By Bill Kohlhaase
The road to the Mexican presidency, past and present, is littered with manipulation and corruption. In 1988, “the people’s candidate” was leading until the electoral computer went down. When it came back on line days later, the ruling party’s candidate was safely in the lead. A study reported in the Washington Post conducted during the current, still-conflicted election found “millions” of mostly poor Mexicans were threatened with health care and social assistance cuts if they did not vote for certain candidates. Other voters—as many as four million, according to the studies—were simply bought off. Who thinks anything will be different in the future?
Not Carlos Fuentes. His timely new novel, The Eagle’s Throne (Mexico’s presidential symbol), charts the ascendancy of Nicholas Valdivia, a 34-year-old Department of the Interior employee, a blank slate, to the office of President in the year 2020. Needless to say (Mexico holds presidential elections every six years—do the math), Valdivia doesn’t assume office in the normal way.
Fuentes is no stranger to politics. His parents were both diplomats, and he contributes opinion pieces and political essays (Contra Bush) to papers and journals both in his home and abroad. He served as Mexico’s ambassador to France in the 1970s, even as his novels changed the face of Latin American literature. The Eagle’s Throne contains all the elements of a political thriller—ambition, betrayal, sex both straight and gay—but transcends pulp with exquisitely written themes of ego, ambition and passion, no matter the time or context. His central message? Don’t trust anyone, in love or politics.
The year 2020 begins with Mexico calling for the United States to end its military occupation of Columbia (it doesn’t take much imagination to figure out why they’re there) while banning shipments of Mexican oil to the US until it agrees to pay OPEC prices. The United States, led by President Condoleezza Rice, responds by shutting down all electronic communications within Mexico, alleging a glitch in a satellite system. Scattered rioting breaks out. University students, protesting registration fees, are occupying campus buildings. Workers at a Japanese-owned plant go on strike. Peasants are marching for agrarian reform. These circumstances frame the novel and, absent phone and e-mail service, determine its form: an exchange of letters between Mexico’s principle political players. The cast includes statesmen and their lovers, a silent president, a cunning defense secretary and his vicious, coup-promoting chief of the federal police—a former president who exists both as a wax figure in a bogus grave and as a dungeon-buried prisoner welded to a metal mask. The plot sometimes approaches drama worthy of a telenovela.
Fuentes uses a timeworn method of capturing and holding our attention: the promise of sex. The first letter is written by 45-year-old María del Rosario Galvan to the young initiate Valdiva, teasing him with the promise of intimacy and power. “With me, everything is political,” she tells him, “even sex,” and “I consider politics to be the public expression of private passions . . . especially romantic passion.” The culmination of their mutual desire will be deferred, she insists, stating “Political fortune . . . is one very long orgasm.” She promises him not only carnal but political success. From here on, the two are deeply entwined.
By the end of the book, a number of the players are dead, a wasp’s nests of plots have failed, and betrayal has visited nearly everyone. Ghosts have risen from Mexico’s past, and history at large—the most frequent underworld visitor, after Machiavelli, being Richard Nixon, who was done in by his insistence of recording his every word. “A puritan like Nixon is the most dangerous sort of politician . . . his downtrodden humility only feeds his arrogance.” Fuentes’ achievement is that he’s written not just of Mexican politics, but politics as a whole. “To be a politician, you must be a hypocrite,” Galvan tells the president in waiting. “But not only do you have to be false, you have to be cunning.” It’s not hard to see this principle at work today in the US, let alone the world.
The letters give each character a chance to reveal their personality as well as their hypocrisy. The form stumbles only when too much detail is required, and facts already known to the writer and the addressee are revealed for the reader’s benefit. Less satisfying than the work at large is its final chapter, a rambling discourse from the illegitimate Mongoloid son of Galvan and the interior secretary, whose linguistic game of hide-and-seek suggests the distance between the politically employed and their constituents, as well as the necessity for a love that exists outside the political arena.
THE EAGLE’S THRONE BY CARLOS FUENTES. RANDOM HOUSE, 352 PAGES, HARDCOVER. $26.95.