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 Power) “whether Mexico has outlived its successional demons of the past.” “The key question is power,” he says, and we may think there is nothing especially Mexican in this. But he goes on, “and how it is transferred, kept, and ceded.”1
The loneliness of the long-distance president and the opposition to him on the streets of Mexico City last year were all about that, and Fuentes’s novel is a witty political satire on the same subject. The book is bleak as well as funny, and we might say its bleakness is just what allows the possibility of hope. Fuentes, in this work published in Spanish in 2003, gives the successional demons such a run that they seem exhausted, or at least ready to convert themselves into ordinary human politicians. The recent election and its consequences certainly have the air of a mess, but it is a democratic mess and it looks relatively demon-free.
The Mexico City protest was not without violence, of course, and it was disastrous for the shops, hotels, and restaurants that lined the blocked streets—many people lost their jobs. But in the main it had the air of the more benign moments of the 1960s: buses, slogans, jokes, eager political speeches, yoga classes, long discussions. On the last occasion I walked through one of the tents stretched along the Paseo de la Reforma, I heard a voice say to a tiny cluster of folks on folding chairs, “And now I am going to recite a poem by John Lennon.” At the same time Vicente Fox’s government showed extraordinary patience, and did not call in the army or the police to break up the vast static demonstration.
The authorities were aware, of course, of the political danger of creating martyrs, and of the use López Obrador would make of such a gift. And most of all they were remembering 1968, and the massacre by the government of hundreds of protesters at Tlatelolco, in central Mexico City. Enrique Krauze, in his history of modern Mexico, quotes the president who ordered the killings, Gustavo Dìaz Ordaz, as later saying, “Mexico will be the same before and after Tlatelolco and perhaps will go on being the same—in what is most important—because of Tlatelolco.” He means the old order was preserved and the price was worth it. As Krauze comments, this perception “could not have been more mistaken.” “After Tlatelolco, Mexico would never be the same as it was before and it would not be the same—in what is most important—because of Tlatelolco.”2
“We have two golden rules in Mexican politics,” a character says in The Eagle’s Throne. “One is benign: no re-election. The other is more unforgiving: exile.” The point in both cases is to make sure that the current president, whoever he is, cannot be his own successor, and the slogan “Sufragio efectivo/No reelección,” also quoted in the novel, actually appears in every official Mexican document, as if to supplement custom and the constitution by a magical, ubiquitous repetition of the key idea. Not every Mexican president has gone into exile at the end of his term, but many have, and in the novel a president who returns from exile proves the golden rule exactly by conspiring to get back into office. He is balked, and shipped abroad.
The time of the novel is 2020, and everyone is already looking toward the elections of 2024. Condoleezza Rice is president of the United States and she has just invaded Colombia. The Mexican president Lorenzo Terán, in an unaccustomed act of protest, has prohibited the importation of Mexican oil into the US unless OPEC prices are paid, and in return the US has cut off all telecommunications to and from Mexico—and within Mexico as well, since by an unfortunate twist in monopoly capitalism the whole system has been concentrated in one easily severable place. No phones, no television, no faxes, no Internet.
This is why everyone in the book has to resort to letters and audiotapes, and why the book presents itself as a charmingly old-fashioned epistolary novel. “Old-fashioned” is perhaps not quite the right term since Fuentes reminds us in This I Believe that Choderlos de Laclos, author of the magnificent eighteenth-century letter-novel Les Liaisons dangereuses, “is a great writer of the twentieth century.” And indeed in The Eagle’s Throne there are moments of devastating cunning and cynicism—on the part of the characters—whose only antecedents seem to lie in the world of the Vicomte de Valmont and the Marquise de Merteuil.
We do not hear much more about the invasion of Colombia, or indeed about anywhere in the world except the corridors of Mexican power, and of course as a device the collapse of technology is a little creaky. But then its purpose is to provide a platform for the letters and tapes, not a plausible reason; and what counts here, in a strongly satirical sense, is the sheer extravagance of all the many conspiracies that are unfolding: the ex-president’s scheme for his return to power, a foiled military takeover, a financial scandal, many old love affairs, several assassinations, and a mysterious political prisoner. Apart from his sudden act of defiance, President Terán does almost nothing except die in the middle of his term, making the question of succession, already an obsessive preoccupation of everyone in the book, the only question there is.
