Friday, February 03, 2006

To die in the land of Kafka

I realise now that my greatest weakness as an author could ultimately prove to be the lack of a talkative grandmother.

Never mind. At least I have now shaken the hand of one of Latin America's 'boom' writers, Mexico's leading man of letters, Carlos Fuentes. Perhaps not, in all honesty, my instinctive first choice from amongst that illustrious generation: I've read and enjoyed several of his short stories, yet I've never picked one of his novels off the shelf at the bookshop and thought "andale!"

For some reason I had always imagined that Fuentes would present a more solemn and patrician figure, like an austerely bookish version of your typical ranch-owning 'Don', but up close in person last night he appeared more pocket-sized and fragile, more paperback than hardback, and a tone or two darker than he had from back in row R in the Purcell Room. But the twinkle in his eye was unmistakeable.

After reading passages from The Eagle's Throne, his new "anticipatory" novel, Fuentes fielded a few questions, one of which prompted him to tell an amusing anecdote about a train journey he once made with two other literary superstars from the boom period, Julio Cortázar and Gabriel García Márquez . The Czech novelist Milan Kundera had invited the trio to experience the Prague Spring at first hand and as they rattled across Central Europe Cortázar kept them entertained throughout the night by verbally downloading from his memory bank of mystery narratives involving trains.

On arrival in Prague Kundera invited them to a sauna. "Ni muerto" said Cortázar, leaving Carlos and Gabo to follow their new friend. At the end of their stint in the sauna, when García Márquez asked where the shower was, Kundera broke it to them that there wasn't one on site, but he had an idea. "Follow me..." He led them to a door which opened onto the banks of the river, at that time completely frozen over, but close to their exit a hole had been cut in the ice. Reporting this bracing little dip as one of the worst moments of his life, Fuentes chuckled at the memory of García Márquez bobbing up and down in the freezing water. The Colombian had later exclaimed that "for a moment, I thought we were going to die in the land of Kafka".

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