Imagining power: Carlos Fuentes interviewed

About the authors
Carlos Fuentes is one of Latin America's most prominent men of letters. An essayist and literary historian, as well as the author of numerous screenplays, dramas, and short stories, Fuentes is best known for his novels, which use complex and innovative narrative techniques to probe Mexican history. Born in 1928 in Panama City, the son of a Mexican diplomat, Fuentes was raised in Washington DC, Buenos Aires, Argentina, and Santiago, Chile. He took a law degree from the National University of Mexico, and pursued graduate studies at the Institut des Hautes Ìätudes Internationales in Geneva. Fuentes combined his life as a writer with a successful career in international relations that culminated in being appointed Mexico's ambassador to France in 1975-77; since then he has held distinguished lectureships in England and America, and has been the Robert F. Kennedy Professor of Latin American Studies at Harvard University since 1987. He has received numerous literary awards, including the Cervantes Prize in 1987. Fuentes' major works include: Where the Air is Clearer (1958); The Death of Artemio Cruz (1962); A Change of Skin (1967); Terra Nostra (1975); The Hydra Head (1978); The Old Gringo (1985); and The Campaign (1990).
Isabel Hilton is the editor of chinadialogue.net, and was editor of openDemocracy from March 2005-July 2007. She is a journalist, broadcaster, writer and commentator.

Listen to the full audio interview with Carlos Fuentes, including an edited transcript, plus an extract from his latest novel The Eagle's Throne .

 

Listen to the full interview (15.46)
High bandwidth: 128kbps / Low bandwidth: 64kbps


Part 1: political culture

Isabel Hilton: The Eagle's Throne is an epistolary novel which deals with the drama around the presidency in Mexico. It's a novel which gives rather a bleak view of politics. Now Mexico is in an election year, it's gone through an extraordinary political evolution in the last 10-15 years. Reading The Eagle's Throne, is that really how you see Mexican politics?

Carlos Fuentes recently gave a reading from "The Eagle's Throne" as part of the highly successful "Literature and Talks" season at London's South Bank Centre. Click here to see the current line up of events, which includes Booker prize winner, Ismail Kadare

Carlos Fuentes: Well this is a satire; it is not a truthful portrait of politics. It is a satire and satires are merciless. They do not pardon anyone. There are no heroes in a satire; you have to demolish them all with wit and poison. In that sense it is a political novel because it does describe what in Mexico, and all over the world, passes as nine tenths of politics. Politics is like an iceberg and you see the tiny white cusp that sticks out in the ocean, and there you find statesmen. Many I like and admire. But the nitty gritty that is under the water is treachery, knives in the back, intrigues of all sort. This is common throughout politics. Someone said once that politics is like a pack of dogs. Only the first dog knows why he barks, the rest just follow him. So this is a satirical novel about politics. It does not pretend to be a truthful portrait about the many levels of politics but a satire of the kind that Jonathan Swift or Evelyn Waugh would have written about their own times.

Isabel Hilton: You describe the political culture rather like a prince's court. Everyone is intriguing for personal advancements; there are affairs, hidden motives. Is Mexico more like a court because of its political history?

Carlos Fuentes: Do you think the White House is different? It isn't. I think there is always a court around the man who has power for the time being. I've seen it everywhere. There are some heads of state who have managed to get away from that a bit. The White House right now is one of the closest courts of the world. It's totally self-absorbed, and it does not see what's happening in the outside world at all. It's only concerned with maintaining power for that very small group of people. Next to that the Mexican court is only a village – and an insignificant one.

But it has been a court for a long time for the simple reason that after the 1910 revolution, Mexico developed a political system which meant that no president would ever be re-elected. Our presidential term would only be six years, but during that time the president has absolute power. He's like the heir to Montezuma. After six years, go home buddy, we don't remember you. There's a new sun that has risen, and now adore this sun for six years. It's a very peculiar, cruel system, but it functions that way. In a baroque, perverse way it has benefited the country because no one has been able to stay for more than six years in power. It has finally evolved into a democratic system, in which power is now up for grabs. In the past, Mexico had the best electoral system in world because you know a year in advance who was going to be president. It's not like that now.

Isabel Hilton: It also used to be the quintessential one-man-one-vote because the dedazo appointed the president.

