In February I reviewed Carlos Fuentes’ “The Death of Artemio Cruz”. Like that novel, “The Years with Laura Diaz” traverses the years surrounding the Mexican revolution, and class in Mexican society. Some of the secondary characters in that the earlier novel make cameo appearances in this novel, but the scope of “The Years with Laura Diaz” encompasses the major political travails of the 20th Century from a upper class socialist viewpoint. The Acknowledgment to the novel makes clear that this is fiction drawn from the author’s extended family.
There is a bit of name dropping in this novel, as it descriptive of the personalities of significant Mexican authors, artists, musicians, politicians and social diletantes of the period. The novel begins in 1999 Detroit. The City is on its knees and the focus of the visiting cinemaphotographer is coincidentally Diego Rivera’s mural at The Detroit Institute of Arts. It is the same mural that the now bankrupt Detroit considered selling this year. The Marxist Diego Rivera was commissioned by the bigot Henry Ford. Biting the benefactor’s hand, Rivera celebrates revolutionary workers of all colors. Rivera subsequently did the same at Rockefeller Center. Rockefeller, unlike Ford, had it painted over. Within the Detroit mural there is a woman. Not Rivera’s companion artist, Frida Kahlo, but an ancestor of the cinemaphotographer, Laura Diaz.
Octovio Paz had a long-standing feud with Carlos Fuentes because his magazine published an article by Enrique Krauze that dubbed Fuentes a “guerrilla dandy”. This novel may lend support to that view. Laura Diaz is the product of the Mexican upper echelon of the middle class. The novel examines socio-political changes through the attractive Ms. Diaz’s failed marriage and numerous affairs. Though she has means, they are not independent means. Her relationships are the source of her financial support. Although at times she is characterized as victim, she is self-absorbed. Not until the near end of her life does she fulfill any responsibilities. She is a celebrated free-spirit in search of herself. She is critical of her husband, who is mid-level labor leader that rose from poverty through the revolution. He “sells out” in her mind because she had an upper class image of revolution. The poor don’t want to be poor. He supports her in the style of her class.
Mr. Fuentes is cynical about politicians, particularly Mexican politicians. He parades upper class societal functions, but appears comfortable with them. The novel does not delve into the pervasive under-class. It does not want their point of view. Laura Diaz is shown this class once by her husband. She is glad to not see how they live more than once. She does not return and neither does the novel.
Like “The Death of Artemio Cruz” the novel is strongest when it is descriptive of Mexico’s regions, cooking, vegetation, dancing and culture. The novel can be philosophical. This adds depth to the writing. The chapter about expats during the U.S.’ McCarthy era is however a bit repetitive.
The novel slows toward the end although it is chronologically circular. It would have been better served by more editing. The book is worth reading, but I preferred “The Death of Artemio Cruz”.