Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 479
Rising from his peasant origins, Federico Robles subscribes to the myth of bourgeois stability and eventually makes his way to the top of a powerful financial empire in Mexico City. He creates this empire in the years immediately following the Mexican revolution. In an act of rebellion against his mestizo heritage, Robles marries a green-eyed woman named Norma Laragoiti, a self-absorbed materialist. During his marriage to Norma, Robles takes as his mistress the blind mestizo woman Hortensia Chacón, who abandons her petty functionary husband. With Hortensia, Robles is able to find true love and happiness.
During one of the many intensely emotional battles between Norma and Robles, Norma accidentally burns to death in the Robles mansion. The fire begins when Robles rushes downstairs from his wife’s bedroom after she refuses to give him her jewels to sell. He needs the money because his financial empire is crumbling. Robles loses all his money and worldly possessions and returns to his peasant origins. He moves to a farm in the north of Mexico, where he lives with Hortensia and their son.
The writer Rodrigo Pola is on the opposite side of the social spectrum from Robles. Their sharing of Norma (whom Pola loved) underscores their parallel and contrasting movements in the novel. Pola is transformed from an aspiring poet to a successful screenwriter. Artistically, Pola experiences a rise in terms of worldly success that is a fall in terms of artistic accomplishment. Federico, in turn, experiences a financial fall that is a spiritual rise.
Moving among these lives, serving as a kind of adhesive, is Ixca Cienfuegos. Often described as a misty, insubstantial presence, he represents the spirit of the city. His mother, Teódula Moctezuma, is a genuine Aztec sorceress. Teódula keeps dead family members under her floorboards and believes that for her ancestors to remain contented and for her life to continue, Ixca needs to sacrifice a human life for the gods. At dawn, after Norma burns to death, Teódula points to the sun, which she believes rises again because of the rejuvenating sacrifice. Ixca searches for a victim in order to put his mother’s beliefs into practice, but near the end of the novel he is exhausted by his attempts to conform to ancient rituals.
A number of briefer portraits surround the central figures of Carlos Fuentes’s novel. These minor characters suffer in obscurity throughout the city. Gabriel, a migrant worker, whose brother occasionally serves as a waiter at parties attended by the more affluent characters, returns from the United States with a blender for his mother, only to find that his family’s shack has no electricity. They use the blender as a flower vase. Gabriel, one of the novel’s many sacrificial victims, is senselessly killed by a local thug in a cheap dive on the poor side of town.