Mortal Longings

The Death of Artemio Cruz

by Carlos Fuentes
Farrar, Straus, 256 pp., $4.95

Report on Bruno

by Joseph Breitbach
Knopf, 288 pp., $5.95

Both Carlos Fuentes and Joseph Breitbach are concerned with the realities of power. At that point their similarities cease. One is ornate and romantic, the other purse-lipped and, only by contrast, classical. One is modern, in a faintly slick, eye-catching way, the other old-fashioned and flat as milk. One treats politics as a language of feeling, the other as a calculus of manipulation. Neither has a very high opinion of his subject. For both, political life is a process of dehumanization, a compensation for inner failure, warping, and splitting.

Fuentes’s hero-villain, Artemio Cruz—Mexican industrialist, newspaper and land-owner, millionaire—lies on his death-bed while his devoted secretary, his despised and despising wife and daughter jostle around him. A priest is trying to force on him the comforts of the last sacrament, the doctors probe and peer at his body. And he lies there in a trance of disgust: disgust with those around him, with his past and, above all, with his own physical presence. Idealism, ambition, passion, and achievement all end in one corruption, the smell of which horrifies him. He reeks in his own nostrils.

Literally so, for by an odd trick of style all Fuentes’s most vivid perceptions come in as scents on the air. He is a writer with a nose and no eye. Whenever he piles up visual details, listing the goodies in Cruz’s mansions, his grandiose arrays of clothes and mistresses, the writing goes dead; he sounds less like an artist than a compiler of baroque inventories. Only smells seem really to get through to him imaginatively: the smell of his skin, his breath, his faeces, the smell of girls and food, “the scents of the mountain and the plain: arrayan and papaya, the smells of darkness and tabachin, pine and tulipan laurel, vanilla and tecotehue, cimarron violet, mimosa, tiger flowers.” Like a hunting dog, he sees through his nose. And this has a curious effect: it makes the book, for all its scope, intensely private.

This claustrophobia of the self is emphasized by the form. Cruz’s story is told in three persons. “I” is the old man dying on his bed; “you” is a slightly vatic, “experimental” projection of his potentialities into an unspecified future (you know it is experimental because the letters are in lower-case and the punctuation scanty); “he” is the real hero, the man whose history emerges bit by bit from incidents shuffled around from his seventy-one years.

The story, when you pick it out, is straightforward enough, and handily symbolic. Like Mexico itself, Cruz is the bastard son of a decayed landowner and a peon. The Revolution makes him into an idealistic minor hero but, in the process, the girl he loves is murdered by the other side. So the heart dies and the will to power is born. He returns from the wars, marries the frigid daughter of an aristocrat, lends out money at extortionate rates, amasses land, and climbs remorselessly into the world of very big business by bribery, blackmail,…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.