The Power of the Prickly Pear

The Eagle’s Throne

by Carlos Fuentes, translated from the Spanish by Kristina Cordero
Random House, 338 pp., $15.95 (paper)

Last summer, in a series of articles in the Mexican newspaper Reforma, Carlos Fuentes compared the situation of the president-elect of his country, Felipe Calderón, to that of the hero of an old English film: Tony Richardson’s Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962). Isolated both from the power bloc represented by Vicente Fox, the outgoing president, and from the extreme right of his party, he seemed to have no allies, while his future was also threatened from the left by an immense, Mexico City–stopping sit-in that ended only in October. Calderón took office in a hurried, almost secretive scramble in December 2006.

Was there fraud in the July election? Did Calderón defeat his chief opponent, the leftist Andrés Manuel López Obrador, by a narrow margin or not at all? There are many views of this still roiling issue, and Fuentes, in the same articles, had shrewd questions for both sides. Was there fraud only in the presidential vote and not in the elections for Senate and Congress? If the Electoral Commission had done such widely respected work in the previous election, why was it suddenly under suspicion? And conversely, what kind of mandate for government is 0.5 percent?

Fuentes thought Calderón’s only option, in view of the narrowness of his space for maneuver, was to be “president of all Mexicans, not of one set or another of special interests.” This would be a peculiar, admirable kind of loneliness, and one way of sustaining it would be to balance a whole pack of special interests—oil companies, unions, the police, and the telecommunications industry among them—rather than ignoring them. This balancing act is precisely what Fuentes means by politics, and what he writes about so well, in his fiction and in his essays. There is a welcome chance to catch up with some of the best of his novels in the recent reissue by the Dalkey Archive Press of Christopher Unborn, Distant Relations, Terra Nostra, and Where the Air Is Clear—the last two with thoughtful introductions by the younger Mexican novelists Jorge Volpi and Ignacio Padilla, respectively.

All elections are interesting, even rigged ones, but in Mexico the very idea of an entirely open election is only about seven years old. The former ruling party, the Partido Revolucionario Institucional, had a broad base and included many factions with different views on policy; it certainly did not owe its nearly seventy unbroken years in office to mere corruption or force. In Fuentes’s recent novel The Eagle’s Throne this old regime is called both a “hereditary republic” and a “soft dictatorship.” However, each president named his successor, who became the so-called covered one, el tapado. The result of the election was his being brought into the open, el destape, and so succession itself was always the heart of the matter. Jorge Castañeda, secretary of state in Fox’s government, asks in his 1999 book La Herencia (literally The Inheritance, rather tendentiously translated as Perpetuating …

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