book The Years with Laura Díaz

reviewed by Emily Banner

Published in Issue No. 45 ~ February, 2001

Not long after the publication of her novel The Years, Virginia Woolf attempted to explain the book to a friend. “[W]hat I meant,” she wrote, “was to give a picture of society as a whole; give characters from every side; turn them towards society, not private life; exhibit the effect of ceremonies; keep one toe on the ground by means of dates, facts; envelop the whole in a changing temporal atmosphere…and then shift the stress from present to future…suggesting…a continuous development, possibly a recurrence of some pattern; of which of course we actors are ignorant.”

The Years with Laura Díaz borrows much from Woolf’s book. Fuentes’ epic follows its titular heroine from childhood through maturity, from 1905, when she is seven years old, to her death at age seventy-four. As in Woolf’s novel, each chapter represents a different year in the story, some consecutive, some skipping several years ahead. We see Laura Díaz’s family through six generations, and her country (and that of Fuentes), Mexico, through a succession of leaders and revolts as events of Laura’s life play out against a background of historical developments. Through the story of one woman, Fuentes aims to tell the larger story of the twentieth century. Though his subject matter differs greatly from Woolf’s, his methods are distinctly similar.

Though Laura’s story centers on personal relationships, from family intimacies to love affairs, the narrative tone is one of intellectual distance; even when Fuentes writes of profound emotion, he does so in a disconcertingly cerebral way. One feels the force of his intelligence throughout, but as he wraps his characters in abstractions and complex syntax (which seems a stylistic choice rather than poor translation), one does not feel his heart. Many seem less like people than constructions, sketched in to serve a narrative purpose, and the parts of their lives that do not contribute to that purpose are left blank, leading to an accumulation of mysteries for no apparent end.

There is more description than action, more summary than event. The significant moments of Laura’s life float in a haze of language and intellect, and the harder Fuentes tries to describe the essence of a thing, the more the actual thing gets lost. We get detailed descriptions of the characters’ physiognomies, but their conversations are presented as disordered snippets of dialogue interwoven with flashbacks and interior monologues. When lovers meet for the first time, the narrative races ahead with the implications of their meeting, while the meeting itself is glossed over. When Laura lies down in the bed of her dying son, the two share moments of intense closeness, but Fuentes renders the scenes in such abstract terms that it’s impossible to tell what actually passes between them; whether they experience an ecstatic emotional unity, an incestuous physical union, or whether Laura is only having reveries of love in the arms of her child.

Fuentes spends much time examining the great failed promises of twentieth century politics (communism, fascism, etc.) and seems to conclude that any sort of political ideals, however pure they may be at the outset, will inevitably be corrupted and sold. The novel is peopled with refugees from many of the century’s conflicts, from the Spanish Civil War to the McCarthy witchhunts, and while there is much bitterness and resignation, the occasional ray of hope emerges from all these clashing belief systems, prompting one character to announce that he is caught “between two truths: that the world [is] going to save itself, and that the world [is] doomed.” All the men in Laura’s life are, in one way or another, victims of history, but she herself remains unbowed by world events, if not unscathed. Her perseverance may be the strongest cause for optimism that Fuentes allows.

Religion is given equally ambiguous treatment. Laura’s greatest love, a Spanish Republican exile, is an agnostic who finally gives up hope in the world and retreats to a monastery where he lives out his days in abasement, trying to understand what he perceives as God’s cruelty. His own former lover is a Jew who converts to Catholicism and ultimately dies a martyr’s death at Buchenwald. One of the novel’s most intriguing characters is a wayward priest who keeps returning to and influencing the course of the plot, like an interfering deity. Laura’s son, a talented but doomed artist, leaves behind a painting depicting Adam and Eve ascending, rather than falling, from the Garden of Eden. Issues of faith are debated by almost every character, and Fuentes presents a vision of both disillusionment and hope. Even as religious belief is distorted and used by everyone for their own ends, there still looms the possibility that we can all be redeemed; perhaps we were even born redeemed. As Laura interprets her son’s painting,

The evil of the world was believing that the first man and the first woman fell and condemned us to a heritage of vice…. Adam and Eve’s guilt was not hereditary, wasn’t even guilt, and the drama of the Earthly Paradise was a triumph of human freedom over God’s tyranny. It wasn’t drama. It was history.

Fuentes writes what can perhaps be best described as magic-less realism. While he uses many of the trappings of the magical realism practiced by other major Latin American writers–historical family saga, lush settings, heady eroticism, mysterious characters–he never strays from the world of the possible. Time moves on, couples grow apart, mysteries are resolved or not but seem to conceal only the mundane or the tragic. He has set himself an extraordinarily ambitious project, and there is much merit in his novel, but the characters are not developed enough to anchor the grander schemes of the book; we hear their thoughts more than we see their actions, and as a result, the tumultuous drama of their lives reads as commentary rather than story. Fuentes is, beyond doubt, a gifted and insightful writer. But here he seems weighed down by his own intelligence.

References to Virginia Woolf permeate the work. Laura has an Aunt Virginia who wants nothing more than to be a writer. One of Laura’s lovers is a seductive aesthete of ambiguous sexuality, named Orlando. A scene in a public garden pauses to focus on some snails making their way across a path while the parade of time carries on around them, recalling Woolf’s short story “Kew Gardens.” Late in the novel, when Laura has embarked on a career as a photographer, Fuentes writes that “[s]he had, for the first time in her life, the famous `room of one’s own’ that Virginia Woolf had said women deserved.” Though Fuentes’ choice of Woolf as the model for his book may seem surprising, Woolf’s description of The Years makes it understandable. Woolf used an impersonal tone to penetrate to the universal – the story of a few to tell the story of their time. In The Years with Laura Díaz, however, we get no further than the impersonal. The course of history is well depicted, but the heroine remains only an idea.

account_box More About

Emily Banner is a co-founder of Inkberry, a nonprofit literary center in the Berkshires. She lives in western Massachusetts.