I just finished reading The Death of Artemio Cruz. An amazing book, about a complicated, powerful man lying on his deathbed, remembering his life. A book about Mexico. When I read it in college as an assignment from my professor in World Lit, I liked it, but did not understand it. It is a difficult read. I don’t think he understood it entirely either. Of course, it was in college, a liberal environment, but he did not seem sympathetic to Artemio, who uses his power to crush, control, and consolidate all that is around him after the Mexican Revolution. One of my most vivid memories of university is him asking me to sum up the end of the book, the symbolism of it, and me being unable to answer. He said that Artemio dies of a giant fart, a collapse of his insides caused by the stagnation of his intestines, and that it was symbolic of the death of Mexico itself, or the ideals of Mexico, and the revolution of the people, but that is not exactly what (I feel) Carlos Fuentes was going for. Instead, I think the author was much more interested in demonstrating the duality of man, the need for power and revolution, and the desire to understand (by its lead character) the good and bad that came from his actions. He bears both enormous pride and enormous regret. He has achieved great things, things that make his hangers-on worship him and desire to be like him, and he knows that all of those things came at the cost of his humanity, which he truly mourns. It is a beautiful book.
On this, our revolution day, on which we remember the way in which our country and its people threw off the yoke of the powers that held them from across the sea, I think of two things in this book especially. One is Artemio’s statement that power comes from revolt. It is a truth, but he better than anyone understands that the power does not necessarily (or ever) fall out the way that we think it should as idealists. Instead, it takes a perverse turn which destines man to be forever on the verge of another revolt, another revolution, more bloodshed. Second, because my sister and I had a big argument about guns last night, is the way Artemio consolidates his own power after the successful revolution, by promising to lower the mortgages demanded of the people by his predecessors. In effect, he gives them a better deal, but he just keeps on doing exactly what the last Don did, until he owns everything that they fought for, because the common man is incapable of living without going into debt. He arms the peasants to win the struggle, and then, when the revolt is over, has his chosen men go back to them and tell them everything is all right now, so give me back the guns. When his assistant suggests that disarming the peasants might allow his enemies to return and fight him again, or even the peasants to rise up against him, he thinks about it and then says something to the effect of, all right, choose the twelve meanest sons of bitches, and let them keep their guns, but take back all the rest. He says that women don’t understand war, that only men can understand it.
My favorite scene, the death of his son Lorenzo, who he loves more than his own life, fighting as a member of the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War, where Artemio has sent him to absolve his own guilt for his cowardice during the Mexican Revolution (cowardice that allowed him to survive) made me cry. The worse scene, or most unbelievable, is the night in the Mexican jail, when Artemio waits to be executed by the beaten and retreating federales, and then is rescued when they are attacked by his own Republican forces. It is too convenient, and the duel he fights with his imprisoner Zagal, as though they are both men of honor, is cheeseball and unbelievable. This scene would have been much better if Fuentes decided to make it an invented one, a story that Artemio clings to in his own mind as a justification for his cowardice. Why didn’t Fuentes fix this, the way he did the idealized story of his first encounter with Regina, the true love of his youth? Maybe he did, and I just didn’t get it as I was reading it. Maybe it’s a matter of Latin American honor that I don’t understand, where rape is okay but not selling out your own army to save your skin. Whatever the case, I feel that Fuentes could have done better with that part, and not made me question him. All he had to do was rearrange it, or admit that we all sell out ourselves sometimes, there must be something I don’t understand . . .
It is, as I said, a very difficult read. But amazing, as full of the awfulness and hubris of man as anything I have ever read, as well as our capacity for love and ability to understand and create beauty. There are no authors like the Latin American authors, and so there must be no country like theirs either, messy, hot, deadly, beautiful, full of stillness and shouts, endless in their fighting, loving, and press onwards for the glory of man.
I want to go get my tattoo extended, and add white to my plumeria for the white terror of the Spanish Civil War, and a red hyacinth for the red terror of the same. So that I will remember how awful people can be to one another in the name of freedom and democracy. I wanted to get poppies for the soldiers of the world, but now I want this instead. I’m sorry, Kim, that it is a downer, but you know that I believe we must always remember the bad so that we can strive for the good.