La muerte de Artemio Cruz

Carlos Fuentes, La muerte de Artemio Cruz

Carlos Fuentes’s pioneering novel La muerte de Artemio Cruz is a book that, famously, plays with both temporality and narrative voice. On one level, everything takes place within a single day as the eponymous Cruz, a wealthy business magnate and politician now semi-conscious and close to death, is surrounded by family and staff, doctors and priest, who attend to him in what turn out to be his final hours of life. Much of the story is presented as more or less chaotic stream of consciousness, as Cruz is only dimly aware of what is going on around him and returns to certain repeated phrases and idées fixes whose true significance emerges only gradually. What apparently gives sense, then, to this confused present, this intense jumble of thoughts and impressions as life slips away, are a series of episodes recounted from Cruz’s past, recollections of other days of particular intensity and importance recounted almost as a set of short stories. Collectively, these vignettes also illustrate a paradigmatic Mexican life of the first half of the twentieth century, from the injustices of the Porfirian dictatorship to initial transformations generated by the Revolution until it turns sour and sediments into institutionalized corruption. Meanwhile, if the present of the sickbed is narrated in the first person (“I”), and the past vignettes gain clarity through the use of the third person (“He”), interspersed between them–uniting and further fragmenting the story at the same time–are passages in the second person (“You”) and, mostly, future tense whether the events described are past (“Oh, you will work hard yesterday in the morning” [14]) or still to come: “you will bequeath this country: your newspaper, the hints and adulation, the conscience drugged by lying men of no ability” (234).

It would seem, then, that this is a book largely about persons (grammatical or other) and personality: that through this circuitous and multi-faceted narrative, with all its various points and places of view, we will finally uncover the secret of who is this Artemio Cruz, the figure behind the voice that on the opening page tells us, fracturing the language in the process: “I am this, this am I: old man with his face reflected in pieces by different-sizes squares of glass: I am this eye, this eye I am” (9). Moreover, the further (if implicit) promise is that by understanding Cruz, we may also understand Mexico. Hence, for instance, Pedro García-Caro’s recent and apparently uncontroversial claim that Cruz “stands as a symbol of both the revolution and the Mexican nation reborn in its aftermath. [. . .] In La muerte de Artemio Cruz, the focus of attention is placed on one character allegorically used to parody the figure of the caudillo, the leader and savior who is subjected to a moral scrutiny” (After the Nation 87). Cruz, in other words, is the personification of the Mexican nation; his story is the history of Mexico, made person(al). It turns out to be fitting that “Artemio Cruz” is in fact a sort of pseudonym, a made-up name that hides his own illegitimacy (as the child of a landlord’s son’s rape) but exposes his generality, his all-encompassing hybridity: “Cruz without true first name or surname, baptized by the mulattos with the syllables of Isabel Cruz or Cruz Isabel, the mother who had been beaten out with a stick” (257; translation modified). In the end, the novel’s crux would seem to be that I is national allegory.

But not all narratives are personal. Here, for instance, the various voices that surround Cruz’s ailing body include or are supplemented by the tape-recorder brought in by his loyal henchman, Padilla. It appears that this is Cruz and Padilla’s usual practice or habit: to go over their taped conversations and dealings, whether or not (it’s not at all clear) those recorded have consented to their recording and subsequent reproduction. And while other voices try to keep the machine out of the room, Cruz and Padilla insist, presenting this mechanized recapitulation as a rite of its own: “Today, more than ever, you ought to want me think that everything goes along the same as always. Don’t disrupt our rituals, Padilla” (11; translation modified). The device, moreover, in revealing the shadiness of Cruz’s business transactions, acts as a kind of material unconscious that undermines the false piety of the bedside mourning. No wonder Cruz’s daughter, on hearing it spit out the words “In plain Mexican, we’ll be fucked,” should shout out “Stop that machine! [. . .] What kind of vulgarity. . .” (51). But the scandal is less the bad language than the clarity with which mechanical reproduction reveals the corruption of the Mexican state. Or perhaps the real scandal is the way in which Cruz himself has, we gradually come to discover, become fully part of that state, buying into it and bought off by it.

