The sixth novel by Carlos Fuentes (1928–2012), A Change of Skin demonstrates his use of nonlinear and irregular time regarding narrative structure. Published in Spanish and in English in 1967, it is considered a complementary text to Fuentes’s Terra Nostra (1975), a fictionalized account of the construction of the Escorial, Spain’s 16th century monastery and mausoleum near Madrid beginning in contemporary times and harkening back to the 16th century. A Change of Skin is dedicated to Julio Cortázar, Fuentes’s literary peer and a writer whose work Fuentes openly admired. Essentially, this experimental novel is about a journey of four characters giving up their identities in exchange for different ones as they relive old memories and learn new things about themselves and each other. On another level, the novel is a satirical look at Mexico’s societal, political, and cultural existence. Each character assumes the identity of another, in a sense borrowing each other’s skin, as the title of the novel suggests, allowing readers to discover what is both fundamentally fortifying and essentially prohibiting about the main characters.
A Change of Skin won the prestigious Biblioteca Breve prize for fiction, the Seix Barral; however, the novel was originally not published in Spain because of censorship threats. A leading Spanish publishing house was set to publish A Change of Skin, but its content was deemed too objectionable. The novel delves into existentialist modes dealing with issues of protest and racism. Critics also argue that this novel was denied publication in Spain due to Fuentes’s use of a clearly omniscient narrator, one whose actual existence is not defined by one point of view but by many.
Fuentes’s use of a unique literary device, la mirada (a stare, or gaze; a visual perspective to and from one character to another) functions as a literary discourse in which readers come to understand and familiarize themselves with the four main characters, regardless of any distances that might be separating the characters from what they might be flashbacking to in their minds.
The novel takes place in the city of Cholula, Mexico. Javier, Elizabeth, Franz, and Isabel are all driving to the beaches of Veracruz, but the car breaks down, and rather than attempt to fix the car and continue on to Veracruz, they decide to spend the night in a hotel. Two of the four, Javier and Isabel, are characters that readers might recognize from Fuentes’s first novel, Where the Air Is Clear. These characters are reincarnations of Rodrigo Pola and Betina Régules.
As the night progresses, the partners switch, one sleeping with another, and back again. The night is a collage of dreams, hallucinations, and flashbacks that symbolize many of the characters’ inner fears and desires. What might be difficult for some readers to understand is that many of the visions and dreams the characters experience do not necessarily contribute directly to any kind of plot or character development specific to the story itself; rather, these visions contribute to themes integral to the novel as a whole and do not complement a common thread of plot weaving throughout. In this way, Fuentes defines characters juggling with questions of internal confusion and feelings of isolation, and this contributes to the existing body of postmodernist texts.
A key scene in A Change of Skin occurs at the ancient Aztec pyramids at Cholula, where Franz, Javier, Elizabeth, and Isabel’s pasts meet their present. Fuentes creates a communion of temporalities in which the merging of what has happened in the past has directly influenced the present of the characters. Each character is joined in spiritual communion to the other by their life experiences. Mythical temporality, symbolized by the setting of the Aztec pyramid, suggests that the past is not merely history; it is a continual influence on the present and future.
Explicating the events in the story is an omniscient narrator, a mysterious changeling of sorts in that he changes skins, or identities, just as often as the characters do. In some cases, he refers to himself in the first person, as if he were a character in the novel; oftentimes, he engages directly in conversations with the four main characters. This is especially so with Elizabeth, Javier’s wife; yet the narrator also addresses Isabel, though he does so in the second person. Some critics argue that the narrator has no sexual orientation, no defining characteristic other than that of an omniscient narrator, but the pet names that he bestows on Isabel and Elizabeth strongly suggest that the narrator is male. Furthermore, at the end of novel, the narrator identifies himself as Freddy Lambert. Fuentes has said that this name is a combination of many things. For one, the last name, Lambert, comes from the title character in French author Honoré Balzac’s semiautobiographical novel Louis Lambert. Fuentes has also said that the narrator’s first name, Freddy, comes from the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, one of Fuentes’s many major early influences.
A Change of Skin not only regards many modes of temporality and raises questions of existentialism; it also questions Mexican modernity, including societal, cultural, and political effects. The novel focuses on how Mexico’s advances are all based on the country’s ancient indigenous roots. By bridging the past with the present and the future, and by not adhering to linear temporality, Fuentes revolutionizes the genre of (re)telling the history of an ancient country.
But Fuentes does not always recount Mexico’s past and present and future in a positive light; he does so with criticism, yet tempers it with genuine affection for patria (his country). A Change of Skin challenges all conventional modes of fiction, but the novel also manages to challenge widely accepted views of Mexico’s past and present in such a way that it raises compelling questions of consciousness about where Mexico’s future is headed. For Fuentes, it seems that the country’s past should not be allowed to dictate its future, but this ideal projection and its fulfillment seem uncertain.
Giacoman, Hely F., ed. Homenaje de Carlos Fuentes. New York: Las Américas, 1971.
González, Alfonso. Carlos Fuentes: Life, Work, and Criticism. Fredericton, N.B.: York Press, 1987.
Ibsen, Kristine. Author, Text, and Reader in the Novels of Carlos Fuentes. New York: Lang, 1993.