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As we've discussed before, the key moment in the Fall of Communism came when Soviet dissident intellectuals took advantage of Perestroika to demonstrate that Lenin was a totalitarian butcher.  The sustaining myth of the Soviet Union and fellow travelers in the West had been that Stalin took a noble and righteous revolution and perverted it to his own ends, that Marxism would have worked, but for this artificial intervention by one monstrous man.  The truth was quite different, that the Revolution was corrupt from it's inception, that Lenin and the Bolsheviks stole the Revolution from more popular and democratic Left parties, and that Lenin and the Soviets ruled through terror from the start.  Once this final prop was kicked out from under the Soviet Union, it quickly collapsed.

Comes now Carlos Fuentes, the Marxist novelist of Mexico, to argue that the Mexican Revolution was likewise pristine and honorable until it was corrupted by faithless leaders and corrupt one-party rule.  In fact, this long (excruciatingly so) epic novel seeks to go back and revisit many such arguments from the 20th Century.  It is quite audacious--he is after all trying to say, at the end of a Century that was decisively won by the forces of liberal democratic capitalism,, that the Socialist/Marxist Left was generally right about most issues--but it is neither convincing as history nor compelling reading.

The story is ostensibly about the life of a famous photographer, Laura Diaz, as retold by her grandson who, at the start of the novel, recognizes her as one of the figures in a Diego Rivera mural.  Fuentes charts her life through several marriages, numerous love affairs, various personal tragedies, and her late development into a respected artist.  But all of this is juxtaposed against the events of the Century.  In what quickly becomes a noticeable annoying contrivance, the main events of her life just happen to occur at the precise moments in history which the author wishes to comment upon--her life is really secondary to the march of world events.  The problem with this is that, since the author obviously is less interested in her than in what's going on around her, it is hard for him to get us to care about her.  Why should we care more than he does ?

If you'll indulge me for a moment, I think I've discerned a pivotal structural flaw in the novel, though I admit I've not thought it out fully.  It seems to me that most multi-generational historical epics like this don't merely pin themselves to one character and a batch of events, instead they are generally driven by a discrete set of events with a known conclusion (Winds of War comes to mind) or the central character/characters are trying to build or defend some family enterprise (Scarlett O'Hara had Tara, and in Tai-Pan, Dirk Struan had the Noble House).  In the absence of such coherence imposing structures, the main character has to be incredibly interesting in order to keep our attention for hundreds and hundreds of pages and nearly a hundred years.  Laura Diaz is simply not such a character.

Now that is a significant weakness, but it's not fatal.  Other authors have written great epic novels without one overwhelmingly interesting character : consider War and Peace.  But if you don't have such a character for us to identify with and root for (or against), you had better have a sure hand on the tiller of events.  It's here that Fuentes fails miserably.  To take just one example, a major portion of the story features the community of Hollywood refuges from McCarthyism living in Mexico in the 1950's.  Fuentes argues correctly that McCarthy was a demagogue run amok, smearing people for his own political reasons, rather than on the basis of evidence or out of any moral sense of right and wrong.  But he then proceeds to excuse American Communists and to himself smear anti-Communism generally.

At various points--in complete opposition to conclusive evidence that has come to light since the end of the Cold War--he maintains that the Rosenbergs were innocent, that Communist writers, directors and actors were not following orders from the central Party, that there was no basis for the anti-Communist movement, etc.  At one point he says that :

    The day will come when all the accused will be rehabilitated and celebrated as cultural heroes,
    and the accusers will be the accused and degraded just as they deserve.

In fact, at the end of the Cold War, who are the honored heroes ?  Elia Kazan received a special Oscar for Lifetime Achievement.  Whittaker Chambers received a posthumous Medal of Freedom from Ronald Reagan and was the subject of a major reassessment by Sam Tannenhaus.  Even his journalism and reputation as a writer has been revived and rehabilitated; by any measure, his memoir, Witness, must be considered one of the major texts of the century.

And what of the unrepentant Party members who refused to testify ?  Alger Hiss, like the Rosenbergs, lies, unmourned, in a traitor's grave.  Despite the continuing bouquets from the modern Left, the once towering reputations of Dashiell Hammett and Lillian Hellman are in tatters.  The repellent pair having been exposed as doctrinaire Stalinsts, unswayed even by genocide.  Take a look at books like Hollywood Party: How Communism Seduced the American Film Industry in the 1930s  and 1940s (1998)(Kenneth Lloyd Billingsley),  Not Without Honor : The History of American Anticommunism by Richard Gid Powers,   Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case by Allen Weinstein, The Haunted Wood : Soviet Espionage in America- -The Stalin Era by Allen Weinstein, The Soviet World of American Communism (Annals of Communism) by John Haynes , Venona : Decoding Soviet Espionage in America by John Earl Haynes,  and try to make an honest argument that the victims of McCarthyism were innocents.  No, the tragedy of Joe McCarthy is not that the witch hunt was unwarranted, but that he was too irresponsible to lead it--not that lives were ruined, but that some of the wrong lives may have been ruined.  There was in fact a Communist conspiracy to subvert American democracy; it was financed and directed from Moscow; and those who refused to testify before Congressional committees were aiding and abetting a foreign power.