We see, though the various third-person episodes, the steps by which a sort of primal liberty and enthusiasm is gradually both shut down and corralled. Perhaps the key turning point (though Fuentes suggests that each vignette offers a turning point in its own way) comes in 1915, at the heart of the Revolution, when Cruz escapes certain death at the hands of a firing squad by colluding with the enemy. We are told that the prisoner and his guard, a man named Colonel Zagal, “had acted not as Zagal and Artemio Cruz, but as two gears in opposing war machines” (156; translation modified). Cruz proposes to personalize their antagonism: “If you have to kill me, kill me as Artemio Cruz” (156; translation modified). But the savage irony is that this personification is only a front: Cruz’s collusion is a trap, and Zagal will himself be killed as he falls for the notion that honor and personal integrity can really be in play in what Cruz himself understands as nothing more than a cynical game. So Cruz’s cellmates are executed, which gives him the opportunity to take on the identity of one of them: Gonzalo Bernal, an idealistic if now disillusioned young man, son of the landed gentry. Taking Bernal’s place, and eventually assuming the role of the tasteful aristocrat whose house is decorated with fine colonial art and whose parties are catered with the best regional food, Cruz shows us that personality is at best a ruse. If anything La muerte de Artemio Cruz is the story of a becoming-impersonal, a multiplication and fracturing of points of view and perspectives, the many forms of death-in-life that lead to the bare life of the agonizing body helpless before the ministrations of family, church, and the medical profession, with the tape-recorder by his side emitting the only voice to be trusted in the whole crowded room.

See also: Boom!.

Posthegemony, Deconstruction, Infrapolitics

Bram Acosta, Thresholds of Illiteracy

Over at the Infrapolitical Deconstruction Collective, an important project with which I have been (so far) rather peripherally involved, Alberto Moreiras comments on Bram Acosta’s Thresholds of Illiteracy. Specifically, he comments on that book’s introduction, which sets up a dichotomy between John Beverley’s Latin Americanism After 9/11 and my own Posthegemony. Acosta suggests that these two books “are already being used to establish the terms and grounds of cultural debate in Latin America for the next several years” (19). And yet it soon emerges that, in Acosta’s eyes, this would be a serious mistake. For despite their differences and even apparent disagreements, they are both, he argues, complicit in the same founding gestures. First, Beverley and I “identif[y] and conflat[e] deconstruction and subaltern studies” (20-21). Having done so, we then proceed on “the same disciplinary premise: the rejection or presumed exhaustion of deconstruction as a critical practice” (22). To which Moreiras adds that the two of us both “play to a choir of bedmates.” So there’s apparently quite a crowd under the sheets, and a noisy one too, illicitly consorting together.

Now, I’ve already written at some length about Beverley’s book, and don’t plan to do so again. Suffice it to say, however, that I would point to differences between his project and my own that Acosta doesn’t even mention, not least a very different approach to politics. As I put it, and against Beverley’s trenchant defense of Latin America’s so-called left turns, in my view “politics is about indeterminacy, possibility, and potential. It is about what is not written or predetermined. Politics is about strategy, surprise, critique, and a fundamental dissatisfaction with the present state of things.” It might also be worth saying that I make this point in the light of an affirmation of subalternity, which I define both here and in Posthegemony in terms of “the possibility of betrayal, even self-betrayal” (cf. Posthegemony 266). In my book, indeed, I concur with and quote Moreiras on precisely this point: in arguing that “the subaltern is beyond representation, an insurgent betrayal of constituted power” (Posthegemony 234), I cite his characterization of “subaltern negation” as posthegemonic in that it is a “refusal to submit to hegemonic interpellation, an exodus from hegemony” (Moreiras, The Exhaustion of Difference, 126). I’m not sure if this makes Alberto a bedmate or part of the choir, but it does complicate things a little. As, for that matter, does the fact that the “deconstruction” that Beverley rejects is firmly intended to include me and my work. Indeed, according to Beverley I am “a product of deconstruction”. Even, then, if we were both rejecting deconstruction, it’s fairly obvious that it’d be rather different things we’d be turning our backs on, rather different partners we’d be kicking out of the bed.

