Had they been contemporaries, Carlos Fuentes and Ambrose Bierce would have revelled in each other’s company.
Bierce was the satirist nonpareil and “laughing devil” of the San Francisco newspapers of the late 19th and early 20th century. In 1913, aged 71, he rode down into Mexico to witness -- or perhaps even join in -- the revolution that was playing out there. Bierce disappeared, but he has not been forgotten.
For one thing, there is Fuentes’s popular novel, The Old Gringo, a myth-making tribute to Bierce. For another, there is Bierce’s great legacy, The Devil’s Dictionary (issued also in amplified form as The Enlarged Devil’s Dictionary).
Bierce’s caustic dictionary entry for politics could well serve as the epigraph for Fuentes’s latest novel, The Eagle’s Throne: “Politics, n. A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage.”
Fuentes here ploughs new ground, as well as returning to familiar fields.
The Eagle’s Throne revives the epistolary novel while taking as subject the endless, abject manoeuvres and manipulations that characterise the politicking classes. In the Fuentes oeuvre, it is arguably the work most directly engaged with the moral compromises of Mexican politics and society since his first two novels, Where the Air is Clear (1960) and The Good Conscience (1961).
Indeed, it is tempting to view The Eagle’s Throne as the last in a triptych. Fuentes attempted to define national identity in philosophical and psychological terms in Where the Air is Clear, then moved on in The Good Conscience to the painful realities inherent in changing society from agrarian to urban, peasant to middle class. These were reflections of Mexican life; so too is The Eagle’s Throne, but it has another, prospective function: it is, as Fuentes himself has been careful to emphasise, in the manner of a prophecy.
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