Perhaps more disturbing, and indicative of how oblivious Mr. Fuentes is to the true historical record is the absurd distinction that he repeatedly makes between Hitler and Stalin.  He continues to maintain what one would have hoped would by now be an indefensible canard, that though both used evil means, Stalin at least had good intentions because communism was intended to help the workers, but that Hitler represented genuine evil because his ends were evil.

    Nazis and Communists are not the same thing.  The difference is that Hitler believes in evil, evil is
    his gospel--conquest, genocide, racism.  But Stalin must say he believes in the good, in the freedom
    of labor, in the disappearance of the state, and in giving to each according to his needs.  He recites
    the gospel of the civil good.

First of all, this ignores the inconvenient fact that Hitler was just as serious about Socialism as he was about racism.  Second, it ignores the by now nearly incontrovertible argument that mass movements like Nazism and Communism have far more in common than they do that divides them.  The work of authors like Eric Hoffer, F. A. Hayek, Paul Johnson, Allan Bullock, Robert Conquest, and a host of others should really have settled this issue.  These movements are, by and large, driven by intellectuals who think that they know better than the masses how to run a country, adopt a nearly religious belief structure to justify their actions, and then unleash the destructive forces of followers who don't particularly care what the new system may bring, but know that they are losers in the current system.  It is inevitable that such revolutions end in violence and repression, as every single one we've ever witnessed has in fact done.  Finally, it assumes that ideal Communism is necessarily a good.  The idea that a system based on oppressing one man to benefit another is de facto a good thing, is hardly a given, and, I would argue, is actually evil itself (see Orrin's review of The Communist Manifesto.)

Which brings us to the Mexican Revolution, whose initial urges Fuentes works so hard to vindicate.  In particular, he seems awestruck by the emphasis on worker rights, the six day work week, and the eight hour work day.  I don't know enough about Mexican history to know whether this was truly the great focus of the Revolution (Fuentes tends to make the unfortunate assumption that we are as obsessed with Mexico and conversant with it's history as he is with us and ours), but let's accept Fuentes's insistence that this is what made it worthwhile.  Elevation of these basic tenets to nearly sacred status requires one of two things : either they must be invested with some kind of absolute semi-talismanic level, must take on the quality of nearly religious commandments; or they are subject to being trumped repeatedly.  If the six day week is good, isn't the five day better ?  or the four ? the three ? the two ? the one ? none?  This way lies an economy even more disastrous than the historic Mexican system.  And if those original demands are to remain inviolate, what is the rational reason that they should ?  Fuentes whole case here is awfully sketchy.

Finally, let me just touch on the extended episode with Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo.  Fuentes takes great delight in their sort of guerilla artistic invasion of America and their assault on the capitalist sensibilities of the Fords and the Rockefellers.  Rivera was commissioned to paint murals for both which he notoriously turned into Marxist propaganda.  Fuentes has great fun with this and indeed it is an amusing instance of American corporate stupidity.  One would merely note that when they were done, the artists returned to a completely backwards and dysfunctional Mexico, while the Fords and Rockefellers, though they may have been temporarily embarrassed, helped create the mightiest economic engine the world has ever seen.  And, ironically, Henry Ford, despite his many faults and open anti-Semitism, is more responsible than any other single man for creating the limited work week and work day--though he based his advocacy on the insight that workers would consume more goods given time to use them, than if all their time was monopolized by their labors.  Who really had the last laugh here ?

Unfortunately, taken on it's own terms, as a novel, the book does not succeed and considered only as history it is so wrongheaded as to be dangerous.  The only other book I've read by Carlos Fuentes was The Old Gringo, which wasn't great, but at least had the advantage of focusing on one discrete set of events.  The Years With Laura Diaz suffers from a lack of focus on the eponymous hero and some badly out of focus historical arguments.

In perhaps the ultimate irony, Fuentes vigorous defense of every Leftist impulse of the 20th Century comes out just as even Mexico, that beleaguered one party state, has finally joined the rest of the Western world in recognizing the necessity for liberal democratic capitalism, electing conservative businessman Vicente Fox to the presidency and breaking the long reign of the oxymoronically named Institutional Revolutionary Party. Even as Carlos Fuentes mounts the barricades to wave the red flag of revolution, his own people have reduced those barricades to rubble.  His triumphalism strikes a bizarrely discordant note.

