2016 Capital as Power Essay Prize
Critical Theory and the Critique of Political Economy: Review

Vampire Capitalism: Carlos Fuentes and Vlad

by Adam David Morton on October 30, 2016

In his latest book entitled Chronicles: On Our Troubled Times Thomas Piketty argues that the Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes paints a revealing portrait of Mexican capitalism in his work. Just as Karl Marx said it was by reading Honoré de Balzac that one could learn the most about capitalism, notes Piketty, then so too can one turn to such literary sources as historical sources in understanding inequality. Indeed, this is a central motif of Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, as I have argued elsewhere.

Alternatively, debates on the ‘right to the city’ are proceeding apace with the publication of David Harvey’s Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution [2012]. In Harvey’s hands, the right to the city is a claim to some kind of shaping power over the processes of urbanisation, over the ways in which our cities are made and remade, and to do so in a fundamental and radical way. Here, of course, the main intellectual backstop is Henri Lefebvre’s Le Droit à la Ville [1968] that articulates a cry and a demand to transform and renew the foundations of urban time-spaces, or the way of living in the city.

vladIn exploring the spatial forms of the city, Carlos Fuentes (1928-2012) has always been a chronicler of Mexico City (see ‘From the Death of Artemio Cruz to the Death of Carlos Fuentes’). His national epics, such as La región más transparente (Where the Air is Clear, 1958) have also located him as a cronista of modern Mexico, or one of its key pensadores (intellectuals-at-large), providing a vision of culture on a national scale, accompanying the community, guiding it through its dilemmas, consoling it in grief, and sharing in its triumph, albeit at times as an authorised voice of the state, as Claudio Lomnitz has noted. So what can one make of the publication of Vlad, first published in a collection Inquieta compañía [2004], then subsequently in the year 2010, the centenary of the Mexican Revolution and Mexico’s bicentenary of independence, and now in English translation with Dalkey Archive Press?

The short novel Vlad traces a dark world that the central character Yves Navarro is drawn into as a result of his contact with the mysterious figure Vladimir Radu. Navarro works in a legal practice on Avenida Cinco de Mayo, drives a BMW and is married to Asunción, who works in a real estate agency in the Polanco area. Navarro frequents restaurants such as the Danubio on Calle Uruguay in the Centro Histórico, or the Bellinghausen in the Zona Rosa. In the 1940s, another Mexican writer and ‘chronicler of Mexico City’, Salvador Novo sketched in his Nueva Grandeza Mexicana [1946] the sustenance gained in such establishments. He recounts at the Bellinghausen the ‘cocktails de camarones’ that were ‘spoiled by parsley dressing’ during the midday lunches that were the occupied territory of civilian battalions from the American embassy.

In Vlad, Navarro works for Eloy Zurinaga who lives in one of the last remaining mansions in the Colonia Roma dating back to the Porfiriato, referring to the rule in Mexico of General Porfirio Díaz (1876-1910). This period is described as Mexico’s ‘pretend belle époque’  in which the Colonia Roma existed as an enclave of European cultural and architectural influences most of which have now been razed to the ground to make way for the office buildings, condominiums, and shops of today. Indeed, returning to Salvador Novo, on the origin and grandeur of these buildings, he remarks on how the insoluble problem of naming city streets is starkly evident in the Zona Rosa with the European presence underlined in the streets Hamburgo, Viena, Londres, and Nápoles. Only a ‘late tide of compensating geographic nationalism’ led to the names of Mexican cities – Puebla, Chihuahua, Zacatecas, Guanajuato, Tabasco – in the Colonia Roma.

In the novel, Eloy Zurinaga delivers a series of criticisms on these aspects of political power. He says:

Have you ever asked yourself, Licenciado Navarro, why the so-called “upper classes” in Mexico never hang on to their stations long? . . . The European conquistadors, the colonizers, were commoners, the hoi polloi, ex-cons . . . On the other side of the oceans, the Old World bloodlines prolong themselves, not only because they date back centuries, but also because they don’t depend, like we do, on immigration.

