on December 12, 2004
The book was beautifully written, the plot was interesting, and the character development went above and beyond most books.
So why is there such controversy over this book? Well it is easy to say, this is not your cruise vacation book to read while laying by the beach. The first chapter will have you kicking and screaming for anything tangible to grab onto. The only person in this book you have to guide you is Artemio Cruz, who is sharing with you his memories. However, he isn't always the most stable guide. Half the book he is on his deathbed rambling, switching tenses and narratives.
So that is the first warning. However if you are willing to invest some time, you can find an entire new meaning to life within this book. If you can't invest the time, go out and rent Citizen Kane, you'll get the gist in about two hours, rather then the month minimum you'll need to get this book. Even after rereading it, the book leaves dozens of pieces in the book isolated and unconnected. (In fact we never how Artemio gets from being 13 to 23, and if you read the book you'll know why this is important and frustrating).
So what does this book have to offer besides several headaches and why in the world did I give it five stars? Well I could throw a lot of pretty adjectives out at you, but I won't. I will tell it to you simply. This book makes you think. And not in the painful way. If you fight this book, you will never get it. If you embrace it, even in it's most challenging passages, you will be opened to a whole new world of ideas. Ideas about memory, desire, life, death, and our place within society are embedded in this story.
Bottom line: This story is like an excavation site waiting to be dug up, hidden with endless treasures. If you are willing to put in the time, you won't be disappointed. If that sounds like too much work, move right along then.
on November 20, 2004
Artemio Cruz owns a vast empire in Mexico, encompassing newspapers, land, construction and more. He has a beautiful wife and daughter, both of whom he cannot stand, nor they him. His aide, Padilla, a man he trusts with his empire, and one he has grown to love as the son he lost so many years ago. He is so important, so respected, so necessary to the Mexican country that the President tries to impress him, rather than the other way around. But Artemio Cruz is dying, painfully and slowly, and it is while dying that he has a chance to evaluate his life, to take a good look at himself and what he has achieved.
Cruz is a complicated man. As a youth, he fought in the various, chaotic revolutions and counter-revolutions that periodically caused Mexico to cease functioning as a nation, becoming little more than a series of loosely connected fiefdoms. Using his intelligence and daring, he was able to secure a command in the fight against Pancho Villa, but more importantly, he also knew when to leave the life of a soldier for a more solid existence. As a young man, he met Regina, the woman he was to love until his dying day.
As an older man, he is respected and influential, but also cold and distant. Gone are the passionate, poorly thought-out heroics of his early adulthood. He no longer loves like it doesn't matter, or cares much for the reality of another person. At his annual New Year's party, Cruz retires early to a comfortable leather chair positioned so he can watch everyone else have fun. The unspoken rules of the party forbids guests to talk to him at all, other than to pay their respects. His wife lives in another city, and a prostitute shares his bed this night, as she has every other night for the past eight years.
The three technique Fuentes uses in painting Cruz's life are quite interesting. In the present of the novel, when Cruz is dying, the narration is first person, disjointed, and very, very personal. No physical details are omitted, no matter how disgusting. Thoughts are fragmented, jumping from place to place, from time to time. The first few instances of this are difficult to follow, because we do not yet know Cruz's life, but as the novel progresses, the chaotic mental ramblings of the present become clearer, if not for Cruz but for us.
The second stylistic method used are the second person sections. These are generally short, but are the harshest and most self-critical. It is as though Cruz has stepped back from himself, created a 'you' for him to pour forth his bile, resentment, anger and also satisfaction about himself and his own life. These sections are just as personal as the first-person chapters, but in an emotional sense. He probes at the reasons he did this, or why he would think that. These sections are almost entirely devoid of other characters, it is simply Cruz with himself, condemning and praising, remembering and trying to forget.
The third - and most plentiful - type of chapters are in third person, dated, and taken from various times throughout his life. It is here we learn of Regina, here we learn why the phrase, 'We crossed the river on horseback' is so important, why his wife hates him, and more. In these sections, we are almost never shown his thoughts, nor those of anybody else. They are very detached, expositionary scenes, helping to explain the intimate thoughts and ramblings of the second- and first-person chapters.
