Novelist Carlos Fuentes confronts mortality and his country’s future

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

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.”

The front-runner, Lopez Obrador, “has good relations with the United States,” Fuentes said. “His enemies are trying to paint him as a Mexican Chavez. It’s not true. I wouldn’t be afraid of Lopez Obrador. He is surrounded by people I know, and they are among the best people in Mexico.

“I would be afraid of Madrazo, who is a dinosaur of the Jurassic Park of the old PRI.”

It is the chicanery and corruption of Mexico’s old-style political system that animates “The Eagle’s Throne,” which was inspired by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ “Dangerous Liaisons,” though it has echoes of Miguel Angel Asturias’ classic palace intrigue on Guatemalan dictatorship, “El Senor Presidente,” and, Fuentes said, “the story of the emperor who has no clothes.”

Fuentes gives his characters some stellar lines (“No government functions without the grease of corruption”), and some of them (“These imbeciles think success will make them happy”) seem to have the ring of accumulated personal wisdom.

Why is Condoleezza Rice president?

“Why not?” Fuentes said, smiling mischievously. “She has good legs. She can play the piano.”

And if the novel has “nothing to do with the elections,” it seems at times a mocking primer for Mexican electoral realpolitik. One advisor warns the fictional president to “never forget the 1968 massacre” of protesting students carried out by Mexican authorities days before the Mexico City Olympics, which is still a scar on Mexico’s national psyche. “Ignore the students,” the fictional advisor says. “They can keep on occupying the dean’s office until hell freezes over.... All those students brimming with solidarity today will come to their senses and think of their careers tomorrow.”

Fuentes himself traces the end of the ruling party to this infamous massacre of scores of student protesters. “It was the massacre of Tlatelolco that broke the back of [the PRI] in Mexico,” he said.

Historic ghosts have always haunted Fuentes’ fiction. His first published story, “Chac Mool,” written at 21, tells of a man who buys a stone statue of an ancient Mexican rain god but stashes it in the basement. The house slowly floods and the statue comes to life and takes over the house -- a metaphor for the inescapability of Mexico’s pre-Columbian past.

Two of Fuentes’ finest novels, “The Death of Artemio Cruz” and “The Old Gringo,” explore another defining historical touchstone, the Mexican Revolution. The revolution toppled a white elite so archaic, Fuentes laughingly pointed out, that it was once ruled by an imported Habsburg ruler, Maximilian, who was promptly dispatched to a firing squad. The revolution, he said, gave birth to a political system whose broader inclusiveness was a durable base for the ruling party that emerged.

The revolution, Fuentes said, “was a break with the past to recover the past. We were trying to deny we had an Indian and a black and a Spanish past. The Mexican Revolution accepted all heritages. It allowed Mexico to be mestizo.”

Fuentes himself has a foothold in more than one world. He was born in Panama in 1928 to a Mexican diplomat who would take his family to Chile, the United States and Europe. He spent his summers in Veracruz with his grandmother, and “the wealth of the stories they told me there lasted a lifetime.”

In Washington, he watched his father negotiate with the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration when Mexican President Lazaro Cardenas nationalized Mexico’s oil industry, triggering outrage among U.S. industrialists and, Fuentes said, “making me suddenly very unpopular at school.”

“Cardenas was a good president,” Fuentes said. “He liberated the peasantry.”

In the early 1960s, Fuentes was denied a visa to the United States under the McCarren-Warren Act after he praised the Cuban Revolution. He said he was flattered that his name was on a lookout list that became a virtual immigration VIP lounge, with literati like Graham Greene and Garcia Marquez.

“We were the privileged few,” Fuentes said. “It was ridiculous. Can you imagine me coming to this country to blow up a post office? I told them, ‘My bombs are my books.’ ”

At this point, he believes Fidel Castro’s Cuba “has taken the form of a personal dictatorship. There has to be an evolution,” he said. “Cuba is in a state of economic standstill. It could produce so much. But it does not.”

However, he added quickly, “I oppose the American policy to Cuba. It is a failure. It has given [Castro] an excuse to stay in power. The United States has created Fidel Castro.”

It’s not his only critique of the United States: Today, he criticizes proponents of the get-tough policy on immigration. He says the “illegal” war on Iraq has brought the country “to the brink of civil war, if not actually a civil war.”