Yet for what it’s worth, I may reject many things, but not deconstruction. When Moreiras refers to the notion that “Beasley-Murray and Beverley may not be now quite where they were a few years ago,” he may be thinking of my more recent “Rogue’s Take” in which I declare, perhaps to Beverley’s delight, that “I am now and always have been a deconstructionist.” But the most cursory reading would evidence that in Posthegemony, too, it is simply not true that (as Acosta argues) “the source of the problem” is deconstruction (21). Else why would I have spent so much time arguing about hegemony theory and civil society? Moreover, it should be equally obvious that, far from a rejection of deconstruction, let alone subalternism, my claim and my aim–in which of course I may or may not be successful–is to build on some of their key insights. In fact, in the introduction to my book on which Acosta’s reading mostly relies, what I am trying to establish is rather a genealogy of the concept of “posthegemony” that is absolutely indebted to both of them, and to the work of Moreiras (and Gareth Williams) in particular. Of course, I do indeed state that I am “not content” with deconstruction, but one doesn’t write books out of a sense of contentment.

Frankly, however, none of this seems especially interesting to me. I like Acosta’s book, and I think it is important and significant–perhaps even vital–in a number of ways. I hope to give a fuller account of it here at some stage. But I don’t think that this initial framing of its argument is either helpful or illuminating. Indeed, it does the book a disservice. Setting up my book and Beverley’s as conjoined twins that have somehow both (as he says specifically of Posthegemony) “misse[d] the point” (22) is essentially a rhetorical gesture that seems to clear the field for his own intervention. But it’s an artificial and unnecessary settling of accounts that relies on what is ultimately the straw man that together our two books have truly “establish[ed] the terms and grounds of cultural debate in Latin America for the next several years” (19). I may perhaps in my wildest dreams wish that this were so, but I’m rather aware of the many other positions and approaches that this backhanded compliment willfully obscures… not least, after all, the work of people such as Moreiras or others whose take on deconstruction is (arguably) less “rogue” and more unambiguous. Significantly, Acosta’s book, having set up and demolished its straw man in its introduction, then proceeds on the whole to ignore both Beverley and my work in what follows, probably much to its own benefit. Our books end up no more than what Moreiras calls “specter[s authors] must fight in order to establish their own legitimacy.”

But the more interesting question, I think, is this one, which would encourage a less spectral and more productive discussion: not so much that of the relationships between posthegemony, illiteracy, and deconstruction, than that of their mutual (possible) contributions to the notion of infrapolitics. “Infrapolitics” is a term that neither Acosta nor I employ, but I would argue that Posthegemony is indeed fundamentally concerned with the concept. It is so in the sense that infrapolitics is a matter of the non-political without which the political itself would be unimaginable or impossible. This is something that has long been a constant in my own work: the curious could consult a very early essay on “Ethics as Post-Political Politics”; or you could take Gareth Williams’s I think fair capsule summary of Posthegemony as a “critical discussion of the relation between the concept of the multitude and the underpinnings of the political.” The specific question then of Acosta’s book would be to what extent “illiteracy” is also an attempt to think infrapolitics, and then what this would say about the relationship between (il)literacy and politics in Latin America and perhaps elsewhere. The broader question would concern the varieties of infrapolitics and the extent to which posthegemony can inform (as well as be informed by) our notion of the infrapolitical. Presumably infrapolitics is not solely the domain of deconstruction (or at least non-rogue deconstruction, if there is such a thing). What arrangement of beds or bedmates, choirs or singers, does infrapolitics then suggest or allow?