Carlos Fuentes: Yes, the president appointed his successor, and then the new president immediately had to prove his independence by betraying the man who had appointed him – which is part of the story of The Eagle's Throne.

Isabel Hilton: Another theme in the novel is that Mexico is still a dependent country. The device of writing letters, something Mexican politicians normally wouldn't do, is necessary because the whole communications system has been cut off by the United States.

Carlos Fuentes: The communications system depends on a device that hovers over Miami, and the US could cut off Mexico's communications any time it wished. They don't do it because it's not to their benefit, but they could do it. Mexico could be cut off from the world, and that would pose for Mexican politicians a tremendous problem of how to communicate, because they usually communicate in silence, in signs, and nobody writes a letter in Mexico. Here they are forced to. That's the perversity. A Mexican politician says nothing should be left in writing. I have looked for the letters of a politician, and ambassador and been told he didn't leave anything in writing.

Isabel Hilton: But the question of dependency in Mexico?

Carlos Fuentes: I think the Bush administration came in with the conviction that this was going to be a uni-polar system in which they were going to lead the world with no other power looming in the horizon. Bush said they were the last surviving democratic power. Condoleezza Rice said we can dispense with an illusory international community … well, hey, suddenly the international community exists. There are other centres of power – no longer Europe, but China, India, Indonesia and Taiwan. Suddenly there are many poles of power in the world, and this is an opportunity for Latin America to profit – similar to the way we profited in the cold war from the rivalry between the USSR and the US. We were very sad when that ended, and we thought we were going to be totally dependent on the gringos. But now, there are many ways to go, for example Chile, under Ricardo Lagos, has managed to diversify its trade and investment enormously through the pacific basin. We're not that dependent on one power. We can work with more independence in a highly diversified world and suffer the consequences if the Americans get mad.

Isabel Hilton: One of your characters writes that Mexico is good at producing crises which others can solve. Do you think the developments you have been describing alter that in any way?

Carlos Fuentes: Yes. Mexico has to become a more responsible state in the world consulate. It can't get away with murder any more – which it did it for a long time. We played the Americans for a long time by saying we have this crisis on your doorstep, if you don't solve it, you are going to suffer a crisis. So Clinton comes in and gives us billions of dollars. The more responsible and responsive our governments become, it'll be less easy to play that cat-and-mouse game. We were so thankful for the Cuban revolution because it took the pressure of the Americans off us and put it onto Fidel Castro. So we decided that the Cuban revolution was a good thing for us and that we would maintain relations with Castro come hell or high water because it made the Americans nervous. So we always played that American card to our benefit, but now it's going to be more difficult in the coming years. There are going to be more shared responsibilities about the world and a greater degree of independence because of the multi-polarity that seems to be on the cards against the uni-polarity of the US.

Part 2: literary imagination and democracy

Isabel Hilton: I want to ask you about the role of the writer and the role of the novel in political culture. You made a speech recently about Don Quixote as one of the greatest novels of all time, and how it represents a democratisation of space. What do you mean by that?

Carlos Fuentes: With Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes created the modern novel; he gives a voice to so many people and so many spaces. Don Quixote is like a travelogue, you race through the Spain of Philip III – it is a country that is in shambles, its empire is falling apart. Don Quixote is a fantastic novel with such imagination, but people tend to forget that it is about a society sunk in misery and poverty. It is an example of how the literary imagination works at many levels, and also not just condemning a novel to write about only “this” or to remain on a purely social, political or literary level.

Isabel Hilton: But do you think a novel can have a political effect? Can a novel help us to understand politics or to influence politicians?

Carlos Fuentes: Not necessarily. It would be an illusion. It's rare that a novel has directly influenced political events. Charles Dickens had that effect, as did George Orwell. A novel seeps through society quietly and over the long term. Honore de Balzac, for instance, didn't have an immediate political effect, but in the long term made us conceive the bourgeoisie of the 19th century. Marx saw this very clearly, but he had to write first, apply his imagination and create a lasting work of art. This is not denying the immediate effect that John Steinbeck had with The Grapes of Wrath, and the problems of the migrant workers of Oklahoma, but that is unusual. The effect usually takes longer to seep through and depends on the two core literary factors: language and the imagination. The level at which the novel deals with imagination and language is the first obligation. The social consequences, if they come, will come later. Who has achieved this? Emile Zola, yes. Orwell, yes. Marcel Proust? More in doubt.

