In 2020, politics as unusual

A quirky, corrosive tale of political science fiction by a Mexican master.

If "Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace," didn't turn you away from political science fiction forever, you might enjoy a trip to the not-too-distant future, to a country not too far away, where the political intrigues are as convoluted as one of Princess Amidala's hairdos.

Carlos Fuentes, perhaps Mexico's greatest living writer, has created a corrosive satire set in 2020. The Mexican president has angered the United States by denouncing its invasion of Colombia. In retaliation, US President Condoleezza Rice has wiped out Mexico's communication systems, cutting the country off from the rest of the world. (Even the carrier pigeons have been poisoned.)

The conceit, which involves a satellite, works best if you don't squint at it too closely. I wasted several pages wondering why the secretaries were bothering to haul out the old Remington typewriters: With the electricity still on, the computers should have worked just fine. Nor could I figure out why the phones or TVs were dead: Alexander Graham Bell's little invention, in particular, had a pretty good track record for decades before the first satellite hit outer space.

The answer has less to do with technology than that classic parental staple: "Because I said so." Basically, all modern means of communications failed because Fuentes wanted to write an epistolary novel, and it would take a catastrophe on that order to get most people to put pen to paper. (I'm surprised he didn't have a freak explosion destroy all of Mexico's ballpoint-pen factories, in order to have his characters scratching away with quills.)

So, even though the motto in Mexican politics is "never put anything in writing," the president's cabinet is reduced to passing notes back and forth like fourth-grade girls in math class. Not that any of these epistles dwell on such mundane matters as getting the phones, computers, and TVs turned back on: Everyone is too busy concocting elaborate schemes to win the upcoming presidential election in 2024 – when they aren't arranging assignations of a different sort. As for Mexico's incumbent president, despite his verbal grandstanding against the world's superpower, he has a reputation for having a cushion permanently affixed to his derrière, which events do nothing to dispel.

Readers might want to create a flow chart to keep all the players straight – events can get a little murky, especially since Fuentes doesn't give all his characters distinct voices. But here are a few of the major operatives: Marìa del Rosario Galvàn is promising her protégé Nicolàs Valdivia all sorts of rewards, both carnal and political, if he gets her the dirt on the president's chief of staff, Tàcito de la Canal. Despite promising to elevate Valdivia to the presidency, Maria's loyalty lies with her long-term lover, Interior Secretary Bernal Herrera. De la Canal, an unctuous toady who likes to "kiss up" and "kick down," wants the presidency for himself, and is conducting a lurid affair with the wife of the Treasury secretary that I really, really didn't enjoy reading about. The chief of police is trying to persuade the head of the armed forces to initiate a military coup. A former president, newly returned from exile, is bullying the head of Congress to change the Constitution so that he can run for reelection. And these are only the surface intrigues.

Before the book is over, at least six characters will be dead, and enough aphorisms will be spouted to fill a Mexican "Bartlett's Quotations." ("Politics is the art of swallowing frogs without flinching," and "anyone who wants to be part of the Cabinet should first take in a liter of vinegar through his nose," are just two culinary-based maxims.) Just for good measure, Fuentes throws in a subplot from Alexandre Dumas's "The Man in the Iron Mask;" a woman looking for her lover, who disappeared eight years ago; and a boy with Down's Syndrome, who inspires the only pure heartbreak in the novel.

Fuentes, a former ambassador, liberally mixes in arcane bits of Mexican and Roman history. But occasionally, he gets tripped up on current events. One character laments that textile workers in North Carolina will always win out over global trade interests. (That hooting sound you hear is the bitter laughter from the 12 remaining textile workers in the Tar Heel state.)

Another character comments that "We live in the most ravaged and, financially speaking, idiotic part of the world: Latin America." (One suspects there are at least a few African countries who would be happy to swap GDPs anytime Mexico is ready.) But then Fuentes throws in an anecdote about the loyalty of a Roman general's dog or Mexico's Pastry War with the French, and much is forgiven.

"The Eagle's Throne" possesses some brilliant political satire, but it's not always a satisfying read. The first half of the novel is slow going, with Fuentes reheating the same analogies over and over and indulging in some seriously overwrought mash notes. But once the double-crosses and bodies start piling up, the novel will make even a seasoned thriller-reader gasp.

Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.

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