Artemio Cruz Is Alive And Well, And Living In Spain

“Look, Doctor, he’s just faking……. Even now in the hour of his death he has to trick us.”

The opening sentence: ‘There’s a long silence, and then I say …’ indicates the three functions of this book. It is an attempt to find a self through utterance, after a lifetime of non-communication; this was prompted by the wish to break a writer’s block and involves a search for a discursive mode in the psychoanalytic situation, the so-called ‘talking cure’ in which one participant often remains silent.
Ronnie Fraser

Upon reading Carlos Fuentes’s novel La muerte de Artemio Cruz (1962) for the first time, many readers find themselves confused, frustrated, and even lost, due to its complex narrative structure.
Kathleen Cunniffe

‘As far as I am concerned, this is … the most complex crisis we’ve ever seen due to the number of factors in play’
Spanish Economy Minister Pedro Solbes speaking last week to Spanish radio station Punto Radio

OK, You won’t find serious analysis of Spain’s immediate economic plight here. If you want that you can go over to my two most recent posts on the topic at Roubini Global’s European EconMonitor (What Is The Risk Of A Serious Melt-Down In The Spanish Economy?, and
Has Spain Contracted The Artemio Cruz Syndrome?), or if you are really interested you can follow the crisis evolve day by day on my Spain economy blog.

Quod erat demonstrandum as far as I’m concerned on that account (and if you don’t agree with me please feel free to go over and post whatever comment you like). No, here I am speaking to those people – and especially Spanish people and other South Europeans who may understand all this much more than North European will do – who recognise that there is a problem, and a big one down here in the eurozone’s fourth economy (who the hell just blew that hole in the side of the ship!), and who are trying like I am to understand how we got here, and how we seem to be so incapable of reacting and rising to the challenge of the moment.

Now If this seems like a rant, I assure you it really isn’t meant to be one. It is simply an expression of frustration at the kind of blind trust in fate that seems to grip all of those I see around me at the moment (“they must know really what is going on, mustn’t they”). As an Italian reader to my Italy blog said after another rant-type comment, “I love Italy, I really do. If I didn’t, I would not waste my time on this.” Well, I am Catalan. I couldn’t exactly say – keeping a straight face – that I *love* Spain, but what happens to Spain does matter to me, and as my Italian commenter friend said, I wouldn’t be writing all this if it didn’t.

Antes muerta que sencilla

The Death of Artemio Cruz is an everyday story of love and lust in Mexico, a tale, as they would say down in that part of the world of “chingones y chingados “. Now it is widely accepted among critics of the Fuentes’ novel that our hero Artemio serves as the personification of a whole country, and what I wish to do in my “reincarnation” of the character of Artemio Cruz in the form of Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero – the president locked “a cal y canto” behind the tightly closed doors of his Montcloa palace (blindado contra la realidad would be the expression that came to mind, rather like Aznar cruising round in his limousine, obsessed by ETA while quietly neglecting the real and present threat of Islamic Fundamentalist Terrorism) – is raise the issue about what it is exactly in Spanish culture which leads to flight and denial as the first reaction to any impending unpleasant event. I mean it wasn’t as if this was the first time. There is no need to mention I think what happened after 11 March and then there was that nasty little incident of the Prestige Oil Tanker – during which the tanker was quietly towed out to sea in the vain hope it would reach Portuguese waters before the problem became too evident – oil sir, I see no oil. What was it we said then? Oh yes, nunca máis!

Well the problem seems to be a perennial one, and it’s high time it was addressed.

The Death of Artemio Cruz is a novel where the broad sweep of 20th century Mexican history is viewed through the prism of one man’s life. Cruz starts out as an idealistic young soldier fighting in a Mexican Revolution which is dedicated to the redistribution of land and an attempt to give the peasants a decent life. By 1919, the successful revolution has deteriorated into a series of confusing and bloody skirmishes between rival rebel factions that never truly end until 1942. There, but for the grace of god, go all of us.

I learnt in sociology class that the south of Europe is a collective society and the north individualistic, but I think it’s the opposite!
Young Portuguese economist friend of mine who currently works in London

“The truly annoying Italian habit of only taking care of one’s own clan will deter any meaningful resistance to a country downsize.”
Italian Commenter on my blog

Now the start of the novel finds an elderly Artemio lying awake on his deathbed, gripped by repeated spasms of excruciating pain, and terrified to open his eyes for fear of what it is he might get to see if he does. After years of debauchery and loose living (shade’s of Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray here) the thing which seems to frighten him the most is the possibility he might get to take a look at himself in a mirror. Of course, there are comparisons and comparisons here. Spain’s economy is far from moribund, nor is it in its death throes. But Spaniards are suffering, and the process of adjustment is painful, and if something isn’t done soon the problem might well get a hell of a lot worse.