Isabel Hilton: Then why are writers public voices in Latin America? They speak for people more than politicians and in a more lasting and profound way.

Carlos Fuentes: Absolutely. The simple answer is that there were no other voices, especially as we had to deal with dictatorships, semi-feudal conditions, and illiteracy. It was incumbent on the writer to say what otherwise would not be said; it's what would be left unsaid. Pablo Neruda once said, do you realise we are all carrying the bodies of our countries on our backs? It's a great weight we have. He was right at that moment, but society has evolved. There is freedom of the press, political parties, unions, social organisations – others are taking on the solitary duty of the writer. Thank god! So now, more and more, we participate in the life of our countries as citizens. If you don't do it, nobody is going to demonise you, because if a writer is already working seriously at the level of language and the imagination, he or she is already accomplishing a political mission.

Isabel Hilton: But nevertheless, do you think the writer still has a role in helping to create the democratic imagination?

Carlos Fuentes: Oh yes, absolutely. Simply by writing a good novel that has to do with the life of people, how you relate to language, imagination, your wife, your enemy, the past, the present, and the future, everything that is creating a social consciousness. Take that away and there will be a great void.


 

* * * *

The year is 2020. The Mexican president incurs the wrath of his American counterpart (Condoleezza Rice) by calling for the withdrawal of American troops from Colombia and demanding a higher price for Mexico's oil. Soon after, Mexico's entire satellite communications system, controlled in Miami, is switched off. Suddenly, Mexico is without phone, fax and email. In a country where politicians never put anything in writing, letters are now the only way to communicate. What position does this leave the Mexican President? Will he be able to maintain power on “the Eagle's Throne”?

The following is an extract from “The Eagle's Throne”.

15
Ex-president César León to President Lorenzo Terán

I wish to thank you, President, for the friendship and even the trust you have shown towards me by rescinding the unwritten ban that has kept me out of the country during the years of my “ex-presidency”. Your generosity towards me is proof of your self-confidence. I haven't come to take anything away from you, President. If only your predecessors had said the same. As golden as it may be, exile is always bitter. A man carries out in his heart, his blood, his head. But also in his feet. To be able to set foot on Mexican soil again, President, is the marvellous gift you have given me, and I intend to repay it with gratitude and loyalty.

On that matter, I had come to believe that the proof of my loyalty to you was my silence. Now you, showing an openness that befits you, and in the spirit of mutual loyalty, have asked for my advice.

Imagine what that means to a man like me, showered with adulation one day, only to wake up the next melancholy day and find himself out of office, asking the painful question, “where did all my friends go?”

It was as though I was Gracchus, the noble Roman who ran to the beach thinking that the approaching soldiers had come to free him, only to discover that they were there to kill him. Loyalties can be changed as quickly as coats. The man who was once my friend suddenly became my enemy in the space of half an hour…

Very well, President, since you've asked me to speak frankly, this is my message to you.

Though you won the election, never forget that in the end you'll lose your power.

I know what I'm talking about.

Be prepared.

The victory of becoming President eventually and inevitably gives way to the defeat of becoming the ex-President.

Be prepared.

It takes much more imagination to be ex-President than to be President. This is because you will inevitably leave a problem behind you, and that problem has a name: yours.

Mexico's problems go back centuries. Nobody has ever been able to solve them. But people always blame the country's ills on whoever holds – and above all whoever has just given up – power.

That was my downfall. Perhaps it's not the person but the job that's to blame. How easy it would be to delegate from the first day. But it doesn't work like that. It can't. From the very moment he takes his one voice in Mexico – his own. That was the meaning of the Aztec emperor's name, Tlatoani, Lord of the Great Voice. That is what our position as occupiers of the Eagle's Throne demands of us: to claim the Great Voice. The only voice.

Naturally we have the power to sack an incompetent (or disloyal) minister. But in the end, all responsibility ultimately falls upon the shoulders of the President. Sometimes we're offered champagne. But more often we're forced to drink something bitter. We all hope to be judged not for the errors committed during our last few days in power, but for the likely virtues of the previous six years. Rarely, however, does it work out like that, I warn you with all due respect.


 

Listen to the full interview (15.46)
High bandwidth: 128kbps / Low bandwidth: 64kbps