Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Book 11: The Death of Artemio Cruz, by Carlos Fuentes (Infinite Feast XIX)

Translated by Alfred MacAdam
: 307 pages
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; Revised edition (May 1, 1991)

Bill Clinton’s memoir was just the latest reminder of American politicians’ apparent love of the autobiographical form. While self-promotion seemingly comes hand in hand with political leadership, it is rare when a politician displays any signs of erudite self-reflection – anecdotal confessions do not necessarily indicate thoughtful consideration. Rarer still, is an elected official who has the ability to write about something other than his or her own personal accomplishments. Carlos Fuentes, the Mexican novelist, was such a unique figure, addressing his country’s fate through both pen and action. He served as Mexico’s ambassador to France, while also creating some of the most renowned pieces of literature in all of Mexican history. The Death of Artemio Cruz is considered by most critics to be his best work.

The novel opens with Artemio Cruz, a man of immense wealth and prestige, on his death bed. He is surrounded by his faithful associates and the venomous hatred of his daughter and wife. Everyone is waiting for him to die – and waiting for the disclosure of the whereabouts of his will. The novel plots a trajectory through the refractions of Cruz’s memory of his and Mexico’s history. The story is told in the first, second, and third person, making the style reminiscent of the stream of consciousness works of Woolf and Joyce.

Artemio Cruz, though written in 1962, around the birth of postmodernism, thus reeks of modernism and all its conventions. Fuentes assumes his audience has a high level of education and literary knowledge and his heavy-handed form seems anachronistic at points. While Fuentes has often been coupled with Borges, the comparison, based strictly on Artemio Cruz, is unfounded. Borges dwells in fantasy, creating worlds within worlds to mimic the mechanisms of the mind. His style, though at times strenuous for the reader, never sounds like Faulkner. Fuentes, oppositely, stays completely in reality – the reality of 20th century Mexico. Cruz lives in a country ruled by corruption and though he rose from humble beginnings and fought in the revolution, as he came to have greater prestige, money, and most importantly power, Cruz became just as corrupt as the leaders he once fought against. The story is one of betrayed obligations – Cruz’s and Mexico’s. The great promise of Mexico’s revolutionary leaders has all but been destroyed by the time Cruz is dying in a plush apartment in the 1960s.

Cruz’s desire but ultimate inability to find anyone to share love with is the core of this story. While the pursuit of money dominates the plot’s surface (and Artemio’s), this only occurs because after his initial love of a woman named Regina during his revolutionary days, no women in his life care about him the same way. They use him as he uses them – in the same breadth they curse his maniacal drive for wealth and all the people he has to exploit to garner it, they spend his money on elaborate vacations, perfumes, and other frivolities. This wonderful juxtaposition highlights how trapped Cruz is by all those around him who supposedly have his best interests in mind. He acts villainously, but through his recounting, we learn he is not a villain. He is the embodiment of Mexico’s tumultuous history and confused identity. Fuentes makes a powerful comment on all the aspirations Mexico has ever had – and all that it has not achieved.

But what makes The Death of Artemio Cruz fail to a certain extent is Fuentes in ability to express himself concisely. His prose is often beautiful and deeply suggestive, but at key junctures it has the unintended propensity to leave the reader unaffected because each section debates a point too laboriously. Put more simply – Fuentes should have made this book shorter. The emotional core of his characters are lost in a mess of words – no matter the aesthetic merit his language has on its own, taken together, one wants to ask, “is this guy ever going to die?”. Each of the episodic memories Cruz reveals starts powerfully, but ends only after the point has been beaten to death (bad pun, sorry). Fuentes obviously drew on Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilych” for this novel. And Fuentes masterfully inverts the religious fervor Ivan undergoes in Artemio’s turning away from any God that is not himself or that can be put to useful ends. But perhaps he should have looked to Tolstoy’s work for a more base inspiration. Tolstoy limited "Ivan" to a novella. That length would have been adequate for The Death of Artemio Cruz as well.

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