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Originally published Thursday, October 2, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

"Happy Families": Title contradicts tales by Mexican master

"Happy Families" is a collection of stories about some very unhappy people by Mexico's most celebrated novelist, told with a grim verisimilitude and a mastery of the sights and smells of his native land.

Special to The Seattle Times

"Happy Families"

by Carlos Fuentes

Random House, 332 pp., $27

If you're familiar with Carlos Fuentes' prodigious literary career, you will not for one moment be misled by the title of Fuentes' new collection of short stories, "Happy Families."

Over the course of his nearly 50 years as Mexico's most celebrated writer of novels, short stories and essays, Fuentes' literary point of view has hovered between dark pessimism and angry fatalism, brought simmering to the surface by the injustices of history and politics. And anyway, the quote on the first page of this new collection clears up any confusion about what comes next. It is Leo Tolstoy's famous line from "Anna Karenina," that "Happy families are all alike: Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

In these stories of despair and the dissolution of dreams, sons make treasonous pacts to defy their fathers' most heartfelt wishes. Children inherit, as if through DNA, the psychological and emotional failures of their parents. Upper-class, piously Catholic wives, having produced heirs, reject further sex with their husbands, condemning the men to lives of desperate infidelity. People who were once teenage sweethearts meet late in life, a happenstance that tarnishes the beautiful memories of their youthful affair and tears from them the one balm of old age, sweet nostalgia.

In one of the most haunting stories, "Mater Dolorosa," a woman exchanges oddly formal, probing, yet intimate correspondence with a stranger about her brilliant, beautiful, defiant and deceased daughter. The reader's suspicions are slowly confirmed; the man is the daughter's murderer. But the skill with which Fuentes weaves in themes of history and racism — the woman and her daughter are highly educated intellectuals of European descent while the murderer is an impoverished Mexican Indian — makes this tale more than simply a troubling psychological examination of loss and blame.

Deftly translated by Edith Grossman, Fuentes' sinuous prose often takes on a raw, aggressive quality, particularly in the "choruses" wedged between each story. These two- to three-page narratives are presented in loose verse or in stream-of-consciousness screeds. Many are rages about Mexico's poverty and social injustices, and they blister with hellish images of drugs, prostitution, political corruption, pointless machismo and beggar children spitting gasoline-fueled flames from their mouths to earn pesos on the streets of Mexico City.

Gloomy as these tales are, Fuentes' masterful ability to evoke the sounds, smells, sights and mythic history of his native land makes "Happy Families" resonate with grim verisimilitude.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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