Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 19, 2015

Inez (2000), by Carlos Fuentes, translated by Margaret Sayers Peden

Inez2I’m very fond of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique and have listened to it countless times but I’m not familiar with The Damnation of Faust, a piece of music which is integral to this novella by Mexican author Carlos Fuentes.  Having just discovered Fiston Mwanza Fujila writing a book like a piece of modern jazz, I was alert to the idea that the writing of Inez might mimic the musical structure and motifs of Faust as well as its central concerns.  But if it does, I couldn’t see it, and there were other aspects of the book that were obscure to me.  Sometimes literary fiction makes demands of its readers that are beyond us…

But I still really liked the book.  It is written in two parts, in prehistory and in the near pastThe book begins with the story of Maestro Gabriel Atlan-Ferrara and his sometime lover Inez Prada: their first meeting in the 1940 London Blitz; their affair in Mexico some years later; and their final performance where the two parts of the novel come together in cacophony as Gabriel conducts Inez as Marguerite in a Covent Garden production of The Damnation of Faust.  Within these events is the story of neh-el and ah-nel, representing the first encounter of man and woman in human history.

What I loved was the meditations on music and memory; the  legendary conductor’s refusal to be recorded because he refused to give his art to an audience that wasn’t present :

his musical ceremonies would be live, only live, and would be unique, unrepeatable, as profound as the experience of those who heard them, as volatile as the memory those same audiences kept of them.  In that way he demanded that if they wanted it, they would remember it. (p.14)

and the tumult of words with which Fuentes and his brilliant translator render the power and majesty of Berlioz’s Faust.  I liked Gabriel diminishing Nazi Germany as a niggardly horror…

Your horror is true horror, it lacks grandeur, it’s niggardly horror, because you don’t understand , you will never be capable of understanding, that immortality, life, death, and sin are mirrors of our universal, internal soul, not your transitory and cruel external power.’ (p23)

… and I also liked the strong and purposeful Mexican diva, as ambitious as Gabriel and insistent on having equal agency:

A woman knows more about life, and sooner, than a man, who is slow to give up his childhood. Perpetual adolescent or, worse, age child. There are few immature women, but many children disguised as men. (p.121)

The Faustian pact of love and death is always fascinating, and the way Fuentes has imagined the first meeting of man and woman is truly beautiful.  Departing from the crisp, arch conversations between two sophisticates of the 20th century, to the dawn of language, communication and love, the prose is a luminous revelation of what an astonishing moment it must have been, a moment not recorded, not in word, not in song, not in image.  Fuentes cruels his Eden, as he must, but the moment lingers well after closing the book, transcending the brutal clash of the two time periods in the opera.

Maya Jaggi at the Guardian drew parallels between Inez and Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, which I have yet to read.

Update (the next day)

My Facebook friend Karen has found a terrific recording of The Damnation of Faust.  Susan Graham and Jonas Kaufmann are wonderful in the lead roles. But this was a trigger for me to share another little snippet from Fuentes about the perils of ‘illustrating’ music – something we have all become used to in the digital age.  Present at the Mexican rehearsals is a musician-bureaucrat (assumed by Gabriel to be a surveillance officer keeping an eye on the suspicious foreigner) who reminds the conductor that images of the Holocaust are not necessary, and that he should ‘Let the composer speak to us of the horror of hell and the end of the world in his own way.’

Atlan-Ferrata berated himself and agreed with the affable Mexican.  He was putting down his own argument.  Hadn’t he told Inez just last night that an opera’s visibility consists in hiding certain objects from view so the music can evoke them without degenerating into simple thematic painting, or into further, though futile, degradation into a ‘chimerical ensemble’ in which conductor and composer musically torture one another.  (p. 86)

And while I’m revisiting this review, (which was written at four in the morning when I couldn’t sleep), I’ll also add – apropos of nothing at all – this gorgeous snippet about London, my London – where these parks were part of my childhood and are my delight when I return as an Aussie tourist:

High Street is comfortable and civilised, lined with hardware and carry-out shops, stationery stores, office-supply shops, magazine-and-newspaper stalls, bookstores, and a large open park behind an elegant iron fence.  Holland Park, one of those green spaces that punctuate the city of London and give it its unique beauty.  The main streets are utilitarian, wide, and ugly – unlike the grands boulevards of Paris – but they protect the secret of quiet little streets that with geometric regularity lead to fenced parks with groves of tall trees, manicured greensward, and benches where one can read, rest, or be alone.  Inez loved to return to London and find those quiet oases where the only things that change are the seasons, and those unvarying gardens untouched by the tribal rites and noises with which youth announces its presence, as if silence would annihilate it. (p.124)

Author: Carlos Fuentes
Title: Inez
Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Sayers Peden
Publisher: Farrer, Strauss and Giroux, 2002, first published 2000
ISBN: 9780374175535
Source: Kingston Library

Fishpond: Inez


  1. Carlos Fuentes was Mexican, not Colombian. Born in Panama, where his father was a Mexican diplomat.


    • Oops, thank you for setting me straight!


  2. […] haven’t read a lot of books from Argentina – only Borges’ Labyrinths, Inez by Carlos Fuentes,  Varamo by César Aira, and Traveller of the Century by Andrés Neuman are […]


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