A third of the way through Carlos Fuentes’ latest novel, The Years With Laura Díaz, Artemio Cruz shows up. The year is 1932, and Laura Díaz and her lover are at a society party in Mexico City. Suddenly Cruz, the anti-hero of Fuentes’ 1962 novel The Death of Artemio Cruz, arrives with his mistress. He doesn’t say anything, just whispers to his mistress while others at the party gossip about him. Then he is gone: His appearance seems to have been staged more for the benefit of the knowing reader than anything else, underlining the link between that previous novel and this one.
All of Fuentes’ novels are conceptually related to one another. Twenty years ago the author conceived of a master scheme encompassing his fictional works, both those he had already written and the ones he intended to write. Yet there is a stronger connection between Laura Díaz and Artemio Cruz, as the author himself acknowledged in a 1994 interview. Speaking of the novel five years before its publication in Spanish, presumably before he had written it, Fuentes said that, “In a certain way it is a companion novel to The Death of Artemio Cruz. The characters are from the same period, but the story is told by a woman, a point of view very different from that of Artemio Cruz as a man.”
That story, while differing in the particulars, is the same one told in Artemio Cruz: Fuentes’ history of twentieth century Mexico. He funnels that history through his central characters, Cruz and Díaz, their lives determined by (and at least in the case of their respective marriages, ravaged by) political events and movements, especially the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1917 and its aftermath. In each novel, the idealisms of the first part of the century falter (and young, idealistic characters are killed off). More complex, compromised, and violent visions of human nature and society take root in their wake.
While Cruz, a ruthless business mogul who as a young man profited from the spoils of war, embodies the worst of the latter-day values in his eponymous novel, Laura Díaz plays a less active but more complicated role in hers. She doesn’t literally do much besides grow up (on her grandfather’s plantation and then in Veracruz), get married, move to Mexico City, and have affairs. Then, late in the book, at age 60, she takes up photography–fittingly enough, since for the reader this is what she has done all along, serving as a lens, framing the lives of those around her. It is a series of men who take up most of the frame: her grandfather Don Felipe Kelsen, a German socialist turned plantation owner; her older half-brother Santiago, who is killed for his activities on the eve of the Revolution; her husband Juan Diego Lopez Greene, a labor leader from the provinces who finds himself making more and more compromises to maintain his influence in the post-Revolution regimes; Orlando Xímenez, a mysterious, high-society friend of Santiago’s; Jorge Maura, a Spanish Republican in exile; Harry Jaffe, an American screenwriter; and Laura’s sons.
In a sense, then, it is still a man’s story in spite of the intended female point of view. Yet ultimately the book belongs more to “the years” than to Laura Díaz or her men. No single person presides over this book, as Artemio Cruz did in Death. That novel gave us figure and ground while Laura Díaz is quite self-consciously mural-like, crowding its pages with as many people and events as any work by Diego Rivera–who also appears as a character in the book, befriended by Laura Díaz. This novel is also an excavation, as Fuentes teases out strands and fragments of political history. “Juan Francisco taught the son he coddled about the glorious history of the workers movement against the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz,” writes Fuentes in a somewhat clunky effort to tell his coddled reader a few things about the history of workers’ movements in Mexico:
After 1867, when Maximilian’s empire fell, Benito Juárez found himself face to face, right here in Mexico City, with well-organized groups of anarchists who had secretly come in with the Hungarian, Austrian, Czech, and French troops who supported the Habsburg archduke. They stayed here when the French withdrew and Juárez had Maximilian shot. Those anarchists had grouped artisans into Resistance Societies. In 1870 the Grand Circle of Mexican Workers was constituted, then in 1876 a secret Bakunin group, The Social, celebrated the first general workers congress in the Mexican Republic.
Facts and dates such as these are offered up periodically, and along with Laura’s men, they block out a version of history weighted toward Europe and all things cultural. Whether he is writing about nineteenth century anarchists who end up in Mexico, or Spaniards in exile in Mexico after the Spanish Civil War, or Hollywood blacklist victims (mostly European Jews) holed up in Cuernavaca in the ’50s, Fuentes romanticizes left intellectuals even as he sends them into defeat or exile or worse. He dotes on them, these disappointed or doomed men whom Laura takes as lovers. At times, his Mexico verges on becoming a retirement colony for failed socialists.
Jorge Maura, the Spanish exile, seems to speak for them all, and maybe for the author, when he condemns the first half of the twentieth century, “which was going to be the paradise of progress and instead was the hell of degradation. Not only the age of fascist and Stalinist horror but of the horror that those who fought against evil could not save themselves from, no one was exempted…. Starting with us, evil ceased to be a possibility and became an obligation.” When Fuentes writes about instances of evil, though–about Nazi atrocities or about a mayor in Civil War Spain who orders his traitorous daughter’s death by firing squad–he is less convincing than when he writes about discussions of evil. Or perhaps it’s that the events seem like extensions of the discussions, fables that advance the narrative but do not carry much emotional or visceral weight.
Shortly after attending the party where Cruz makes his appearance, Laura accompanies Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo on a trip to Detroit, where Rivera is to paint a mural at the Detroit Institute of Arts. Watching Rivera paint, Laura reflects on his ability to shut out the rest of the world, even as he mounts a depiction of it on the wall, “so that inside the cage of art its forms, colors, memories, homages could live freely, so that no matter how social or political the art might become, it was above all part of the history of art, not of politics, and it either added reality to a tradition or took it away.” It doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch to imagine that Fuentes is making an announcement about his own work here. In one sense it’s a banal assertion: His novels will always be shelved with the literature and not the political books; they are part of the history of art. But novels tend to start to strain under the weight of too much politics, and this book is no exception. At times characters speak or think in little essays. As Laura Díaz tends to her dying son, for instance, she analyzes:
Touching Santiago’s fevered forehead, Laura wondered, nevertheless, if this young artist, her son, hadn’t brought together beginning and ending too quickly. The tortured and erotic figures in his paintings weren’t a promise but a conclusion. They weren’t a beginning but, irremediably, an ending…. Understanding that anguished her, because Laura Díaz wanted to see in her son the complete realization of a personality whose felicity depended on his creativity.
Surely this is not the way any mother would actually think when her son was about to die. For affecting family drama, though, there’s always the Oprah book club. The epic scope of Fuentes’ novel, its plot and range and learning, more than compensate for its somewhat cold rendering of individuals. It’s a mural, not a miniature. And those little essays are wonderful at times, as when Jorge Maura tosses off thumbnail characterizations of half a dozen nations: “He said that Spain for the Spaniards is like Mexico for Mexicans, a painful obsession. Not a hymn of optimism, as their country is for Americans, not a phlegmatic joke as it is for the English, not a sentimental madness (Russians), not a reasonable irony (French), not an aggressive command, as Germans see theirs, but a conflict of halves, of opposed parts, of tugs at the soul….” It sometimes seems as if the nations and ideologies and movements are the true characters in The Years With Laura Díaz, or at least the ones the author cares for the most–not Laura Díaz or her family or her lovers, but the idea of Mexico.
In an essay called “How I Started To Write,” Fuentes, who as the son of a diplomat spent much of his boyhood in Washington, D.C., wrote that during the years his family lived in the United States, “my father made me read Mexican history, study Mexican geography, and understand the names, the dreams and defeats of Mexico: a nonexistent country, I then thought, invented by my father to nourish my infant imagination with yet another marvelous fiction….” That Mexico is as much the inspiration for his work as the actual one. Throughout his career, Fuentes has followed in his father’s footsteps, inventing a dreamy, defeated country that does not exist and yet is very close by.