A Novel Approach to History

A Novel Approach to History

As an antidote to our troubled times, Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes makes a passionate appeal for literature, which "makes real what history forgot."

Read Time:
2m 6sec

The source: “In Praise of the Novel” by Carlos Fuentes, in Critical Inquiry,
Summer ­2006.

What the world needs now is novels. Mexican writer Carlos ­Fuentes—­himself the author of numerous works of ­fiction—­points to the impact of Miguel Cervantes’s Don Quixote de la Mancha when it appeared in 1605, in an age in which Cervantes’s native Spain was an aging empire on the verge of ­breakdown.

“As Cervantes responded to the degraded society of his time with the triumph of the critical imagination,” writes Fuentes, we citizens of the world today “face a degraded society and must reflect upon it as it seeps into our lives, surrounds us, and even casts us upon the perennial situation of responding to the passage of history with the passion of literature.”

As the 21st century begins, he observes, military spending far outstrips expenditures on health, education, and development. The needs of women, the elderly, and the young are left unaddressed. The environment is under siege. And terror is met with terror, while its root causes remain untended. Images have collapsed space and pulverized time, and we humans are in danger of becoming “cheerful robots amusing ourselves to death.”

These realities “should move us to affirm that language is the foundation of culture, the door of experience, the roof of the imagination, the basement of memory, the bedchamber of love, and, above all, the window open to the air of doubt, uncertainty, and questioning.” That “air of doubt” that writers stir is why, though “considered politically feeble and unimportant,” they are perse­cuted by totalitarian ­regimes.

Yes, Cervantes wrote as a man of his times, but what perhaps made him ­great—­Don Quixote was recently voted the best novel of all time by 100 writers from around the ­world—­is that he transcended them. He wrote as an inhabitant of “the house of world literature,” which is capacious enough to hold the traditions from which great works of literature spring as well as those they ­create.

We in the modern era need to shore up this house, according to Fuentes, to ensure our very survival. “Humankind will prevail, and it will prevail because, in spite of the accidents of history, the novel tells us that art restores the life in us that was disregarded by the haste of history. Literature makes real what history forgot. And because history has been what was, literature will offer what history has not always been. That is why we will never ­witness—­bar universal ­catastrophe—­the end of history.”

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