The Russian translation of Carlos Fuentes's classic novel The Death of Artemio Cruz was published at half its size. Why? Because, Fuentes was told, all the sex and politics had been cut out. Then there's nothing left, he quipped. His latest, The Eagle's Throne, persists with his exploration of power in Mexico, sex and politics intimately entwined.
The title alludes to the foundation of Aztec Mexico: the eagle on top of the cactus, snake in mouth. The story revolves around a presidential succession in 2020, when the US has cut telecommunications after Mexico dared to oppose its invasion of Colombia. Some background knowledge of Mexico's political system helps situate characters and voices in this epistolary novel.
Fuentes has been a sharp critic of the Mexican farce, that "hereditary republic", renewed every six years. There's no re-election of a president, so the office holder gets as rich as he can, with his cronies, and then goes into exile. The difference between Fuentes's journalism and this novel is satire. The Mexico of 2020 is still in "transition" towards democracy, but with the same politicians.
Letters slowly reveal the corruption, the lies, the sexual favours, the secrets that everybody knows, and the backbiting, betrayals and assassinations. The novel is dedicated to the hope of a better Mexico, but the political melodrama is a soap with stock characters that doesn't offer even a glimmer. The correspondents are devious liars.
As one writes, "to be a politician you must be a hypocrite"; another that "there's no better training for politics than adultery". Their names and nicknames echo the Romans. There's a Seneca, a Cicero and a Tacitus.
However, the key name and future president, with a secret criminal past, is Nicolás Valdivia. Fuentes is often unwilling to let us guess his allusions, and soon Niccolò Machiavelli surfaces, with his actual maxims about wickedness and gaining and keeping power. In fact, all the characters impart their political know-how. There's a constant didacticism, as if the new Machiavelli is Fuentes, behind his sinister characters, refracting all he has gleaned from his outsider's view - and insider's at times, as close friend to at least one president.
The novel reveals exasperation. There's a litany of insults about Mexico as a "racist place were skin color counts", whose history is of blood-soaked rivers, mass graves and unburied corpses. Mexico is more part of Latin America than its official history admits, and Menem (in Argentina) and Fujimori (in Peru) join the gang of archetypal political thugs. Fuentes has a character joke "we create problems for everyone else", as if the world needs Latin American corruption.
The novel also revels in Fuentes's love-hate relationship with Mexico City, the "biggest rubbish dump in the world", where "rational thought has never taken root". Even Humboldt is cited with his image of Mexico as a "beggar sitting on top of a mountain of gold". Fuentes here adopts his beloved Diderot's disdain, and ropes in Kafka, while in reality writing about local Mexican customs.
This essayistic streak is the best part of the novel. Fuentes mixes his soap opera with one-liners mouthed by differing characters. As one comments, the drama of Mexico blends a Posadas etching (with those skeletons constantly killing each other) and a Tarantino film, with its exaggerated gore.
The novel could be shorter and Fuentes could explain less, but it guides us into the political jungle with wit and sometimes bite. Kristina Cordero does well with the allusions and puns, but most readers would need a note on Fuentes's in-joke about César Aira becoming the first Argentine writer to win the Nobel prize and why another Argentine writer, Martín Caparrós, is turned into a killer. But there remains much to admire in this updated Liaisons Dangereuses, with its Mexican courtiers and courtesans.
Jason Wilson is professor of Spanish at UCL
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies