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'The Years With Laura Diaz' Carlos Fuentes. Translated by Alfred Mac Adam

Mexican history serves as vivid backdrop for Fuentes' heroine

Sunday, November 05, 2000

By John Freeman


The Years With Laura Diaz

By Carlos Fuentes. Translated by Alfred Mac Adam

Farrar, Straus & Giroux


Four decades ago, in his debut novel, “Where the Air Is Clear,” Carlos Fuentes wove a rich tapestry of Mexico City’s society, from its high-minded elite to its impoverished freedom fighters.

His new novel paints a sweeping portrait of Mexico’s past century as seen through the life of Laura Diaz, a wife and mother who by chance and acts of will becomes a committed artist. Boldly written and robustly readable, it stands as Fuentes’ highest achievement yet, one that should rekindle his appeal to female readers.

The novel opens in 1999, when a Mexican man visits Detroit to photograph the famous mural Henry Ford commissioned from Diego Rivera. Amid the painting’s swirl of faces and images, he fixates upon the mysterious visage of a woman who turns out to be Laura Diaz, his great-grandmother and a friend and muse to the communist artist.

The story of Laura’s life unfolds, from her modest, provincial upbringing in the Veracruz home of a Mexican banker and his German mail-order bride, to her early married years in Mexico City.

Stubborn, bright yet unsure of her true destiny, Laura embarks on a series of picaresque adventures. She marries a union leader because she is overwhelmed by his public figure; later she discovers that his strong exterior hides a coward’s heart.

After several years of domestic boredom during which she bears two children, Laura “drops her rings” and flees into cafe society. She romances beautiful men, watches Garbo and Gable movies, and befriends Diego Rivera and his wife, Frida Kahlo. She learns how to think without boundaries and begins to wonder if she is an artist.

In the past, feminists have levied heavy criticism on Fuentes for endorsing, rather than examining, women’s subservient roles in Latin culture. By contrast, “The Years With Laura Diaz” goes out of its way to apologize for the male chauvinist world Laura inhabits, almost to the point of shortchanging male characters.

Fuentes deftly depicts Laura’s relationships, amorous and otherwise, and we grow to care for her over the course of this sprawling novel. We watch her evolve from a tentative and sensitive teen-ager, enraptured by her dashing half brother, to a lover of great men, a searching woman determined to make sense of her past as her country does the same.

Like Mexico, Laura is the hybrid product of a mixed background, a history that binds her to the past even as she attempts to transcend it. Like her country, too, she struggles to keep her lofty ideals intact in the face of temptation. Even after she recommits herself to her husband, Juan Francisco, Laura cannot resist fulfilling her desires with other men.

As the novel plows onward, Laura emerges as a symbol for her country, emblematic of its great hopes and broken promises. As if to emphasize this fact, Fuentes strategically places her at the locus of Mexico’s historical events, from the American intervention in the 1910-20 revolt to the influx of immigrants escaping persecution during the McCarthy era.

As Fuentes’ canvas broadens, he never loses sight of Laura Diaz. She is the novel’s beating heart, a complex woman of passion, empathy and contradiction. Mexican history spins around her, like images in a vivid Rivera mural that encompasses so much history and so much suffering.

Yet it is a testament to Fuentes’ formidable powers as a novelist that, like Diaz’s great-grandson standing in the Detroit lobby, we cannot keep our eyes off her.

John Freeman is a free-lance critic from New York.

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