BOOK REVIEW / Looking for twin fruits in the old world: The orange tree - Carlos Fuentes: Tr. Alfred MacAdam; Andre Deutsch, pounds 14.99

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The Independent Online
THE MEXICAN writer Carlos Fuentes once said that a catastrophic event need not be a sterile one. Certainly, the five stories in The Orange Tree present fruitfulness in the midst of disaster. As in his earlier work, Fuentes is concerned with the collision between old worlds and new ones, particularly in Mexico; his conclusion is that cultures are not destroyed but go underground, to bloom again in unsuspected ways.

The first two novellas are situated at the moment of the Spanish discovery and conquest of Mexico. In 'The Two Shores', the first translator between Spanish and the native Indian languages recalls, in a disembodied voice from beyond the grave, how he tried to foment a revolt that would drive Cortes and his men back into the sea. He knows that he is condemned to failure.

The voices in the second story, 'Sons of the Conquistador', carry this tussle between two worlds on into the next generation. Two of Cortes's sons - one by a native woman in Mexico, one by a woman in Spain - dispute the legacy of the conquest. They explore the new creation that will somehow represent 'the twin fruits of America and Europe'.

These two novellas suggest a linear progression that Fuentes abandons in the rest of the book: the remaining three stories are more loosely linked to these ideas of transformation and regeneration. One, 'The Two Numantias', shows Fuentes at his closest to one of his masters, the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges. In this story, the Roman general Scipio finally reduces the last resistance to the Roman conquest of Spain in the city of Numantia by creating a second city, but one that is empty, built on nothingness. Yet in human history, Fuentes suggests, this is never what happens: there will always be the seeds of the future contained even in 'the ash-covered centre of Numantia'.

Another adventure into nothingness is at the centre of 'Apollo and the Whores'. Where Rome or Spain were once the central cultural reference points of their historical eras, Fuentes now offers us Hollywood. Here, the Irish B-movie star Vicente Valera (Fuentes taking his revenge on another B-movie actor with rhyming initials, Ronald Reagan) is determined to leave life smothered by his 'seven whores, on a yacht sailing out from Acapulco into nothingness'. He achieves his aim gloriously, but after his death Valera is castrated, his 'oranges' and their seeds swallowed by one of the seven Mexican whores. So, grotesquely, one culture again passes into another.

The very last voice in the book is that of the man who started it all: Christopher Columbus. In this fable he has lived for 500 years in a Caribbean paradise, preserving it by saying nothing about it in Europe. He is still unsure whether or not he has in fact reached Japan. Then, one day, Japan reaches him. Japanese developers decide to turn his paradise into a theme park, with disastrous consequences. Again, Fuentes adds a twist: Columbus, the man who has taken the world of Spain into the new world of the Americas, is a wandering Sephardic jew.

Fuentes has always thrown ideas into the air for the reader to catch or drop. In his best novels - The Death of Artemio Cruz or Terra Nostra - the writing sustains this ambition with its audacity, precision and wit. The Orange Tree was written while Fuentes was busy writing and presenting the television series The Buried Mirror, which commemorated the 500th anniversary of Columbus's first voyage. The stories here - though far from sterile - read too much like the spin-off from that series.

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