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From Fuentes, fiction as op-ed

The Eagle's Throne
By Carlos Fuentes
Translated, from the Spanish, by Kristina Cordero
Random House, 336 pp., $26.95

Not long ago, a polemic surrounding Carlos Fuentes's legacy erupted in Mexico when a prominent playwright, Emilio Carballido, stated that of the members of the so-called generación del boom, the movement that included Julio Cortázar, Gabriel García Márquez, and Mario Vargas Llosa, Fuentes was the most spoiled, the one whose talents were wasted in gallantries. Carballido all but called Fuentes an enlightened playboy, one equally known for his political maneuvering, sexual escapes, and repetitiveness in literature.

Unsurprisingly, a barrage of defenses and attacks ensued. Fuentes, I should add, is often at the center of these types of squabbles. Having been a friend and confidant of Octavio Paz's for years, Fuentes fought viciously with him after one of Paz's proteges, Enrique Krauze, published a scathing review of Fuentes in the monthly magazine Vuelta. Similarly, in the early days of Vicente Fox's presidency, Fuentes's novella ``Aura" was censored after a politico took it out of the public school curriculum for its alleged anti religious content. Thankful for the profit boost, Fuentes again made the headlines.

There is a confessed ghoulishness to these polemics. To some, like me, they are far more interesting than Fuentes's oeuvre. Indeed, his public persona, with self-esteem the size of an elephant, might well be his best creation. Take his relationship with critics . In a PBS documentary, he talked of chewing their bones, then throwing them out the window. Clearly, he prefers his own assessment of what he writes. In an interview with journalist Héctor Aguilar Camín, Fuentes described himself as a prophet, bragging that he foresaw the fall of Mexico's ruling party, PRI, long before it occurred. And when asked if he would ever win the Nobel Prize for Literature, Fuentes responded that he already had, since the award in 1982 to García Márquez was really an honor for their whole generation. Finally, he exalted ``The Eagle's Throne" as a masterpiece.

The fact that Fuentes's place in the Mexican literary canon is often debated isn't surprising. His output is at once prodigious and infuriatingly inconsistent. Maybe the problem is that his politics keep intruding. He writes fiction as if it were an op-ed piece.

That is the case with ``The Eagle's Throne," which is no masterpiece. It is about presidential succession, and in it Fuentes returns to a topic he has addressed before: the ruinous quality of Mexican politics . That was the theme of ``The Death of Artemio Cruz," ``Christopher Unborn," and ``Terra Nostra ." Set in 2020, ``The Eagle's Throne" unfolds as the United States, under President Condoleezza Rice, is angry with Mexico for not supporting its military invasion of Colombia. Oil becomes an issue, and Mexico stops shipping gas to its northern neighbor. In retaliation, Rice blocks satellite communication, making e-mail , phone calls, and faxes in Mexico halt abruptly. What next? An epistolary novel. At issue is the successor of the ailing president, Lorenzo Terán. Former leaders, advisers, Cabinet members, congressmen, military figures , and others fight for control. Their ridiculous dance showcases the novel's central thesis: `` Politics," as María del Rosario Galván, the female protagonist, puts it, is `` the public expression of private passions."

Fuentes's penchant is for intrigue. His sarcasm has a double edge: As he scorns the establishment, it becomes obvious that its rules fascinate him. Indeed, loyalty is one of the themes that run through his work. So is Mexico's incapacity to be governed by intelligent, capacious people. Politicos are manipulators with an excess of self-esteem and a cadre of docile women . All this might have made ``The Eagle's Throne" a pleasure. After all, Fuentes's speculations are based on plausible scenarios. In fact, one might as well be reading Mexican newspapers today, as Fox, the first democratically elected ruler in more than six decades and a failure by most standards, departs and his party's successor waits to be declare d the next president. But will he? In Fuentes's vision, it matters little , for Mexican politics are a house of mirrors: Nothing is what it seems.

Toward the end of the novel, Rosario Galván says, ``I look back on the people, the places, the situations since the crisis began in January, and I find that there's no sense of taste in my mouth. . . . My tongue and palate taste of nothing at all." Regrettably, I sense the same tastelessness. Is this a novel? It reads like an opinion commentary . Not only is it hastily executed, but the attention to character is embarrassing. After reading several letters, it becomes clear that all were crafted by the same hand -- Fuentes's. And the busy plot looks to me like wasted talent.

Will future generations read Fuentes? I'm not a prophet. Maybe they'll think he was an actor or a politician. Maybe he should have run for president in the recent election. He surely has an insider's knowledge. And his mockery fits Mexico to a tee.

Ilan Stavans is the Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College. His book ``The Disappearance " is due out this month.

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