Carlos Fuentes – The Death of Artemio Cruz (tr. Alfred MacAdam)

ArtemioA continuation of my deep dive into Mexican literature, more specifically books that directly reference or are associated with the Mexican Revolution. Today a look at Carlos Fuentes’ ‘The Death of Artemio Cruz’ (translated by Alfred MacAdam). Similar to Juan Rulfo’s ‘Pedro Páramo’ (tr. Margaret Sayers Peden) in that it is a novel with a non-linear style.

Our novel opens with the protagonist, Artemio Cruz, on his death bed. The work is constructed through flashbacks and the present-day musing of his relationships with his family at his bedside, or the church. It is not long into the novel before we discover Artemio is a corrupt and vile man, (similar to Pedro Páramo, “pure bile”). His life is full of manipulations, for example landowners so he can seduce the daughter.

Mixing first, second and third person, it is at times a confusing work. Artemio reflecting, in the second person:

You admire their efficiency, their comforts, their hygiene, their power, their will, and you look around you and the incompetence, the misery, the filth, the languor, the nakedness of this poor country that has nothing, all seem intolerable to you.

Late in the Revolution, May 1919, Artemio manipulates a landowner:

“It’s important to know how to make distinctions,” murmured the old man as he wiped his lips with his napkin. “For example, business is one thing, and religion is something completely different.”
“see him there so nice and pious, taking Communion every day with his little girl? Well, that same mane stole everything he has from priests, back when Ju
árez auctioned off Church property and anybody with a little cash could buy huge tracts of land…”

This later period of the Revolution allows Fuentes to present the outcomes, the land grabbing and the change in ownership, power:

Artemio Cruz. So that was the name of the new world rising out of the civil war; that was the name of those who had come to take his place. Unfortunate land – the old man said, as he returned, slowly once again, to the library and that undesired but fascinating presence – unfortunate land that has to destroy its old possessors with each new generation and put in their place new owners just as rapacious and ambitious as the old ones. The old man imagined himself the final product of a peculiarly Creole civilization, a civilization of enlightened despots. He took pleasure in thinking of himself as a father, sometimes a hard father but always a provider and always the repository of a tradition of good taste, courtesy, and culture.

Later in the novel we flash back to an earlier period during the Revolution, December 1913. I will not reveal our protagonist’s involvement or heroics (or lack thereof, although the quoted paragraph gives some hint), but there is battle:

Again he felt as he’d felt before. The confused sounds of war were all around him, but between those near and the far rumble that reached his ears, there was an unbridgeable gap: here the slight trembling of the branches, the slithering of the lizards could be heard quite distinctly. Alone, leaning against the tree trunk, he again felt a sweet, serene life languidly flowing through his veins: a well-being of the body that dispelled any rebellious attempt at thought. His men? His heart beat evenly, without a throb. Would they be looking for him? His arms and legs felt happy, clean, tired. What would they do without him to give them orders? His eyes searched through the roof of leaves for the hidden flight of some bird. Would they lose all sense of discipline? Would they, too, run and hide in this providential forest? But he couldn’t go back over the mountain on foot. He would have to wait here. And what if he was taken prisoner? He couldn’t go on thinking: a moan parted the leaves near the lieutenant’s face, and a man collapsed in his arms. His arms rejected him for an instant and then held on to that body from which hung a red, limp rag of torn flesh.

The novel, whilst visiting the Revolution, addresses more the fallout and subsequent events rather than the Revolution itself, all through the adventures of Artemio Cruz. Reading this back to back with Juan Rulfo’s novel I struggled with the style and the unlikeable protagonist. I have struggled with some other books by Carlos Fuentes, whereas others I’ve become besotted, I’m not sure if it is the translation or the non-linear, multi voiced style, however there was no sympathy for Artemio from me and I questioned the other characters who came into his realm and their motivations interacting with such a beast. Not my favourite from the reading to date, maybe one I need to revisit when I draw this expedition to a close.

For the next month I am going to focus on female writers who used the Revolution as their subject matter, as it is Women In Translation Month and I have quite a few titles on my shelves.

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