As many of you know, the Voyage Out is a regional book group. This means we pick groups of books, usually three to a group, and read them one after the other. Last meeting we chose a new region: Latin American Literature. We chose our first book: Roberto Bolano’s By Night in Chile. We will choose our next two books at this month’s meeting. Throughout the month, I will be highlighting possible choices. If you want to highlight something, email me at email@example.com or just write your thoughts in the comments section.
At this month’s meeting we will be discussing the third book in our Contemporary Female Novelists of England. The book is Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the Body. The meeting will be May 26th at 5pm. All are welcome!
The Death of Artemio Cruz
Carlos Fuentes is one of Latin America’s most prominent men of letters. He is an essayist and literary historian of the highest caliber, as well as the author of numerous screenplays, dramas, and short stories; however, Fuentes is best known for his novels, which use complex and innovative narrative techniques to probe Mexican history. Born in 1928 in Panama City, the son of a Mexican diplomat, Fuentes was raised in Washington, D.C., Buenos Aires, Argentina, and Santiago, Chile. He took a law degree from the National University of Mexico, and pursued graduate studies at the Institut des Hautes Études Internationales in Geneva. Fuentes combined his life as a writer with a successful career in international relations that culminated in being appointed Mexico’s ambassador to France in 1975-77; since then he has held distinguished lectureships in England and America, and has been the Robert F. Kennedy Professor of Latin American Studies at Harvard University since 1987. He has received numerous literary awards, including the Cervantes Prize in 1987. Fuentes’ major works include: Where the Air is Clearer (1958); The Death of Artemio Cruz (1962); A Change of Skin (1967); Terra Nostra (1975); The Hydra Head (1978); The Old Gringo (1985); and The Campaign (1990).
About the Book:
To Mexicans, “the revolution” has two distinct meanings. The phrase, for older people, refers to the violent events which, unseating Porfirio Díaz and his regime in 1911, upset the economic and social structure of Mexico and started waves of repercussive violence that continued for years. They may hate or reverence it–depending on how it affected their fortunes–but for them it is over. For the young, and particularly the young intellectuals who detest the events of 1911 as out-of-date, insufficient and betrayed by those who made them, “the revolution” is a dream to come, a goal for the future more or less tinged with Marxist ideals.
Carlos Fuentes, a young Mexican novelist and brilliant polemicist, belongs to the second group. What he seems to be saying in this extraordinary novel is not only that the 1911 revolution has come to a dead end, but also (and more important) that, given man’s nature, Marxist solutions are facing the same blank wall. He proposes an existentialist way out, but his sense of courage is greater than his suggested submission to man’s apparent destiny.
The author’s hero-villain, Artemio, is disintegrating when the book starts, relives his life in flashbacks, is dead when it ends. But Fuentes believes there will always be an Artemio. He was a rebellious young lieutenant during the revolt against Díaz, and a hard-fisted exploiter of the beaten aristocracy and the peasants afterward. In love with a beautiful girl, he sees her violent end when his own men take her village, and for years afterward he finds her image in every new skirt. This does not help his relations with Catalina, daughter of a fading landowner whom he marries as part of taking everything that the old man has.
It is not the plot, or the subsidiary plots, or the confusing technical tricks that make this novel remarkable, but the scope of the human drama it pictures, the corrosive satire and sharp dialogue, the occasional reach for the stars. This is not a book to feel at ease with. Fuentes is an angry young man–so angry that, at times, his rage takes him to the edge of incoherence. If you can make your way through the shuffling of timespans, endure the earthy vocabulary and the sentimental counterpoint, you will find within this book a passionate echo of the inchoate protest which causes young Mexican intellectuals to find themselves (at least in theory) disenchanted with material affluence and yearning for a cause worthy of their devotion. An old man explains one source of their discontent: “At times it seems to me that the absence of bloodshed and death drives us desperate, as if we feel ourselves alive only when surrounded by firing squads and destruction.”
The task now is to define new goals when the old ones are growing stiff with age. Each generation, says Fuentes in surprise, must face its own frustration and learn to accept it. “You will survive. . .the line of life lies between paralysis and frenzy.” Yet in a Latin-American novel of social protest a passive acceptance of man’s destiny comes hard. That destiny, as here pictured, is mostly repulsive. We have read about too many wars, too much blood, rot and cruelty: gutter terms dealing with the physical human lose their impact quickly. To play with four-letter words for their own sake, as Fuentes sometimes does, is to play an adolescent’s game. He and Mexico deserve better of each other.
Fuentes is, at least in Mexico, a source of political as well as literary leadership. To the young who read his books the world is as he pictures it. He has the poet’s power to lift them up, or to cast them into a deeper pit of confusion. To tell them that the world is evil, that it must be accepted and that the stars do shine, seems hardly adequate to their need. One wonders whether this is the best he can do–or whether, with his abundant imagination and great skill, he may find for himself and his disciples the goals which, in his own words, are “to raise up all men.”
In the meantime, this is a novelist to be watched, on both sides of the Rio Grande.