The most engaging and complicated players are Marìa del Rosario Galván, a beautiful but aging woman who says politics are “the public expression of private passions,” and her old lover Bernal Herrera, the secretary of the interior. “Profession: politics,” he says in self-definition. “Party: suspicionist.” Then there are also Marìa del Rosario’s would-be new lover Nicolás Valdivia, a man of exceptional ambition and a deeply murky past; Tácito de la Canal, the president’s creepy secretary; Xavier Zaragoza, the president’s noble but unavailing adviser; and Cìcero Arruza, the chief of police who proudly repeats his reply to a well-meaning bishop asking him to forgive his enemies. “I can’t,” he said. “I haven’t got any left. I’ve killed them all.”
Best of all there is a character known simply as “el Personaje,” or the Old Man under Arches, who sits all day in a café in the main square of Veracruz drinking coffee, dispensing aphorisms, including the golden rules of Mexican politics, and of course conspiring. “Never believe in the improbable,” he says. “Only believe in the incredible.” A Long John Silver representing the sheer, shivering piracy of politics, he has a parrot on his shoulder for good measure. This man knows that things are going to have to change if they are to remain the same, and Fuentes coins for him the compact and eloquent phrase gatopardismo jarocho, literally “Veracruzan leopardism,” very well translated as “Veracruz wisdom plucked from Lampedusa’s The Leopard.”
The Old Man has the best lines, but nearly everyone in the book talks in epigrams, and there is a great reserve of political popular culture underlying all the patterns of thinking on display. When I first heard of a public figure who said we shall do neither the one thing nor the other but exactly the opposite (todo lo contrario), the remark was attributed to Luis Echeverrìa, president between 1970 and 1976, but my guess is that the line is older than that. Here Fuentes gives a version of it to his imaginary secretary of agriculture. Certainly many politicians, Mexicans and others, have swerved from logic in just this way, even if they didn’t exhibit this vivid aspect of self-caricature.
There is a spectacular and much-quoted Mexican precept about the state’s munificence which Fuentes attributes, I’m sure correctly, to a “very colorful character from our country’s extravagant past, César Garizurieta.” The precept is “El que vive fuera del presupuesto vive en el error,” which Kristina Cordera loyally and interestingly translates as: “He who does not live off the public purse lives in error.” More usually—in Enrique Krauze’s book, for example—the central phrase is rendered as “outside the budget,” and presupuesto also often means “payroll.” The blunt point is clear: it’s a mistake not to be paid by the government if there is any chance at all of your getting on the bandwagon.
But the elegance and the malice of the wit lie in the lack of mention of whose payroll this is (as if there could only be one), in the stern theological air created by the words “outside” and “error,” and in the sheer formality of the proposition—it sounds as if it comes from the high old days of the Counter-Reformation. And this is to say nothing of the implied presence of a choice, certainly not available to everyone in Mexico. What the precept is telling us is that all life outside the economic embrace of the state is a form of heresy. The sly force of the claim is that it doesn’t tell us what we are to think of such heresies—are they acts of independence or desolate effects of lack of access to the purse?—and how many there are likely to be at a given time. At one end of the scale lies avid privatization and at the other a whole panoply of licensed forms of corruption.
“How cold, how clever we were,” Marìa del Rosario writes to her old lover. “Together we decided that fighting for power was less painful than fighting for a child.” This sounds at first like a plain and plangent bit of insincerity. She is talking about the Down’s syndrome child they not only put away in an institution but denied ever having had. The child is their dark secret, he is what blackmailers and political enemies can threaten them with, and it seems that any other secret would serve just as well. But then the child-as-device turns into something else, and we begin to hear a different note in Marìa del Rosario’s voice.
