Fuentes' 'Orange Tree' is wise, inventive

April 13, 1994|By Allen Josephs | Allen Josephs,Newsday

Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes' magical new book, "The Orange Tree," snakes together five novellas into an intricately coiled mass in which heads and tails, beginnings and endings, fiction and history become deliberately indistinguishable. These are tales told by the dead, full of sound and fury, signifying all of Mr. Fuentes' obsessions: among other things the transmigration souls, the music of the spheres, the nature of God, man's inhumanity, duality and, as the original Spanish version made clear in its subtitle (omitted in English), "the circles of time."

The orange tree forms a common element in all these stories. The orange, more cipher than symbol, variously reflects in its burnished glow the sun, the Earth, fertility, civilization, the mixing of races, the maternal breast, the erotic breast and the cycles of time.

This ancient tree of life first shows up in the Roman General Scipio's garden, in the story "The Two Numantias." It is brought by the Greek historian Polybius, who was given seeds by a Syrian friend. There is a corresponding orange tree in Numantia, the Spanish town besieged by Scipio, the seeds of which were brought by "a repentant traveler, Genoese to be precise." Who is this Wandering Jew? Could he be a preincarnation of Columbus?

Columbus, it turns out in the last story, was indeed a wandering Sephardic Jew (whose family had fled from Spain), who does plant orange seeds in the New World. In the second story, Hernan Cortes does likewise near Acapulco; and in the fourth, Vince Valera, an Oscar-winning actor from Los Angeles of black Irish heritage, "a descendant of the Spanish sailors washed up on the coast of Ireland after the disaster of the Invincible Armada," is buried beside that orange tree outside Acapulco and dreams in death about the tree, trying "to imagine who planted it, a Mediterranean, Oriental, Arabian, Chinese tree, in this distant coast of the Americas."

There are any number of wonderful moments of historical vengeance in these inventive narratives. In the first, "The Two Shores," a renegade conquistador leads an army of Mayans against Seville. The narrator tells us: "I saw the burnt water of the Guadalquivir and the burning of the Tower of Gold . . . using the stones of the Giralda, we began to build the temple of the four religions, inscribed with the words of Christ, Mohammed, Abraham and Quetzalcoatl."

In "Sons of the Conquistador," which is about two sons of Cortes, one by a Spanish mother and the other by Cortes' Indian translator, La Malinche, there is a fine moment that portrays the duality of the mestizo, when the son of the Indian wonders:

"Which God: mirror of smoke or Holy Spirit, plumed serpent or crucified Christ, god that demands my death or god that gives me his, sacrificing father or sacrificed father, obsidian knife or cross?"

A millennium and a half earlier, after destroying Carthage and Numantia, Scipio was murdered, possibly by followers of his rival cousins, the Gracchi. In "The Two Numantias," Mr. Fuentes' dead Scipio wonders if the Greek mystic Pythagoras was right "that the soul is a fallen divinity, imprisoned in our bodies and condemned to repeat endlessly, circularly, a cycle of reincarnations?"

The fourth novella, called "Apollo and the Whores," by contrast recounts an offshore orgy on a sailboat involving the actor Vince Valera, a madam he calls Snow White, and seven young Acapulco prostitutes. Invincible Vince, unworried about "love in the times of AIDS," takes on all seven of the girls at once, and in the ultimate parody of fantasy has a heart attack at high noon. Death gives him the ability to read the girls' minds and narrate the story, all the while shedding his gringo prejudices and revivifying in death all the different characters of the book.

In the final story Columbus discovers America alone, his crews having mutinied and returned to Spain. He lives an idyllic existence for 500 years until the Japanese and the Europeans finally find the New World only to ruin it. Columbus sadly returns to Spain to find the home of his Sephardic ancestors in Toledo and to replant the orange tree, thus closing the circle.

This alternately wise, wild and witty collection of novellas (Mr. Fuentes' third book on the Columbian quincentennial) is both engaging and engaged. Its dualistic underlying subject matter, the role of cultural identity in human survival and the devastating price of cultural warfare, could not be more serious.

Yet Mr. Fuentes' ironic and inventive treatment of it -- especially seen against the current academic wrangling about ethnicity, multiculturalism and gender -- makes "The Orange Tree" as delightful as its namesake.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "The Orange Tree"

Author: Carlos Fuentes; translated by Alfred Mac Adam

Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux

Length, price: 229 pages, $21

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