I honestly didn’t know much about Carlos Fuentes, who died yesterday at age 83, when I agreed to work on a radio documentary about him. It was 1984, I was out of a job (having just been purged from NPR) and spending most of my time alternately on my couch in Arlington watching MTV or, when I felt particularly active, playing miniature golf. So when Bob Malesky called to ask for my help on his Fuentes project it wasn’t hard for me to clear my calendar.
Some context may be in order: NPR had committed to producing a thirteen-part series to be called Faces, Mirrors, Masks: Twentieth Century Latin American Fiction. The list included all the usual suspects: Marquez, Fuentes, Borges … and some not-so-usuals: Clarice Lispector, Elena Poniatowska, and Miguel Angel Asturias, for starters. Because Nipper had gutted its arts department in the 1983 financial meltdown, all the actual production work was done by a stellar lineup of independent producers around the country.
Since Bob and I were in DC we did our mixing at NPR headquarters on M Street. It was close to deadline for the programs to be sent to distribution and I thought it odd there didn’t seem to be anyone in charge. Jo Ellyn Rackleff is listed as “Series Executive Producer” in most catalogs but I never saw her. Supposedly Frieda Werden was Series Producer, but she was busy doing two shows of her own — Poniatowska and Lispector — and we didn’t see much of her either. Mostly we spent our time down in the studio trying to whip the Fuentes program into shape.
Bob Malesky recalls:
I had an interview with him that went two hours and ranged over the course of his life and work. I’ll never forget his artistry, his blazing intelligence, and his warmth. …
It was a joy to produce, too. I remember we dramatized a scene from “The Death of Artemio Cruz.” I got the amazing Richard Bauer from Arena Stage to act the role, but I also needed SFX, specifically the breathing of a dying man. Lars Hoel had a bad cold that day, so I recruited him. He lay down on the table in studio 3, we lowered the Neumann to within an inch or two of his mouth and just let him rasp. Those were the fun days of radio production.
They were fun [cue Springsteen "Glory Days," fade in warm, bring up full at post] and that’s almost as sad as the passing of such a great man. For just as we’ll never see the like of Fuentes again, it is equally doubtful that NPR will ever commission, much less distribute, another series as ambitious, as highly-produced and as necessary as FMM.
What’s more, NPR seems to have forgotten Faces, Mirrors, Masks ever existed. It’s not mentioned on their web site tribute to Fuentes. You can’t find the programs to buy or even to listen to anywhere. Not in the NPR Shop, not in the Wireless catalog, not even on Audible. Gone, expunged.
Shades of 1984, indeed.