“The fact is,” she says, “we stopped being parents to one little boy because we thought we would become godparents to a whole country.” She is not regretting or denying their hunger for power, but she is feeling her way toward a belated understanding of where and what a country is, and what their politics have cost not only them but their world. A country is not a large metaphorical family, it is a profusion of many small or large actual families. The novel ends in the mind of the child, who is wondering why “the man and the lady that used to come and visit me” don’t ever come now. The boy is an intimation of Mexico, not forgotten—“exactly the opposite”—but hidden, pictured as permanently deniable.
In the parallel world of the novel the PRI returned to power in 2006, and the election of 2012, in a sort of repetition of 1994, was marred by an assassination. Well, in the book it is marred by an apparent assassination, that of the president-elect. One of the great pleasures of reading The Eagle’s Throne has to do with its skillful burlesque of the very idea of intrigue, and the suggestion that history, when it is not copying Laclos or Stevenson—or one of the many American movies Fuentes so affectionately refers to—often looks as if it was written by Alexandre Dumas. The non-murdered man is tucked away in a prison off the coast of Veracruz; he is a man in a literal iron mask, although the mask, in honor of its tropical relocation, has been painted green, and is referred to as the “máscara de nopal.” The nopal, a cactus variety native to Mexico, is also known as the prickly pear. This plant lore, or at least the mythology associated with it, is part of a whole network of jokes in the novel, beginning in its epigraph, which is very funny but no doubt needs a little explication, even for some Mexicans.
The epigraph refers to a 1972 movie musical called Me he de comer esa tuna (I Have to Eat That Fruit of the Prickly Pear), where a song has the eagle, the symbolic bird found on the Mexican flag and coins, asking permission to perch on a nopal, “para subir al nopal/ pidió permiso primero.” The eagle’s throne of the book’s title is clearly the place of the presidency, the lofty seat of power and object of all ambitions, but it is also, less reverentially, a spiky plant. The song reappears within the novel when a politician visits his ancient father, who has lost most of his mind, and now sits in front of a blank and silent television set, singing along to remembered old movies, including this one. Earlier, there is an interesting variant, or misreading, when a politician’s wife says, “We must be even more astute than the eagle that climbed the thorny nopal without asking permission first.” It is part of the joke that the word nicely translated here as “astute” is águila, “eagle” used as a slangy adjective meaning sharp or smart, and characters repeatedly turn to this usage in the novel. Some kinds of eagle are not eagle enough. The Mexican eagle, in other words, may hold the snake in his mouth—this is the legendary image of the founding of Mexico City, the sign from the gods that the Mexica, alias the Aztecs, had arrived at the right place—but he is standing on a nopal, a dangerous spot in any event, and especially if he has not asked permission. What causes the downfall of many a powerful Mexican, the implication goes, is the ancient reality of Mexico itself, or the aspect of Mexico he has denied.
The entire novel takes place against a backdrop of “long centuries of poverty, injustice, and unfulfilled dreams.” But the backdrop scarcely changes, and what ruins the aspirations of all the Machiavellians in this novel is neither a harsh old national reality nor their willingness to use a whole country as a stage for their fantasies. The cactus they disregard is something like the relentlessness of desire, the fact that their competitors all have the same ferocious appetite, creating an unmanageable criss-crossing of wills, rather like the plot of the film Amores Perros. Mexican fatalism, however witty, elegant, and formally framed, is always incomplete, ready to turn without warning into prickly hope. As Fuentes says in This I Believe, “The risk, in Mexico, is the facility with which we pass from despair to optimism, only to fall into desperation.” And again, “Mexico, patient and serene, nevertheless hides the anger of a hope too often deceived.”
In The Eagle’s Throne, an austere general, remembering an old flame, has an extraordinary, self-contradicting thought: “I think she died of sadness, and of that nostalgia for the impossible that you sometimes feel when you know that what you desired could have been possible.” What this says, I think, is that the impossible does not exist except as a name for what you do not have. There is great energy in such an assumption, especially if it is half-secret and keeps surprising you. There is also fuel for unceasing hope and anger. Fuentes is suggesting that those successional demons are not at rest yet—far from it.
June 14, 2007