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BOOKS IN THE MIRROR: The Wisdom of Fuentes: THIS I BELIEVE: AN A TO Z OF A LIFE, by Carlos Fuentes, Random House

Although the title sounds like a self-help manifesto and the subtitle is a little gimmicky, Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes’ new book, This I Believe: An A to Z of a Life, is really a thinker’s book, an intellectual’s treatise, a tome for closet philosophers.

With its many references to art, history and literature, as well as figures ranging from Aristotle to Luis Bunuel, it’s not an easy book to read, requires close concentration (turn off the TV and the stereo), and likely will reward future re-readings.

Plus, you can pick it up and start anywhere, as Fuentes postulates, in alphabetical order, in short, personal essays, on subjects ranging from Beauty to God to Politics to Sex to Women.

Sound egotistical? Sure, Fuentes is obviously a man with great respect for himself and his own voice. But with his intelligence, his insight, his eloquence, he is a writer, a man, to listen to and be reckoned with.

He writes of the 19th century French novelist Balzac (“next to Cervantes and Faulkner, he is the novelist who has influenced me the most”) that “his passions are personal as well as collective.”

Fuentes could be talking about himself. For who does not, in between worries about money, job and family, think about religion, education and politics?

Some even think about Shakespeare, or Faulkner, to whom Fuentes pays the utmost respect.

“Faulkner,” he writes, “rejects the foundational optimism of the American Dream and tells his countrymen: we too can fail. We too can bear the cross of tragedy. This cross is called racism.”

Perhaps the most fascinating and readable essays are the most personal: Fuentes’ takes on Family and Mexico.

Of mixed Spanish and German blood, Fuentes’ maternal grandmother, appointed inspector of schools in 1921, “was consistently leonine, for she was the eternal guardian of her pride.”

An aunt, assaulted on the Camino Real, lost her rings to “the barbaric slice of a machete.”

Another aunt, “completely dominated by her mother’s forceful will … sacrificed her own happiness to fulfill her filial duties.”

Fuentes’ father, a lawyer and lifelong diplomat, which afforded young Carlos a childhood in Washington, D.C., Santiago de Chile and Buenos Aires, was described by Mexican writer Alfonso Reyes as “But leaving diplomacy and entering retirement killed him” and he “slowly faded away, disconcerted, wearing a poignant expression of absence and nostalgia.”

Fuentes’ mother, the glue of the family who lived “a never-ending, real-life love story” with his father, died at 94 with one regret: “I would have liked to pilot a plane.” It’s no wonder this couple produced such a three-dimensional son.

Truly an international man – Fuentes today lives in London – he nevertheless maintains an old Mexican soul and nurtures close ties to his native country. “We suffer,” he writes of his countrymen, “not from the complex of a people conquered, but from the complex of a people bewildered by the `modernity’ they must confront.”

“Mexicans,” Fuentes notes, “haven’t managed to invent a single useful object for the modern world. We are, however, great improvisers: we reassemble things that are broken, connect cables, pirate lights, resuscitate roosters in the cockpit, and ably cook what nature granted us. We are the chefs de cuisine of poverty.”Beautifully rendered, This I Believe is the product of a searching, supple and expansive mind, a cultivated effort of a man in love with life, but not blind to its faults, horrors and idiosyncrasies. Bravo.

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