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (F)

  

Websites:

See also:

Carlos Fuentes (2 books reviewed)
Latin American
Book-related and General Links:
    -FEATURED AUTHOR: NY Times Book Review
    -PROFILE : The Guardian Profile: Carlos Fuentes
    -ARCHIVES : "carlos fuentes" (NY Review of Books)
    -BOOK SITE : The Years With Laura Diaz (FSB Associates)
    -EXCERPT : Chapter One of The Years with Laura Diaz by Carlos Fuentes
    -ESSAY : WHEN DON QUIXOTE LEFT HIS VILLAGE, THE MODERN WORLD BEGAN (Carlos Fuentes, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of REVOLUTIONARY MEXICO The Coming and Process of the Mexican Revolution. By John Mason Hart (Carlos Fuentes, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of STARING AT THE SUN By Julian Barnes (Carlos Fuentes, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of I THE SUPREME By Augusto Roa Bastos (Carlos Fuentes, NY Times Book Review)
    -Carlos Fuentes (b. 1928 México)(reading guides, links, etc)
    -LINKS : Carlos Fuentes (About.com)
    -Fuentes Links (About.com)
    -ESSAY: A victim of Pinochet by Carlos Fuentes
    -How Zurich Invented the Modern World: A DISTINGUISHED MEXICAN NOVELIST REFLECTS ON THOMAS MANN, ZURICH AND THE IMAGINATION OF EUROPE (Carlos Fuentes, Salon)
    -INTERVIEW : Travails with Time: An Interview with Carlos Fuentes (Debra A. Castillo, Center for Book Culture)
    -INTERVIEW: Carlos Fuentes searches for  Spain's cultural past in 'The Buried Mirror' (Julie Braun Kessler, Book Page)
    -PROFILE:  REBEL, INTERNATIONALIST, ESTABLISHMENTARIAN: THE MEANDERING ROAD OF CARLOS FUENTES (Jim Tuck, Mexico Connect)
    -PROFILE : CARLOS FUENTES: LIFE AND LANGUAGE (Nicholas Shrady, NY Times)
    -PROFILE: Carlos Fuentes Has Made Mark as Writer, Diplomat (BARBARA YOST, The Arizona Republic)
    -The Day I Met Carlos Fuentes (TOMAS ELOY MARTINEZ, New York Times Special Features)
    -Carlos Fuentes Talks about Migrants, Democracy and More (Cox News Service)
    -Carlos Fuentes: Bawdy verse to elegant prose (Nando.net)
    -ARTICLE : Fuentes In a TV Film, On Life And Himself (JEREMY GERARD, NY Times)
    -ARTICLE : CARLOS FUENTES TURNS TO THEATER  (Arthur Holmberg, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of The Years with Laura Diaz (Richard Eder, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of The Years with Laura Diaz (Rudolfo Anaya, Washington Post Book World)
    -REVIEW : of Laura Diaz (Bill Vourvoulias, Newsday)
    -REVIEW : of The Years With Laura Diaz (Alan Michael Parker, Salon)
    -REVIEW : of The Years with Laura Diaz (Book Browser)
    -REVIEW : of 'The Years With Laura Diaz' By Carlos Fuentes (Brian Bouldrey, SF Chronicle)
    -REVIEW : of The Years with Laura Diaz by  Carlos Fuentes ( Alex Clark, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW : of The Years with Laura Diaz by  Carlos Fuentes (David Robson, booksonline uk)
    -REVIEW : of Years with Laura Diaz (Eileen Battersby, Irish Times)
    -REVIEW : of The Years with Laura Díaz by Carlos Fuentes  (Emily Banner, Pif Magazine)
    -REVIEW : The Crystal Frontier: a Novel in Nine Stories by Carlos Fuentes (David Horspool, booksonline uk)
    -REVIEW: THE OLD GRINGO By Carlos Fuentes Translated by Margaret Sayers Peden and the author (Michiko Kakutani, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: THE OLD GRINGO (Earl Shorris, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Old Gringo by Carlos Fuentes (Thomas R. Edwards, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: THE CAMPAIGN By Carlos Fuentes Translated by Alfred MacAdam (Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Christopher Unborn By Carlos Fuentes  (Michiko Kakutani, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of CHRISTOPHER UNBORN By Carlos Fuentes (Suzanne Ruta, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of DIANA The Goddess Who Hunts Alone. By Carlos Fuentes (Paul Theroux, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Constancia and Other Stories for Virgins By Carlos Fuentes (HERBERT MITGANG, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of CONSTANCIA And Other Stories for Virgins. By Carlos Fuentes (Denis Donoghue, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of THE CRYSTAL FRONTIER A Novel in Nine Stories. By Carlos Fuentes (Jay Parini, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of DISTANT RELATIONS By Carlos Fuentes (Guy Davenport, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of A New Time For Mexico By Carlos Fuentes (Peter Canby, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of MYSELF WITH OTHERS Selected Essays. By Carlos Fuentes (Wendy Lesser, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of THE BURIED MIRROR Reflections on Spain and the New World. By Carlos Fuentes (Nicolas Shumway, NY Times Book Review)
 

GENERAL :
    -Rethinking History and the Nation State : Mexico and the United States (Indiana U)
    -Webliography : Rivera & Kahlo
    -Diego Rivera Virtual Museum
    -Mural Museum : Diego Rivera
    -Frida Kahlo & Contemporary Thoughts
    -REVIEW : of THE DIARY OF FRIDA KAHLO An Intimate Self-Portrait. Essay and commentary by Sarah M. Lowe (Deborah Solomon, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY : Diary of a teacher's last year  : Artemio Cruz is just a character in a book Gen. Obregon really happened!  (David Alford, Salon)

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