In early February fans and journalists gathered at the Purcell Room of the Royal Festival Hall in London. The reason? The presence of Carlos Fuentes, famous Mexican writer and one of the main representatives of the Latin-American Boom movement (literary movement dating back to the sixties).
The presentation kicked off by mentioning Fuentes’s good friend and colleague Tomás Eloy Martínez, known for novels such as Santa Evita, The Peron Novel and, most recently, The Tango Singer, the book which he should have been presenting. Due to unforeseen circumstances, Martínez could not attend the event, but his image was with us, projected on a large white screen above the stage.
Buenos Aires, 2001.
Fuentes and the chairperson Amanda Hopkinson shared with us excerpts of the Spanish and English versions of The Tango Singer. An American student arrives in Buenos Aires in search of Julio Martel, a local tango singer who has disappeared (he follows the model of Carlos Gardel, who tragically died in an accident, and Roberto Goyeneche, who was destroyed by alcohol). The audience is diverse and ranges from the young student with coloured hair who is a lover of the Latin culture to the eccentric professor that wears a pigtail and a gray suit. We are a world of ears that in respectful silence absorb each word from this tango singer with a Mexican accent. Buenos Aires, 2001. A city of labyrinths, contradictions, charm…
We then move to The Eagle’s Throne, Fuentes’ latest work. The author stands on the stage, a neon sun cuts out his tall and smart figure against a dark backdrop, his voice at times high, at times low, spins the yarn with the gift of the gab. His words flow, then stop, then hover for a fraction of a second in the dim auditorium before enlightening the minds of a captivated audience.
The country has not only spoken against the American occupation troops in Colombia, but has also demanded that its northern neighbour pay the OPEC tariff for its oil. This unleashes American fury and Mexican drama: the company in charge of managing the satellite system that controls communications in Mexico, based in Miami, “goes down due to unforeseen circumstances” and Mexico is thus no longer able to communicate by means of TV, radio, email, fax or even telegraph. In a country where the politics of “silence is gold”, “you can say everything, without saying anything”, and “out of sight… out of mind” are pursued, it is ironic that overnight the only means of communication available becomes letters. The fact is significant, for this is a country where politicians do not leave anything in writing behind. Even more so, if we think that this happens in the midst of the race to be the next occupant of the eagle’s throne, that is the presidency of Mexico. Fuentes is a master of the epistolary genre: the letters disclose the complex relationships between the characters, for whom politics, ambition, sex, abuse of power and favouritism go hand in hand, and at the same time they advance the plot of the novel.
The Eagle’s Throne is a special book because it analizes the future without referring to the past. Where does this freedom come from? “We always live in the present tense,” claims Fuentes. He mentions that the Chilean writer Pablo Neruda used to say that Latin-American writers would bear the weight of their countries on their shoulders. That was a great responsibility. With the advent of democracy, however, this ceased to be the case, which made it both easier and more difficult for subsequent generations of writers, because there was no longer a restriction on freedom of speech. “In a democracy the writer is not obliged to say what politics says,” Fuentes adds, “citizens say what they must say.” The Eagle’s Throne is not trying to be an analysis of the past or a prediction of the future. It is what it is: a novel.
The book’s original, spanish language version, La Silla del Aguila, has already become another of the author’s best sellers and the reaction of the English readership augurs well for its translation – we laughed when we heard that the president of the US in the book is none other than Ms. Condoleezza Rice.
Carlos Fuentes, son of Mexican diplomats, born in Panama City in 1928, was educated in Mexico, the US, Argentina and Chile. He would later on become a diplomat himself, in Europe. His work is not limited to literature: his series of documentaries about the history of Latin America, The Buried Mirror: Reflections on Spain and the New World, for example, are but a masterly small sample of his interest in the media in general, not just the written. Fuentes is above all a great politician that is not afraid to speak out: indeed he makes Politics the focus of his work. Works such as Contre Bush/against Bush and numerous interviews in which he clearly expresses his attitude in regards to North American politics and the repercussion in his beloved Latin America are the product of this actively political mentality. He attacks from this side again when he mentions, much to the audience’s amusement, that Mexico has the best democratic electoral system in the World: “We always know who will be president, because we know it a year ahead of the elections,” he says sarcastically, emphasizing a tradition of authoritarian politics in his country
(the PRI, the ‘official’ Mexican political party, had been at the reins of power from 1929 until the beginning of the nineties, with little opposition from the remaining political parties).