I'll confess it up front—I don't know much about Mexican politics. You'd think this would be a problem, what with The Eagle's Throne being a political satire, in translation, by one of Mexico's most famous writers, Carlos Fuentes. But you'd be wrong. Fuentes weaves a brilliantly worked story that surprises and delights for most of its length. Stuffed full of political truisms and a whole gamut of references from art and philosophy to back up its statements, The Eagle's Throne is one of those rare beasts: a satire that actually transcends national politics and approaches its subject at a level that can be appreciated by anyone.
The year is 2020 and Mexico, in retaliation for a war in Columbia, has demanded that America withdraw its troops and increase the price it pays for Mexican oil. America has responded by severing the country's communications network, crucial components of which are based in Miami, with the result that Mexico is suddenly without phone, fax, or email and must rely solely on letters as the only means of effective communication until the current crisis is resolved. In the midst of this, the Mexican elections are looming and many people are starting to question who the right candidate is to get Mexico out of the crisis and restore the public's faith in the government.
This setup conveniently paves the way for the entire novel to be written in an epistolary fashion. It's by no means a new way of writing a novel but as used here it does allow for some interesting effects. For example, we're never actually shown the full correspondence between the many (some fifteen-plus) characters. Instead, we're shown extracts—the occasional letter here or there—that reveal as much to us as they hide. Much of the characters' scheming remains hidden, leaving us second-guessing their true intentions. Another interesting omission is that the President himself never writes a single letter, meaning that our opinion of the man in the driving seat of Mexican politics is based entirely on the opinions of his cabinet. This cloak and dagger way of writing mirrors the politics it's satirising perfectly.
Outside the main core of characters, the people we meet are all very much political stereotypes: type-cast cloak and dagger villains who skulk around in the periphery of the novel forming shady alliances with one another as they vie for power. The exception is Nicolas Valdivia, perhaps the closest thing to a main character in The Eagle's Throne. Young, attractive, and fiercely ambitious, Nicolas is by all accounts one of the good guys of Mexican politics. He works his way up from the bottom; he cares about the little people around him; he remembers his friends and pays back his debts. However, his ambitions for the presidency are counter-balanced by his overwhelming desire to get into the knickers of his mentor, the tenacious Maria del Rosario Galvan.
I don't know what to admire more, my dear lady, your beauty or your cruelty. Beauty has but one name, no synonym can do it justice. To what can I compare the incomparable? Please don't think me innocent, or blind. I've seen many (perhaps too many?) women in the nude. Yet I'd never truly seen a woman stripped of all her clothes until I saw you. (p. 15)
Maria for her part, has little interest in Nicolas as a romantic figure but takes advantage of his interest in her in order to wield him as an instrument to rid the cabinet of her arch-nemeses, the "fawning, despicable, grotesque" (p. 30) chief of staff, Tacito de la Canal and pave the way for her preferred candidate and ex-lover, Bernal Herrera.
As might be obvious from this brief summery, The Eagle's Throne is a book that isn't afraid to abandon realism for the sake of a political point. For the first two hundred pages this works surprisingly well. The plot might be thin, but the telling is snappy, full of wit and humour, and overlaid with astute observations about the world. For example, an early overview of the Mexican political cabinet includes this:
[The oil company's Director General] welcomes US capital without denationalising the industry, but when we defend the price of oil, the US government penalises us, thus penalising its own investors. That's Washington's eternal contradiction, caught between the sweeping international claims and the small local interests: the textile factory in North Carolina will always win out over the Brazilian factory and the World Trade Organization, since the latter two don't vote in US elections. (p.28)
It's the sort of satire that makes you sit back and say, "Ah yes, how true." It's the sort of satire that does more than just ridicule the people it's showing up—it offers alternatives. It makes you think.
It's a shame Fuentes doesn't keep this up, but The Eagle's Throne loses its way in the last few chapters, plummeting into a mass of melodrama and sentimental posturing. Fuentes seems to forget that his readers can think for themselves, going to great lengths to tie up loose ends that don't actually exist. Everyone is suddenly revealed to have a dark past full of violence and bastard off-spring. Insignificant characters suddenly become important and the plot changes direction so frequently at times that it comes close to ruining the whole book.
Couple this with the apparent inability of any of the characters to talk about genuine problems and you find yourself wondering where it all went wrong. I mean, Mexico is crippled. They have no phone, no fax, and no email. Maybe I'm looking at this with a Westerner's eyes, but people simply wouldn't stand for that. Where are the riots? Where are the job losses? Where's the angry press hounding the government for answers? The public sphere is strangely absent from this novel and in its place the characters, as well-drawn and humorous as they are, are afforded far too much luxury in which to pander to their own agendas.
As I said at the beginning of this review—I don't know much about Mexican politics. Maybe if I did, some of these foibles might have made more sense to me, but somehow, I doubt it. The Eagle's Throne is a good novel but it reads as though Fuentes lost his way half-way through. He makes his political points well, but at the expense of credibility. Even so, there's still a lot here to appreciate, particularly if you're a fan of Fuentes's work. But for me, it just pushed the boundaries of realism slightly too far to be taken seriously. The satire is sharp; it's just a shame that the storyline isn't.
R.J. Burgess is from Crawley, West Sussex and has wanted to be a writer for most of his life.