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Novelist Carlos Fuentes confronts mortality and his country's future

April 26, 2006|By Anne-Marie O'Connor | Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
  • Carlos Fuentes' work helps him cope with the deaths of his son and daughter.
Carlos Fuentes' work helps him cope with the deaths of his son and daughter. (Jennifer S. Altman / For…)

IN the new political novel by preeminent Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes, a Mexican bishop counsels a general to forgive his enemies. "I can't," the general replies. "I haven't got any left. I've killed them all."

On the eve of Mexico's July presidential elections, Fuentes is treating U.S. readers to his fictional sendup of Mexico's baroque political baggage, from the historic mestizo nation that arose from the Mexican Revolution to the murders and political intrigues that marked the end of the seven-decade rule of the Institutional Revolutionary Party. "The Eagle's Throne" opens in the year 2020, and U.S. President Condoleezza Rice's administration has shut down Mexican satellite communications in reprisal for Mexico's rising oil prices and its opposition to U.S. troops in Colombia.

"This is a satire. Satire knows no pity," Fuentes said last week, sitting under a window that spills soft morning light on his silver temples and aquiline features, and rolling up the sleeves of his white cotton shirt. "It is a book that seeks not to prophesize, but to exorcise. I hope that 'The Eagle's Throne' doesn't happen. But I fear it will be a prophecy, because exorcism can become prophecy."

Fuentes has already seen some of his most apocalyptic fiction come true, like the unbridled Mexican urbanism that he imagined two decades ago in "Christopher Unborn." Fuentes has ridden the crest of a wave of dramatic transformations since his days as a leader of "El Boom" of Latin American literature, a time when Fuentes counted himself and contemporaries like Gabriel Garcia Marquez as the voice of powerless people living under despotic rule. It was then that critics began to take notice of Latin America's regional voice, comparing the work to the great Russian novels.

And now, though Fuentes still does not look his age, 77, his own mortality has become impossible to ignore: He and his wife lost their daughter, Natasha, in August, just shy of her 30th birthday. Their other child, Carlos, died in 1999 at 25, in Puerto Vallarta, of hemophilia, after sending tender messages to friends and loved ones. "It was a kind of goodbye," Fuentes recalled.

Fuentes waved away questions about the death of Natasha. No one expects to outlive their children. "It was very painful," he said. "We've been under deep strain. It has united us as a couple. It puts a premium on your own soul. How do you go on living? How do you make people go on living within you?

"It nullifies you or sends you into work. Work saves you."

On a recent day, Fuentes spoke with some nostalgia about his life as a writer and a public intellectual during the more dramatically confrontational Cold War, when the opinions of authors like Fuentes made headlines. Fuentes has become a regular commentator on Latin America, and nowadays he calls Fidel Castro's Cuba a "personal dictatorship." His 2004 book of essays, "Contra Bush" (Against Bush), airs his critique of an administration that, he dryly remarked, "is doing their best to promote a closed authoritarian state."

As his wife, Mexican television journalist Silvia Lemus, moved through the apartment-sized Manhattan suite they were staying in, Fuentes talked excitedly about the latest political transformation that has swept through Latin America: The recent electoral victories of populist and progressive center-left candidates whose best traits he sees personified in newly elected Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, whom he declares "wonderful."

"In Latin America we had a brutal period of Latin American military governments supported by the United States because they were anti-Communist," he said. "The left is now taking power, not through revolution but through the ballot box."

Among the new leaders, of course, is Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a mercurial populist who appeals to the many poor people who have been dislocated by the free market. But "I wouldn't call Hugo Chavez left wing," Fuentes said dismissively. "He's Mussolini. He's a fascist. Everything he says is clownish. He's taking this incredibly rich country to bankruptcy. I wouldn't call that the left. If he was a leftist I would leave the left."

Fuentes says "The Eagle's Throne" has nothing to do with Mexico's upcoming elections to replace President Vicente Fox. But the book's U.S. release occurs just before Mexico's July election, whose front-runner, former Mexico City Mayor Manuel Lopez Obrador, is also counted among the ranks of new Latin American leaders. Another candidate, Roberto Madrazo, is a stalwart of Mexico's PRI, which governed Mexico for seven decades until the election of Fox.

"In Mexico, there's a peculiarity," Fuentes said. "We have a [2,000-mile] border with the United States. You can't have a Hugo Chavez, or probably even a Michelle Bachelet. You have to have someone who has good negotiating skills with the United States. It's a question of having someone who can deal with the U.S., and the U.S. knows it."

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