A follow-up to the first novel by legendary Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes (1928–2012), Where the Air is Clear (1958), The Good Conscience is a taut character study of a young man: Jamie Ceballos, who hails from the provinces of Mexico, struggles desperately to make sense of his fledgling identity, which is mired in a setting filled with spiritually prohibiting elements. The novel was dedicated to the Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel (1900–83), who has been hailed as the father of modern surrealist filmmaking. Fuentes and Buñuel were in constant contact with each other, relaying their thoughts about literature, art, and philosophy. Fuentes has been particularly attracted to Buñuel’s penchant for pairing opposites in emotion and action. For example, a character can be gifted with insight, but that person may be unable to view his or her world in realistic terms; or there can be beauty where there is also tremendous ugliness. In the case of The Good Conscience, the pairing of oppositions is perhaps most striking in the novel’s setting, as well as in the characters that inhabit a kind of setting that is backward, trite, and repressive.
Readers will recognize Jaime Ceballos as a character from the final chapters of Fuentes’s debut novel, Where the Air Is Clear, the unsophisticated suitor of Betina Régules, the fashionable young woman whose peers are of Mexico City’s social elite. Despite being much shorter than the novel preceding it (148 pages versus 373 pages), The Good Conscience is a definitive account of a protagonist tempered by rebellious, curious, individuated, and religious ideals. Jaime must choose between being at peace with the prestige and comfort his family’s wealth has afforded him, the fiery idealism of his youth, and the sober morality his religious education has instilled in him. This struggle is set against life in the city of Guanajuato. It is important to note that Guanajuato’s provincial setting is unkind to those unwilling to play along with its habitually narrow-minded way of life.
Throughout the novel, Jamie Ceballos attempts to come to terms with the kinds of societal, political, and familial surroundings that he finds repressive, while simultaneously trying to rediscover his own roots, sense of purpose, and direction. If Fuentes’s first novel, Where the Air Is Clear, is about an entire country’s search for its own collective identity, then The Good Conscience is about the search for individual identity.
Fuentes’s creative canvas in Where the Air Is Clear is vast and panoramic, encompassing a multitude of characters, settings, and story lines. In The Good Conscience, however, the story of a young boy’s coming of age has a much narrower focus; this lends an air of familiarity and intimacy that readers do not experience while reading Fuentes’s first novel. In addition, The Good Conscience is also written in a more realistic tone; absent are the heavy mythical overtones and nonlinear time frames. The Good Conscience has a classic omniscient narrator, but the narrator does not seamlessly and magically jump from one temporality into another and then back again, as is the case in Where the Air Is Clear.
Not unlike Fuentes’s first novel, The Good Conscience is politically charged. Nineteenth-century political machinations are central to the novel, so much so that political undertakings are nearly as fully developed as any character in the novel. These political maneuvers drive the Ceballo family from one scheme to the next, as, for example, they seek important political allies in order to secure their traditional way of life.
Jaime is caught in the middle of these two planes of existence. On the one hand, he can choose a life of leisure, the sort of lifestyle his parents lead; on the other hand, he can choose to resist the norm and instead embrace a fulfilling life that is free of modern-day excesses. Although Jaime has choices, he is inhibited, repressed from choosing the lifestyle he wants to lead. When Jaime matures into an adult, his elders fear that he will not choose to fall into the Guanajuato way of life: hypocritical, banal, and socially and spiritually stifling. Readers come to understand early on that Jaime is not content to follow the status quo; rather, his nature is to question, to test, and to experiment, not to merely blindly accept that which is hailed as truth or perceived as reality. Reality is relative, and Jaime realizes this, which makes him a dangerous ingredient in the mix of daily life in provincial Guanajuato.
The reader is witness to Jaime’s tribulations as he grows up in such a difficult setting, one that problematically affects his spiritual and individualistic growth, otherwise, despite his unwillingness to follow Guanajuato’s way of life. In the end, Jaime succumbs: His idealistic and individual spark dies out, giving way to conformity. Readers will sympathize with Jaime’s struggles to remain steadfast to his own unique ideals, to keep the company of those whose spirits are untainted by excess and conformity, despite eventually being subsumed by what he has long been trying to stave off. In the end, the “good conscience” in the title of the novel belongs to Jaime, a conscience that remains in spite of his failure to resist the status quo.
The “good conscience” is represented by Jaime’s recognition of his failure, of his own shortcomings, of his own inability to maintain his idealistic fervor in the face of such immediate repression. It is in this way that Jaime Ceballo is partially redeemed in the reader’s estimation, despite his failure to amend a corrupted establishment. Although Jaime does not remain as fiercely independent and individualistic as he is at the beginning of the novel, letting go of his “childhood illusions” in favor of becoming a man, readers are nonetheless left with lingering feelings that, somehow, this sensitive, insightful character will not be consumed by the provincial setting for long.
Bertie Acker. El Cuento mexicano contemporáneo: Rulfo, Arreola y Fuentes: Temas y cosmovisión. Madrid: Playor, 1984.
Durán, Gloria. The Archetypes of Carlos Fuentes: From Witch to Androgyne. Hamden, Conn.: Archon, 1980.
Faris, Wendy B. Carlos Fuentes. New York: Ungar, 1983.