A millennial novel with centennial breadth, The Years with Laura Díaz
follows one woman through the 20th century in Mexico, witnessing its political upheavals, technological advances, and bitterly uneven social and artistic progress. Born on her grandfather Don Felipe's coffee plantation at Catemaco in 1898, Laura knows both the privilege of wealth and its limitations. Her parents, Leticia and Fernando, live apart, prudently waiting until Fernando can support his family in the larger town of Veracruz. While Don Felipe fights the laurel branches that continually weave their way through his delicate coffee plants, Laura watches as her gifted unmarried aunts are consumed by the forced idleness of their kind: Hilda, who plays Chopin to empty rooms, and Virginia, whose love poems never reach a suitor.
In Veracruz, Laura will find a focus for her own youthful longing, her half-brother Santiago, whose clandestine aid to the anarchist-syndicalists leads to his execution. After his death, she is expected to follow the girlish ambitions of her friends: taking dancing lessons and learning to listen to men. Yet in honor of her half-brother's memory, she embraces the revolution, and, hoping to avoid the fate of her virgin aunts, marries a solemn, dark-skinned, working-class hero. "The active life was preferable," Laura concludes at the ripe age of 22. For a woman, inevitably, this means "a life committed to another life."
A daughter, a wife, and then a mother, Laura is more or less dragged along by history. Eventually she must sacrifice not only Santiago but her own son and grandson to the violent game of musical chairs that is Mexican political life. Perhaps because of the almost laughable instability of power in Mexico, Fuentes is compelled to devote much of his narrative energy to explaining the rapid changes of guard--presidential assassinations succeeded by coups followed by questionable elections.
The poor and downtrodden, by contrast, are always there. Laura's husband takes her to the barrios of Mexico City to dissuade her from assuming anything but a housewife's role in political affairs. Later, a lover leads her through a nocturnal wasteland, a city of the poor, showing her deformed beggars, and stunted, starving children:
Laura, did your husband show you this, or did he only show you the pretty side of poverty, the workers with their cheap shirts, the whores with their powder, the organ grinders and locksmiths, the tamale sellers and the saddlers? Is that his working class? Do you want to rebel against your husband? Hate him because he didn't give you a chance to do something for others, treated you with contempt?
Laura decides that although she can't save everyone, she can save herself through work. And the first work she undertakes--wonderfully and bizarrely--is as a traveling companion to Frida Kahlo.
Given the time span and the gravity of occurrences this epic covers, it is no surprise that this character herself often seems to stand still while events and people move around her. Because of this, perhaps, The Years with Laura Díaz is not the clearest articulation of Fuentes's historical vision, nor his most moving work. Its emotional power is cumulative, however, and few readers will be able to put the novel down after the first hundred pages. --Regina Marler
In a masterwork imbued with historical anecdotes, mystical imagery and revelations about human existence, Fuentes (The Death of Artemio Cruz) relates the story of 20th-century Mexico through the fictional biography of Laura D!az. Narrated by Laura's great-grandson, a photographer and documentary filmmaker, the central thread is straightforward: Laura grows from an unusually observant child into an attractive and passionate young woman, survives numerous revolutions and world wars, several lovers and one husband. The catalyst that keeps this chronicle engaging is Laura's desire to steer the course of her life above and beyond the political currents surging through Mexican society. Much of her life revolves around her rising and falling romances: with a Casanova who vanishes when Laura gets too close to him, a Communist whose search for his missing wife precludes their relationship and a screenwriter who is slowly dying of emphysema. She eventually marries Juan Francisco, an activist whose political passion initially attracts Laura, but ultimately disturbs and alienates her. The union produces two sons. In her later years, inspired by close acquaintances with the artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, Laura becomes a photographer (she photographs Kahlo's body while it is being cremated) and achieves renown almost instantly. While in other books Fuentes's characteristic riffs and dizzying, cascading sentences were intended as potential expansions of the novel, this time these gestures are used for the deepening development of the content of the book rather than of its form. Fuentes's emotional commitment to his subject shows in the lucidity of the book's underlying intellectual dialoguesDthe opposition of communism and fascism, the corrosion of individual identities by historical processesDwhich Fuentes is able to animate with a learned lyricism that should make this volume one of his most admired and memorable. (Oct.)
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