Carlos Fuentes: La muerte de Artemio Cruz [The Death of Artemio Cruz]

(3003 words)

La muerte de Artemio Cruz (trans. as The Death of Artemio Cruz) is the Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes’ most acclaimed novel to date. Alongside Julio Cortázar (Argentina), Mario Vargas Llosa (Peru) and Gabriel García Márquez (Colombia), Fuentes formed part of the so-called “Big Four” of the Latin American “Boom” in novelistic writing that roughly spanned the period from the beginning of the sixties to the mid-seventies and that was the culmination of the gradual rise of the “New Narrative” since the forties and fifties. Stylistically, the New Narrative sought to break with traditional omniscient third-person realism, challenged the notion that the external world was easily comprehensible, valued innovation and experimentation to involve the reader in the construction of meaning, and often integrated indigenous worldviews and myths. As a charismatic public speaker also fluent in English, Carlos Fuentes became a leading figure and promoter of the Boom, which was to propel Latin America on the centre stage of the global publishing market.

Artemio Cruz revisits the theme of the betrayal of the Mexican Revolution (1910-20), which Mariano Azuela’s Los de abajo (1915, trans. as The Underdogs) had so memorably depicted. Expanding on the latter’s historical scope to include the pre- and post-Revolutionary period up until the late fifties and to denounce the exclusionary practices of the government of the PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional/ Institutional Revolutionary Party), Artemio Cruz is concerned with national, social and economic fragmentation, reflected in the novel on a formal and thematic level. The novel opens on Artemio’s deathbed with the protagonist’s internal narration of his physical disintegration that mirrors his ethical and spiritual bankruptcy. As Artemio lies dying, he recalls twelve episodes (in seemingly random order) from his life of betrayal and opportunism; these represent moments when Artemio had made choices that would eventually forestall the possibility of a more democratic and egalitarian future.

As is revealed only towards the end of the novel, Artemio was born as the illegitimate son of a criollo landowner, Atanasio Menchaca, and his black female servant, Isabel Cruz, in Veracruz in 1889, just over two decades before the start of the Mexican Revolution. His spectacular rise out of extreme poverty offers a Mexican version of the rags-to-riches story that diverges significantly from the familiar Anglo-American version, in which the protagonist works his way up with his integrity intact. Artemio rises to his position of power through opportunist deals with the winning faction, with foreign (US) investors that deprive the indigenous lower classes of their lands by abusing the new agrarian legislation, with the old oligarchy, and through political corruption and media misrepresentation. Seemingly unrepentant, he asks his secretary Padilla on his deathbed to listen to tape recordings of his shady business deals with US partners, of his bribes and strike breaking, and his media manipulation. While Artemio’s life may be read as an allegory of post-revolutionary Mexico, it is increasingly based on exclusion and deliberate misrepresentation. Those who control the image of the nation are shown to wield an immense political power that relies precisely on their access to representation and the exclusion of the indigenous masses. While some critics such as Julio Ortega have seen the novel as articulating an essential distrust towards representation (2002, p.201), it can be argued that the novel carefully distinguishes between the possibility of representation and the reality of ideologically motivated misrepresentation as embodied by Artemio.

La muerte de Artemio Cruz is a novel that responds to the forces unleashed in the Hispanic Caribbean during the middle of the twentieth century. In fact, parts of it were written in Cuba just after the Revolution, as the author emphasises by adding the date and location after the main body of the text: “La Habana, mayo de 1960. México, diciembre de 1961.” It is also significant that Artemio’s death occurs in April 1959, shortly before the triumphant end of the Cuban Revolution. As part of a new landholding elite, Artemio allegorizes the failure of the Mexican Revolution and its promises of social transformation. Fuentes has consistently linked the Cuban Revolution to what he sees as its Mexican “precursor:”

Mexico has been the only country in Latin America, except Cuba (which has made another type of revolution), that has had a revolution capable of destroying    the feudal structure, which is the great historical backwash in all Latin American countries. Mexico really destroyed the land-tenure system of feudalism; it destroyed     the caste army; it expropriated land holdings; it expropriated oil and all these things – but for the purpose of creating a middle-class and bourgeoisie within a capitalist structure. (quoted in Giacoman 1971, p. 215)

From a twenty-first century perspective, it is sometimes easy to forget the optimism the Cuban Revolution had instilled in many left-wing intellectuals in its early days. Back in the early sixties, Carlos Fuentes was among its many supporters (and, like many others, he later withdrew his support for Fidel Castro’s regime). While some critics see the novel as an ultimately pessimistic work, others have argued that the novel needs to be read from this perspective of revolutionary optimism suggested by the novel itself (van Delden 1998; King 2005).

