First published in Spanish in 2002, the veteran Mexican author’s ebullient revival of the epistolary novel casts a frosty eye on future (and contemporary) geopolitics.
In the year 2020, lame-duck Mexican president Lorenzo Terán provokes the U.S. (and its chief executive, Condoleeza Rice) by formally protesting the presence of American troops in neighboring Colombia, and threatening to follow OPEC’s lead in setting prices for oil shipped north. Mexico’s conduit to the rest of the world—its satellite communication system (which is routed through Miami)—mysteriously goes down. The politically active find they’re able to communicate only by writing letters—and Fuentes’s richly comic premise begins to disclose a teeming little world of interconnected intrigues. Machiavellian beauty María del Rosario Galván schemes to place her handsome, sexually resourceful young “protégé,” Nicolás Valdivia, on “the eagle’s throne” (i.e., Mexico’s presidency, limited by law to a single six-year term). But Nicolás is a front, employed to pave the way for María’s longtime lover, Secretary of State Bernal Herrera. Meanwhile, a former president fidgets in retirement, hungry for a return to power. A yes-man opportunist is set up as a straw man whom Valdivia can easily topple. Truculent General Cícero Arrunza dreams of establishing an efficient military dictatorship. These and other machinations are seen in the contexts of Mexico’s embattled political history (recently scarred by the cruel fate visited on doomed naïf populist candidate Tomás Moctezuma Moro); skeletons hidden in numerous closets; and Nicolás’s inconvenient independence. The world outside spins on, blithely unconcerned (nonagenarian Fidel Castro still thrives in Cuba)—and a Downs Syndrome child, an embarrassment locked safely away from public view, speaks the novel’s poignant final words. Of course, the detailed (often redundant) exchanges of letters are anything but realistic. Still, in a gratifying return to form, Fuentes handles the hoary old convention with impressive finesse.
A nerve-grating cautionary tale, and one of his best books.