing rather surprises him: Filiberto had a one-way ticket.

The journal entries tell a strange and very scary story. Filiberto was fascinated by Mesoamerican culture and was especially interested in a Chal Mool statue that a local dealer in this Acapulco region was selling.

Since I had no idea what a “Chac Mool” was, I checked it out and read that:

“A Chac Mool is a very specific type of Mesoamerican statue associated with ancient cultures such as the Aztecs and Maya. The statues, made of different types of stone, depict a reclined man holding a tray or bowl on his belly or chest. Much is unknown about the origin, significance and purpose of the Chac Mool statues, but ongoing studies have proven a strong link between them and Tlaloc, Mesoamerican god of rain and thunder.”

As the narrator reads the journal notes of Filiberto he reads that when he came back home to his run down large home which his family had owned, he wanted this statue on display. However, according to the eerie notes this statue slowly began to become a living being with power over Filiberto and over the local environment, and eventually tragedy follows.

This story is truly eerie, frightful and frightening! Wheeee. I actually had goose bumps while reading the story!


The narrator is asked to live in a huge home, which, while being very run down can be renovated for important foreign guests. But, a person is needed to live in it and watch over it until the improvements are made.

The narrator gets the key to the garden after a couple days and is settling in. However, he discovers there are “visitors” in the garden, but they aren’t living people, seemingly they are ghosts, and one of them speaks German and harks back to Charlotte, “Kaiserin von Mexiko.” Eerie, like the whole story.


The males the Vergara family are grandfather, father and son. The son, who is the narrator, is third, but the events he recounts were when he was 19 years old. This is a very rich and well-connected family. The grandfather was a hero of the Mexican Revolution and a general and hero under Pancho Villa. He is very tough and rough and rather detests his own son. His son, in his mid-40s is very rich and while seeming to be a highly respected businessman he is actually a cocaine producer. The narrator is naïve and 19. Under the profound influence of his grandfather, he detests his father, though his father seems to give him anything and everything he wants including a very snazzy Ford Thunderbird which the boy drives like a crazy man around the highways of Mexico City.

The wives of both of the older men are dead. Grandpa celebrates his wife as a simply great woman and wife, dedicated to him. The dad’s wife died when the boy was very young and he has heard from his grandfather, but not his father, that she was actually a whole who conceived him.

The grandfather and father are constantly at odds, and now his father’s cocaine business is in some trouble and he looks to lose a fortune. The grandfather is rather delighted by this since he himself is a source of a good deal of wealth and would prefer to be the one making the money, and to do so in a more traditional manner.

The grandfather and father have a terrible fight and the boy and his grandfather go out in the boy’s car for a wild night out when the grandfather introduces the boy to a whore whom he wants the boy to have.

Upon arrival home his grandfather and father have a huge argument and finally, for the first time, his father sits with him to tell a totally different story about both his grandmother and his mother, one that is virtually the opposite of what the grandfather had raised him on. The boy seems, in the end, to be convinced by his father’s version and is having to completely reinvent his concept of both his grandmother and mother.

This very powerful and sad story ends on Mother’s Day, when, perhaps for the only time since a year ago, the two older men go together, along with the boy, to the very fancy grave site of the two women, and pay their respects. Nothing, however, is said about the disagreement and struggle between the grandfather and father, nor about the son’s decision of what he is to do in the face of this terrible gulf between the two older men.


The time is when Kennedy is still U.S. president. We follow the lives of two generations of fairly rich people. The “father” is retired and traditional. He loves the music of his youth and the habits of the rich of his own and his parents’ generation. His daughter, Elena, has married a very rich and successful architect and they are budding hippies, she, at least, detesting all that her parents’ generation is about and trying to be as hip as she can about everything one “should” do to be a proper hippie. They go to the proper films, relish meeting blacks and up and coming figures in music and the arts, and following the “new” morality. She says at one point: “. . . today infidelity is mandatory just as Communion every Friday used to be. . .”

Each Sunday they have dinner at her parents’ house and while it is all very elegant and proper and all served by proper servants, Elena is bored and even apologizes to her husband Victor on the way home:

“We have to maintain some link to the family and bourgeois life, even if only for the sake of contrast.”

Victor is narrating the story, and while Elena runs on and on and on, saying everything imaginable for the “proper” hippie to say, one keeps getting the idea that she talks a huge game, but does she really “play”? I fairly much doubt it.

Victor almost never speaks or responds to her more and more outrageous or at least “proper” hippie-like comments. Yet when he’s off to work it sounds like he has “another” Elena of his own with whom he engages in standard and old fashion infidelity!


This is a very dark and difficult story. We begin with Claudia, the narrator of the story, reminding her lover and brother, Juan Luis, of their childhood and how they grew together, but how he had finally decided he had to leave Mexico and seek a very different sort of life in Switzerland. She goes on, following him via her letters, to his years in Switzerland, and huge list of women he’s with for a few weeks or months, and his growth in business. Soon, however, she narrates how she is now in Switzerland, about to leave it, and she tells the conclusion of the story, her brother’s meetings with Claire and how different he was with her. She recognizes he is truly in love. She denounces him in a letter to him that he is not behaving the way he and she had always demanded of themselves, that they each be true to their own soul and way to be. Yet Claire is pregnant and her brother is willing to give his life and plans up to be with her. But it turns out that both of them are dead and her letters had played a significant part of how that all happened.

This is a very dark and difficult tale, but very creepy as well.


This is a very touching and eerie story. It is set in an old palace in Mexico City, now a very run down rooming house for the very very poor. Old Dona Manuelita lives there, alone, living the life of a hermit, but with a routine of daily life. She walks the ghetto area, feeds the feral dogs, and does her daily routine.

