The Eagle's Throne
Carlos Fuentes; trans. by Kristina Cordero
Random House / 340 pages / $26.95
Carlos Fuentes, a longtime critic of American imperialism and economic policies in Latin America, is best known for his 1962 novel The Death of Artemio Cruz. A lawyer and Mexican dissident, Fuentes has had a political career that runs the gamut: assistant head of the press section of Mexico's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, head of the Department of Cultural Relations and, after a period of exile in Paris, Mexican ambassador to France. Fuentes wrote The Eagle's Throne, originally published in Spanish in 2002, after he was asked by President Bill Clinton why Mexico had no vice presidents and what would happen if the Mexican president died in office. In such a situation, the Mexican Congress appoints an acting president, but, as Fuentes shows us, there are enough contenders for the office of president - the eagle's throne of the title - without adding a vice president to the mix.
The Eagle's Throne starts in the not-too-distant future of January 2020, and President Lorenzo Teran of Mexico has called for the withdrawal of American occupation forces from Colombia and a ban on Mexican oil exports to the United States unless Washington agrees to abide by OPEC pricing. The U.S. responds by blacking out the international communications satellite for Mexico, leaving the country without phone, fax or e-mail service. But this is only back story to allow for the novel's epistolary form as the characters are forced to communicate via letters. The Eagle's Throne is a political Dangerous Liaisons, with all the intrigue, blackmail, backstabbing and seduction of a telenovela.
Fuentes' politicians aren't particularly upset by their current rupture with the U.S., because they have other concerns: The 2023 presidential election is looming, and the current president has yet to anoint a candidate as his successor. The behind-the-scenes jockeying for power begins, with Cabinet members pitted against each other and using every possible tactic to gain the advantage.
The leading contenders are the circumspect Interior Secretary Bernal Herrera, backed by Mexico's top female politician, Maria del Rosario Galvan, and the fawning and reprehensible Chief of Staff Tacito de la Canal. The wife of the treasury minister, a government archivist who never shreds documents, the head of Congress, a leading congresswoman, the head of the police, the murdered previous president-elect and two former presidents are revealed as players in the dark game of presidential politics. And what of the man held prisoner, Dumas-style, in the bowels of an island fortress, wearing an iron mask?
But Fuentes' protagonist is none of these; he is the young and inexperienced politician Nicolas Valdivia, who, in his carnal desire for Rosario Galvan, agrees to become her pawn and, bit by bit, assembles the secrets of this cast of characters to use for his own benefit. Valdivia ends up using the advice he receives by turning it back on the advisors. Fuentes' characters offer us a crash course in all the important political manipulators, including Machiavelli, Hitler, Tallyrand and, yes, the Roman emperors; they invoke Kafka, quote Stendhal and Sontag, reference Shakespeare. It's hard to know whether Valdivia has been seduced by Rosario Galvan, power, or a need for justice, and it's on this nexus that Fuentes balances this page-turning satire.
Fuentes can't resist taking a few swipes at President Bush. Interior Minister Herrera refers to him as "a totally clueless man, a ventriloquist's dummy," while one of Mexico's former presidents, referred to only as "the Old Man under the Arches," writes to a friend: "I suppose I'd rather come off as a sly but ignorant old man because the well-educated politician doesn't inspire the trust of the common man. In the United States, Adlai Stevenson wasn't accepted because he was too educated. 'Egghead,' they called him. Bill Clinton had to hide his education from the public while Little Bush, on the other hand, actually showed off his ignorance."
With the real Mexican presidential election next month and American politicians proposing solution after solution to the influx of illegal Mexican immigrants, The Eagle's Throne couldn't be more pertinent to American readers. Although the setting is Mexican, the struggle for power that Fuentes so wryly and compellingly depicts is universal. De la Canal advises President Teran, "Mexicans don't know how to govern themselves. History has proven this. Just watch them welcome the message of your renewed authority with gratitude and relief. I tell you this in the spirit of democracy. There's no such thing as a soft-core dictatorship that doesn't eventually degenerate into hardcore tyranny."
Sadly, perhaps as Fuentes intended, the same can be said of the United States.
Judith Redding is an experimental filmmaker and the co-author of "Film Fatales: Independent Women Directors."