Breathless in Mexico

DIANA: The Goddess Who Hunts Alone by Carlos Fuentes, Bloomsbury pounds 14.99
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The Independent Culture
MEXICO City's main artery, Reforma Avenue, boasts an historic or religious statue at each of its many roundabouts. Two take a classical subject in Modernist cast: Cybele and her lions (as per the fountain in Madrid) and Diana, classical deity of the Moon and the Chase, in Fuentes' words "the goddess who hunts alone". She spent the 1950s, the years of Fuentes' vaunted youth, swathed in the circumspection of a nappy imposed on her nudity by a presidential wife.

Fuentes' latest book purports to unveil a Mexican affair with a North American film star, Diana Soren, a barely diguised Jean Seberg. Envisioned first as his moonlit Muse, she has the same unfortunately distracting effect on his writing as he appears to have on her acting. The relationship runs in tandem with a cowboy movie she's shooting in a small town in western Mexico. Soren's reiteration of her first seduction, in an Iowa schoolroom aged 14 and by full moonlight introduces a cascade of literary references to Artemis, Astarte and, of course, Cybele, "patron of those orgiasts who in her honour castrated themselves by moonlight".

Memoirs of adulterous affairs have a habit of being closer to fantastical fiction than to versions of the truth. They also tend to involve more than two parties. Here, more than ever, one senses that were any of the other spouses, partners, friends or servants caught up in one way or another to provide their account, one would have as many tales as participants. (The most intersting would be Azucena, Soren's dour Catalan dresser.) Seberg herself cannot reply, of course, since she committed suicide in Paris long before Fuentes committed their relationship to paper.

It augurs badly and starts well. Meditations on eternity in the instant, origins and destiny, memory and desire are his forte. Politics also get in early, through pondering on "what might the solitary huntress feel, seeing the children of Nicaragua mutilated by weapons from the United States, seeing blacks kicked and their heads split open by the Los Angeles police, seeing a parade of grand liars in the Iran-Contra conspiracy swearing the truth and proclaiming themselves heroes of freedom?" Second to the villainous regime in the unpopularity stakes come the Argentines, narcissistic Don Juans "who are bored in elevators without mirrors". Yet such criticisms have an unerring way of rebounding on their exponents: Fuentes' own acknowledged preoccupation with "rancour and revenge" is the very stuff of the archetypal Argentine tango.

Previously, in Myself with Others, Fuentes combined mythic and literary associations with politics and autobiography. He even introduced that old witch Circe - "the Goddess of Metamorphosis and for her there are no extremes, no divorces between flesh and mind, because everything is transforming itself constantly ... without losing its anteriority and announcing a promise that does not sacrifice anything of what we are." Diana keeps the dissolution of fleshly and mental existences strictly separated, however, to the benefit of the latter. The incidental asides, many comprising chapters in themselves, paradoxically provide the meat of this book. Whether digressing on the choices before indigenous Mexicans and US Black Panthers, on the capacity shared by artists as diverse as Max Ernst and Luis Bunuel to incorporate their culture into their art or on hunting racoons in Iowa, Fuentes is reliably erudite and entertaining.

Gone, however, is the candour of Myself. It is replaced by a self-consciousness verging at times suspiciously on insincerity. Laboured attempts to avoid justifying one's own bad behaviour metamorphose into their opposite. So do "frank accounts". And if one doesn't quite believe Fuentes' account of himself, how much harder it is to believe his of Jean Seberg. To a generation of film addicts of the 1960s' nouvelle vague, she was not only the magnetically dramatic St Joan but was directly responsible, in the wake of Breathless, for sending possibly dozens of teenagers purposefully off down the Champs Elysees selling, at top voice, the New York Herald Tribune.

Gone, then, the actress of inspiration and with her the writer of discretion. Fuentes' analytical commentary on literary ambitions - "a long apprenticeship that is always open to imperfection"- or on affairs of the heart - "Jealousy kills love, but it leaves desire intact" - rings true. It's just that the writer, for the purposes of this book, has become merely an actor, while the actor is never more than his lover.