“Carlos Fuentes on Central Park West: scenes from A Life in Translation” by Suzanne Jill Levine

Carlos Fuentes, 1987 by Bernard Gotfryd (via Wikimedia Commons)

This excerpt of a memoir in progress recounts a young translator’s travels in Europe with Uruguayan scholar, critic, and editor Emir Rodríguez Monegal.

Emir and I next saw Carlos in February 1970, in an apartment on Central Park West where his agent Carl Brandt threw a party for him. On this festive cold winter night, the burly, dashing Carl counted among his guests Rip Torn and, highball in hand, Lillian Hellman, who held court with a loud slurring voice as we entered, leaving our coats at the door with Carl’s wife. We stepped into the living room, and Rip approached, but I sensed he was orbiting the scene with a leer for the ladies, myself included, and I politely steered Emir past him. Advancing to the center of things, we glimpsed Shirley MacLaine seated on a sofa next to Carlos, on whose other side sat a glamorous young Mexican woman with green eyes named, I would learn, Carla Stellweg, then embarking on her career as a promoter in Latin American international contemporary art, who welcomed me with a smile and who, for years afterward, at literary cocktail events, would greet me with a warm embrace, as if we were bosom buddies. 

Carlos hailed us, rising to embrace his Uruguayan friend Emir. Resplendent in a silk top and a pair of wide-legged party pants that covered the cast on my broken left leg—tibia and fibula cracked in a skiing accident in Stowe a month earlier—I was accessorized by a black cane, which drew compassionate glances from my audience. The waters were divided, a place was made for me on the nearest corner of the twin sofa, and I plopped down facing Carla, Carlos and Shirley.

The guest of honor turned to face the others. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, and gestured toward me, “may I present Miss Suzanne Jill Levine—the Lolita of the Latin American Literary Boom.” Carlos awarded me this dubious accolade on more than one occasion during our acquaintance, partly because I’d still been quite young when I translated a novella of his, but mostly because he knew that Emir and I, with twenty-five years between us, were lovers. I never took it seriously, but I understand today that being seen as a couple couldn’t help affecting Emir and me adversely, especially in the academic circles where we all moved. I gather that academe nowadays has only grown more repressive and prejudicial.

My sofamates Eberhard and Phyllis Kronhausen, celebrated coauthors of a newly published coffee table bestseller on the topic of rejuvenation through sexual intercourse, Erotic Fantasies, now teamed up on me, he making advances and she looking on. I winced and silently renamed the lecherous husband Everhard. The vitality of these tall thin Danes clashed with their hair and skin bleached and wrinkled no doubt by long vacations in the sun. In the glance that passed between Shirley and me, did I catch a look of disapproval directed at my ill humor, my lack of savoir-faire? I squirmed. Later, she and I exchanged smiles across a buffet table.

The next summer Emir and I rented a SEAT 500 and toured Spain. I did all the driving, since Emir the urbanite saw the automobile industry as America’s downfall, and never learned how. After Madrid, we stopped at a hilltop castle parador midway to Valencia by the sea, then followed the coast up toward Barcelona, where we visited the brothers Juan and Luis Goytisolo on their estates in Tarragona. Over aperitifs on a rustic terrace, Juan, seated alongside his French consort, the novelist Monique Lange—Juan was gay, so this was a mariage blanc—told us the Goytisolo family wealth came from turn-of-the-century Cuba, where their grandfather had owned sugar mills. 

At the Rotonda in Barcelona, an art nouveau hotel later converted into a hospice, the Chilean writer Pepe Donoso invited Emir and me to lunch at his house in the hills over the city. Here we met his beloved pug, Peregrine Pickle, which snorted and provoked worry about its respiratory health; his vivacious, deep-voiced wife Maria Pilar; and their little adopted daughter Pilarcita, who, many years later, would publish the “true” story of her dysfunctional parents, and commit suicide shortly afterwards.

We saw Carlos on this trip when he invited us to join him at his favorite restaurant on the Ramblas with Gabriel Garcia Márquez—or “Gabo,” as Carlos called him—who would go on to win the Nobel Prize in 1984, but was already world famous and had acquired houses in France, Colombia, and Mexico, but currently resided with his wife and children in Barcelona. By 1970 the city had acquired a reputation for being a safe port for exiled Latin American writers. At an outdoor café where they had been having an aperitif, Emir and I squeezed Carlos and Gabo into the SEAT. I can see them in the rearview mirror now, the elegant Fuentes next to Gabo, who, with his checkered shirt, dark curly hair, and thick mustache, looked like a cab driver. At lunch on the Ramblas, the imposing public figure Carlos Fuentes impressed me with his largesse when he yielded center stage to the rising star, whose jokes and anecdotes enraptured us. Everyone ordered Gabo’s favorite dessert, crèma Catalana.

I asked Gabo about the writers who inspired him, particularly Virginia Woolf. I had been following a path of study suggested by an insightful article of Emir’s, in which he analyzed “innovation and anachronisms” in One Hundred Years of Solitude. Thanks to Emir’s guidance, I had written my M.A. thesis at Columbia University about that novel, and with his support, I would soon publish it as a book in Spanish entitled El Espejo Hablado (The Spoken Mirror). Gabo told me he admired Mrs. Dalloway. “I especially liked a scene where the main character is sitting inside a coach waving her white-gloved hand,” he said. “What struck me is that all you see is her gloved hand slowly waving.” He told us this scene had made its way into his description of a dictator in the novel he was then writing, Autumn of the Patriarch. Virginia Woolf was helping him finish writing that book, under pressure as he was, after the success of One Hundred Years of Solitude

Gabo’s dynamo agent Carmen Balcells joined us for lunch that day. A tough businesswoman with a booming voice, Carmen had started the agency and staffed it entirely with women. Her colleagues came to welcome me, and it felt good to be in their brainy female world, which defied the patriarchal Latin culture under Franco. In 2002 the agency would facilitate the Spanish publication of my biography of Manuel Puig, Manuel Puig and the Spider Woman: His Life and Fictions.

