The Excruciating Death of Innocence

March 6, 2010 § Leave a comment

The Death of Artemio Cruz (Fuentes, Carlos)

How bitter is the memory of the man who feels himself satisfied with riches…
Carlos Fuentes, The Death of Artemio Cruz

Emiliano Zapata, Libreria del Congreso

It’s the 1950’s. Artemio Cruz, business magnate, once a unwanted child of the luckless heir of a decadent feudal family in Mexico, now lies dying in a hospital surrounded by people he doesn’t care for, and recalls key incidents of his life in fitful flashes of memory, interspersed with delirious rambling. He has much to remember, what with the shooting of his own uncle as a teenager, battles in the Mexican Revolution, his betrayal of several men and women, one loveless marriage, the vigorous pursuit of power and wealth by means of dodgy ventures and an utter absence of scruples in all matters. And then of course, there’s the dead son, the one who represents everything pure and true, who led the perfect life that Artemio wanted to, (though only vicariously, for reasons of profitability and convenience) and who died a quick and idealist death, while fighting fascism in faraway Spain, in massive contrast, of course, to the father, who, as we know, dies in slow motion, acid mind and putrid bile sloshing around wildly, page after agonizing page, until, mercifully, the very last memory comes to an end, and it is of the man’s childhood, and then he dies – without, as it happens, any mention of  Rosebuds.

Artemio Cruz’s life, from simple hardworking boyhood, through confused ideals and lost loves of a civil war and the wealth acquired through corrupt middle age, is an obvious allegory for the history of Mexico itself; the documentation of the loss of innocence of an entire nation between its birth in the mid-1850’s, through the days of the autocratic Porfirio Diaz, to the general melee of Pancho Villa, Emiliano Zapata, Carranza and Obregon, followed by the slow return to democracy and capitalism, the wealth and comfort acquired not without a cost in human values.

This political message sets the Death of Artemio Cruz apart from a book it reminded me of strongly – Leo Tolstoy‘s Death of Ivan Ilyich. Both take an uncomfortably close look at the psychological aspects of approaching mortality. Ivan is a boring, average man with a humdrum life, while Cruz is anything but – and yet, a powerful sense of gradual deterioration and decay pervades both men’s memories of their lives. I was also struck by the similarity regarding how close both men felt to their faithful servant and secretary, respectively, as opposed to the distance from their immediate family, and of course, both experience the archetypical feelings of a man at his deathbed, about his son, living or dead.

Fuentes‘ prose is intelligent and intricate, and so demands application and concentration from the reader. Such an investment is guaranteed to prove profitable.


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