Monday, April 15, 2019

The Years with Laura Díaz by Carlos Fuentes

Fascinating history made boring
I’m what you might call a Mexicophile. I’ve traveled extensively throughout the country, and I read a lot of books about Mexican history and art. So it was with great enthusiasm that I commenced the reading of Carlos Fuentes’s 1999 novel The Years with Laura Díaz. I’m very interested in the Mexican mural movement, and Diego Rivera and his murals play an important part in this story. I have also been to many of the locations in this novel, such as Veracruz, Xalapa, Mexico City, Cuernavaca, and the Rivera murals in Detroit. While in the process of reading this book, I happened to spend a week in Mexico City walking many of the same streets and seeing many of the same sites mentioned in the book. So if anyone should be predisposed towards liking this novel, it should be me. Why then, did I find the reading of it to be such a terribly boring ordeal?

It seems the one aspect of Mexican culture that I am unable to appreciate is Carlos Fuentes. He has been widely hailed as the greatest Mexican novelist since Juan Rulfo and might have won a Nobel Prize if his countryman Octavio Paz hadn’t beaten him to it. Nevertheless, I’ve always found it difficult to get into his books. The Death of Artemio Cruz is the one work of his that I remember fondly, but I recall The Old Gringo being annoyingly tedious. The problem is that Fuentes tries really hard to be William Faulkner, and not in a good way. He writes in a style that emphasizes verbal creativity at the expense of storytelling. Every scene and emotion must be approached from an oblique angle; every sentiment expressed in sentences of intricate syntax. Rather than augmenting the emotional power of the story being told, all this verbal gymnastics tends to obfuscate the plot and dull any identification with the characters.

The Years with Laura Díaz is a historical novel chronicling the life and loves of a Mexican woman who lived from 1898 to 1972. As such, it contains a lot of Mexican history, but it’s very much in the background. The coming and going of presidential administrations are mentioned. Many historical figures make cameo appearances, but the reader doesn’t learn much about them beyond the dropping of their names. For a while, Laura Díaz works as a personal assistant to Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, but they never really register as actual human beings. Rather, they speak only in bon mots and metaphor, serving as mouthpieces for the author’s cleverness. The narrative makes meandering side trips into the Spanish Civil War and McCarthyism in Hollywood. For a historical novel, the history here feels very tangential, hidden behind a veil of gratuitous verbiage. When all is said and done, The Years with Laura Díaz is really just the story of one woman’s love life, and not a very interesting one at that. What really becomes tedious is the way Fuentes feels the need to constantly recap her entire genealogy and history of lovers on almost every page of the book.

Oddly enough, the most satisfying portion of the novel may be the two pages of Acknowledgments at the end of the book, in which the reader finds out that all of the characters are based on members of Fuentes’s family. This could have been a much better book if he had written it as nonfiction, which might have reined in some of the Faulknerian excesses. Fuentes is a very intelligent and talented writer whose personal stylistic choices just really rub this reader the wrong way. I haven’t read enough of his books to gauge whether he deserved a Nobel or not, but I do know that a Mexicophile like me should have enjoyed The Years with Laura Díaz a lot more than I did.
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