Just some notes from Wikipedia:
The Death of Artemio Cruz is today “widely regarded as a seminal work of modern Spanish American literature”. Like many of his works, the novel used rotating narrators, a technique critic Karen Hardy described as demonstrating “the complexities of a human or national personality”.
The novel is heavily influenced by Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, and attempts literary parallels to Welles’ techniques, including close-up, cross-cutting, deep focus, and flashback. Like Kane, the novel begins with the titular protagonist on his deathbed; the story of Cruz’s life is then filled in by flashbacks as the novel moves between past and present. Cruz is a former soldier of the Mexican Revolution who has become wealthy and powerful through “violence, blackmail, bribery, and brutal exploitation of the workers”. The novel explores the corrupting effects of power and criticizes the distortion of the revolutionaries’ original aims through “class domination, Americanization, financial corruption, and failure of land reform”.
Artemio Cruz—soldier, politician, journalist, tycoon, lover: all corrupt—lies on his deathbed, recalling the shaping events of his life, from the Mexican Revolution through the development of the PRI—the Party of the Institutional Revolution. His family crowds around, pressing him to reveal the location of his will; a priest provides extreme unction, angling for a deathbed confession and reconciliation with the Church (while Artemio indulges in obscene thoughts about the birth of Jesus); his private secretary has come with audiotapes of various corrupt dealings, many with gringo diplomats and speculators. Punctuating the sordid record of betrayal is Cruz’s awareness of his failing body and his keen attachment to sensual life.
The Death of Artemio Cruz is a strong interpretation of both the man, Cruz, and the country, Mexico. I’ve heard this novel described as an example of magic realism but I don’t see how that is. The depiction of the corruption of Cruz’s body is powerful realism, even if also metaphorical for the condition of the country. At the end, Fuentes makes a powerful extended statement about the condition of life:
In another time…Time that will be filled with life, actions, ideas, but never be the inexorable flow between the first milestone of the past and the last of the future…Time that will exist only in the reconstruction of isolated memory, in the flight of isolated desire, which will be lost once the chance to live is used up, incarnate in this singular individual that you are, a boy, already a moribund old man, who this night links together, in a mysterious ceremony, the tiny insects climbing the stones on the slope and the immense stars that spin silently above the infinite depth of space…Nothing will happen in the silent minute of earth, firmament, and you…Everything will exist, move, separate in a river of change which in that instant will dissolve it, age, and corrupt everything without a single voice to sound the alarm…The sun is burning itself alive, iron is crumbling into dust, aimless energy is dissipating in space, masses are wearing out in radiation, the earth is cooling into death…And you will wait for a mulatto and an animal, to cross the mountain and begin to live, to fill time, execute the steps and gestures of a macabre game in which life will advance as life dies; a dance of madness in which time will devour time and no one alive can halt, the irreversible course of death…The boy, the earth, the universe: in those three, someday there will be no light, no heat, no life…There will be only total, forgotten oneness, nameless, without a man to give it a name: space and time, matters and energy all fused into one…And all things will have the same name…None…But not yet…Men are still being born…
One final image from the book lingers: the corrupt body of the dying Artemio Cruz is wheeled through the house for a last surgical attempt to ease his suffering and possibly save his life. Although unable to speak, Artemio narrates the passage of wealth and rare objects that adorn his house and his life. Although an extended postmodern list, the catalogue of riches has all the irony of Ozmandias.
If you are interested in South American fiction, read The Death of Artemio Cruz, and if you aren’t sure about South American fiction, read The Death of Artemio Cruz. Either way you will want more …