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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Nietzsche on His Balcony

Carlos Fuentes

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To purchase Nietzsche on His Balcony

Title: Nietzsche on His Balcony
Author: Carlos Fuentes
Genre: Novel
Written: 2012 (Eng. 2016)
Length: 334 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: Nietzsche on His Balcony - US
Federico en su balcón - US
Nietzsche on His Balcony - UK
Nietzsche on His Balcony - Canada
Federico en su balcón - España
  • Spanish title: Federico en su balcón
  • Translated by E.Shaskan Bumas and Alejandro Branger

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Our Assessment:

B+ : wildly, intriguingly spun political-philosophical take

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
El Cultural . 14/12/2012 Joaquín Marco
Letras Libres . 9/12/2012 A.González Torres

  From the Reviews:
  • "Fuentes juega con las identidades. Hasta sus nombres reflejan la irónica concepción de los personajes. Los puntos de vista convierten la trama en un auténtico laberinto. En paralelo, se desgranan las ideas de Nietzsche sobre el eterno retorno o la defensa de la violencia. (...) Un pesimismo radical envuelve la novela-ensayo. Fuentes ha prescindido del tiempo lineal y retrocede en la acción o avanza en múltiples sinsentidos. Tal vez bulle en ella una excesiva cantidad de ideas y un deliberado propósito de escapar de cualquier veleidad realista. Es un libro para pensar." - Joaquín Marco, El Cultural

  • "Hay, en momentos, una mirada penetrante, cruda y compasiva al mismo tiempo, que busca indagar en los abismos del poder y de la condición humana y que se adentra, de manera inédita en Fuentes, en los fenómenos del mal y la crueldad. Sin embargo, esta prometedora perspectiva no se consolida, pues el autor no deja crecer a sus personajes más inquietantes y se amuralla en sus propias convenciones narrativas. Así, por las cerca de trescientas páginas de la novela desfilan múltiples personajes que son esbozados en trazos soberbios, pero que se confunden a la hora de interactuar y se pierden en los excesos y desplantes de la trama." - Armando González Torres, Letras Libres

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Nietzsche on His Balcony does, in fact, feature Friedrich Nietzsche -- or 'Mr. Neachy', as one character calls him ('Don Niche' in the original Spanish) -- despite the fact that he's supposed to have been long dead by the time the events in the novel take place. The novel opens with the author-narrator stepping on his balcony and wondering about the man standing on the neighboring one: "Why did this stranger look so familiar ?" Well, his is a familiar visage, and the man does introduce himself as Friedrich Nietzsche; as to his lively posthumous presence in vaguely contemporary times, that too is eventually given an explanation -- though it hardly really matters: this is a fiction -- almost a Gedankenexperiment -- that plays with (among many other things) the idea: What would Nietzsche think ? It's good ol' Nietzsche, too, not quite popping up out of nowhere, but also not some everlasting one that has lived through it all; among the amusing aspects of the ensuing discussions is that he isn't quite up to date: "Sometimes I don't get your references", he admits to his conversation-partner. But his philosophical attitude stands the test of time, and he has more than enough to say about what's happening.
       The two men on the two balconies are curious about each other, and about what's going on:

     Let's agree on how to proceed: I'll talk about whatever I want, and you'll talk about whatever you want. We'll take turns.
       It doesn't work out quite that simply, but the novel does proceed in a back and forth, nearly half its 121 chapters short dialogues between the two balcony-standers, while the remaining ones focus on a variety of other characters, involved in local activities. In a sense the two men are watching a spectacle, commenting on the political turmoil below -- or out there -- at some remove, like theatre-goers talking about the play being staged in front of them from their loge.
       The characters involved in the actual action include brothers Dante and Leonardo Loredano, who aren't on particularly good terms; lawyer Aaron Azar, who is introduced defending twelve-year-old Elisa who, two years earlier, had murdered the family that had taken her in after she had been rescued from her horribly abusive parents; and Saul Mendes-Renania. Dante, Aaron, and Saul form a revolutionary triumvirate that tries to lead the nation out of its political turmoil -- with Leonardo an obvious example of the opposition -- though they find, almost immediately: "The events have surpassed us, my friends".
       They are individuals, but they are also types, and representative; they play roles, as history (and author Fuentes) plays with them. As Aaron, recognizing their fates, eventually tells Dante:
In this conflict, in this conflict that's bigger than both of us, we're stuck inside history, we're no longer ourselves -- do you understand ?
       There's considerably more to Nietzsche on His Balcony, but at its most basic the action is of a revolution eating its most devoted children, its leaders, each in turn, undone by history. Saul recognizes it early on:
     "We won, Saul !" shouted Aaron, exasperated.
     "No," Saul said, suppressing a sigh, "we lost."
     "I just don't understand you," Dante said.
     "To be a revolutionary is to be in opposition. Always. The revolutionary's triumph is intellectual. To be opposed. To be critical. With no official position. Opposed to any official position."
       Beyond the political, the personal affects the characters too. Among them: Saul and Aaron each tangle with their female demons -- with very strong scenes of Saul like Danton in his bathtub, while Aaron unsettlingly secretly settles the now (just) pubescent Elisa in his home. Meanwhile Dante shares a bond with his brother, despite their very different agendas:
They were aware that each was taking a very different path in politics, but that, in the end, they were citizens of the same polis. They were brothers.
       The story, Nietzsche suggests, is a familiar one, of revolution where, as Saul fears, almost immediately: "the new system is starting to resemble the old one". As (the eternally returning) Nietzsche sees it:
     What I am pointing out to you is that time, our today, already happened. It is a reiteration. The decor can change. But this time only repeats itself.
     Did today already happen, yesterday ?
     Yes, because time is not linear, as you believe. Time is cyclical. We live an eternal return.
     Aaron, Dante, Leonardo already existed ?
     They wouldn't be in a book otherwise.
       Early on, someone tells Dante:
[T]here are so many stories, so many ways of finding out about them, of interpreting them.
       Fuentes playfully spins out his revolutionary tale -- with a wild abandon that can make it, at times, difficult to follow, different characters and side-tales (some of which grow in significance) as well as the semi-framing device of the two men on their balconies in conversation all pulling at the story, leading readers in ways that sometimes seem astray. (There are times when the advice one of those in the old administration gives the collapsing regime can seems to have broader application: "Communicate only what is unintelligible".) Yet the center does hold -- including because there is vision here, a reason why Fuentes uses Nietzsche, and the story does conclude with what is presumably also a personal summa, plea and recognition coming via the old, dead man (and some of his familiar claims):
God is dead. What do I mean ? That we shouldn't have faith out of atavism. We need faith. We require mystery. Not political ideology.
       Nietzsche on His Balcony is a fitting sort of final work -- it was published, just, posthumously -- right down to its use of a character who might be dead but can't be kept down, a stab of Fuentes' own for a sort of immortality. The presentation is not straightforward, but its experimentation isn't tired or old; one of the pleasant surprises of Nietzsche on His Balcony is how youthfully spirited the writing is: beyond some of the fatalism and philosophy, this isn't, in the least, an old man's tale (as Fuentes also wisely has his alter-ego on the balcony wisely stepping into the background and letting Nietzsche take the lead after the opening chapter) and for all the characters' many frustrations, there's hardly any world-weariness to it. The presentation can feel more complicated than it really has to be, but there's something to be said for it too: Nietzsche on His Balcony keeps the reader on their toes, yet also, at a more basic level, entertains: it is, ultimately, a thoughtful construction.
       An unusual, appealing philosophical-political piece of work.

- M.A.Orthofer, 25 November 2016

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Nietzsche on His Balcony: Reviews: Carlos Fuentes: Other books by Carlos Fuentes under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Mexican author Carlos Fuentes lived 1928 to 2012. Winner of the Venezuelan Romulo Gallegos Prize (for Terra Nostra) and the Cervantes Prize (1997). He has taught at Harvard, Princeton, Brown, and Columbia, among other universities.

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© 2016 the complete review

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