Thursday, February 09, 2006

The Eagle's Throne

Carlos Fuentes apparently came up with the idea for this highly entertaining novel after Bill Clinton asked him what would happen if the President of Mexico were to die in office.

La Silla del Aguila is set in 2020, but is evidently not intended as a work of futuristic science fiction, given that the premise revolves around a sudden and inconvenient deflation of the background technology. Fuentes has simply rolled Mexican politics forward enough to create a convincing cast of schemers and scoundrels without having to re-write his nation's contemporary history.

A long-time fan of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Fuentes needed a pretext for producing an epistolary novel, so we discover at the start that Mexico has incurred the wrath of President Connie Rice by siding with the Arabs on oil prices and opposing an armed US intervention in Colombia. As a result the gringos have pulled the plug on their southern neighbour's satellite telecoms. Unable to fax, phone or email, the members of Mexico's cabinet and congress have no alternative but to betray their "lifelong philosophy": never leave a written record! The personal letter (and tape) format cleverly exposes the distorted inner lives of the men and women selected to manage the collective illusion and disillusion that is Mexico.

Most of the best novels about Latin American politics have been portraits of dictatorship. Here we are perhaps given some pointers to the origins of that particular form of misrule, but this welcome addition to the genre is concerned primarily with the system that feeds and corrupts executive power south of the Rio Grande. What we witness through the correspondence is a self-regulating political climate in which flesh and blood politicians often play the equivalent role of the inanimate rocks in James Lovelock's Gaia model of the function of global weather systems.

Fuentes has said that this novel expresses the fact that "politics is the external expression of inner passions", yet my own take on it was that the character's interior worlds are as much object as subject in this most circular of political arenas.

There's certainly no room for redeemers in the maelstrom of perpetual conspiracy; one has to deceive to achieve. "You want the land and the map to match", one character reports having counselled an assassinated President-elect, " in peace at the centre of the map and let the labourers of corruption cultivate the land." Another notes that "every politician rises up in the ranks with a bagful of skeletons trailing behind him like cans of Coca-Cola from dragging from the tail of a rebellious but frightened cat", while an acting occupant of the Eagle's Throne is sternly warned to watch his "cost-deceit ratio".

If I hadn't thought "andale" when I first picked up the book, I certainly did by the time I turned the last page. Perhaps at times the author's own typically erudite voice could be heard in the midst of these personal missives, spoiling some of the sense of autonomous passion and reflection, but overall I was carried along by the sheer wit of his Machiavellian melodrama.

There are a number of particularly insightful observations such as this: politicians will seek advice and affirmation from intellectuals, but eventual disagreement between them is inevitable and the politician will always construe this as a betrayal. And I loved the letter where a congresswoman instructs the man she believes is her co-conspirator on how to utter the right sort of famous last words; unlike Mexico's great general Álvaro Obregón, whose own were "more tortilla chips please!" as he was gunned down at a banquet.

Anyone with a political bent, regardless of ambition and acquisitiveness, would do well to read this novel.

Whilst Fuentes was discussing it last week at the Purcell Room (having recovered from a minor electrocution incident at the lectern during his reading) a woman stood up and and walked to the front of the auditorium in order to speak:"What you are saying is very interesting, but could you lean forward closer to your microphone so that we can hear you?" That she managed to deliver this line without so much as a please or a thank you was most unusual for this country.

The author told us that it felt a bit strange to be back on the promotion trail for a book that was originally published in Spanish three years ago. He was asked why he didn't translate his own books and replied that he would lose a year of his life if he did that, and that it would be like taking the bread from the mouths of his translators!

"And I dream, make love and insult in Spanish," he chirped, before recounting the disappointment he had felt when on a visit to the Soviet Union to promote a Russian translation of one of his novels, he discovered that it had shrunk from 400 pages to around 120. "We know the tastes of the Soviet public and you don't" the publishers informed him, after explaining that all passages featuring either sex or politics had been expunged!

Fuentes' host for the talk that evening was the rather dry critic Amanda Hopkinson. When one member of the audience asked where she could get the novel in Spanish, the author charmingly suggested that they might be able to give her a copy "como un regalo", but was interrupted by mean old Hopkinson who told the punter to go to Grant & Cutler.

Clinton's original question had been: "Why are there no Vice Presidents in Mexico?" The answer − because they used to overthrow the Presidents.

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