Born under the sign of the eagle

CARLOS Fuentes, Mexico's most famous author, elder statesman and a writer who prefigured the Latin American literary boom, laughs softly to himself. "You know the most amusing programme on British television?" he asks above the din in a London bar. "It's the House of Commons - I never miss that."

Fuentes, whose political friendships range from Bill Clinton to the late Franois Mitterrand, knows all too well what goes on behind the theatrical faade of the Westminster village. A former diplomat, Fuentes has been no stranger to political controversy himself, once denied an entry visa to the US after being banned as an "undesirable".

The hardscrabble, bare-knuckle fight for power is the primitive pulse that runs through his latest novel, The Eagle's Throne. Set 14 years into the future when the US has cut off Mexico's telecommunications systems in retaliation for an increase in oil prices, his politicians are forced to commit their thoughts and opinions to paper. Through the correspondence between powerful players, including a former president, the mistress of the presidential adviser, the finance minister, a party hack, her lover and her bisexual protg, the Machiavellian maze of contemporary politics is exposed in all its bitter glory.

This is Fuentes at his satirical best, mixing political wisdom, biting wit and poignant self-realisation. President Lorenzo Tern is ending his term, and as his political opponents and loyal friends jockey for power, they reveal their naked self-interest. As Xavier 'Seneca' Zaragoza writes to Tern: "Now that I see you in the throes of death, now I truly understand that a president is neither born nor bred. He's the product of a national illusion - or perhaps a collective hallucination."

Fuentes argues that the hallucination results from the Mexican revolutionary political system that required each president to serve for a single six-year term. Fuentes' outgoing president was all-important, loved and revered while in power, but is hated afterwards. Business colleagues, political supporters and loyal friends have to cover all traces of their relationship with the president in order to ensure favour with his successor. Hence the popular Mexican adage that a politician's true mark is that he never leaves anything in writing, so there are neither proper archives nor a tradition of political memoirs, says Fuentes.

Instead, politicians have developed an elaborate system of sign language which Fuentes reproduces in his character of the old president who lives out his retirement in the seaside resort of Veracruz, playing dominoes and pulling strings off-stage. When Mara del Rosario Galvn sends her protg Nicols Valdivia for a visit to the ex-president, he describes this language of gestures; a finger to his earlobe indicates a need for silence; hands covering the eyes mean don't remember this; an index finger tugging at an eyelid, keep your eyes open; a raised eyebrow, don't let this man pull the wool over your eyes.

The old man's character is based on a former president whom Fuentes would often visit. "He was the best president we had, a very intelligent man," he says. "This figure represents largesse but he's very conscious that no one really takes him seriously."

Elsewhere in The Eagle's Throne, Fuentes draws figures from real life with references to his friends past and present, surrealist film director Luis Buuel, Susan Sontag and Chilean novelist Isabelle Allende.

BORN IN PANAMA City in 1928, the son of a Mexican diplomat, Fuentes has had a cosmopolitan existence and learned early on how to negotiate different cultures. While living in Washington DC where his father was ambassador, Fuentes, at the age of seven, created his own magazine, carefully illustrated in crayon, and passed it round his neighbours in his apartment building. "It was returned to me very smartly, unread." Undaunted, when the family moved to Santiago, Chile, Fuentes had his first short story published. "I started writing forever - I never liked doing anything else," he says.

His first novel was published in 1958, and by 1965 both The Death of Artemio Cruz and his controversial gothic novella, Aura, had been translated into English. Aura, which touched on themes of sexual fantasy, infertility and magic, so shocked a government minister in Mexico City that he sacked the teacher who had taught it at his daughter's convent school.

Undaunted, Fuentes went on to become a leading figure in the new Latin American writing which became popular throughout Europe and North America in the 1960s and '70s.

Despite Fuentes' allegiance to Mexico, he has lived abroad for much of his life; now he and his second wife, Sylvia Lemus, divide their time between homes in London and Mexico City.

He went to a British boarding school in Chile between the ages of 11 and 15, where there was porridge for breakfast and calisthenics in the chill Andean winds. "When the headmaster announced Montgomery's victory in North Africa, we all threw our caps in the air and shouted, hip-hip-hooray, hip-hip-hooray," Fuentes says. "Very English." There, he made life-long friendships. "We were 11 or 12 young men who were interested in literature but very bad at sports and so we used to get together in the sports hour and discuss books."

Chile is his second country, says Fuentes, and when Pinochet became president after a military coup, he railed against his injustices. "Pinochet was one of the worst characters we ever had in our Latin American history," he says. "He was not only a criminal and a killer, but a crook. He sent all these bags of money to a bank in Washington so that he was a millionaire. He was one of the most sinister characters - a monster, an absolute monster."

Although he has never run for office like his friend, Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, a colleague has described Fuentes as "an independent political voice with an instinct for social justice".

And now, with Mexico facing its first presidential elections this summer under a newly reformed system, Fuentes is quietly anxious about the future.

"We're in the turbulent waters of an elected principality. It's much more dangerous than having this traditional 70-year-old system which was a great umbrella that covered everyone from the Marxists to the right-wing capitalists," Fuentes says. "Now there's nothing holding it together except democracy."

Fuentes writes that Mexico is a nation in search of a symbol. As the ex-president tells Nicholas, "cheated, lost, corrupted, this country can only be saved if it finds the symbol that can deliver it the promise of new hope".

And for all the ugly corruption in which these characters deal, in Fuentes' fictional universe they ultimately face the consequences of their actions. "No matter how evil and sinister they may be," says Fuentes, "they finally have to reach the end of the dark tunnel which is their fate."

The Eagle's Throne, Bloomsbury, 15.99