Caveat: This review is specific to my current, idiosyncratic reading needs. Specifically, I need not to have my depression exacerbated. Short version: if you are ill and trying not to focus on your physical being, and would be disturbed by the graphic depiction of the physical decomposition and mental fragmentation of a dying protagonist who is sociopathic, power-consumed, hateful and in no imaginable way sympathetic, don't read this book. Longer version follows.
Some people achieve greatness, and some people assiduously avoid it and have great novels thrust upon them. This one was inflicted on me by my book club, which chose it, presumably, to honor the recently-deceased Fuentes (who unquestionably *deserves* to be honored). I chose to read the Spanish edition, just because I could and would have felt guilty about doing otherwise, so your mileage may vary, linguistically speaking, if the English translation is especially good or bad, but I think my opinion would be language-invariant over all editions. I'm sure it'd be equally unremittingly depressing rendered into any form of human communication. (Don't get me wrong; it's a powerful, superlatively-well-written, historically- and politically-illuminating novel. Don't read it if you're already dysphoric, though.)
Understand that this isn't going to be incisive literary analysis (fat chance of that; sooner will I press a Mack truck than succeed in deconstructing Fuente's narrative technique). I'm really more interested in the politics of power and brutality and oppression.
Mikhail Bakunin said that, the day after the revolution, the revolutionary ought to be executed. With the caveat that I don't personally believe in executing anyone, ever, I think that Artemio Cruz makes a pretty good case for Bakunin's assertion. Cruz starts out at the very bottom of the social hierarchy, conceivably with a measure of good intentions in participating in the revolution -- though also an obvious propensity for violence. (He kills his uncle and rapes the woman who's to become the love of his life.) He's more a Mexican Charles Foster Kane, though, than he is the sort of privileged-from-birth man-fratboy sociopathic narcissist that, say, certain right-wing American politicians seem to be. (He's definitely sociopathic, just not born to the manner.) But he decays spiritually through the flashbacks, if you can put them into any kind of order (as he does physically, in the present) and becomes a monster (though, from my personal perspective, anyone willing to participate in extremities of violence in the first place, no matter what the pretext, doesn't exactly start out from a place of spiritual purity; even revolutionary wars don't enchant me). If Cruz's early life is supposed to redeem him, it doesn't work for me, though his older persona becomes something even more appalling. Winston Churchill, quoting some French general whose name eludes me, is himself famously quoted as having said that young men who aren't liberal have no hearts, and that older men who haven't become conservative have no brains. I remember once declaring to some of my students campaigning for a candidate who shall go nameless that, "as the brainless addressing the heartless," I "really didn't like their politics." Why this occurs to me is that I think Fuentes is playing on the perceived ineluctability of this transmogrification from idealist to monster, and it bothers me, because although it may be common, I don't think itis ineluctable. Also, it fails adequately to indict the silver-spoon, cradle-to-grave sociopaths and megalomaniacs, though I'm sure Fuentes has no use for them, either.
I have some sympathy for Cruz, mostly because he's dying painfully, and it's excruciating to be asked to partake of that experience vicariously when your own health isn't good, and few of us are immune from health issues. There is kind of a "stereo-optical" effect. Could Fuentes have achieved the same effect without plunging us full-bore into moribundity and putrescence? No, I don't think so.
Would I have been more interested in trying to empathize with a character who had exhibited or retained some measure of youthful idealism (and had, consequently, much less (toxic) effect on the world)? Yes, but persistent idealists (e.g., M.L. King, Jr.) are the ones who do actually end up being assassinated, rather than the revolutionaries ripe to become oppressors in their own right, and such a tome wouldn't have been particularly revelatory of the realities of any sort of history or politics.
I admire Fuentes. I think he's a kindred spirit, politically and ideologically. But he merely reaffirms my worst perceptions of the world as a place where "feeble conviction" is almost invariably overborne by toxic "passionate intensity," even in the history of one life. It's deeply depressing.