Such opinionated engagement is still essential to Fuentes, who was already an established novelist in 1975 when his critically acclaimed novel “Terra Nostra” seemed to be part of a new groundbreaking regional genre. He said it was Jose Donoso who coined the term “El Boom” for the new Latin American literature that would be known for such works as Garcia Marquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude.”

“Suddenly, we had a tradition,” Fuentes said. “Latin America was still a continent of illiteracy. The great weight of our generation was to write the histories that had not been written. There were tyrannies. The novelists of today do not have that obligation.”

Stylistically too, the Latin American novel has diverged into a number of different writing styles, such as “El Crack,” Mexico’s new realism.

“You can’t be a magic realist after Garcia Marquez,” Fuentes said. “He made it such a jewel of a style that anyone else will be seen as an imitator.”

Fuentes has been married before, to Mexican actress Rita Macedo, who acted for Luis Bunuel. They had a daughter, Cecilia, and though the marriage ended, Fuentes’ friendship with Bunuel lasted for years.

After the breakup, Fuentes had a two-month affair with American actress Jean Seberg, who would later be found dead in her car after an FBI smear campaign that would become the subject of his book “Diana, the Goddess Who Hunts Alone.”

“She was so fragile,” Fuentes said of Seberg. “She had to demonstrate her strength through causes that gave her strength, like the Black Panthers. She was a delicate creature.”

He met his current wife when she interviewed him for Mexican television, and “it’s been an interview a day ever since,” he said, adding: “It’s such a modern way of coming together. It wouldn’t have happened in the 19th century.” They married in 1973.

In his book “This I Believe,” he describes Lemus as the ballast of his life. “If all the women that I have loved were summed up in one, the only woman that I have loved forever would sum up all the rest. They are the stars. Sylvia is the galaxy itself.”

The book was dedicated to their son, Carlos, who was born in Paris while Fuentes was Mexico’s ambassador to France. Carlos began to develop mottling on his legs when he was taking his first steps, signaling the onset of hemophilia. After he died in 1999, a book of his poems was published in France and Spain, Fuentes said, and he had art exhibitions in Warsaw, Madrid, Barcelona and Paris, demonstrating “quite a body of paintings for his short age.”

Natasha, his late daughter, who was deeply affected by her brother’s death, shared his interest in writing and was also interested in acting, Fuentes said.

Mexican newspapers reported that Natasha was found dead of cardiac arrest on a Mexico City street in late August.

A few days later, on a rainy night, Lemus, Fuentes and his older daughter gathered at the colonial church in the Plaza Santo Domingo and bid Natasha farewell at a crowded service of 400 attended by Garcia Marquez and his wife, Mercedes Barcha, the Mexican intellectual Carlos Monsivais and Mexican economist Jesus Silva Herzog, according to one newspaper account.

Silvia said she had found it impossible to work for five months after her daughter’s death but finally began again in a trip to South Africa, interviewing Nobel Prize-winning author Nadine Gordimer.

For now, the couple is immersing themselves in travel. When they come to Los Angeles for an appearance at Disney Hall on Thursday, they are looking forward to meeting with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. In June, Fuentes said, he will return to Los Angeles for an award ceremony at the invitation of directors Steven Spielberg and George Lucas.

This week, the couple traveled to Miami for a special forum of intellectuals and political players like former Spanish Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez, as well as businessmen, who Fuentes thinks should be drawn into a dialogue with intellectuals.

In “The Eagle’s Throne,” Fuentes writes that astute businessmen “know better than anyone that poverty is the worst investment of all and that a starving peasant can’t buy food in the supermarket or clothes at the local Benetton.”

That reflects what Fuentes views as Mexico’s great challenge today: “to develop half the country. Fifty percent of the population is outside the economy. In 1920 we had 13 million and 50% were poor. In 1950 we had 30 million and half were poor. Today we have 100 million and half are poor. We have to extend economic benefits to the people. We need an economy that rises from the bottom up.”

In the end, as Fuentes and his wife struggle with the finite dimensions of mortality, “The Eagle’s Throne” has a lesson more than a few places can take notice of: No matter which candidate gets the most votes, the country’s political culture is often the winner.

“Democracy is a newborn child in Mexico,” Fuentes said.

“But Mexico has cultural continuity, from the Mayans until today. This is our strength.”