In another of the apartments lives young 15 year old crippled Luisito. Dona Manuelita used to walk him, pushing him around in his wheel chair, but his parents had put a stop to this practice because, in Luisito’s mother’s view, Dona Manuelito, was not worthy or trustworthy.

But the two, the old and dying woman, the crippled boy, have an understanding of each other and their place in life, and struggle to simply survive in the shadows of this once magnificent palace. It’s a very sad tale.


This is a very eerie story of a sort of ghostly experience. The 29 year old narrator remembers back to when he was 14, skipping school and going to a quiet little park to read his books. A very young girl, who didn’t speak very decent language, would come to the park and sort of be with him, fascinating him, disturbing his reading and demanding his attentions. However, over time he gets very used to her and looks forward to her being there.

Then he goes away for many years, onward with his life which is quite boring and humdrum. He has never forgotten the girl and he sets out to find her house, one whose address she had given him.

At first no one answers, yet someone is there. Later he goes back. A woman answers and he pretends to be from the real estate company and they need info on the house. She takes him in, however soon he is confronted by an old man and they demand of him when and how he knew “her.” He explains the situation and they show him the preserved body of the now dead girl, and after quizzing him in detail about how he met her and knew her, they tell him to leave and never return.

He tries, but after nearly a year he returns, obsessed by this experience. He rings the bell and the girl herself answers, she alive, older and in a wheel chair. But the mother and old man appear, bawl her out for having answered the door and emphasize to him that he must never return.

But what then? We just don’t know. His own life has been so uninteresting, so ordinary and this is the most incredible experience of his life, both knowing her as the young child and now this discovery of her actually being alive somehow. Alas, Fuentes never tells us more. It’s a very eerie tale.


13 year old Alberto lives with his grandfather and his much younger girlfriend. His parents are dead. Alberto is a quiet boy, but very observant and bright. His grandfather is certainly an anti-clerical rake. His is foul mouthed, despises the church, and is raunchy with his girlfriend around the young Alberto. However, Alberto is very satisfied with his grandfather and is living a very free life which he loves.

However, he has three very pious aunts who live in town and they are very scandalized by Alberto’s grandfather (who is from the “other” side of the family) and want to get Alberto away from grandpa.

Finally they get a court order to do so and Alberto, a quiet and compliant boy, moves in with the one spinster aunt. However, little by little the woman, in a relatively quiet and hidden manner, begins to develop a plan to be “intimate” with Alberto. In the end it looks as if Alberto will be headed back to grandpa as the lesser of two evils. A sort of cute and sassy story.


Federico lives in the heart of old Mexico City in a huge 19th century mansion. This area of town was once where the wealthy lived and Federico’s family home was among the most marvelous of that old wealth and splendor. However, now it is a changing neighborhood. There are many skyscrapers in the area, even very close to Federico’s house, and also some run-down areas of hippies and the like.

Nonetheless, Federico lives as he and his family always had; aloof, elegantly and maintaining the mansion and garden as best he can. He is quite rich and has inherited his mother’s fortune, mainly in real-estate. He even lives in the mode of the 1930s in dress and behavior. His friends seem to like him, but they don’t understand him at all. He is a person living completely “outside” the modern world that he lives inside of.

Eventually tragedy comes and the neighborhood hoods come crashing down upon him. It’s a very tragic and sad story, yet it is hard to gather a huge amount of sympathy for Federico. He had his own intolerance and simply isn’t a very sympathetic victim.


This is a sad and very short story of a poor teacher whose wife is ill and they are in desperate financial straits. However, the man simply doesn’t face his situation with a great deal of responsibility, and finally gets himself into a fight that wasn’t at all his own and gets himself killed.

It’s an odd story. I developed very little sympathy for the main character. He just didn’t want to nor couldn’t deal with his hardship, so he sort of tried to abstract from it and have life just go on as it always had. Fuentes doesn’t do much to try to create sympathy for him in the reader, but just exposes him for whom he is.


This is the story of Bernabe Aparicio, the son of Andres Aparicio. Andres had been an idealistic social reformer, an agronomist and incorruptible. He had been murdered for trying to effect positive and honest reform.

Thus his family had nothing. No income, no future, no hope. Bernabe’s mother was high minded, but living in a terrible slum, helped some by poor relatives. She tries to raise him with middle-class values but this just doesn’t work well in the reality of the slums.

Without him even knowing it or realizing it, there is much of his father in him – a sense of independence and unwillingness to simply cave into his circumstances. However, he doesn’t have any idea how one overcomes his current circumstances, and in his 14-15 year old mind school certainly isn’t the route and he ditches that.

His uncles try to introduce him to their sense of “manhood,” whoring, goofing off, living hand to mouth in subsistence living. This just never quite appeals to Bernabe.

His first act of real independence is to fall in love with a young girl whom he meets because she’s with a group of girls who like to have sex with local men. They are not whores, they charge nothing and accept nothing, and even demand making love in the dark so they don’t see the men nor the men them.

However, he becomes very enamored of one girl and does arrange to meet her outside. They fall deeply in love, but she has one “flaw,” she is simply very and noticeably ugly. This doesn’t bother Bernabe at all, but it seems to bother everyone else, especially his uncles and his mother, all whom reject her out of hand. Eventually so does Bernabe, sort of pressured by their positions.

Next however, he comes under the influence of a criminal who pretends to be a reformer and social activist, but is really a hard-core criminal. He takes Bernabe under his wing and makes him a real favorite, moving him up in the organization. Finally Bernabe realizes he can have wealth and power and status, something he’s never imagined he would have and didn’t even know how to hope for it.

However, he soon learns that his leader was actually the man who murdered his father when Bernabe was just a young child. This presents a moment of ultimate decision for Bernabe.

This is a very powerful story, and so very very sad.

Bob Corbett


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