Hijo de hombre II

Augusto Roa Bastos, Hijo de hombre

The second half of Roa Bastos’s Hijo de hombre takes us to the War of the Chaco (1932-35), which Bolivia and Paraguay fought out in the inhospitable and almost uninhabited territory of the Gran Chaco. Ostensibly, this was a conflict over oil, which had been discovered in small quantities near the border. But in the war’s aftermath no significant reserves were found until in 2012 the Paraguayan government proudly announced the discovery of a huge oilfield, as belated consolation for the loss of 30,000 men some eighty years previously. At the time, however, the struggle was presented as a fight for national survival. The country had already been devastated by the War of the Triple Alliance (1864-70), in which the combined armies of Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil, plus starvation and disease, had inflicted extraordinary casualties (perhaps 60% of the entire population, and a particularly high percentage of adult males) and led to Paraguay losing almost half its territory. Given this precedent, the war with Bolivia was perceived as an existential threat rather than a simple squabble over remote border outposts and forts. Accordingly, the country scrambled into fullscale national mobilization and total war.

Hence Roa Bastos shows the disparate characters to whom we have been introduced in the novel’s first half as they are swept up by the war machine, whatever their previous histories and relations to the Paraguayan state. Rebels and renegades alike, plucked from prisons where necessary, are transported to the front line halfway between Asunción and the Bolivian border. Here they join the siege of Boquerón, trying to wrest back an isolated outpost from the opposing side. Conditions are terrible, and the Paraguayans end up struggling against the land and the environment as much as they also have to defend themselves from Bolivian attempts to break the siege. Miguel Vega, who lends this fragmented novel much of its meager sense of continuity, finds himself the head of a detachment of troops cut off from the rest of the Paraguayan forces in a dusty canyon. Above all, what they need is water. In a series of diary entries Vega tells the tale of devastation and increasing delirium as around him his men die of hunger and thirst. Everything becomes “unreal,” but nonetheless he continues to write: “I hold on for the end, clinging to this final glimmer of reason, this scrap of pencil. Every time it feels heavier, as if I were writing with the carbonized skeleton of a tree” (271). We are at the absolute limit of bodily endurance and graphic representation alike, as Vega wrestles with an implement that has become less a means of expression than the physical incarnation of blasted nature.

In parallel to Vega’s account, we are given the story of the small convoy that sets out to rescue him. Led by his former rebel comrade-in-arms, Cristóbal Jara, from the start we know that this is effectively a suicide mission. Here, there is little that is metaphorical about Jara’s absorption into the war machine: driving a water tanker, he is described as “form[ing] part of the truck, a living, feeling element that radiated force and will to the metallic tendons and nerves of the battered vehicle” (294). Later, he has one injured and gangrenous arm tied with wire to the steering wheel, the other to the gearstick. Throughout, half-man, half-machine, he embraces his fate as though it were freedom itself:

Now there was no other option than to go on, go on forever, go on at any cost. [. . .] What other destiny could a man like Cristóbal Jara have, other than to propel his obsession like a slave through a narrow trail in the forest or across the infinite plains, overflowing with the savage stench of liberty. To be opening the way through the savage thicket of the facts on the ground, shedding his flesh in them, but transforming them too with the aspect of that will whose power grew precisely the more he became one with them. (322)

This is an extraordinary passage: a paean to immanence, to freedom through what is apparently self-sacrifice, to the transfiguration of the real through absolute acceptance.

In his commentary on Roa Bastos’s novel, Horacio Legras notes that “War is the historical event par excellence” (Literature and Subjection 167). Which in many ways it no doubt is, not least in the case of Paraguay, a country whose history can be narrated precisely in terms of a catalogue of armed conflicts both external and internal. But in the account given by Hijo de hombre, war becomes more even than the scenario for existential survival or demise; it becomes an ontological test, an expression of constituent power and conatus in their most basic expressions. No wonder that after the conflict some veterans should seem lost without it: the final chapter gives us the story of Crisanto Villalba, whose lament is that “our war, which was so lovely, is at an end” (354). It’s hard to know how to take such investment in bloody conflict that otherwise seems so senseless and self-defeating, waged over a barren wasteland in the name of the Fatherland. There are surely echoes (or presentiments) of a quasi-fascist triumph of the will. But Roa Bastos himself seems to present this ontological struggle in more positive terms:

They feel alive in the facts. They feel united in the passion of an instant that projects them out of themselves, binding them to some cause whether it be true or false, but at least it’s something… There is no other life as far as they are concerned. [. . .] Even the sense of loss felt by Cristanto Villalba is an all-consuming passion like life. [. . .] Their God is the force of their indestructible brotherhood. They crush it, they break it, they tear it into pieces, but it is forever rebuilt from the fragments, each time more alive and more powerful. (362)

Ultimately Miguel Vega, who mostly and indeed perhaps entirely narrates the novel, and who surely stands in for Roa Bastos (however much he would rather see himself as the oral storyteller, Macario Francia), is uncertain whether to marvel at or be horrified by the brute force and stubborn perseverance–but equally stubborn self-immolation–of the Paraguayan “sons of men.” As he puts it at the end of his manuscript:

There has to be some way out from this monstrous paradox of man crucified by man. Because otherwise we’d be forced to think that the human race is forever cursed, that this is Hell itself and that we can hope for no salvation.

There has to be some way out, because otherwise… (369)

In that uncertain repetition and final ellipsis is all the ambivalence of this troubled and troubling text.

Hijo de hombre I

Augusto Roa Bastos, Hijo de hombre

Half-way through Augusto Roa Bastos’s first novel, Hijo de hombre (“Son of Man”), comes a point at which the narrator of this particular section, a military man who’s been sent to the Paraguayan provinces under a cloud, is confronted by a large group of would-be rebels. They ask him to join their rebellion, to guide them as they form an anti-government militia. The narrator asks for time to think, but reflects to himself that he “already knew right then that sooner or later I’d say yes. The cycle was starting again, and once more I was caught up in it.” He then asks himself: “Was it not possible, then, to stay on the margin?” (182). Writing from or about what would seem to be the periphery of the periphery–rural Paraguay in the first half of the twentieth century–Roa Bastos questions the very dichotomy between periphery and center. We are always in the thick of things, whether we like it or not.

Hijo de hombre also plays with circularity, in both theme and style. The narrative, for instance, is far from linear: it is repeatedly drawn to certain points of intensity, geographical and temporal, such as the Sapukai railway station and the huge blast that destroyed it during a previous insurrection. The railway itself is of course the model of a straight line, but its apparent advantages (speed, direction) are soon shown to be weaknesses when a train loaded with explosives is bearing down upon you. In the aftermath of the destruction, one of the train’s wagons, thrown many hundreds of yards from the site of the impact, becomes home to a family determined to take it quite literally off the rails. Slowly and surreptitiously, over a period of many years, they haul it deeper into the undergrowth. A small deviation from the line gradually expands. And it is here, by this ruin that testifies both to the indiscriminate violence of the state and to the tenacious persistence of the people, that the encounter between proto-guerrilla and treacherous guide takes place.

It may be, Roa Bastos appears to suggest, that the quickest and surest route is not the straightest but the most circuitous. The couple who end up in the railway wagon get there after a daring escape from indentured servitude. But it is only thanks to the fact that, on leaving the estate on which they had been sequestered, they first wandered around in circles, that they could make good their flight. Their overlapping, directionless tracks confuse the bloodhounds sent to hunt them down. And the novel’s own rather free-wheeling, roundabout, sometimes repetitive style also thereby perhaps takes us better into the heart of things. For each time we return to a place, a character, a moment in time, we may find we know it a little better. As we are always in the thick of things, we keep bumping up against what Roa Bastos is telling us are the central aspects of poor Paraguayans’ experience in the twentieth century: violence, repression, and fear, but also humour, ingenuity, and faith. There’s no straight line of redemption from slavery to freedom, no mechanistic dialectic of progress or liberation. But there are moments of freedom, small deviations to which we insistently return to enhance and expand.