Towards the end of the narrative, as Artemio Cruz approaches his death, the 'you' and the 'I' narratives start to merge, fuzzing and growing indistinct. He rails against himself, then defends his decisions over the years, then praises himself for the love he has, even now, for Regina. The sections - interspersing the 'you' and 'I' and even 'he' of Cruz within the space of four sentences - could be confusing if done earlier, but because we are familiar with his life and thoughts, they make sense. There are pages long sequences of broken thoughts, flitting between time and place without warning or explanation, and surprisingly, these are effective and do not come across at all as a gimmick. Rather, it is the character of Cruz - presented elsewhere as so strong and stable when old, so mercurial and romantic when young - breaking apart, unable to accept his death, unwilling to leave his life, even if it will mean re-uniting with Regina.
In the end, what we have is a character study. The setting - early 20th century Mexico - is rich and colourful, although at times, it does fade into the background as Artemio Cruz's character takes over. This is by no means a negative, as Cruz is a wonderful diverse man. He has weaknesses and strengths, and the novel spends as much time of his flaws as it does on his achievements. It is a credit to Fuentes that the vibrancy of Mexico shines through in what is, primarily, a journey through the mind of a proud man, a lonely man, a dying man: Artemio Cruz.
The violent society of Mexico in the 19th century produced a bloody revolution that laid the foundations for a new Mexico after 1920. The revolution devoured its dreamers and hopers, as revolutions tend to do, so that it was co-opted by the most violent, least idealistic types, who arranged Mexican society to their benefit, even if the common man ultimately did derive some advantages too. For the winners, especially as the century wore on, it seemed as if goose neck stuffed with pork-liver paté, or perhaps the damask armchairs by a fireplace in the huge living room loomed far larger than social justice. For them, the ruthless grab for power turned out to be a successful gambit. Artemio Cruz is such a successful individual, determined to let nothing stop his rise to the top, taking advantage of every chance brought to him by the tides of war and political intrigue.
The backward-forward nature of the narrative, the wordy lyricism interspersed with terse action sequences, and the dwelling upon illness, decay, and death locate this novel on the absolute opposite end of the literary continuum from say, the quiet, spare prose of Japanese author Kawabata Yasunari. This is a novel of bright colors, of deep, intense feelings, a novel in which the author thrives on vocabulary and the effect of the words themselves, a novel of ultimately surprising revelations that do not stop until the very last pages. Artemio Cruz desires power for its own sake, he will stoop to any deed to acquire it. Fuentes scrapes back layer upon layer of the character, digging deep into his psyche to tell why.
THE DEATH OF ARTEMIO CRUZ is a highly intellectual, cleverly-constructed novel that is not easy to read. It encapsulates a most turbulent 70 years of Mexican history, from 1889 to 1959, and at the same time, is a poetical, psychological study of an individual that can have few peers in the realm of modern literature. Fuentes opens everything subtly, gradually. You meet a dying man on his last day and through flashbacks come to understand who he is---cruel, cynical, lucky, devastated---and how he destroyed everyone around him, yet kept them loyal through money and power. If basically an unattractive personality, Artemio Cruz is not a monster; he bears considerable similarity to people you know, maybe to yourself, but the times made him what he was. Fuentes has written a masterpiece: one of the great novels of the 20th century, certainly. If what I have written intrigues you, be sure to read it.
on February 25, 1998
They say The death of Artemio Cruz is the last novel about the Mexican revolution. For me this novel uses the anecdote of the revolution as a pretext to make a vast reflexion about old age, disease, love, freedom and our uncontrollable passage through the world as human beings; it's a grief for youth. The revolution becomes an instrument to set up the doubt about how much History is our history and how our life is determined depending on the position from which we are able to play. In The death of Artemio Cruz Carlos Fuentes portrays his character from three angles that refer both to space and time. In this geometry resides the esencial conflict of being: the relations me-myself, me-the others and me-my past. By the first person narrative in present tense we find the most terrible reality: the need to face death and putrefaction of one's own body from where the soul can't get away; the inevitably slow road that lets the ego take complete conscience of its decay and its imminent end. It's a slow road and, at the same time, it's a lone instant related in detail through thousands of words. It's the instant of death that can only be one, but at the same time, is eternal in the delirium. By speaking to himself as you, the character is getting a call of his conscience; he speaks to himself in future tense so to make clear the road he travelled all his life to get to be what he's now was and is an unavoidable fate; the cycle would be identical, no matter how many times it repeats. The second person in future tense is a reconciliation with himself, it's the way of adjudging the drive of destiny as his own-"God... He... I carried him inside me and he's going to die with me." The third person is the one that completes the story, the one that presents the facts to fill the holes and justify the existance; he's the seemingly alien and impersonal narrator telling a story. Here there's no reflexion; there is a simple relation of facts; there's no questioning, but just events describing the tangible contents of the triangle that is the person of Artemio Cruz. The death of Artemio Cruz is, first of all, a universal and existencial novel of this century. Artemio Cruz could perfectly be inserted in one of the world wars without being much different of what he is. The mark he leaves on us as readers touches much deeper our existencial threads than the national ones.