Yet, as has often been observed, there is also a deterministic force to Artemio’s rise to power. This tension between a pessimistic view of the present as seemingly inevitable and a more optimistic emphasis on missed alternatives is reflected in the structure itself. As in other Boom novels, indigenous worldviews are integrated into the narrative and its structure. In La muerte de Artemio Cruz, the temporal construction of the novel recalls a pre-hispanic Nahua understanding of time as organized in cycles of 52 years that necessitated sacrifice to ensure the start of each new cycle (Boldy 2002 p.80). In the novel, the New Year’s party in 1955 occurs 52 years after Artemio’s departure from the hacienda in Veracruz, which initiated his engagement with the world and the fall from innocence as he kills his uncle. The party marks the zenith of his power that is also the nadir of his corruption and hints at the start of a new cycle embodied in the young Jaime Ceballos, a representative of the new generation of capitalists, who symbolically replaces his biological son Lorenzo. This projected take-over follows the pattern laid out by the narrative: Artemio replaces the old landowner Gamaliel Bernal; the Menchacas were supplanted by Juaristas (Boldy 2002). While this offers a view of history as entrapped in cyclical repetition, this pessimism is tempered by the moments of idealism found in the novel’s representation of the Spanish and Mexican revolutions, and embodied by certain positive characters, such as Artemio’s son Lorenzo, who fights for the Republicans in the Spanish civil war, and Gonzalo Bernal who rebels against his own father (a Porfirian aristocrat) to fight for a more just society.

Further, through its efforts to break with traditional realism by fragmenting the narrative voice into three, the novel also produces an opening to different possibilities missed in the past. Structurally, the narrative voice alternates between the first-, second- and third-person narrative, between yo, and él. It is a “novel of the psyche” as all three narrative voices form part of his mind and reflect the flux of his consciousness as well as his gradual disintegration (Gyurko 2006, p.7-8). In the third person narrative, the novel shifts into historical-realist mode, narrating Artemio’s social ascent; in the first person, it shifts to the present and a modernist mode that represents the fragmentation of the individual; in the second person – the voice of conscience or reflection – the novel shifts into the future tense while narrating past events in an attempt to break historical determinism. The cyclical determinism of the mythic structure is thus tempered by the different vision offered by the voice of conscience that evokes these alternative options missed in the past:

tú elegirás permanecer allí con Bernal y Tobías […]
tú no visitarás al viejo Gamaliel en Puebla […]
tú te quedarás con Lunero en la hacienda […]
tú te quedarás fuera, con los que quedaron fuera (208).
[You will choose to stay with Bernal and Tobias […]
You will not visit old Gamaliel in Puebla […]
You will stay with Lunero on the hacienda […]
You will remain an outsider with all those who remained outsiders] (238).

The future tense here conveys the opening of alternative paths for Mexico, paths that are necessarily rooted in aborted projects. In this alternative vision for the future, Artemio – as an emblem for the nation – will reconnect with the betrayed cause of the indigenous population (represented by Tobías, who belongs to the marginalised yaqui people); he will recuperate the political idealism of the intellectual (represented by Bernal, whom he betrayed); he will renounce his alliance with private landownership (represented by Gonzalo Bernal’s father, Gamaliel, with whom he strikes up a deal); he will not repress his Afro-Mexican heritage (represented by his uncle Lunero).

