Wednesday 15 October 2008

The Eagle's Throne by Carlos Fuentes.

In the year 2020, the Mexican president decides to defy USA with a couple of defiant policy declarations. In retaliation, Mexico's communications networks, provided by contractors who are fronts for US government departments, are suspended. In the ensuing confusion, Mexico's top politicians and king-makers revert to the written (or recorded in some cases) word to communicate with each other. The big topic of the day, of course, is who will succeed to the presidency when the incumbent's term ends 4 years hence. A variety of colourful characters conspire and counter-conspire to ensure that they, or their choice of candidate, will be the next to occupy the eagle's throne.

The epistolatory novel is not a common form anymore, and Fuentes strikes what I think is a delicate but functional balance, giving the correspondents subtle shades of difference in tone of voice while maintaining a certain uniform frame of references and allusions that makes for a cohesive read. After a slow, stage-setting start, the often melodramatic events start piling up. There are betrayals, unexpected alliances, sudden reverses and equally abrupt victories along the way.

So far, so good - this book functions quite well as a political thriller with literary aspirations. Some of the political insight is acute, some of it (such as Fuentes' characterisaion of Bush Jr's administration as one run on the basis of opinion polls) less so. Fuentes left the world of politics and diplomacy behind to devote himself to literature, so many of the observations on politics in general and Mexican politics in particular do carry a certain weight and interest.

At the very end, though, the novel suddenly finds its emotional centre in a very unexpected, completely peripheral character. It's this final statement, I think, that elevates the novel to something more than a formally unusual yarn of political scheming. I also found that, somehow the characters had come vividly alive in my mind, to the extent that I missed being able to read about them the evening after I finished this book. Not an entirely succesful book, I think - there's a bit too much soap opera in here - but certainly gripping and thought provoking.

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