Book Review: The Orange Tree by Carlos Fuentes

The Orange Tree – Carlos Fuentes (translated from the Spanish by Alfred Mac Adam) (Harper Perennial, 1994)

This book consists of five semi-linked novellas. I say semi-linked because you can certainly read them individually and the connections between each are subtle. However, when read together, they flow and they really do make the best sense as a whole. There is a sense of moving through time, a sense of connection through history and place. Mexico is at the heart of each story and in each story is placed an orange tree, each with its own meaning and significance.

The stories are set a little bit in a chronological order (it’s hard to pinpoint the final story The Two Americas) and so we begin with Cortes and the arrival of Spain in Mexico. Reading the first two stories, both of which heavily reference Cortes, had me realizing how little I know about Mexico’s history, particularly the history before the Spanish arrived there. Fuentes does a powerful job throughout each story of showcasing a country invaded by others. There is a deep sense of Mexico as a land with its own people and history before Cortes shows up. Fuentes shows the ruthlessness of the conqueror as well as the far-reaching effects of colonization. (This is especially apparent when the stories are read as one book, the stories set in more recent times being read in light of the stories of the colonizers.)

Fuentes leans heavily into the physical details. Blood, guts, the body. While this brings his writing alive and often keeps the reader focused on the true horrors of what is occurring, it did make certain sections difficult to read. There is also a lot of focus on the female body in a way that frequently felt more like objectification than characterization to me. The characters here are largely male and the women who are here are side characters. They’re important but they’re not the primary focus. In Apollo and the Whores, Fuentes does deliberately make a switch partway through the story so that we begin to see the seven women in it as individuals rather than caricatures or objects but there remains a heavy focus on their bodies and their sexual behaviour.

Although I’d never read him before, Fuentes is a major name in Mexican literature and I can see why. His writing is thoughtful and filled with imagery and his story-telling is compelling. At this point in time, he read to me very much as a male writer of the 20th century with a very male-centric perspective but I greatly appreciated the way The Orange Tree made me think about colonization and Mexican history in a way I hadn’t considered before.

9 thoughts on “Book Review: The Orange Tree by Carlos Fuentes”

  1. This sounds very interesting despite the male-centric perspective – I’ve read very little Mexican literature, and like you say I also don’t know much about Mexican history. It’s clever to structure it so that the earlier stories about colonisation inform the way the reader relates to the later ones.

    1. It is a really clever structure, the way the stories work independently and together. I’m reading fewer male writers these days so I think a male-centric perspective like this is a lot more noticeable to me than it would have been if I’d read this a few years ago.

  2. Interestingly, I feel like every time I read books by Mexican women the focus is on men oppressing them, which makes me thankful that women are writing and uplifting the voices of all women out of the sea of the male gaze and sexual stereotypes and into their true lived lives.

    1. Yes! A book like this feels very much of its time to me, meaning that it makes sense to me that it was written/translated in the 1990s. This book wouldn’t exist in the same form today and it wouldn’t be lauded in the same manner. Hopefully that’s also the case in Mexico itself. I’m really curious now what has been written from a female perspective on Cortes and the conquest of Mexico.

  3. Great review! This does sound like an interesting read for the history of Mexico and its colonization, and the repeated but varied use of one symbol (the orange tree) throughout a set of interconnected stories is really appealing to me, but the male focus does sound disappointing. Maybe more bearable if one knows what to expect going in though- certainly we’ve all had to suffer through male-centric writing before! Unfortunately it seems to be a necessary evil in literature.

    1. Thanks! I don’t think the male-centric writing needs to turn you off, it’s not worse than plenty of other books. It’s something I’ve come to notice more in recent years and with his heavy focus on physical bodies it struck me quite strongly a few times. But sadly it’s not unique to me this book!

  4. I’ve always wanted to read Carlos Fuentes! It’s a badge of honour for every bookworm I think. Not surprising his work is very masculine and objectifies women. Unfortunate, but not surprising.

    1. Thanks! I’m glad to finally read some of his work. I wasn’t surprised about the heavy masculinity either unfortunately. Partially it was striking because his writing was very based in the physical. That meant there were amazing descriptions of the landscape and the way the narrators’ bodies felt in various situations. But it also seemed to transfer over to the female characters being more like objects than people.

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