- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 19, 2006

THE EAGLE’S THRONE

By Carlos Fuentes

Translated by Kristina Cordero

Random House, $26.95, 336 pages

REVIEWED BY JOHN GREENYA

The year is 2020, the setting is Mexico, and the situation is dire. In a courageous act of conscience, the ailing president of Mexico has called for the withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Colombia. Furious, the American president, Condoleezza Rice (!), strikes back by shutting down Mexico’s access to the communications satellite located in Miami.

Just like that, overnight, the entire country has no electronic means of communication — no Internet and thus no e-mails, no faxes, and no phones, also no radio or television. So they write letters, oh do they ever write letters. And because the man behind each pen is the same man, and that man is Carlos Fuentes, the result is a great book.

Under Mexican law, the president is constitutionally barred from running for reelection, and while only a few of the many correspondents are aware that he is ill, and even fewer that he is very ill, all are aware that in four short years someone else will occupy the Eagle’s Throne.

If the president anoints his successor, which used to be standard practice, that would be tantamount to election, so the writers are maneuvering to get themselves, or their choice, into that position. Others have different angles, but all of them, from supplicants to saboteurs, have their eyes on the same prize. As he has shown in any number of his 22 previous books (all but two or three of which are novels), Carlos Fuentes is at his best when it comes to depicting the darker traits of the human animal. Thus, intrigue abounds.

The novel opens with a letter to a beautiful young man from a beautiful older woman. They only saw each other for the first time the day before (when, so to speak, the lights were still on), but she says she knew they were fated. Declaring her credo up front — “I consider politics to be the public expression of private passions” — she promises him her lovely body for the taking if he will allow her to direct his political future. “Nicholas Valdivia: I will be yours,” she writes, “when you are president of Mexico.”

That part of the stage having been set, Mr. Fuentes moves on, through the (surprisingly smooth) mechanism of another 69 letters, to bring on all the other players and their hopes, their dreams and, above all, their plots.

Generals write to generals and later to mere (but highly-placed) civilians; top aides write to other top aides and to the president (who writes to no one, smart man); a wise but devious ex-president writes to the president and to several of his top aides; cabinet members write to other cabinet members and to the president; and lovers past, present and future pen billets-doux to one another. Toward the end, when the plot has thickened to the edge of coagulation, a few of them even exchange tape recorded messages (with strict instructions to erase).

Along the way, the reader accumulates an enormous amount of information, which, thanks to the author’s great skill, has turned the book into a mystery of sorts, a political thriller. But the ending is by no means obvious. Just when you think you’ve figured out who the next occupant of the Eagle’s Throne has to be, Mr. Fuentes pulls the rug out from under you, very often with the last line, a device that would have failed a lesser writer long before the end. Tour de force is not too strong a term for what Carlos Fuentes has accomplished in this book.

Plot and characterization (which present more difficult challenges in an epistolary novel), are done extremely well, but the book offers another delight: a virtual cornucopia of memorable observations on the art of politics, especially the Mexican variety.

For example: “[I]n politics secrets are open and only the loudest voices tell secrets. Work out the mystery that’s there in what you know … and forget the secrets. They’re empty vessels.”

Or: “… lying successfully requires an enormous amount of time and attention. The successful cultivation of lies is a full-time job. Which is precisely what the political life allows for.”

And: “Can anyone effect change with words?” the trusted aide asks the president. “The words that the civilized world loves — Law, Security, Democracy, Progress — seem insipid, a lie, here in Mexico, and everywhere else in Latin America, a land ravaged by pain.”

That kind of pithy observation can get tedious after a while, but not in the hands of Carlos Fuentes. For one thing, there’s always his humor, which often pops up when you aren’t expecting it, as when he warns of ” … the demagogues who promise salvation, our Mahatma Propagandis. But beware of the comedians who are the repressors, our Robespierrots.”

Mr. Fuentes, who was Mexico’s ambassador to France from 1974-1977, knows his Robespierres from his Robespierrots. Born in 1928, the son of a Mexican diplomat, he was raised in Buenos Aires, Santiago and Washington, D.C.

He has a law degree (the book is dedicated to his “fellow members of the ‘Half Century’ generation, at the Law School of the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico: the hope of a better Mexico …”) and studied at the Institut des Hautes Etudes Internationales in Geneva. His love of literature and language are everywhere evident, and one who cares little for politics can read “The Eagle’s Throne” simply for the pleasure of Carlos Fuentes’ prose.

Recently, an interviewer asked Mr. Fuentes if, given the novel’s “rather bleak view,” “The Eagle’s Throne” is “really how you see Mexican politics?” Having also noticed the heavy doses of sarcasm, I was surprised when he replied, “[T]his is a satire; it is not a truthful portrait of politics. It is a satire and satires are merciless. They do not pardon anyone.

“There are no heroes in a satire; you have to demolish them all with wit and poison. In that sense it is a political novel because it does describe what in Mexico, and all over the world, passes as nine-tenths of politics. Politics is like an iceberg and you see the tiny white cusp that sticks out in the ocean, and there you find statesmen. Many I like and admire.

“But the nitty gritty that is under the water is treachery, knives in the back, intrigues of all sort. This is common throughout politics. Someone said once that politics is like a pack of dogs. Only the first dog knows why he barks, the rest just follow him.

“So this is a satirical novel about politics. It does not pretend to be a truthful portrait about the many levels of politics but a satire of the kind that Jonathan Swift or Evelyn Waugh would have written about their own times.”

Frankly, Carlos, I don’t care what you call it. Once again you’ve written a beautiful book. All I want to say is thanks.

John Greenya is a Washington writer.

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