This oscillation between pessimism and optimism also characterizes the novel’s engagement with the genre of the romance novel. The latter enjoyed popularity during the nineteenth century because of its potential to construct a sense of national identity and reconciling ethnic and class divisions through a narrative evolving around love interest (Sommer 1991). While he also possesses the potential to love, Artemio exploits and violates women. During the Revolution, Artemio rapes a woman named Regina, who subsequently invents a beautiful beginning to their relationship to enable the survival of their fairytale romance. The truth about the violent past is thus repressed and misrepresented, disabling an active engagement with the trauma of a Revolution (in which approximately one million people died). Towards the end of the Revolution (after Regina has been hanged by the opposing revolutionary faction), Artemio comes to a tacit arrangement with a member of the pre-revolutionary Porfirian oligarchy, Gamaliel Bernal (the father of Gonzalo, the intellectual). Demonstrating that patriarchal society typically rests on interactions between men and reduces women to objects of exchange, their arrangement is effected through Artemio’s marriage to Gamaliel’s daughter Catalina. This represents Artemio’s betrayal of the idealist side of the Revolution embodied by Catalina’s brother Gonzalo Bernal. However, while the novel thus deconstructs the traditional plot of the romance, it still relies on it as seen in the episode narrating his son Lorenzo’s tragic love for Dolores during the Spanish Revolution (van Delden 1998, p. 59). This suggests that the novel does not altogether discard the positive potential of the genre of the romance.

In Mexico, mestizaje – which posits racial mixing as constitutive of Mexican and Latin American identity – became the official, hegemonic ideology after the Revolution. It was propagated during the 1920s and 30s through state-sponsored culture and consolidated in the 40s and 50s. Mestizaje also went hand in hand with a government-sponsored emphasis on indigenous culture, indigenismo. However, despite this national emphasis on the Amerindian and, especially, the Aztec past, it is important to remember that the Revolution did not fundamentally change the position of “Indians” within modern Mexico. Official ideology remains at odds with socio-political reality still characterised by the impoverishment of the indigenous masses. Artemio’s unscrupulous manipulation of agrarian land reforms to his own benefit here stand metonymically for a larger and complex process during which concessions were made to defuse lower class unrest. The modern discourse on mexicanidad thus served to hide continued social inequality and racial stratification. Further, it helped to erase Afro-Mexicans and slavery from official history.

In Artemio Cruz, mestizaje is exposed as disguising the reality of violent class and land struggles, institutionalised racism and the penetration of foreign capital. Artemio is metaphorically connected to the two elements emphasised in the process of mestizaje: the Aztec and the Spanish past. He is linked to both Quetzalcoatl and Hernán Cortés. Like Cortés, Artemio begins his “journey” in Veracruz and has a wife called Catalina; both Cortés and Artemio commit rape; Cortés defeats Montezuma, Artemio defeats don Gamaliel. While Artemio’s son Lorenzo is associated with Quetzaloatl’s positive traits, Artemio incorporates the negative ones, such as vice, lust and shame (Fiddian 1990, p.114). Furthermore, as the offspring of rape, Artemio also incorporates the archetypal Mexican – the hijo de la chingada – so memorably invoked by Octavio Paz in his influential collection of essays El laberinto de la soledad (1950, trans. as The Labyrinth of Solitude). In Paz’s description, the “Mexican” is attributed a collective psyche; he (Paz’s Mexican is clearly gendered) is characterized by melancholia, solitude based on an intrinsic feeling of inferiority, by an inability to open himself to the world or to communicate, and caught within the dichotomy articulated by the duality between Cortés and his mistress and translator, “la Malinche”; he is caught between el chingón and la chingada (el chingón is the aggressor, who “rips open” la chingada). Dealing in archetypal descriptions, Paz obscures rather than illuminates issues of class, ethnic and geographical specificity. Artemio Cruz offers clear meta-textual references to this “archetypal Mexican”, but in contrast to Paz refuses to transform this into a metaphysical condition and offers a way out of the chingón-chingada deadlock.

