Stories by Carlos Fuentes about the great Mexican family can help us unpick the fiction of unity behind this national institution
Carlos Fuentes, translated by Edith Grossman
2008, Random House
331 pages (hardback)
Reviewed by Georgina Jiménez
DYSFUNCTIONAL families have been the subject of many US films, but if the reader has ever lived in Mexico he or she will soon come to realize that the “united” family is the strongest national obsession and the greatest source of hope for the future.
After all, the family is the bastion of society, the key to legality and national progress, and an example for other Latin American countries to follow.
“The great Mexican family” is a phrase repeated in many years of government speeches, Sunday TV shows featuring smiling white-haired grannies, young, svelte, light-skinned mothers, white-toothed fathers and cute plump little children around the table or on the sofa, and the long-running Radio Centro group’s motto in the velvety tones of Mariano Osorio.
Radio Centro also broadcasts a daily talk show called “Constructing the Mexican Family” (“Edificando la Familia Mexicana”) aimed at building citizens “under the values that exalt us as human beings”.
Moving away from the happy metropolitan view of Where the Air is Clear, Happy Families (first published in Spanish in 2006 as Todas las familias felices) has been defined as a polyphonic narration, presenting the artificial and conflictive dynamics between authority and the people, men and women, children and parents, in the struggle to maintain social cohesion.
Given that in 1958, when Where the Air is Clear was written, the reader’s perception is of a euphoric post-revolutionary mood where the Mexican lower and middle classes could feel an improvement in their lives, Happy Families drifts away to the point in which this joyful atmosphere has been replaced by one of complete despair.
The book has been written in a theatrical style and comprises 16 tableaus: a man who is shafted by his boss then later by his own eldest son; the mother who wonders if leaving her singing career was worth it; the girl who, tired of sexual harassment, becomes a recluse in the family home; the wife who puts up with an abusive husband under the illusion of true love; the mother of a murdered girl corresponding in jail with her killer; the old thwarted lovers who meet in Venice; the military chief who has to hunt his leftwing son; the mother of an ungrateful Mariachi bastard; the collapse of a gay couple’s former classy days and relationship; the priest and his hidden daughter; the philanderer who does not want to commit; the discarded actor made to face the music; the uncomfortable brother and the three dutiful women who respect their father’s authority even ten years after his death.
The reader discovers with them that the key to paternal, maternal, filial, espousal, religious and political happiness is hypocrisy, betrayal, lies (white ones), virtual reality, French and English clichés and of course, the lyrics of boleros.
A device used by Fuentes to depict those voices that are silenced by the daily preoccupations of a normal middle-class Mexican family is the insertion of an isolated children’s chorus, which includes destitute Mexican kids and Central American children displaced to the north by poverty or regional conflict.
It could not be grimmer than the Mayan predictions for 2012. The tone achieved, in a beautiful style, is as dark as any Mexican joke – although there is no pun, and the conclusion is that the great Mexican family is definitely not amusing.
In Happy Families, Fuentes formulates the same questions that, after a few hours of propaganda the television viewers or radio listeners start to ask: was the family perfect because it was bored, or was it bored because it was perfect?
Or were all of them, without exception, merely part of a single accepted and acceptable symbol referring to the quota of happiness that we all really deserve?