Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1611
To many Mexicans, the Revolution of 1910 is the great and inescapable fact in their country’s destiny and their own personal identity. A second conquest of the land and the past, it was the climax of four centuries of turbulent history and the adumbration of all that had happened since. The revolution did more than topple the paternal dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz: It tore a nation apart with fratricidal strife and put it together again in a strange new way that continued to disturb and puzzle its citizens. The war swept away lingering remnants of colonialism, brought a long-lived oligarchy into being, created a new middle class, moved Mexico into the twentieth century, and helped to shape a literature both ancestral and prophetic in its depictions of a sad and violent land.
In some ways, the situation can be compared to the aftermath of the Civil War in the United States, where for decades Americans tried to see their fraternal conflict in perspectives of cause and consequence. Among American Southerners, especially, there remained a sense of the uniqueness of the experience, a sense of national tragedy. A somewhat similar spirit prevails in some aspects of Mexican life, but on a greater scale and complicated by a growing belief that the revolution failed and the real revolution was still to come. In fact, Mexican intellectuals in the late twentieth century were often self-conscious in much the same manner that William Faulkner and writers of his generation were self-conscious, obsessed with feeling for place, burdened by the past, uneasy in the new society and with what had been lost in the process of change, and seeking to reclaim old values in their stories and poems. Feeling that history had isolated them in their own particular moment in time—the parochialism of the revolution—Mexican writers often turned inward to create a literature veering between fury and outrage and the poetry of nocturnal silence. They lived, to borrow a phrase from the poet Octavio Paz, in a “labyrinth of solitude.” It was José Luis Cuevas, the avant-garde painter, who first used the term “Cactus Curtain” in protest against the isolation of the Mexican artist. In an earlier novel, La región más transparente(1958; Where the Air Is Clear, 1960), Carlos Fuentes said that it is impossible to explain Mexico but only to believe in it with anger, a feeling of outrage, passion, and a sense of alienation.
This statement makes clear that the author rejects Mexican life of his time but at the same time uses it in his novels to test his sensuous powers and dramatic vigor. The country he writes about is not the land that tourists see or a land of tradition; it is the country of art, a place and people transformed by compelling imagination into something rich, strange, and meaningful. This is one explanation for his restless technical experiments with broken narrative structures, shifting points of view, solemn hymns to landscapes and time, and the interior monologues by which he tries to probe the conscience and consciousness of his people. If he has not yet assimilated in his own writing the influences he has absorbed from such varied figures as Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Faulkner, John Dos Passos, and Thomas Wolfe, he has nevertheless put his borrowings to brilliant use in catching the tempo of Mexican life in its present stage of uncertainty and indirection.
Although his methods may vary in his discontinuity of form and the labyrinthine turnings of his style, his theme remains constant. His novels are studies in the responsibility that power, knowingly or unknowingly,...
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brings and the corruption that almost necessarily accompanies power. He began withWhere the Air Is Clear, a novel set against the background of Mexico City, where the extremes of poverty and wealth allowed a study in breadth of what had happened on all levels of society after the revolution failed to fulfill its promises. Central to Fuentes’s theme is Federico Robles, once an ardent revolutionary but now a driving power in the country’s political and financial life. His rise in the world through treachery, bribery, ruthless exploitation and his corruption of better men have made him many enemies. The novel presents the story of more than one man’s ruin, however. Underlying the events of the story are the long shadows the failed revolution has thrown into the present, the realization of wasted effort, of lives lost to no purpose, of high aims given over to meaningless deeds of sensuality, folly, and outrage. As can be seen at the end, Robles is what he is because others in their selfishness and pride have assisted in his rise. Now they hate him because they see in him an enlarged image of themselves. Where the Air Is Clear is saved from becoming an ideological polemic by the underlying consideration of much that is flawed and gross in the human condition.
Fuentes tells a similar story in Las buenas conciencias(1959; The Good Conscience, 1961), although in that novel his concern is with a family, grandfather, father, and son rather than with a single individual. The setting is Guanajuato, where the oldest of the Ceballos, a dry-goods merchant, laid the foundation of a family fortune. Representative of the new middle class, the materialistic, ambitious Ceballos men marry for position, play cynical political games for security, and carry on shady business deals for gain. Society accepts them, the state protects them, and the Church sustains them. The writer’s picture of chicanery and corruption is magnificent, but the book breaks abruptly in the middle to present in Jaime Ceballo, the youngest of the family, a story of adolescent confusion and rebellion. Torn between the self-seeking practices of his family and the teachings of the Church, he attempts to follow the example of Christ, fails, and falls back on radicalism as the only alternative to the greed, lust for power, and hypocrisy of his class. The ending, unconvincing after the ironical, somber overtones orchestrated through the earlier sections of the novel, suggests that it was dictated more by the writer’s Marxist beliefs than the logic of character and experience.
The Death of Artemio Cruz is more limited in its presentation of this theme than Fuentes’s previous work. The book is somewhat flawed by a bewildering cross-chronology, in which the points of view constantly shift and intermingle, and by the varied stylistic effects. In the end, however, the novel rises above its faults in its compelling picture of one man’s life and the relation of that life to the years of disorder and change that had conditioned the course of twentieth century Mexican history. The central figure is again a force in the land, a millionaire who has climbed to his position of wealth and power by violence, blackmail, bribery, and brutal exploitation of the workers. Like Federico Robles, he is a former revolutionist who stands for the Mexican past and its present. (The robber bands who represented the extreme of the revolutionary effort, Fuentes seems to say, have now been replaced by the robber barons of modern finance and politics.) On the wall of his office, a map shows the extent of his holdings: a newspaper, mines, timber, hotels, and foreign stocks and bonds; not shown are sums of money on deposit in English, Swiss, and United States banks.
Fuentes handles the character of Artemio Cruz with considerable subtlety and skill. He does not gloss over his character’s cynicism, opportunism, or brutal ruthlessness, but he saves him from being presented as a monster of calculation by showing his relationships with the three people who mean most in his life: Lunero, the devoted mulatto for whose sake he committed a murder; Regina, the girl killed by Villistas; and his son, Lorenzo. Through the novel, like a refrain, runs a reference to the time just before Lorenzo went off to fight in the Spanish war when father and son took a morning ride toward the sea. By the end of the novel, Artemio’s story fulfills all that it promised to a young boy, one man’s journey with no real beginning or end in time, marked by love, solitude, violence, power, friendship, disillusionment, corruption, forgetfulness, innocence, and delight. There is also in this story the depiction of how a man’s death is joined to his beginning.
Fuentes employs three voices in the narrative. The first is the third person, used to present in dramatic form the events of Artemio’s life as they are pieced together in past time. The second is the “I” of the present, as the old man lies dying, shrinking from the decay of his body, and taking fitful account of what is going on around him. The third is a vatic presence never identified that addresses Artemio as “you.” This, perhaps, is the unrealized Artemio, the man he might have been. He is a lover of the land that the real Artemio robbed and raped, the product of history, or the re-created moral conscience of the revolution. He speaks in metaphors, poetry, and prophecy about history and time, and places and people, because they belong to the beautiful but sad and tragic land of his birth.
The Death of Artemio Cruz is a divided book, terse, chaotic, passionate, and ironic. Too much has been made, undoubtedly, of Fuentes as one of Mexico’s angry young men. In spite of his Marxist beliefs, he is essentially a romantic, and he possesses an exuberant, powerful talent. Aside from the surface effects of undisciplined but compelling style, Fuentes’s writing is strikingly clear and unhackneyed, even in translation.