Carlos Fuentes is Mexico’s pre-eminent intellectual. When a Harvard academic rails against Hispanic immigrants, Fuentes trashes him in the international press. When the Spanish language is in need of an apologist, he steps up to the lectern. Now Fuentes, who dabbled in speculative fiction for his novel Christopher Unborn, reprises his role as soothsayer to offer a glimpse of Mexican democracy’s darkly comic future.
The Eagle’s Throne is set in 2020, as Mexico enters the run-up to a presidential election. As politicians grapple with the usual mix of student revolts, workers’ strikes and peasant unrest they must face a greater crisis. In retaliation for Mexican opposition to armed intervention in Colombia by the US, the US president (one Condoleezza Rice) has cut off Mexico from all forms of electronic communication - "the globalised world’s equivalent of a desert".
Forced to overcome a distrust of putting thoughts on paper, the Mexican ruling class is reduced to writing letters. The model is Choderlos de Laclos’s epistolary novel, Les Liaisons Dangereuses. An 18th-century template sits uneasily with 21st century conditions - but let us suspend our disbelief for the sake of entertainment and read on.
In a succession of letters we are introduced to the colourful dramatis personae: Maria del Rosario Galvan, a scheming beauty with an appetite for king-making; young Nicolas Valdivia, a handsome, French-schooled political debutant; Bernal Herrera, the reliable Interior Secretary; Xavier "Seneca" Zaragoza, the President’s trusted adviser; Defence Secretary Mondragon von Bertrab, who swears "loyalty to the President, as long as the President remains loyal to the institutions of the Republic"; the stolidly brutal police chief Cicero Arruza; the President’s fawning, lecherous Chief of Staff, Tacito de la Canal; a wizened former president who speaks in riddles and harbours a secret that could undo all the players’ expectations.
"With me everything is political, even sex," Maria del Rosario warns Nicolas early on. This cues a deluge of references to Clausewitz, Lampedusa, Hitler, Stendhal, Dumas, Humboldt, Dickens, Conrad, Shakespeare, Kafka and other worthies. Fuentes does not wear his considerable erudition lightly. His characters have mastered Machiavelli, are au fait with French philosophes, know the classics by heart.
As they lock antlers with each other, they unburden themselves in letters that distil Mexican politics’ conventional wisdom. Platitudes are plentiful ("to be a politician you must be a hypocrite"), as are local coinages: "If you don’t deceive you don’t achieve," or "He who isn’t living off the public purse is living in error."
The most noteworthy observations come from the pen of plotting former presidents. "Before becoming president, a man has to suffer and learn. If not, he’ll suffer and learn during his presidency, at the country’s expense," a former occupant of the presidential chair - the Eagle’s Throne of the title - warns the incumbent.
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