In what is agruably one of Carlos Fuentes's best books(not my particular fave) he creates a story that is put together in such a fashion that it demands the readers full attention . At times it is difficult to follow the time period jumping by the narrator, Artemio , as he reflects on his long life and the twists and turns the events of his times have had on his own life. The narration allows Fuentes to give his jaded view of a corrupt Mexico and the power that it yields individuals. The author is never one to sugar coat his own personal views on Mexico, its culture, traditions and ultimately history. Fuentes focuses in and out of different time periods, at times in rapid freeze frames, like a camera run amok capturing the highlights of a journey, Artemio Cruz is forced to examine his own mortality and the terms of his own integrity. The book is a brillinat piece of literature that deserves more than one read. Like the character in the book , whose life has changed through the years, I decided to read this again and see if it was as powerful as the first time I read it some twenty years ago. For me the book is even better now, the translation is excellent and the book resonates with brilliant imagery and the importance of time and it's overall effect. I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in the literature of Mexico and would be an excellent choice for secondary educators teaching a course at the advanced literature level. This is a book that can be examined closely for it's allegorical substance as well as literally for it's historical commentary.
on February 19, 2001
Artemio Cruz was a destitute boy when the Revolution started. Being a brave and unscrupulous man, he made his way through war and found an important place in the Regime that followed. He became rich and powerful through blackmail, bribe, collusion and violent corruption in general. Now, he's lying on his deathbed, remembering his life. In this novel, the most important character is language itself. Fuentes goes back and forth in time, using First, Second and Third person narrative, to reflect the different standpoints from where the story can be seen. The most interesting thing about the novel is the exploration, from the outside and the inside, of Cruz's mind and personality. It is also an allegory of Mexican history of the past century, which can be used additionally as a metaphor of human history in general. So, why the four stars, instead of five? I think Fuentes's portrait of Mexico, while certainly accurate, uses too many cliches and commonplaces. It's a personal thing, not to dishearten potential readers: the novel is good and cleverly constructed.
on July 10, 2004
The book truly is a beautiful piece of literature. As with any book of its stature, one must force themself to look past the plot-- an attempt to do so will end in frustration and ambivalence. The book examines the complex life of a corrupt Mexican elite during the time of revolution. However, it does not attempt to create sympathy for Artemio but rather casts a great critique on the overall mechanisms of judgement. The book is very honest, and Fuentes does not hesitate to confuse the reader.
The reader below who says the book made him realize his taste is better than that of his professors is obviously trapped in adolescent frustration and ignoring the intent of the novel. Do not read this for plot. Although at times the action is exciting and suspenseful, any attempt to read for plot will result in confusion and frustration. The book is not easy to read. Ultimately, however, the experience proves to be more than worthwhile.
on April 14, 2006
If you love literature then let me suggest that you purchase the "out-of-print" translation from one of the third party sellers. I read this book in a class and half the class read the older translation, the other half the new one. We voted hands down for the older translation. The new translation is good, but it simplifies a lot of the text and is mising the flair and use of complex figurative language of the older version.
on January 29, 2013
Artemio Cruz is a ruthless business man in 1959 Mexico. Extravagantly rich, he has risen to power through corrupt and underhanded dealings, often selling out the interests of his own country to foreign investors. And he is dying.
This novel takes place on the day of his death, as he suddenly collapses and lies in pain. It alternates between his stream-of-consciousness thoughts and several first and third person narrations of pivotal episodes in his life. We learn of his first love, of his service as a soldier of the Mexican Revolution, of his rise to wealth, of his betrayal of the supposed principles of the Revolution, of his sell-out to foreigners, of the death of his son, of his extreme loneliness, and finally of his youth. In the end, the reader is left with some understanding of and sympathy for this complex man.
This is also the sad chronicle of a turbulent Mexico which experienced multiple changes of leadership, and under all of them the rich got richer and the poor stayed poor.
I found this to be a very difficult book to read. The writing is very dense, and I often had to read the stream-of-consciousness portions more than once to make sense of them. Nevertheless, it was hypnotically fascinating and extremely poetic. The construction of the novel was inventive and amazing. I am sure it reads even better in the original Spanish. I did have to do some background research about the various stages of the Mexican Revolution to understand the book. Thank heavens for the internet.
