Carlos Fuentes - Christopher Unborn

Carlos Fuentes - Christopher Unborn
Rating - 1.0

Five hundred and three pages into Christopher Unborn, we are exhorted by the still not yet birthed Christopher to 'Pay attention now, Reader: wait for me because I'm going to need you more than ever, don't hide from me, don't go away'. But can we? After more than five hundred pages of groan-worthy literary puns, random tangents of nonsensical nonsense and pointless parodies of genres from Kafka to Marquez, are we really able to stay with this fetus another moment longer?

Carlos Fuentes' novel does not attempt to hide its debt to Lawrence Sterne's bizarre, energetic, intelligent and never outdated masterpiece, Tristram Shandy, but the question must be asked - how much did we need another version of that strange tale? Enough for Fuentes to write it, apparently. Christopher Unborn, at a very basic level which the novel often forgets, is the story of Christopher Columbus (the as yet unborn 1992 version, not the historical 1492 explorer) as he sits in the womb and observes life through his own strange little eyes. The novel was written in 1987, and treats 1992 as some apocalyptic disaster world where the government of Mexico, in a bid to stop its massive inflation, soaring debt, climbing poverty and stratospheric crime rates, has instigated a competition whereby the first child born on the 12th of October 1992, five hundred years after Columbus discovered the Americas, will win the 'Christopher Columbus' prize, which awards: '[O]n his eighteenth birthday he will receive the KEYS TO THE REPUBLIC, prelude to his assuming the position, at age twenty-one, of REGENT OF THE NATION, with practically unlimited powers of election, succession, and selection.' Seems like a prize worth entering. Angel and Angeles, his mother and father, hope that their son will win, so they set about doing whatever it is that parents do to create a baby.

The rest of the novel is, arguably, concerned with the nine months before Christopher is born. We spend a lot of time with the narrator, who refers to us directly as 'Reader'. Unfortunately, the little fetus is a tad hyperactive, which means we get a lot of ranting that looks a little bit like this: 'couldn't you have an Equanil sent up from the pharmacy on the corner? - looks like the revolution starts tomorrow - the fascist coup - the military coup - the Communist coup - lay in lots of canned goods, Angel, let's get to the state of siege right away - nail polish at the perfume counter, right? - where are those cold beers, bartender? what?' And on, and on, and on. Throw a whole bunch of clever and not so clever literary and linguistic jokes (Mexico City becomes, once or twice, Makesicko City for one; 'Victor. Who? Go!' for another) and the reader - Reader - becomes exhausted. Fuentes has created a rather complicated backstory to explain how the Mexico of 1987 becomes the Mexico of 1992, which is explained to the reader along with Christopher's incessant verbal diarrhea.

Perhaps the largest problem with this work is that we are expected to believe that the upcoming birth of Christopher is an incredibly epic event for which there are no earthly precedents. At least, that is how it is presented to us by Christopher himself. Unfortunately, the text cannot bear the weight of such hefty promises. As the reader, we expect greatness because we are told by the narrator that greatness is always just around the corner. There is only so many times that can be believed before the book is recognised for what it is - a tiresome post-modern exercise which, like a lot of post-modern literature, seems pretty interesting in synopsis form but falls apart when actually written. There is nobody to care about, no scenes or situations worth remembering. The narrator, when he is not focused on his own puns and games, zips from his unfaithful father to his weirdly obsessive mother to all manner of characters connected only by the fanciful history comprising the five years between the story being written and the purported events of the novel. So, a history lesson in something that is not history. An exhaustive examination of characters that could never be. The entirety is an exercise in futility.

There is a scene, perhaps two thirds of the way into the novel, which mimics Kafka's The Trial. Angel and Angeles - Christopher's parents - enter a government building to register their entry for the Christopher Columbus prize. They are told they need to present the child they are entering, which is of course impossible because the child needs to be born on a specific day in the future to be eligible. But without the baby, the bureaucrat won't accept the entrant. This continues for some time. Now, a parody of a famous work is all well and good, but do we then need to be hit over the hit with Kafka puns and not-at-all sly references to Kafka's name and work? Fuentes uses a hammer where a scalpel would suffice. Kafka is so massively famous in the literary world that such a clear and obvious homage need not be explained.

Brief vignettes prove interesting. Halfway through the novel Angel comes into contact with the very rich entrepreneur Don Ulises and his sultry wife. The story departs entirely from Christopher to dwell on the sexual escapades of Don Ulises, his wife and daughter, and Angel in a manner that suggests the other world sexuality of Marquez or Llosa. This section is interesting and compelling, but too soon it is replaced with Christopher's ceaseless ranting, swept away by the mountains of waffle that burst forth from nearly every page. Why can't we slow down and smell the flowers, as it were?

The novel is a social critique of Mexico and its relationship with other nations, particularly the United States. This criticism is somewhat lost in the sheer quantity of information that is shoveled at the reader, which is itself a criticism of the sheer quantity of information that has become a part of the daily life of just about everyone these days. It does not take too long for the reader to understand Fuentes' point, which makes it such a shame that the novel has to scream its message loud and (not at all) clear for five hundred and thirty one pages. Fuentes certainly has it in himself to write a worthy novel - The Death of Artemio Cruz being a good example - but Christopher Unborn is too messy, too full, too flighty, too obsessed, too silly, to have any real bearing beyond the barriers of its borders. The book cannot be enjoyed for its clever literary references and puns because they just aren't clever enough; it can't be read for social commentary or philosophical musings because they just aren't deep enough; and it certainly cannot be read to enjoy the narrative, because the characters are caricatures and the story just doesn't exist. A disappointment.

See Also

The Death of Artemio Cruz


The Complete Review - review
The New York Times - review
Center For Book Culture


Mexican Authors