Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 879
In The Death of Artemio Cruz , Fuentes’s most widely known novel, Cruz uses his memory to fight against death; Fuentes uses his novel to fight for the memory of the original ideals of the Mexican Revolution, subsequently forgotten and betrayed. The text that Artemio Cruz narrates during the final...
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In The Death of Artemio Cruz, Fuentes’s most widely known novel, Cruz uses his memory to fight against death; Fuentes uses his novel to fight for the memory of the original ideals of the Mexican Revolution, subsequently forgotten and betrayed. The text that Artemio Cruz narrates during the final twelve hours of his life is perhaps his final attempt at domination before he is conquered by death. Struggles for power, however, pervade not only individual relations within the novel but also social relations. The hunger for power consumes not only Cruz as an individual but also society at large. During the Mexican Revolution, the original impetus of the struggle was fragmented, its spirit weakened by the power struggles of its generals; in the years following the revolution, the disruptive desire for power persists, in Fuentes’s view.
Private power struggles, fragmenting and disintegrating intimate relations, are most fully developed in the war between Artemio and his wife, Catalina. The tension between the couple is only one manifestation of the continual play of opposing forces in the novel. Like Cruz, who is divided between past and present, body and mind, love and domination, Mexico is divided between the rich and the poor, Spanish and Indian heritages, modern buildings and ancient ruins, revolutionary ideals and mundane compromises. Compressed into the mind of one man, as he lies dying, these divisions take on urgency and universal significance.
The confrontation between memory and death continues throughout the novel. It motivates the most striking aspect of the novel—the division of the text into three different modes of narration and three different verb tenses. The interest of the novel depends to a large extent on the carefully orchestrated interplay between the different voices of Cruz.
With few exceptions, Artemio narrates the entire book. His sickness and imminent death are recounted in the first person and present tense; his meditations and desires in the second person and the future tense; and the events of his past life in the third person and the past tense. While the persons and tenses of the voices are clear, the perspectives of the voices preclude precise descriptions, since they share many images and ideas. They are often described as three distinct parts of the mind: the conscious, the subconscious, and the unconscious. These three different voices demonstrate the coexistence of Cruz’s separate selves.
The novel reveals a continual interplay of historical and individual forces. Fuentes’s technique is to alternate the three voices in brief sections rather than to present three long narratives, a technique that heightens the tension that the reader experiences between sympathy for and condemnation of Cruz. The shifting perspectives make the choice difficult.
From the novel’s central focus on the conflicts within Cruz, the reader moves outward to the conflicts that divide Mexican society as a whole, particularly to the problems posed by the Mexican Revolution. Fuentes has compressed approximately 150 years of Mexican history into the novel. As in Cruz’s personal story, so in the historical panorama of Mexico the narrative moves backward in search of origins.
Through the figure of Cruz’s paternal grandmother, Ludivinia Menchaca, the historical narrative begins in 1810, the year of her birth and the year of the first revolution, the war of independence from Spain. Cruz’s grandmother embodies the old order, the landed aristocracy, which resisted reform movements even back in the mid-nineteenth century. Artemio Cruz is born on her family’s land but denied its heritage. Although he fights in the revolution against the order upheld by families such as the Mechacas, he ends up in virtually the same position as his grandmother, denying a voice to later revolutionaries.
Ludivinia’s vision of the “green-eyed child,” Artemio Cruz, outside her window, forms the link between the tumultuous period through which she lived and the later revolution. In between came the years of Porfirio Díaz, who originally rose to power when he opposed the reelection of the former president, Benito Juárez, in 1870. In order to strengthen Mexico financially, the Díaz regime allowed many foreign concessions to enter Mexico, gave away huge amounts of land taken from the Indians, and denied freedom to the press. The second revolution began in 1910, when Francisco Madero opposed the reelection of Díaz. Madero became president in 1911, but his government became weakened by continued fighting. Victoriano Huerta took over in 1913 and Madero was killed by Huerta’s forces. These acts provoked Venustiano Carranza and Álvaro Obregón to rise against Huerta and to uphold the original constitution against Huerta’s politics of personal power. Carranza and Obregón were supported intermittently by the forces under Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata.
In 1913, when the reader first sees Cruz in the revolution, he is fighting with the forces of Carranza against Huerta. When forced to choose sides between Carranza and Obregón, he chooses Obregón, who later becomes president. Fuentes suggests that, early in the revolution, leaders concentrated too heavily on ideology and ignored practical concerns of the common people, including land reform. The betrayal of the revolution by Cruz evokes Fuentes’s own revolutionary perspective. Four specific failings of postrevolutionary Mexican society are echoed throughout the novel: class domination, Americanization, financial corruption, and failure of land reform.