Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Eagle's Throne - Carlos Fuentes

'Carlos Fuentes' like several other writers, has several times used the trope of putting in a fantastical social scenario at the core of the novel and work on it from there, exposing the underbelly of the society (or a part of it) as a whole. You have his own 'Christopher Unborn' and Saramago's several works as example of this. In 'The Eagle's Throne' Fuentes takes up one such scenario and this time the canvas is the Mexican political system, the politicians and of course the intrigues, betrayals that go along with it.

The year is '2020' and America has cut off all communication links of Mexico because the incumbent president refused to go along with some U.S policies. This results in emails, telephones everything being cut off, resulting in letters being the only mode of communication. The political situation in Mexico is also in a flux, the president, in his 3rd year of presidency has been seen in public for quite sometime and there is a speculation about this health. His control over the presidency is also being questioned. So it's an ideal time for the vultures/wolves to gather around the prize that is the presidency and gather they do. (The next elections are scheduled for 2024). From a series of letters, we get to know the various groups in the fray, their ambitions and machinations to achieve that. The novel could be termed as an 'epistolary' one too based on it's narrative structure.

There is the Interior secretary collaborating with a middle aged femme-fatale, opposing them is the 'Chief of staff' who has his eye on the presidency and a few tricks up his sleeve. There is also the chief of police and the defense secretary who seem to be a group and planning for a coup. The previous president returned from exile has thrown his hat into the ring. What about an even earlier president, an patriarch called simply as 'The Old Man'? What are his intentions and what secrets does he harbor? Does he still hold any aces up his sleeve. Then there is several other (seemingly?) minor players like 'Valdivia' who seem to be doing the beholding of the various group mentioned above, but is everything as it seems?.  Can anyone of the minor player become the wild card that no one thought about and ascend to the top. Idealism and good intentions can take one only so far,but ultimately  you have to play by the real world rules, else face the consequences. Like in the case of 'Moro', the candidate who  had won the 2012 election, but was assassinated soon after before taking power as his rhetoric on abolishing corruption etc was getting to hot to handle for the others. His specter is also hanging over the other characters in the novel. It is a unholy mess of groups/cabals which could be generically stated as 'A' and 'B' are together opposing 'C'. 'D &E' are together opposing the other 2. 'B' is using 'F' who in turn seems to be shady using 'G' and concealing more that what is being revealed.  Whew, tough to keep track isn't it but that's real life politics and to reach the very top you indeed need to be up to date with all the tricks and deviousness one can gather.

Alliances are broken, new ones are forged, in some cases betrayals happen and hidden alliances come to the fore. The characters are shocked by the turn of events but recover quickly moving on to the next alliance that will serve them better. It's like they seem to crave the political orgasms they can get from the power of authority more than from orgasms of the carnal bed. Sex seems to take a back seat but even that is not the whole truth. There is sexual scheming, flirting, using one's sensuality for a purpose, but even that is a means to an end, the carnal bed as a route to forge alliances which will lead to the throne of presidency. The incumbent president dies and the scheming becomes even more complex, which new facets of each character coming to the fore. With Mexico not having the post of 'vice-president', an interim president is appointed. What will he do, will he assert himself or continue to do his benefactor's bidding? The story ends on a kind of external ceasefire between the different groups and a status quo is maintained for the time being,  at least outwardly, with the internal scheming going on as usual. There is never a fixed end to a life in politics until you die, there is always the hope of coming back again and turning the tables back on the persons who beat you the last time. This is the hope on which the various groups rest as the novel ends.

I don't know about the Mexical political system, but assume what Fuentes potrays is the truth or at least close to it. At one level are the groups at the center jockeying for the presidency, at another level are the heads of the provinces (states if in India) who are more concerned about being dictators of their fiefdom and earning money than in any ambitions towards the presidency (at least for now). Their concerns are different and based on it they ally with the groups in the center. For instance, the attempted coup is rejected by them because a weak center is what they want so that they can continue with their ruling of the provinces in that case. As in his other novels, through all these incidents one can sense the anguish Fuentes has for the current situation in  Mexico, his reading of the current political situation as a continuation of events from the past, a legacy of corruption, scheming, despotism that has been passed down from generations. For someone like me with not much idea about Mexican history, the references to old events/persons wouldn't be something that one can relate it, but someone with good knowledge of Mexican history would be able appreciate the book even more with these references. 

On the downside, this is an engaging book but unfortunately remains at that level only. Part of it is due to the current political climate everywhere, a time where we have seem so much of political machinations that we are inured to almost everything that happens in the novel (as in the real word). Someone is betrayed by a close confidante, fine so what? The betrayed himself was a betrayer earlier and the current betrayer would anyway soon be betrayed by another. That's the feeling we get as we read the novel. Even the so called secret and the revelations at the end do not hit as hard as they should have. Another issue is that Fuentes concentrates on the broad strokes of the political intrigues so much that the characters remain inaccessible to us (i.e) the macro political situation is detailed, whereas the micro individual situation is left half baked as it were. So whatever little one should feel for the characters we don't. For instance lets take a  novel with similar area of interest, the breathtaking  'The Wizard Of The Crow', a unforgettable political farce, which though savagely satirizes the political situations in an imaginary country, invests a lot in its characters so that the mesh of the macro and the micro results in a novel for the ages. Or even 'The Feast Of The Goat', which has a slight similarity in that it talks about absolute power. That too has its unforgettable characters who enhance the novel. Unfortunately here it doesn't happen.

These are only minor quibbles and the novel needn't be skipped because of it. Also this is the most accessible of Fuentes's novels that I have read and in that sense it could be a starting point for reading him. Remember however that it does not represent the overall quality of his oeuvre and that there are several other gems written by him waiting for you. As they say, the Himalayas is not entirely made up of 'Mount Everests', there are huge peaks, others not too huge, there are valleys, but the Himalayas as such remains fascinating isn't it. 

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