‘We are more than calendars. We know that nothing has an absolute beginning or an absolute end,’ wrote Carlos Fuentes in his essay Mexican Tempi. His new novel, the long and richly complex The Years with Laura Díaz, is a dazzling affirmation of this philosophy and a magisterial summation of the 20th century from a Mexican perspective. At the book’s centre is the photographer Laura Díaz. Her story is told by her grandson who, as the novel begins, is in Detroit making a documentary on Diego Rivera’s famous Institute of Arts mural. Photographing the vast painting, he realizes that one of the faces in the picture is that of his great-grandmother, Laura Díaz. We then loop back to 1898 and the beginning of this woman’s life, and the sweeping narrative takes in both tumultuous historical events and small personal details. Laura escapes a life of domesticity in her native state of Veracruz, taking refuge in cosmopolitan Mexico City, befriending Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo and moving among communists, anarchists and trade unionists.
Fuentes clearly sees Laura as ‘everywoman’ and, perhaps rather implausibly, she is active in most of her country’s major historical events. However, the characterization is so strong and the writing so charged that this is a forgivable fault.
At a time when we are told that history is over and varieties of managerialism are all that are available, it is good to welcome a novel that celebrates idealism and individual commitment, rooted in history and with an abiding faith in the ultimate strength of the people.