It is to those bloodlines that the narrative then turns to the character Count Vladimir Radu, a “friend” of Zurinaga and an émigré from an old Central European family, landowners from the Balkans, between the Danube and the Bistrica neighbourhood of Novi Sad. Yves Navarro and Asunción are assigned the role of locating a house for the Count with some strange requests: it has to be remote, easy to defend against intruders, it must include a ravine out the back, numerous drains must be available, an escape tunnel and blackened windows must be featured. An available house is located in Lomas de Chapultepec for the client Vladimir Radu, who is none other than the infamous historical figure turned vampire, Vlad the Impaler. Vlad moved to Mexico City because of the attraction of the ‘twenty million delectable blood sausages’ that are on offer there! Hence his ambition to lose himself in Mexico City, just as he lost himself in the past in London, Rome, Bremerhaven and New Orleans, wherever the fear of mortals has led him.

The novel moves to its dark dénouement with the family of Yves Navarro firmly at stake, so to speak. Moving through Mexico City, cutting through the Colonia Roma, passing Chapultepec Castle, travelling along Paseo de la Reforma, and on his way to Bosque de Las Lomas, Yves seeks a final bloody confrontation with Vlad. Yves reflects:

I had never before been so tortured by the slowness of the Mexico City traffic, the irritability of the drivers, the savagery of the dilapidated trucks that ought to have been banned ages ago, the sadness of begging mothers carrying children in their rebozos [shawls] and extending their callused hands, the awfulness of the crippled and the blind asking for alms, the melancholy of the children in clown costumes trying to entertain with their painted faces and the little balls they juggled, the insolence and obscene bungling of the pot-bellied police officers leaning against their motorcycles at strategic highway entrances and exits to collect their mordida [bite-sized bribe], the insolent pathways cleared for the powerful people in their bulletproof limousines, the desperate, self-absorbed, and absent gaze of old people unsteadily crossing side streets without looking where they were going, those white-haired, nut-faced men and women resigned to die the same way as they lived. The ridiculous, giant billboards advertising another imaginary world of bras and underpants covering small swaths of perfect bodies with white skin and blonde hair, high-priced shops selling luxury, and enchanted vacations in promised paradises.

It is this sort of image of resignation and anomie that fellow intellectual Carlos Monsiváis once categorically rejected, arguing that the prophecies contained in such narratives deprived Mexico City of the optimism and hope that is more characteristic, in practice, of everyday circumstances. In an alternative register, Monsiváis once commented much more freely on the spaces of difference within Mexico City, for example on the free associations of the Metro that mark it as a site of great urban reflection, of souls in pain and rejoicing within its ‘noisy silence’, captured in the photography of Francisco Mata Rosas.

In the novels of Carlos Fuentes the form of Mexico City is more in tune with the spatial order of the everyday lives of upper class characters and their inexorable distance from “the humble”. Even by 2010, the social spaces of difference in Mexico City that once stretched across the old vecindades (inner-city slums) of the ‘Barrio Bravo’ of Tepito to the centre-north of the city; the conditions of urban expansion in Ciudad Nezahualcóyotl to the east of the city, captured in the early days in the photographs of Héctor García and so proudly documented today at the Centro de Información y Documentación de Nezahualcóyotl; or the struggles of popular urban movements such as those that led to the founding of El Pedegral de Santo Domingo through land occupations in the south of the city, in 1971, were all missing from the novels of Carlos Fuentes that dealt with Mexico City’s urban restructuring.

Carlos Fuentes’ novels are entertaining and informative reads and reveal a great deal about his own specific social function as an intellectual in Mexico. Vlad, though, is more entertaining and original as a novel within the vampire genre. The spatial order of capital and the state is more present in the book than those spaces of difference that affirm alternative ways of organising social space.

It is more about the bite to the city, than the right to the city.

Adam David Morton
Adam David Morton is Professor of Political Economy in the Department of Political Economy at the University of Sydney. He is author of Unravelling Gramsci: Hegemony and Passive Revolution in the Global Political Economy (2007); Revolution and State in Modern Mexico: The Political Economy of Uneven Development (2011), recipient of the 2012 Book Prize of the British International Studies Association (BISA) International Political Economy Group (IPEG); and co-author of Global Capitalism, Global War, Global Crisis (2018) with Andreas Bieler. He co-edits Progress in Political Economy (PPE) with Gareth Bryant that was the recipient of the 2017 International Studies Association (ISA) Online Media Caucus Award for the Best Blog (Group) and the 2018 International Studies Association (ISA) Online Media Caucus Award for Special Achievement in International Studies Online Media.

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