The Years with Laura Diaz
About the book:
A radiant family saga set in a century of Mexican history, by one of the world’s greatest writers.
Carlos Fuentes’s hope-filled new novel sees the twentieth century through the eyes of Laura Diaz, a woman who becomes as much a part of our history as of the Mexican history she observes and helps to create. Born in 1898, this extraordinary woman grows into a wife and mother, becomes the lover of great men, and, before her death in 1972, is celebrated as a politically committed artist. A complicated and alluring heroine, she lives a happy life despite the tragedies and losses she experiences, for she has borne witness to great changes in her country’s life, and she has loved and understood with unflinching honesty.
In his most important novel in decades, Carlos Fuentes has created a world filled with brilliantly colored scenes and heartbreaking dramas. The result is a novel of subtle, penetrating insight and immense power.
About the author:
Q. What political, religious, and other manifestations of authoritarianism and toleration appear in the novel? How is the conflict between these two attitudes played out in the various areas and phases of Laura Diaz’s life? What other conflicts affect the lives of the characters? Which of these conflicts do you see at work in your life and the world today?
Q. Beginning with the white crow at her grandmother’s funeral, what objects, events, and persons provoke Laura Diaz to follow them “beyond the limits of what she knew”? To what specific consequences-at the same time fantastical and actual, mythical and time-bound-do these portents lead Laura and others?
Q. How does Fuentes deal with the theme of power, its uses, its privileges, and its consequences? What is the relationship between power and money in the world of Laura Diaz? In what ways and to what degree, in Laura’s world and ours, does “the rationale of power” have its way?
Q. What is the impact on Laura Diaz of each death that occurs in her life? To what degree do you agree or disagree with Fuentes’s claim, “We weep for the dead once and only once, and then we try to do what they could no longer do”? In what ways does Laura try to do what her deceased loved ones can no longer do? To what extent does “her existence have no other meaning except that of completing unfinished destinies”?
Q. What kinds of revolution occur in The Years with Laura Diaz? What “old order” does each revolution seek to overthrow, and what “new order” does each hope to establish? Why do so many “revolutions,” including the Mexican Revolution, fail? What are the implications of Jorge Maura’s words to the German Communist, Renn, to the effect that “aristocrats and workers always lose revolutions while the bourgeoisie wins them”? What are the associations between political and social revolution and artistic innovation and achievement?
Q. In what ways might Maria de la O’s words to Laura, after the loss of the Kelsen hacienda-”I’ve done nothing but celebrate my going through life…I celebrate the world, I know I came to the world to celebrate life” reflect Laura’s and Fuentes’s shared attitude toward living? Does Fuentes, directly or through his characters, voice a contradictory attitude anywhere in his novel?
Q. In The Years with Laura Diaz, in what ways do changing times and circumstances affect the role of women in Mexican society and the opportunities open to them? What is the relation of the gigantic female stone figure in the forest of Veracruz-the “marvelous feminine figure staring at eternity” to Laura, Frida Kahlo, and other women in the novel? What other “ancient stone queens” or mythic feminine figures appear? What might Fuentes want to say about the social, cultural, and religious/supernatural role of women?
Q. What “ritual moments” acquire significance in Laura’s life and in the lives of those close to her? How and why are those ritual moments important, and what lasting impact do they have? Why is ritual important in all our lives? In what ways, in Laura”s words to her mother, does “the world become too flat without ceremonies to mark the passage of time”?
Q. What does Juan Francisco’s revolutionary comrade mean when he says, “In Mexico, even cripples are acrobats”? How might this comment apply to politicians in any country, at any time?
Q. How might we explain Laura’s not only leaving Juan Francisco, but also leaving her sons in Xalapa? What kind of independence does Laura create for herself? At what costs and with what rewards? What does she learn from Frida Kahlo and others in this regard?
Q. How convincing are Fuentes’s portraits of the artist, as presented in the persons and aesthetics of Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, and Santiago the Younger? To what extent is he correct in writing of the artist, “his art does not reflect reality; it establishes it”? What are the implications of the thought attributed to Frida Kahlo-as “she drew more and more rapidly and feverishly” in her hospital bed in Detroit-that “it doesn’t matter what animates the body so long as it gives it form . . .”?
Q. What incidents of and references to twentieth-century fascism- “the solemn cloistered enemy…with his infinite fascist reactionary gloom”-does Fuentes include in the novel? How do we learn about the author’s and his characters’ political preferences? What contradictions and inconsistencies inform twentieth-century history and politics as presented by Fuentes?
Q. In what ways do Fuentes’s characters, when the occasion arises, “respond to the challenge of heroism”? What kinds of heroism do the women and men of The Years with Laura Diaz display?
Q. What kinds of faith are professed by Fuentes’s characters-in God, in a political system, in philosophy, for example? Jorge Maura asks, “Why do we believe and act in the name of our faith knowing full well we shall never be rewarded for the sacrifices faith imposes on us as a test?” What answers to these questions does the novel state or imply? What is the relevance of Maura’s question to each of the quests for faith in the novel? What resolution, if any, does Fuentes offer regarding the ultimate issue that Maura faces on Lanzarote: “. . . whether faith can give meaning to the madness of being here on earth”?
Q. How can Laura rationalize her several betrayals of her husband and sons and yet refuse to forgive Juan Francisco for his betrayal of the nun who sought refuge in their home? What kinds of betrayal do Fuentes’s characters commit? To what extent might some of those betrayals be more forgivable than others? In what ways might prolonged mourning, as Fuentes writes, be “a betrayal of the dead person’s life.”
Q. How does Fuentes position his characters in relation to the evils of the twentieth century and to the question of evil itself? To what extent are they caught up in the century’s evils or merely instruments with which Fuentes conducts an examination of those evils? What are the nature and consequences of what Jorge Maura calls “the impossible evil” committed by the Nazis?
Q. To Harry Jaffe’s characterization of the McCarthy period in the United States as a three-act tragicomedy-from reason, through heroism, to victimization-Laura remarks that “the epilogue has to be reflection, the effort of intelligence to understand what happened, why it happened.” To what extent may The Years with Laura Diaz be read as Carlos Fuentes”s epilogue to the drama of the twentieth century?
Q. Long after her son Santiago’s death, Laura realizes that his painting of “the naked man and woman staring at each other without touching” is a revolutionary portrait of Adam and Eve ascending, not falling, a painting in which “the drama of the Earthly Paradise was a triumph of human freedom over God’s tyranny.” What other representations of this “triumph” does Fuentes present in his novel? To what extent is Fuentes’s novel, itself, an attempt to portray the “triumph of human freedom over God’s tyranny”?
Q. In her sixties and now a famous photographer, Laura realizes “that for years the Spanish Civil War had been the epicenter of her historical life.” To what extent do you think Fuentes views the Spanish Civil War as the epicenter of twentieth-century history? What facts might support such a judgment?