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from the August 2012 issue

Carlos Fuentes’s “Vlad”

Reviewed by Heather Cleary

Few monsters have weathered the years with greater aplomb.

The dark side of humanity and of society is always there, and it is up to the writer to show it, because if he doesn’t, it hides itself and appears when it is least expected.

— Carlos Fuentes

Ageless, but eternally timely, the vampire has taken as many forms—and as many names—as there have been generations to dream them up: from the bloodthirsty Wallachian despot to the withering aristocrat on the bustling streets of Victorian London; from the well-heeled hedonists of the late twentieth century to the fresh-faced crop that emerged on the eve of the twenty-first. Few monsters have weathered the years with greater aplomb.  

The figure has again been cast in a contemporary mold, this time by the late Carlos Fuentes, the celebrated author of dozens of books of fiction and nonfiction, including Where the Air is Clear (1958), Terra Nostra (1975), for which he received the prestigious Xavier Villaurrutia and Romulo Gallegos prizes, and The Old Gringo (1985). Nor is it the first time Fuentes has dabbled in the occult: his 1962 novella Aura—to name just one prominent example—uses the supernatural machinations of a solitary old woman as a lens through which to examine the intersection of personal and national history, and the sometimes porous borders of the self.

Vlad, the last novel Fuentes published before his death this past May, is told from the perspective of Yves Navarro, a partner at a Mexico City law firm who seems to have it all: the career, the house, the adoring wife, the adorable daughter, and the respect of his politically influential employer, Don Eloy Zurinaga. The latter asks Navarro to help an old friend from the Sorbonne (whom he met “back when law, like good manners, was learned in French”) purchase a home in advance of his arrival in the Distrito Federal. It is a simple assignment, well beneath his qualifications, but Navarro is the only attorney available at the moment, and it just so happens that his wife, Asunción, is a real estate agent. Nothing, really, could be more convenient. There are just one or two eccentricities to accommodate: all the windows of the residence are to be blacked out and a tunnel should join its interior with a ravine out back. None of this, oddly, gives Navarro or his wife significant pause.

After weeks spent dealing exclusively with his client’s proxies, Navarro is called upon to meet with him in person. The enigmatic photophobe, Count Vladimir Radu (“All my friends call me Vlad”), finally makes an appearance, and what an appearance it is:

He wore all black: black turtleneck shirt, black pants, and black moccasins without socks. His ankles were extremely thin, as was his whole body, but his head was enormous . . . he looked like a ridiculous marionette.

It is a disconcerting encounter; try as he might to keep the conversation professional,  as Navarro is drawn into a discussion of tradition, ancestral homes, and the intimate details of his private life, he begins to glean that the coincidences that brought him to the Count were not coincidences at all. As one unsettling discovery follows another (a leering servant with an appetite for young girls; an unwelcome presence in the Navarro boudoir; a photo of Asunción in the Count’s closet), the young attorney realizes that the gaunt, glassy-nailed Count not only knows about the death of his son several years earlier, but also has sinister designs on the remaining members of his household (not to mention the unsuspecting residents of Mexico’s capital city).

If all this sounds somewhat familiar, it is because the novel quite openly engages Bram Stoker’s 1897 classic, Dracula. In both works, a mysterious figure moves from the storied southern reaches of the Carpathians to a metropolis, in search of a fresh batch of what Fuentes describes as “delectable blood sausages.” In both versions, a lawyer poised for professional advancement is charged (apparently by chance) with helping the émigré establish himself in his new homeland, and a modest young woman comes to embody a fearsome sexuality, though in Fuentes this transition is more decadent and spittle-flecked than sensual. Fuentes also diverges from Stoker in the name he assigns his voracious title character, which places him at the origin of the vampire myth, the savage reign of the Voivode Vladimir Tepes (known as Vlad the Impaler) rather than aligning him with its later, more genteel, manifestation. Yet despite the imposing presence of his literary lineage, Vlad is very much a vampire of our time.

Those familiar with Fuentes’s work will not be surprised by his choice to set the story in the Distrito Federal: though he was born in Panama, raised in the United States, and spent much of his adult life traveling as a diplomat and visiting lecturer, the author’s connection to Mexico never flagged. On the contrary, its urban landscape continually renewed itself in his imagination. Mexico City is, for Fuentes, the juxtaposition of new and old, of poverty and ostentation, indigenous and European cultures. It is a city where baroque cathedrals and skyscrapers, built over the razed city of Tenochtitlan, evoke the tensions of a cultural identity in which the past forms a vital part of the present. What could be a more fitting home for Vlad, who is also, in his way, the composite of vastly different moments in time?

The Distrito Federal also bears the marks of the violence and subjugation that have shaped it, from the tribute (both material and human) tendered by the provinces of the Aztec empire, to Spain’s sanguinary conquest of the region and its inhabitants, who fell in unthinkable numbers as fortunes were made at their expense. Most recently, tens of thousands of Mexican citizens who have met horrifying deaths at the hands of the drug cartels, and the government’s apparent inability to do anything about it; it is precisely this sense of lawlessness that attracts Vlad from across the Atlantic.

Mexico, a city of twenty million new—as you might call them—victims! A city without police protection! You wouldn’t believe the trouble Scotland Yard put me through in London!

Though the wink that accompanies it is practically visible on the page, Vlad’s quip about the different cities in which he has lived exemplifies what Fuentes once described as the “conjuncture between the social and narrative dimensions” of his life, the responsibility he felt as a writer to call attention to social ills—in this case, those of narco-commerce and, more broadly, the subtler forms of violence inflicted by the private sector (much of which, like his title character, has arrived from overseas). The latter, after all, is the reason Vlad covets Navarro’s ten-year-old daughter Magdalena: she has not yet been drained by a system that demands children “stop being children and become adults, workers, people ‘useful to society.’”

Fuentes is hardly the first to suggest a connection between vampirism and the exploitation of labor: the pairing appears in Marx’s Capital, and recurs throughout Stoker’s novel. But whereas Dracula jealously guards his (human) resources, taking from them only what he needs for his survival, Vlad seems to favor excess over economy (a shift in the model that, in light of the above, calls to mind the rampant financial abuses of recent years). The forest of stakes he erects in the ravine behind his home leaves little to the imagination, though their purpose is noted with some delectation, nevertheless:

Vlad liked to cut off noses, ears, genitals, arms, and legs. Burn, boil, roast, crucify, bury alive . . . He sopped up the blood of his victims with his bread . . . But impaling people was his signature manner of slaughter, and he took pleasure in all the varieties of torture made possible by the stake.

As the passage above suggests, Fuentes seems to take as much delight in the more lurid aspects of the story as do its fanged antihero and his misshapen minion; this, unfortunately sends the narrative spiraling toward the sensational at times. In such a short work, the pages dedicated to Navarro’s coital adventures with his wife and the startling game he finds their daughter playing in the ravine (I’ll leave that surprise intact) can be jarring—not so much for their presence, as for their presentation. The same can be said of our narrator’s later musings on love and longevity.

Though not one of Fuentes's greatest works, Vlad is an entertaining jaunt punctuated by moments of incisive critique. Fuentes quite effectively uses the figure of the vampire to explore the dark recesses of a rapacious social order and, in so doing, sets a compelling word of caution on the lips of the monster himself:

Be content. Go back to the curse of work, which for you is a blessing. I know and I understand. You live life. I covet life. That’s an important distinction. What we have in common is that, in this world, we all use each other.

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