Recommended for the reader willing to go the extra mile for a book.
...as well as an incisive depiction of the universal human condition. I first read this book 25 years ago, when I was half a world away from Mexico. Figured it merited a re-read now that I am only 250 miles from the murderous violence that is Juarez, now, alas, light years away from Dylan's "Tom Thumb's Blues."
Carlos Fuentes is the essential Mexican writer, and I do consider this his best work. It was first published in Spanish in 1962 and dedicated to C. Wright Mills, of The Power Elite;Listen, Yankee;: The revolution in Cuba and others, and who died in that same year. He called Mills the "true voice of North America" and the "friend and comrade in the Latin-American struggle."
The novel commences with the protagonist, Artemio Cruz, on his death bed. The year is 1959. Cruz was born in the late 19th century. Fuentes tells the story of Cruz, against the background of the story of Mexico itself, in a series of chapters with varying dates over that period, and Fuentes also uses flashbacks from the death bed. In one chapter the author even manages to reach back to the beginning of the 19th century, and briefly covers French rule in the middle of that century. There is the perennial political instability and fighting; with an old elite landowner class being wiped out, and a new class of "revolutionaries" quickly replicating the old class, much as Orwell depicted in Animal Farm: Centennial Edition. Much of the novel is set in the early 1900's, when Cruz is a soldier, fighting against the "Federales." But as Fuentes makes clear, the varying factions were often interchangeable, with the idealists generally being eliminated, and the baser elements in the movements rising to the top. This was personified by Cruz, who made a familiar arc in life: from an idealist leftist to a cynical, money-grubbing, filthy rich elitist obsessed with power at the end of his life. Some of the violence depicted in this novel rivals Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West. And one battle scene seems to be inspired by Stephan Crane's The Red Badge of Courage The establishment and maintenance of power relationships in society are a constant theme woven into the history, and hence his dedication to Mills.
Ah, there is also much insight into the male - female relationship(s). Cruz's marriage was determined solely based on his economic goals; he marries Catalina, the daughter of a rich, but failing landowner. That determinate led to much resentment on both sides, and the love / hate relationship is intensely characterized. Cruz follows another familiar arc, and seeks solace by philandering, with, among others, a good friend of his wife, (naturally), in Paris, and a "convenience," Lelia, in Acapulco. She becomes a designated in-house mistress, and there is the description of a party that he holds that captures so much of the social and power relationships. And there is the remembrance, all too true, of one's first love, in his case, Regina, and those thoughts continued around the "smoke rings of his mind" even (and perhaps particularly) on his dead bed. Fuentes has included some fine erotica, particularly the scenes with Regina. Apparently the author did a lot of personal "research" for these scenes. Wikipedia somewhat surprisingly, for seeking a neutral style, states that Fuentes has been a "habitual philander."
And there is so much more. Fuentes was only in his early 30's when he wrote this, yet he seems to have an amazing understanding of the aging process, and an even more amazing appreciation of how some members of the medical establishment deal with the dying. Consider (and the ellipsis are the author's): "I open my eyes wide but I can't make them out, things, people...white luminous eggs that wheel before me...a wall of milk between me and the world..." There is the "survivor's guilt" of anyone who has ever been in battle, and has lost friends. The American reader is treated to another view of Santa Anna, other than solely wiping out the defenders at the Alamo. There are the Zouvres, whose children would never have French names. And there is even, for a leftist writer in Spanish, the "obligatory" scene from the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War. There is the woman whose world permanently collapsed, and took to her room for the rest of her life, a la Ms. Rosa Coldfield, in Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! (Modern Library). There was a wonderful section in which Cruz reflects on the "what might have been's" in his life. And there is even a good understanding of cosmology, and the light coming from distant stars, and cicadas that trill.
Fuentes makes it all "work." It is simply excellent literature, and an impressive translation. The narrative construction which centers around selective dates is the technique that progressively reveals the story to the reader in a mounting crescendo of wonder, and even amazement. Fuentes uses "magically realism" in other novels, but not in this one. There are however numerous stream of consciousness passages. Speaking of magical realism, it should be noted that Gabriel Garcia Marquez had a "cameo role" for "Artemio Cruz" in his One Hundred Years of Solitude (P.S.)
The first time around I was not certain, but on the re-read, there is no question that this novel merits 6-stars.