Sunday, March 12, 2006

The Years with Laura Diaz by Carlos Fuentes

Review of Carlos Fuentes's Los Años Con Laura Díaz (The Years with Laura Díaz)

I've been trying to figure out what makes a novel "great." One of the criteria, I think, is easily identified: A great novel forces us to rethink history as more than just a long story told to younger and shorter people. But when a novelist knows this too well, and rethinks history for us programmatically -- as though there were a checklist lurking beneath the story -- the results can be mind-dulling: greatness contrived.

Such is the case with Carlos Fuentes' "The Years With Laura Díaz," a sweeping historical saga that falls prey to its ambitions. Laura Díaz is the novel's main character, protagonist, heroine and measure of Mexican identity. From her early years in Catemaco to her adolescence in Veracruz, and then throughout her adult life in Mexico City, Díaz's biography serves as a kind of screen upon which Fuentes projects his version of the Mexican past. She comes into glancing contact with all sorts of 20th century luminaries -- in her case Latin American and Mexican celebrities such as Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo -- along with numerous bit players. The historical figures Díaz comes to know best are mostly minor political radicals, but their proximity to power allows Fuentes to explore the Mexican past through its revolutions, from the workers' revolts to the coups and crackdowns. Ultimately, the stories of these revolutions (as seen by Díaz) constitute a critique of the left: The novel presents revolution as an essential instrument of progress, despite its leaders' failures to imagine their country's future. And yes, here we see Fuentes' slip showing.

You can find the full review here.

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