Yet the attitude of the country’s leader – José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero – does somewhat resemble that of Artemio Cruz in that he appears, at least from the outside, to be totally obsessed with looking at anything that isn’t an valid reflection of the actual state of the Spanish economy. Worse, he seems to be drifting off into a kind of of paranoia where any attempt to draw to his attention that matters could turn critical is seen as an attack on him personally, and on the record of his government. Now while mistakes have undoubtedly been made, I think it would be hard for anyone to suggest that Zapatero is responsible for what is happening. He is however reponsible for not responding adequately, and for not accepting clearly in front of the Spanish people the seriousness of what we are faced with (are there shades of Barça’s own Joan Laporta here? I mean would Laporta be another case the Artemio Cruz phenomenon, with the two President’s locked away in their boardrooms, surrounding themselves with an ever diminishing circle of “faithful”). Certainly if the rumours are true, and Pedro Solbes did finally put his foot down last week by refusing the idea of an ICO loan to rescue Fernando Martin, the circle is getting smaller by the day.

Of course it’s easy to criticise here, since the problems Zapatero is reluctant to look too closely at are serious ones, and worse still, it isn’t at all clear that anyone really knows what to do about them at this point. But why the hell doesn’t the man come out of what looks to everyone else to be a “dream”?

Will The Last One To Close Please Turn Out The Lights, I Can’t Find The Switch

Meanwhile we learn from Jose Luis Malo de Molina, director general at the Bank of Spain (speaking at a recent conference in Valencia) that the number of new homes which will be completed in Spain in 2008 will beat all previous records (I said this was a system which was slow to react), simply piling one more house after another in order to add to that glut of newly completed homes that is already idly languishing and casting its long shadow over the Spanish property market. Muñoz’s explanation for this phenomenon is simply that “the real estate sector can’t turn around quickly, it works in the medium and long term, so this year the properties started at the end of 2005 and beginning of 2006 will be completed, which means the number of new properties on the market will hit an all time high.” As I say, “just in time” may be an idea that has entered the heads of the more agile companies like the textile consortium Inditex, but most of Spain is a very, very long way from being able to offer an agile response. On the anecdotal front, a friend of mine recently went to visit family homes in the North West of Spain. In Vigo he spoke to the owner of a brick factory, and in Leon someone who had a quarry. In both cases production was continuing (there is simply no on/off switch here) but the inventory already had piled up to the extent of being now prepared to satisfy normal requirements for the whole of 2009 (in both cases), and of course, in 2009 requirements will not be normal, since housing starts in 2008 have collapsed to a forecast of below 200,000 (down from 600,000 plus in 2007).


Chingue a su madre
Hijo de la chingada
Aqui estamos los meros chingones
Déjate de chingaderas…

Fuentes devotes two entire pages of his novel to such phrases, all of them derivatives of chingar – the word that – according to Octavio Paz in El laberinto de la soledad – best defines all Mexicans. I will not descend here to making my own listing of the various Spanish derivations of “joder” (nor even make the most obvious allusion to that ubiquitous warcry of the Cacique, que se……), but the similarity is indeed striking, even if the modern Spaniard treats his status of “jodido” in a rather more self-mocking and ironic fashion than the Mexican does – as best depicted recently by the dignified rout of the Spanish Tercio rabble at the hands of those ever so elegant French Hussars in the wonderful closing scene of Díaz Yanes’s Alatriste.

But my answer is NO! We are not jodidos. Although if we are to get out of the hole we have all dug for ourselves, we will have to bury Artemio Cruz (and not that proverbial sardine) once and for all, and adopt a new spirit. Maybe it would not be too appropriate at this point to invoke the memory of Hernan Cortés (as a friend of mine once said, the mystery isn’t how he managed to conquer Latin America, but how he managed to find his way from Badazoj to the sea), but Spain’s immediate future certainly lies out there somewhere across the Atlantic and over towards Latin America, or in the up and coming Euromed (aka the Barcelona process), or in the Philippines – all areas these where Spain has strong historic and cultural ties, ties which must now be leveraged in these rapidly growing countries as we need to live from exports.

On the operating table, the surgeons open Artemio Cruz up only to find that his disease is too advanced for them to help. He has gangrene and a perforation, eaten away from the inside. He dies on the operating table.

So I will close this post as I commenced it, with yet another reference to the magical world of Latin American literature. This time my reference will be to Jose Luis Borges, who – in a rather original and creative allusion to what is known as the prisoners dilemma – tells us the story of two villainous rascals, eternal rivals, who – under sentence of death – are offered one last wager: rather than forlornly accepting their fate (cap cot) and acceding to a conventional execution they can go gloriously, by agreeing to have their throats slit, not one by one but simultaneously, just to see who is able to run the farthest after the first cut. Immortality, rather than fame, in an instant.

Now I mention this rather gory since tale I can readily anticipate the feelings many will have on reading my proposals to cauterize the immediate wound and stop the now impending haemorage of blood – I am at the end of the day arguing that it is necessary to inject money – and I do mean rather a lot of money – into a banking and construction system which many will want to argue is largely responsible for Spain’s present distress (you know, the chingones and the chingados). Indeed, having made a good deal of money out of the operation, many will feel that these are the very people who should now be forced to don that sackcloth and ashes costume which so behoves them (actually the way things stand they are much more likely to find themselves reduced to a sporting a loincloth, but still). I understand why many ordinary Spanish people may have such feeling, but I do think this is a time for cool heads, and that what is most needed here is an extreme dose of pragmatism coupled with a lot of emotional intelligence. There is no point in agreeing to have your own throat slit just to see people you don’t like have their’s slit first.