Carlos Fuentes

"The Years With Laura Dìaz"

(Reviewed by Judi Clark FEB 25, 2001)

"Laura, we were mistaken in our historical moment. I don't want to admit anything that would break our faith, how I wish we were all heroes, how I want to keep the faith."

Like Richard Powers' Three Farmers on the Way to a Dance, this novel begins with a man mesmerized by the Diego Rivera mural in the Detroit Institute of Arts. This time it's Santiago who is there to shoot a documentary on Mexican muralists. While studying the mural and contemplating its creator's intention, he discovers the face of his great-grandmother, Laura Díaz, in the mural. Her golden, mestizo eyes unleash waves of memories in all of "the forms of recollection." He wonders if it is "possible to live the life of a dead woman exactly as she lived it, to discover the secret of her memory, to remember what she would remember."

In spite of, or perhaps because of, the freedom allowed in magical reality, Latin Americans write superb historical fiction and Fuentes is considered "the literary statesman." Fuentes offers a unique advantage because he has lived outside of Mexico as much as within, has always stayed politically active, and has a vast knowledge of history and human nature. So when Fuentes explores the twentieth century through Laura Díaz, the novel is abundant with the ironies that time presents to any ideology, especially one's own. It is a study of the Mexican Revolution, the history of socialism and anarcho-syndicalism, the workers' movement in Latin America, the Spanish Civil war, the Holocaust, McCarthyism in the United States..." all that has happened in the last 100 years.

The story of the 20th century is told through Laura's relations with different men: as granddaughter, daughter, sister, wife, lover or mother. She lives through a century worth of fanatical ideology, whether political, economic or religious. Before taking offense that Laura needs "a man," or that this book is all politics and no fun, let me assure you that this novel is rich in language, scenery and the fantastic. Laura's search for an honest love is analogous to the search for the right political agenda. Understand that Fuentes believes, like Emily Brontë, that characters are interesting not for themselves but what they represent. Personally, I wish I had a whole semester to dig deep into each character and really see how each represents an aspect of the politics and ideology of our past century.

Born in 1898, Laura comes of age at the time of the Mexican Revolution when she loses her half-brother Santiago, a revolutionary martyred. She marryies Juan Francisco Lopez Greene because of his ideals, but after nine years of sitting in the room next to his meetings, bearing witness to his speeches, she knows he's lost the dream and it's "an insomniac's speech." By this time she has given birth to two sons, Santiago and Danton, whom she sends back to her mother's house with her favorite Auntie for them to raise. Laura is restless and needs to find a way to fulfill whatever it was her half-brother Santiago stirred up in her. "Run your own home properly, girl, and you'll make more of a contribution than if you come to these neighborhoods to organize and save people..." is Juan Francisco's advice when she offers to help him with the Worker's movement.

For awhile she is lost and finds comfort in a sexual relation with a "lounge lizard" who's the wit of the Carmen Cortina's nightly cocktail parties where the "fauna of Mexico City" meet. These has-been revolutionaries say these parties prove that the social class system has been abolished. Tired of a year of the same conversations, but not yet ready to take back her family, she contacts Diego Riveria for a job and goes to Detroit with him and Frida Kahlo.

But alas, her sons have been without her long enough, so she decides for their sake to make a home with Juan Francisco once again in their well furnished Avenidia Sonora home. It is at this time she meets the love of her life, Jorge Maura, and decides to manage this relation discreetly, while being present for her sons. It is not until Maura leaves to save his college girlfriend from the concentration camp that Laura finally turns to her sons as a devoted mother. Well at least the eldest son Santiago. Her younger son, Danton has different ideas and has already seen the advantage of capitalism and privilege in the future of Mexico and has decided that this is a future he can make for himself. Laura herself goes on to become one of Mexico's greatest photographers. It is in her later years, when she is free of the men in her life, symbolically free of the ideology, yet empowered by all of her experiences, that she sees the world clearly for the first time and captures it through her Leica.

Politics aside, this is a spellbinding novel. There are so many stories and images that come to mind as I think back on this novel. The family legend begins with Cosima Kelson's, Laura's grandmother. The Hunk Of Papalanta holds up her stagecoach and Cosima stoically says he'd have to cut off her fingers before she'd willingly let him take her rings. For the rest of her life, she refuses to hide her missing fingers to the consternation of her husband; for it is said that from that day forward she harbored a secret love for the Hunk. Or that of Raquel at Buchenwald the Jew who turned to Christ but still would not allow herself to be saved; the last image of Jorge Maura living an ascetics life "on all fours in the solitary refectory, licking the floor with his tongue, tenacious, disciplined, tile after tile." Or of the Camel smoking, dying Harry Jaffe, one more American exile during the McCarthy years but invisible to his own group "when he spoke it was in silence, Laura realized with alarm, no one spoke, because no one listened to him but her, only her..." In this 514 page novel there are so many beautiful sentences and images that it is impossible but to quote a trifling few.

I assume that Fuentes finished writing The Years with Laura Díaz before Vincente Fox was elected President of Mexico. Fox's election toppled the ruling party, Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), after seventy-one years in power. There is no way that Fuentes could have ignored this, nor could he have predicted. "Nothing is exempt from fate," as Jorge Maura tells Laura. As is the case in any historical novel that attempts to include even one year into the future, the future can't be predicted. This is similar to something that happened with James Michener's Alaska. Whereas he predicts a tsunami, what he couldn't, but should have guessed was the Exxon Valdez oil spill. In some sense, it is clear that Fuentes felt that Capitalism would win. The narrator, Laura Diaz's great-grandson, starts out the novel expressing that he's looking at Detroit and seeing the future of Mexico. "I was photographing the future of our Latin American cities in the present of the most industrial city of all, capital of the automobile, cradle of mass production and the minimum wage; Detroit, Michigan. I made my way shooting all of it, old abandoned jalopies in lots even more abandoned, sudden streets paved with broken glass, blinking lights in shops selling...selling what?"

I am going to guess that The Years with Laura Díaz is a culmination of everything that Carlos Fuentes has written or lived. This novel is a remarkable feat of work and deserves to be cherished page by page. I started to read this novel in October and have only recently finished it. When selecting this novel to read, be sure to be ready for the long haul; a century is a long time to recall.

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About the Author:

Carlos FuentesCarlos Fuentes, born in Panama in 1928, spent his youth in Washington, DC, where his father was posted as a Mexican diplomatic representative. As a teen, Fuentes lived in Argentina and Chile, as well as Mexico. He completed his university studies in both Mexico City and Geneva. A diplomat who has served as his country's ambassador to France, he has received many awards for his accomplishments as a novelist, essayist, and commentator, among them the Cervantes Prize in 1987. He is the author of more than twenty books. He divides his time between Mexico City and London, and lectures frequently in the United States. About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014