Following in the vein of old Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych, Carlos Fuentes’ The Death of Artemio Cruz takes off at the deathbed of the main character and from there launches into a long, winded, and circuitous journey into memory.
If Tolstoy took as the model for his attack the old aristocratic classes in the person of the judge Ivan Ilych, Fuentes’ Artemio Cruz personifies the big bourgeois comprador class as situated in the Mexican social condition.
Through Tolstoy, said Lenin, “the Russian working class will learn to know its enemies better.” In the same way, Artemio Cruz invites the same denunciation of the Mexican elites by exposing the duplicity of the institutions which props up their rule.
That is “the inner falsity” of “the church, the law courts, militarism, ‘lawful’ wedlock, bourgeois science,” as Lenin would put it apropos Tolstoy works.
Fuentes’ narrative follows a fragmented and non-linear route with its non-chronological flashbacks of the past and frequent forays into the present streams of consciousness of Artemio Cruz who, dying in his hospital bed, attempts to declare his final testament to his heirs.
The cynical old man views his immediate family and colleagues with toxic suspicion, assuming correctly that they were only after his inheritance.
But the motley group around Cruz’s deathbed has no reason to relish the company of the dying man though, which only left bitter memories to his estranged wife and children in his single-minded drive for wealth and power.
We are brought back immediately after the Mexican Revolution at the outset of the 20th Century. What began as a genuine social revolution later on failed to institute radical changes in the face of the wavering character of its bourgeois leadership.
In the internecine struggle for power, the more progressive-minded generals Pancho Villa and Emilio Zapata were outmaneuvered by the conservative forces within the revolution that would eschew the aims of instituting genuine land reform and shunning of foreign domination.
Cruz, as an officer under one of the revolutionary armies, personified the deterioration of this national democratic revolution of the old-type into the mere transfer of power and reconcentration of wealth from one faction of the Mexican landed elites into another.
We are shown how Cruz began to accumulate his wealth by marrying the daughter of a dying despotic landlord immediately after the war. He subsequently uses his newfound wealth for forays into politics and the setting up of his own newspaper and various other businesses.
The revolutionary degenerates into the role of the intermediary who facilitates their exploitation of his country’s markets, natural resources, and cheap labor by foreign monopoly capitalists in exchange for a small portion of their superprofits.
It is in this way that he gained access to all the pleasures the world can offer. It is also in this way that Cruz ironically became a broken man. Drunk on his wealth and power, he was consumed by his bitterness and resentments and never found peace with himself and his past.
In the end, The Death of Artemio Cruz also serves as a reminder of how otherwise well-intentioned revolutionary endeavors go astray if they are not anchored on the correct emancipatory standpoint, viewpoint, and method.
Like the old ilustrado-led 1896 Philippine revolution against Spanish colonialism, the Mexican revolution was hijacked by a leadership that was all too ready to sacrifice the aspirations of the toiling masses for their own prosperity under the auspices of U.S. imperialism.