The third novel by internationally acclaimed Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes (1928–2012), The Death of Artemio Cruz distills the history of postrevolutionary Mexico into one man’s personal journey. Fuentes published this novel after he had established his reputation in communications and government, serving as press secretary for the United Nations information center in Mexico City, secretary for cultural affairs at the National University of Mexico, and head of the department of cultural relations at the ministry of foreign affairs. In addition to his novels Where the Air Is Clear (La región más transparente, 1958) and The Good Conscience (Las buenas conciencias, 1959), and short-story collection The Masked Days (Los días emmascarados, 1954), Fuentes had founded the literary journals Revista Mexicana de Literatura (1956) and El Espectador (1959). His travels to Cuba during 1959–61, immediately after Fidel Castro’s revolution there, kept his interest focused on revolutionary idealism as he wrote The Death of Artemio Cruz, which established his reputation as a novelist of international standing. The novel shows how the revolutionary ideals of an illegitimate son of a plantation owner and a mulatto servant are gradually eroded by disappointment and bitterness. His disillusionment transforms the brave, ethical revolutionary into a selfish and manipulative businessman who puts the interests of North American investors ahead of the welfare of the Mexican people. As he prepares for death and the last rites of the Catholic Church, he compulsively relives these pivotal experiences, presenting the reader with the power of judgment if not absolution.
Fuentes transforms the familiar deathbed scenario of a person’s life review and summation by his creative use of tense and point of view as Cruz’s mind wanders and refocuses between intervals of painful awareness. Three narrative forms, distinguished by the use of different tenses, signal the different modes of Cruz’s consciousness. The first person and present tense convey his intense, immediate response to pain, disorientation, and proximity to death. This voice struggles in opposition to death itself and also to others, particularly his wife and daughter as they attempt to secure their inheritance. Cruz’s unfulfilled potential is suggested by passages in the second person and future tense, which convey his dreams and desires at different periods of his life. This voice gives collective weight to Cruz’s hopes and failures, bringing them in relation to those of the Mexican people and bringing the reader into a sympathetic relation with Cruz. The first- and second-person sections are written in stream-of-consciousness style. In contrast, the defining events of his life, when his ideals and potential are diverted, are portrayed in the historical form of third person, past tense. These sections represent Cruz as a man acting within the world’s limitations, and the style is spare with simple sentence structures that contrast with the lyrical, elaborate style of the second-person meditations. At times throughout the novel, Cruz’s aide is present with a tape recorder, and the limited, official record of Cruz’s life is shown in relation to the fuller story given to the privileged reader.
Although the novel’s presentation is not chronological, Cruz is grounded in and representative of his historical period, which is clearly identified with dates that are the focus of Cruz’s remembrance. These crucial scenes involve abandonment or appropriation, and near the end Cruz lists these as regrets. He has repeatedly betrayed the ideals of love and revolutionary solidarity after his experience of both is warped by the execution of his first love, Regina, while he is fighting. Having lost his capacity for sacrifice, he makes subsequent decisions with his own survival and security as the primary objective. Using his acquaintance with an executed revolutionary soldier, he ingratiates himself with the soldier’s family and acquires their land by marrying the soldier’s sister. This deception poisons his marriage: His wife and daughter enjoy the privileges and benefits his materialism brings, but they do not love him, and Cruz moves on to extramarital affairs that multiply his failures and regrets. In a repetition of Mexico’s colonial history, Cruz is, like all Mexicans, hijo de la chingada (child of a violated mother, Malinche, mistress and translator to Cortez). He is both product and perpetrator of abusive sexual relations by the powerful.
Cruz has used his revolutionary credentials to acquire land, influence, and control of the press, while increasing his own and his country’s dependence on foreign investment. At his death, Cruz suffers from an intestinal obstruction, symbolic of the wealth that he has withheld for himself, blocking the flow of resources to the Mexican people to support the bloated, luxurious lifestyle of his own family. There is some benefit for others, however, in Cruz’s survival and consolidation of power. The death of Cruz’s son Lorenzo, who seems to have inherited the remnants of Cruz’s revolutionary idealism, provides a contrasting image of cruelly wasted potential in an act of self-sacrifice. Cruz’s wife blames him when Lorenzo is killed while fighting on the side of the Republicans in the Spanish civil war (1936–39), and Cruz’s failing consciousness circles the painful last memories of riding with his virile, vibrant son, grieving for both the son he loved and his own younger, more ethical self. Unlike Lorenzo, Cruz has chosen to survive and be shaped by history, but his vitality has some virtue and value of its own.
As the end of the life story approaches, the reader is encouraged to empathize with Cruz’s temptations and regrets, to mourn his wasted potential while condemning his sins of betrayal. His different narrative voices blend together at the end, fusing the suppressed idealistic dreams of all Mexicans, expressed by the use of the second person in the future tense, with suppressed details of their destruction by a representative, imperfect individual.
Carlos Fuentes has continued to build his reputation with well over a dozen more books translated into English and with prestigious academic appointments throughout the United States and worldwide. The Death of Artemio Cruz, written as he was coming into his full powers as a writer, remains one of the author’s most widely read and respected novels.
Faris, Wendy. Carlos Fuentes. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1983.
Schiller, Britt-Marie. “Memory and Time in The Death of Artemio Cruz.” Latin American Literary Review 15, no. 29 (January–June 1987): 93–103.
Tejerina-Canal, Santiago. “Point of View in The Death of Artemio Cruz: Singularity or Multiplicity?” Review of Contemporary Fiction 8 (1988): 199–210.
Tinnell, Roger D. “La Muerte de Artemio Cruz: A Virtuoso Study in Sensualism.” MLN 93 (March 1978): 334–338.