For me, Carlos Fuentes (1928-2012) remains one of the great writers of the Latin American Boom. He combined his talents as an imaginative novelist and short story writer with an unwavering dedication to participation in the major political and social debates of his time. He operated as a leading public intellectual and cultural ambassador for Mexico, while spending considerable time teaching in the U.S.A. He was perfectly bilingual and indeed bicultural in his vast knowledge of literature, history and film. Fuentes attended the School of Philosophy and Letters and the Law School in Mexico City. He was greatly influenced by his professors and their idealistic sense of the possibility of using international law and human rights norms to advance a progressive form of politics.
I have long been fascinated by Mexico and its often violent but also hopeful history, particularly its revolutionary heritage. I first travelled there in the early 1980s and was overwhelmed by the strange, vibrant and dynamic country I travelled through by bus (often putting the hammock I acquired in Merida to good use). On those long bus journeys, I was quick to pull out the novels of Fuentes as my foremost guide to the history of the ancient land which had so remarkably maintained its traditions in the challenging transition to modernity and 20th century economic development.
The Death of Artemio Cruz
A consistent theme in Fuentes’ work is fusing the past, present and future.This novel remains for me the most insightful account of the cultural meaning of the Mexican Revolution that began in 1910 and unfolded over two chaotic decades. Fuentes uses the stories of a revolutionary fighter, Cruz, to trace the development of the country and the decay of the ideals for which volunteers like Cruz, and the companions who fought alongside him, risked their lives. At the very end of his life, Cruz is haunted by the memory of having escaped a prison sentence and death while a young lawyer (who shared his cell) and a courageous indigenous guide (Tobias, “the Yaqui”) met their untimely deaths. In this novel, as in other works, Fuentes affirms the valiant efforts of indigenous peoples to ensure the success of the Revolution and its commitment to greater equality.
Written in 1962, this exceptional modernist novel employs a sophisticated 12-part structure. Cruz narrates events in his life in a fractured recounting of significant turning points. These events parallel historical developments, many of which unravel the noble ideals for which Cruz supposedly fought. The narration shifts in a dynamic pattern between first, second and third-person point of view.
The Years With Laura Díaz
In this later companion novel to The Death of Artemio Cruz, Fuentes provides us with another epic recounting of the years of the Mexican Revolution and its aftermath. Fuentes focusses on a woman who was briefly mentioned in the earlier novel, Laura Díaz. She is a politically committed woman with artistic ambitions who befriends the great painters Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. Years later, she embarks on a career as a photographer.
I have long been fascinated by Mexico and its often violent but also hopeful history, particularly its revolutionary heritage.The novel is not the masterpiece that The Death of Artemio Cruz surely is and struck me as being too slack and diffuse. However, it is a valuable addition to Fuentes’ body of work. In the short, episodic chapters, we see various points where the revolutionary impulse reaches fulfillment – or at least affords a sense of what was achieved by overthrowing both the nation’s dictatorship and the economic domination of foreign corporations.
For me, the novel comes together best in those chapters depicting or alluding to the political breakthroughs of President Lázaro Cárdenas. In the years 1934-1940, his government enacted a whole raft of progressive legislation. A few of the government’s notable achievements mentioned in the novel include:
- expropriating lands that had been taken from peasant communities, including indigenous communities, and returning them through communal holdings (ejidos);
- enacting laws giving social benefits to the poor and modernizing the education system to ensure that millions would be entitled to publicly-funded schooling for the first time;
- nationalizing the oil industry and asserting control over the economy and wider society. This allowed the Mexican government to use its natural resource wealth for its most needy citizens. President Cárdenas initiated the process of nationalization by referring his actions to the courts. Foreign oil companies from the United States and Britain then attempted to ignore the court’s ruling and repudiate their obligations to employees and the state. It was a classic miscalculation, premised on the notion that Mexicans would never be able to run the industry in an orderly and efficient manner; and
- supporting the democratically-elected Republican government of Spain, which was threatened by an attempted coup by fascists and their conservative allies in the country. President Cárdenas also ensured that Mexican law permitted persecuted Spaniards and members of the International Brigades to be granted refugee status in the country.
Fuentes references these significant events throughout the novel. For example, some of the Spanish refugees become close friends of Laura and carry on a series of philosophical dialogues on the prospects for social justice and a democratic rule that would respect human rights.
He combined his talents as an imaginative novelist and short story writer with an unwavering dedication to participation in the major political and social debates of his time.
Fuentes also narrates a moment worth cheering for at the midpoint of the novel. Laura and her friends gather with other jubilant Mexicans in the Zocalo, where wild cheering takes place. All eyes momentarily turn to the “revolutionary President”, who is saluted for possessing the courage to confront the oil companies who had bullied and exploited the Mexican people for years. Citizens hand over what they can – their jewellery, their chickens and their produce – to help pay the expropriation debt that will, they hope, free the country and inaugurate an exciting new era.
Fuentes previously wrote that the word “mañana” is often misunderstood by foreigners. It does not really mean putting things off for the morrow. Rather, it connotes the idea that the future should not intrude on the sacred completeness of today. A consistent theme in Fuentes’ work is fusing the past, present and future. This fusion allows the reader to return to key moments in the unfolding of the Mexican Revolution (which is viewed as part of the wider sweep of world history), to find inspiration, and to discover ways to connect with moments of political transformation. Those chapters dealing with the legal and political reforms of President Cárdenas, made in the face of fierce opposition, illustrate one key to Fuentes’ process of fusion.