THE DEATH OF ARTEMIO CRUZ BY CARLOS FUENTES

Unless you’re old enough to remember the seventies and eighties, and I’m not, then being a Liverpool supporter is a tough gig; over the last decade I’ve watched the team doggy-paddling around mid-table, I’ve seem them go out of cup competitions to sides in lower divisions, I’ve seen them sell their best players. Supporting LFC has become a weird kind of masochism. Indeed, just a few days ago we transferred our best player, possibly our best ever player, to Barcelona. Bad times. In the wake of this transfer many supporters have asked for the club to sign a like-for-like replacement, which would be a good idea if one existed. Only, Luis Suarez, mad bastard/genius that he is, is a one-off; sure, you could get a player who resembles him, but what would be the point of that? Once you’ve had Suarez, then Suarez-lite would be a disappointment, a let-down.

The way I feel about replacing Luis Suarez is the way I’ve long felt about certain kinds of literature, particularly Latin American literature. Take Mario Vargas Llosa, for example. I’m repeatedly told that his novels, his best novels, are fantastic; occasionally I’ll pick one up and, sure, as promised, there are the long sentences, the strange temporal shifts, the equally strange narrative shifts, etc. This stuff is impressive, apparently. I should be impressed. I’m not impressed though, I’m irritated, bored, disappointed. The reason for this is that these works – The Green HouseConversation in the Cathedral etc – read like Faullkner-lite to me. Now, I love Faulkner; I consider him the greatest American author, and one of the greatest authors, period. But, I figure that if I want to read Faulkner, I’ll read the real thing, rather than a pale imitation of it.

This will explain why I have, for some time, avoided Carlos Fuentes’ very highly-regarded Mexican novel, The Death of Artemio Cruz.The book has been on my shelves for years; I’ve picked it up and put it down numerous times. It was only out of sheer blind book-choosing panic that I went back to it again recently. I’ve been trying to tell myself lately that my attitude towards reading is crazy, that I’ve got to lower my expectations and chill out a bit, otherwise I should just give it up altogether. So, when I started the book this time I tried to put out of my mind that it is shamelessly a near re-write of Absalom Absalom, but with all the genius, all the tragedy and high-[melo]drama sucked out of it.

Taken on face-value The Death of Artemio Cruz is enjoyable, but slightly baffling. Popular word has it that it is a book about war, revolution, death and power, and, uh, I really didn’t see much of all that in it at all. Of course, Fuentes touches on those things; Artemio Cruz fights in the revolution, he becomes rich and powerful chiefly by manipulation and exploitation, and he does, as the title points out, kick the bucket. However, most of these things felt skimmed over, or, in the case of Artemio’s death, given attention in a superficial manner only. Throughout the 300 pages I never felt as though Fuentes was particularly interested in war or politics or death, for he has almost nothing of any worth to say about them, no insights to offer us.

For me, Fuentes’ real interest, and therefore the real heart of the book, is love and relationships. He focused way more than he perhaps should have done on three women in Cruz’s life: Regina, Catalina and some broad he’s having an affair with [who i think was called Luisa?]. Don’t get me wrong, there’s some good stuff here, particularly the early Catalina passages, but it simply gives one the impression that Fuentes did not know what kind of book he was actually writing. Of those relationships, I had a major issue with the one Cruz has with Regina. Not only is it pretty absurd to ask us to swallow an intense doomed lovers-type story in the middle of a war, but the nature of the relationship itself is really quite troubling. Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m not comfortable with the idea that a woman who is raped can come to love her attacker and yet this is what Fuentes [not uniquely, unfortunately] wants us to believe, wants us to accept as the basis for the only genuine love Artemio ever had. Pfft. Fuck off, Carlos. In any case, The Death of Artemio Cruz, for me, is a book about looking for love, real love, and how no matter how rich you are, how good a husband you try to be, etc, you cannot make someone love you. Not exactly a profound message.

Having said that, I don’t want to give the impression that Fuentes was a hack. There are some nice passages in the book, some fine writing, especially, as I mentioned before, those involving Catalina, Artemio’s wife, who vows to punish him with coldness for winning her from her father and betraying her brother. I also enjoyed the chapter which dealt with the fate of Catalina’s brother, it being the only chapter in the book where I felt as though Fuentes was properly engaged in writing about the revolution. Finally, I thought the ending, with Artemio’s birth and death being dealt with back-to-back, in subsequent passages, was very clever.

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