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Carlos Fuentes (1928-2012), the famous Mexican writer, died a couple of days ago. Hearing this I immediately decided it was time for me to investigate his oeuvre. I selected his 1962 novella Aura, translated by Lysander Kemp; having previously read his short story ‘The Doll Queen’ in an anthology, I now believe he had not only great talent as a writer, but also (rather more surprisingly) a stylish way with horror fiction.

As a word of advice, my own experience of reading the book is that it demands the reader to be at ease. I was midway through the second chapter when I realised I wasn’t enjoying the story because I was reading it much too fast. I put it aside, returning later to start at the beginning and give it my undivided attention. Aura is short, so make it last. Take your time and savour it.

The cast consists of four characters: Felipe Montero, a young historian; long deceased General Llorente, whose memoirs Felipe is meant to put in order; Consuelo Llorente, the decrepit still-living wife; and Aura, her bewitching green-eyed niece. The novella begins with a poetic quote from French historian Jules Michelet (1798-1874): Man hunts and struggles. Woman intrigues and dreams; she is the mother of fantasy, the mother of the gods. She has second sight, the wings that enable her to fly to the infinite of desire and the imagination… The gods are like men: they are born and they die on a woman’s breast… Fuentes undoubtedly used this quote to draw attention to one of the subtexts of the story. Felipe and the General are preoccupied with history, consistency and rationality while the women form expressions of timelessness and the uncanny. I do not feel free to discuss the plot in depth so will try to leave it vague and move on to the style.

Perhaps the first thing you’ll notice about Aura is that it’s written in second person present-tense, a notoriously difficult style to do well. Why did Fuentes choose it? It obviously wasn’t to “put yourself in this man’s boots,” since Felipe is too distinct an entity for that to work. It seems rather to mimic the style of dream. You eat in silence. You drink that thick wine, occasionally shifting your glance so that Aura won’t catch you in the hypnotized stare that you can’t control. You’d like to fix the girl’s features in your mind. Every time you look away you forget them again, and an irresistible urge forces you to look at her once more. In the wavering details, in the manner of Felipe’s behaviour, and in the blatant irrationality of the setting, Aura mimics a dreamscape perfectly without once devolving into unreadable surrealism. For that alone, it should be highly commended.

And as such, the cover art manages to be completely misleading and all the more accurate for that. Aura is described in colours and ages, her features never pinned down, so to have an actual woman on the cover would be to destroy the effect. Nor does a cat belong there. The suffering of felines is a peripheral theme of horror that has trickled down from Poe’s ‘The Black Cat’ to something as obscure as the Joan Aiken story ‘Listening’ and Aura joins their ranks, though the cats are so incidental to the plot that I cannot begin to grasp their significance. That’s possibly the point….

The book tends to induce a sense of unease. I like my horror oblique so the balance here is almost perfect and if you let it, it will give you the creeps. It is however in the self-conscious literary department, so if you’re looking for thrills and chills upfront, look elsewhere. Here there’s just a house lost in the middle of a city with a garden that isn’t accessible and a servant that’s never seen. The set-up – Felipe inveigled to stay in this rat-infested mausoleum and the obsession of Consuelo Llorente with reclaiming her vanished youth – puts one in mind of Sunset Boulevard, while Consuelo’s manner of living seems a deliberate evocation of Miss Havisham. I can’t discuss most any of this in detail, save the presence of religious imagery – from Consuelo’s room lit with votive candles to the General, grieving in his memoirs: “Consuelo, my poor Consuelo! Even the devil was an angel once,” to the comparison between Aura’s body during sex with that of Christ’s on the cross. Mixing the sacred and the profane can be used as a shock tactic or as an above-board interpretation of a spiritual experience. Aura manages to do both.

The liberal use of French in the text leads me to the belief that Carlos Fuentes was a closet Francophile, but in terms of readability that is the only challenge it offers. Otherwise, Fuentes’ writing has a simple clarity that serves to highlight the restrained lushness of the prose and it reads beautifully. The woman, you repeat as she comes close, the woman, not the girl of yesterday: the girl of yesterday – you touch Aura’s fingers, her waist – couldn’t have been more than twenty; the woman of today – you caress her loose black hair, her pallid cheeks – seems to be forty. Between yesterday and today, something about her green eyes has turned hard; the red of her lips has strayed beyond their former outlines, as if she wanted to fix them in a happy grimace, a troubled smile; as if, like the plant in the patio, her smile combined the taste of honey and the taste of gall. It is this element of beauty that gives the story its impact. There is an allure in what is depicted and at the same time a repulsion – and that, to my mind, is the essence of the macabre.

It’s a bit early for me to make any sweeping pronouncements but from what I’ve read I feel confident in saying this: Carlos Fuentes was a great writer and an artist. Recommended.