Friday, October 14, 2005

Books that have changed my life, #3

Long-time readers may remember (and newer readers might want to see) this post and this one.

Back in my college days, my school had a January Interim, a 4-week academic period between the fall and spring semesters in which faculty offered various off-the-beaten-path sorts of courses: travel courses, guided and independent research projects, etc. One year, a class was offered specifically to non-music and non-theatre majors in which the goal was to design costumes and sets and rehearse and perform Gilbert & Sullivan's Trial by Jury. That kind of thing. One fall, I had met and become good friends with a brother and sister whose family lived in Mexico City and who invited me to travel there with them after the holidays, and so when it came time to register for Interim, I and a Spanish teacher contrived an independent study/travel course so I could earn academic credit for this little adventure. The "study" part was a tutorial in which the prof gave me a reading list of historical and literary works from Mexico. One of those works was Carlos Fuentes' 3rd novel, The Death of Artemio Cruz.

My memory of that time, over 20 years ago now, is a bit hazy, so I can no longer recall whether Artemio Cruz was the first Latin American "Boom" novel I read. It was certainly among the first, though. And it was certainly my introduction to modern Mexican culture: obsessed simultaneously with its indigenista-conquista origins and an uncertain but American-shaped future. Its rather complicated structure--each chapter, divided into three sections, begins with an extended flashback from a formative moment in Cruz's life, then returns to the Now of the novel (Cruz on what will become his deathbed, loathing his wife and still conducting his corrupt business dealings), then a sort of Voice Over addresses a "You" which we understand to be Cruz but could as easily be the reader, especially if that reader happens to be Mexican--didn't throw me. I got it immediately--that is, I got a powerful sense of the history and culture Fuentes' novel was exploring. It seemed familiar somehow, familiar and brutal and sad--and beautiful for all that. And I felt myself already being seduced by the city (and the nation) that was that novel's source such that, when I visited Mexico City that December, 20 years after it was published, and had coffee in the very

Sanborns caddy-cornered from Bellas Artes where one of the novel's early scenes is set (image found here) and then wandered the city for the rest of my stay there, I was utterly smitten. A city of 20,000,000 people, and I felt as though I'd always lived there, despite my rudimentary Spanish.

What's more, I felt as though I was actually IN the novel--it wasn't mediating between me and what I was seeing. The only other time I've ever felt precisely that way was when I visited Faulkner's house, Rowan Oak, for the first time. As extraordinary a novel as One Hundred Years of Solitude is, its time is finally a legendary one. Artemio Cruz's time is Here and Now, even at, now, a 40-year remove. Those two novels taken together sketched out for me the broad outlines of Latin American history and culture that history books and other reading really just confirmed and added some names and dates to. Artemio Cruz wasn't just a skeleton--it said these people wore suits. The history books provided the fabrics and colors.

So, then: Artemio Cruz was my initiation into Mexican history and culture. It also served, though I didn't think of it in that way at the time, as my initiation into teaching literature. A year after my trip to Mexico City, my college advisor told me that some in the department had wanted to broaden the reading selections in the World Lit. sequence to include a Latin American novel. The Spanish teacher I'd mentioned recommended Artemio Cruz and told him that I'd read it and liked it. My advisor had since read it and liked it as well but suspected that most students would find it tough going. So, would I mind writing up a kind of Cliff's Notes for it that he would then distribute to his classes? I said I would. I admit to being a bit slow at times, and this is one of those times: it was only years later that I realized just how important that task was in giving me a glimpse of my chosen profession. I'd of course written papers for my profs before, but this was aimed at a different audience with different needs and who was probably going to struggle with this unusually-written novel rooted in a culture alien to most of them. In other words, I was going to be a teacher for the first time via this document. But at the time I clearly remember only thinking, as I was rereading the novel and making notes and figuring out what to say about it and how to present what I wanted to say about it, "How cool is this?" I was flattered that my prof had asked me to do this, but I wasn't at all nervous about it, nor did I keep thinking how hard it was. If I'd really recognized the implications of what I was doing, I would have been considerably more anxious, probably paralyzed by the feeling that I had no business thinking I could write such a thing. But, fools rush in and all that. And it was a foolish rush that I still feel whenever I read a text for a class and think, "How can we get started talking about this?"

I owe a lot to Artemio Cruz. It taught me an enormous amount about a land and a people I find I love, and it led me to explore the delights of the academic life even as I was unaware that that was what I was doing.

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1 comment:

René López Villamar said...

John, thanks for this post. As you may be well aware of, I am a big follower of Fuentes' work. The Death of Artemio Cruz has always been one of my favorites and I'm glad to read from someone who liked it as much as I do. Like you did, I always remeber the novel when I go for a cup of coffe in the Samborn's of "La Casa de los Azulejos". As much as Mexico City has changed over the years, it's still the same city portrayed in the novel. The rulers of our country are still the childs of Artemio Cruz.