Translating an author lets you relate to them differently than you could by merely studying them. Translation is the closest and most intimate way to read a book. It’s a collaboration whether or not the author is present. I worked on Carlos’s novella Zona sagrada the following summer, and we corresponded in the fall when I had finished a first draft. My working relationship with Carlos was friendly, but it was also honest. In one of his letters from Mexico City, dated November 1971, Carlos told me that I made him “read like Henry James.” I couldn’t help feeling delighted by the compliment, but later in the letter, he explained that in my translation his character Claudia—a film star who dominates her gay son Guillermo, nicknamed Mito—now spoke American English instead of Mexican Spanish: 

I have only one basic desire: that the Claudia-Mito dialogs should be a lot harder, rougher, biting, more vulgar. As long as he narrates in the first person, the Jamesian tone with baroque overtones is just perfect. But when the mother and son engage in verbal battle, there should be (as in the Spanish original) a marked difference; Claudia, particularly, should be very bitchy and almost like a gangster in her speech, like something out of Raymond Chandler or Ross MacDonald.

These American authors provided models of style for Fuentes who, like other Latin American writers, was fascinated by their incisive depictions of social and political corruption. His first novels, as you can see in certain sections of Zona sagrada that are centered on Claudia, reflect their influence. He based the character of Claudia on the legendary Mexican actress Maria Félix, and would later write a play imagining a conversation between Maria and another Mexican diva, Dolores del Río, who played a seductive Latina in Hollywood movies of the 1930s and 40s. A diplomat’s son, Carlos had close ties with the Mexican motion picture industry. The actress Rita Macedo, his first wife, was known for her roles in the films of Luis Buñuel.

My correspondence with Carlos not only offers insights into his influences, but also shows my growth as a translator under his tutelage, as when he provided a sharp and droll gloss on Mexican slang terms in response to my queries, aware that I knew the colloquial Argentine variations. For example, when I didn’t understand a pejorative term for a child, I asked Carlos what his word meant. “Escuincle is the Mexican equivalent of the Río de la Plata’s pibe or the Chilean cabro,” he explained. “From the Nahuatl excuintl, a small hairless dog.” Then the suggestion: “Brat will do.” His impressive English was so helpful! Another time I asked about a different word, and Carlos replied, “Chole is a nickname for women called Soledad.” Unable to resist, he added, “Cien años de Chole.” 

I smile thinking of it now.

In June 1973 Emir and I went to Mexico, again a first for me, again a moveable fiesta. We spent time with Octavio Paz and Gustavo Saínz and many other writers and artist friends of Emir’s. In the fashionable neighborhood of San Angel Inn, we paid an amusing visit to the painter José Luis Cuevas, Buñuel’s neighbor, where we found out that while the artist and the filmmaker never spoke to each other, they were united in their complaints about the same architect (married to the Uruguayan poet Ulalume Gonzalez de Leon) who had built their homes. I saw, among other sites, the cathedral built on the ruins of a pyramid in Zocalo Square; the Media Luna, a café whose paneled walls were lined with portraits of the poet and abbess Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz; Sanborn’s, the cafeteria with its dazzling blue tiles; the Museo del Palacio de Bellas Artes… In short, the grandeur that is Mexico City.

I saw Carlos again that August. I was still in grad school, now at NYU, and on the advice of my professor Antonio Regalado, who said in his marvelously thick Castillian accent that I should follow the counsel of Friedrich Nietzsche and embrace my affinities, I flew away to France. From Paris, where I met with the Argentine author Adolfo Bioy Casares, I took the train to Saint Jean de Luz in the Basque country, to stay with Antonio and his family. Upon my return to Paris and to Bioy Casares, Carlos and his new wife Silvia invited me over for dinner. Silvia was pregnant, they said, and the baby was due any moment. I called the day of our dinner date, and sure enough, Silvia had gone to the hospital. Ever the gentleman, Carlos insisted I join him for a drink while he waited. It is sad now to recall that the son born that night and their second child, a daughter, would both die young. In some ways, this dire denouement harkens back to Carlos Fuentes’s view that living and writing are often at odds—or that, as he once told the Cuban novelist Guillermo Cabrera Infante, he felt he had to set aside living when he was writing. Maybe being a writer also meant that it was difficult for him to be present as a father.


Suzanne Jill Levine’s books include The Subversive Scribe: Translating Latin American Fiction (Graywolf, reissued by Dalkey Archive), Manuel Puig & the Spiderwoman: His Life and Fictions (FSG, Faber & Faber, UWP, e-book) and two poetry chapbooks. An eminent translator whose career began in the early 1970s, she has won many honors and translated over forty volumes of Latin American literary works. Editor and co-translator of a five-volume series of Jorge Luis Borges’ poetry and non-fictions for Penguin paperback classics (2010), her most recent translation, Guadalupe Nettel’s Bezoar and Other Unsettling Stories, was shortlisted for the 2021 Oxford-Weidenfeld Prize. She currently is writing a “translator’s memoir.”