In a relatively recent and provocative article (2004), Marco Polo Hernández Cuevas re-directed critical attention towards racial issues and, in particular, drew attention to Fuentes’ novel in the context of the exclusion of Afro-Mexicans from official discourse. Artemio’s ascent in society from the “shack” to his wealthy Coyoacán residence is certainly due to social factors and the accumulation of power and money, rather than simply the fact that he is lighter than his uncle Lunero. Being a mestizo is thus not simply “biological” but mainly cultural and social. While references to his racial physical features haunt the text, his social ascent has clearly succeeded in “whitening” his representation of himself, and it is only at the end of the novel that the reader learns about his origins. Hernández Cuevas’s article filled a significant gap in critical research and makes many relevant points regarding the replication of certain racist stereotypes within the novel, but his overall argument that the novel merely mirrors the exclusionary nature of official discourse is unconvincing. The novel poses the repression of the Afro-Mexican heritage as a problem, one that forms part of the larger, flawed project of Mexican nation building. Through Artemio’s background, Fuentes clearly seeks to integrate marginalised Afro-Mexicans into the national project, even if to reveal the historical failure of that integration. In the novel, the repression of Afro-Mexican heritage goes hand in hand with the failure and betrayal of the Mexican Revolution, and the ongoing process of editing out unwanted historical realities.

It is presumably due to its ability to pose existential and political questions simultaneously that Artemio Cruz has become a fundamental “Boom” text. Highlighting issues of racial and cultural oppression, ethnic marginalisation and class violence, Artemio Cruz evaluates the relation of hegemonic national culture to power; it de-mystifies the heroic Revolutionary legacy and points to the failure of the discourse of mestizaje to translate into a more egalitarian society. Artemio Cruz thus offers not merely the recognition that nations are “imagined”, nor simply the European modernist recognition that the subject is fragmented by time. Rather it arguably posits that an alternative national identity expressive of Mexican reality could have been, and can be, formulated through a reconstruction of what Artemio pushes beyond the space of representation. Through a negatively coded protagonist, Artemio Cruz evokes the need for the reconstruction of an ethical civil subject and for the development of a narrative based around the pronoun “nosotros”. La muerte de Artemio Cruz is generally considered a landmark in Latin American fiction and is taught on many undergraduate courses at universities across the world. The amount of critical material available on this novel testifies to its continuing importance.

Editions used:

Fuentes, Carlos. La muerte de Artemio Cruz. New York: Penguin Books, 1996.
----. The Death of Artemio Cruz. Translated by Alfred Mac Adam. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1991.


Boldy, Steven. The Narrative of Carlos Fuentes: Family, Text, Nation. University of Durham, 2002.
Fiddian, Robin. “Carlos Fuentes: La muerte de Artemio Cruz.” Landmarks in Modern Latin American Fiction. Ed. by Philip Swanson. London, New York: Routledge, 1990. 96-117.
Gyurko, Lanin. “Structure and Theme in Fuentes’ La muerte de Artemio Cruz.” in Carlos Fuentes’ The Death of Artemio Cruz. Ed. by Harold Bloom. New York: Infobase Publishing, 2006. 5-18.
Giacoman, Helmy F (ed). Homenaje a Carlos Fuentes: variaciones interpretativas en torno a su obra. New York: Las Americas, 1971.
Hernández Cuevas, Marco Polo. “Modern National Discourse and La muerte de Artemio Cruz: The Illusory ‘Death’ of African Mexican Lineage.” Afro-Hispanic Review. 23.1 (2004): 10-16.
King, John. “The Boom of the Latin American Novel.” The Latin American Novel. Ed. by Efraín Kristal. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. 59-80.
Paz, Octavio. The Labyrinth of Solitude. London: Penguin, 1990.
Ortega, Julio. “La muerte de Artemio Cruz y el relato de la des-fundación nacional.” Hispania 85 (2002): 198-208.
Ribas, Alberto. “Una herencia perdida: La identidad afromexicana de Artemio Cruz.” Afro-Hispanic Review. 28.1 (2009): 99-116.
Sommer, Doris. Foundational Fictions: The National Romances of Latin America. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1991.
Van Delden, Maarten. Carlos Fuentes, Mexico and Modernity. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1998.

Oloff, Kerstin. "La muerte de Artemio Cruz". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 17 May 2011
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