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Carlos Fuentes: La silla del águila (The Eagle’s Throne)

Aged seventy-five when he published this novel, Fuentes was certainly not going to hold back from his criticism of Mexico and Mexican politics. The novel is a superb satire that attacks wittily but viciously the entire Mexican political class, leaving no-one spared. It is set in the year 2020. Condoleezza Rice is president of the United States. César Aira has won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Despite their advanced age and condition, Fidel Castro and Mick Jagger are both still alive. Lorenzo Terán is currently president, nearly three years into his term of six years. (Under Mexican law, a president may only serve one six-year term.) He has two problems – he is both honest and ineffectual. Indeed, his political credo is to do as little as possible and let civil society follow its own course. In a country as corrupt as Mexico, that is not necessarily a good idea. However, in his message to Congress at the beginning of 2020, he called for the withdrawal of the US troops occupying Colombia and threatened to ban the export of Mexican oil to the United States, unless they agreed to OPEC’s high prices. However, the result was a communications glitch. In other words, the United States, which essentially controlled all Mexico’s telecommunications, cut off everything, leaving Mexico without phones, Internet, fax and email. As a result, communication has now reverted to two forms – letter and cassette tape. The book consists of the letters and the transcriptions of the tapes between the key political players.

Much but certainly not all the discussion is between María del Rosario Galván and Nicolás Valdivia. María del Rosario has no formal role but is very influential in government and also very, very good at plotting at scheming. She is the lover of Bernal Herrera, Secretary of the Interior. We later learn that they have a child, a Down syndrome child who is in a home. Herrera, on the face of it, seems fairly decent (at least compared to his fellow politicians) though colourless. Nicolás works in his office. He is a relatively junior adviser at the beginning of the novel but moves rapidly up the ladder. He is in love with María del Rosario, who is thirteen years older than him. She takes advantage of this and titillates him, letting him see her naked but only promising to let him have sex with her when he becomes president of Mexico. Nicolás seems to have something of a murky past. His mother was from the US and both his parents were killed in a car crash in the United States when he was fifteen. It is not clear what he did at that time, but he seemed to have done a series of odd jobs, before turning up at the Ecole Nationale d’Administration in France, where he studied, and then returning to Mexico. Of course, we later learn more of his real background. María del Rosario gives Nicolás a rundown of the entire cabinet and senior officials – she is far from flattering – but there are only a few key ones for this book. Mondragón von Bertrab is the German-educated defence secretary and, as we might expect, is a good obedient, German-Mexican though, of course, with a past. Cícero Arruza is the chief of police and is ruthless and wants a bloodbath of all that oppose his view of how Mexico should be run. Tácito de la Canal is the chief adviser to the president, apparently something of an ascetic but he is also totally devious. He will also become the main rival of Bernal Herrera to succeed the president. He is having an affair with La Pepa Almazán, the wife of the secretary of the treasury. She is also having an affair with Arruza. Add in the archivist, who never, ever, throws anything away and his son, who will become Nicolás’ assistant and the three previous presidents, one of whom was assassinated before he took office and whose coffin only contains a wax dummy, and you have the main characters.

Fuentes not only shows that every one of these people, with the possible exception of the current president, is totally corrupt, devious and ruthless, but so is virtually everyone else in the political classes, including the leading members of Congress, who only really appear towards the end of the book. Each time, you think that you have worked out who is doing what to whom, someone else does something more devious, someone who seemed top of the heap falls down to the bottom, someone at the bottom crawls his or her way to the top, someone is revealed to have an even murkier past than we thought they had. It is all glorious fun and you can see that Fuentes must have had great fun writing it, not least because some if not all of the characters are presumably based on actual Mexican politicians and will be readily identifiable by Mexicans. If Mexico is as half as corrupt and twisted as Fuentes describes, then it really is a mess, though who is to say that this sort of behaviour does not go on in other democratic countries?

Publishing history

First published by Alfaguara in 2003
First published in English in 2006 by Random House
Translated by Kristina Cordero