It is the story of the life of Artemio Cruz, as told by him on his deathbed. More accurately, it is as thought by him on his deathbed, and that is part of what makes it so difficult to follow: Artemio’s thoughts and memories jump from one point in time to another. So, you might be reading about him as an older businessman on one page, then suddenly reading about when he first met his wife, and then the story jumps again to when he served in the army. In addition, characters’ identities and dialogue are not always clearly identified. All in all, even its fans admit that it is often confusing and difficult to follow.
To add to the challenge (for me) was the fact that Artemio is not a very sympathetic character. True, he’d been through some difficult times in his life and endured some losses that could partly explain how he ended up, but he was the sort of man who did whatever it took to get what he wanted. His story is also the story of Mexico’s recent history, through civil wars and various corrupt leaders.
During our book group discussion, we wondered whether the translation made a difference, and I think it probably does. There are comments on various reviews about particular translations being better than others (I can only guess mine was the one described as “unclear”). During our meeting, one of my neighbors borrowed my copy (from the library) to compare it to her copy that had a different cover, to compare the two different translations. She started laughing and asked me if I’d noticed that there were 23 pages missing in the middle of my book! I had read that section and, no, I didn’t notice the missing pages, even though they were in the middle of a sentence! But that did explain why I had no idea who “the fat man” was. That should give you some idea of how confusing and complicated this book’s writing is – I skipped 23 pages and never noticed!
So, though I was only halfway through when my book group met, I gave up on it at that point and did not finish it. When I got home from my meeting, I set it aside with relief and moved onto a book I was far more interested in.