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” ) 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!.