Fuentes, Carlos (Vol. 13)
Fuentes, Carlos 1928–
A Mexican novelist, playwright, short story writer, screenwriter, essayist, and critic, Fuentes creates prose noted for its innovative language and narrative technique. His concern for affirming a viable Mexican identity is revealed in his use of the history and legends of the Mexican past, from the myths of the Aztecs to the Mexican Revolution, which he uses allegorically and thematically in his narratives. (See also CLC, Vols. 3, 8, 10, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 69-72.)
Carlos Fuentes, Mexico's most versatile novelist, has looked the spy novel in the eye and produced a controversial world-class thriller. The Hydra Head reads as though it has been freshly minted out of the turmoil and subterranean intrigue of current world affairs….
[The] reader scarcely need suspend a single breath of willing disbelief. The CIA, the Israeli spy service, undercover Arab operatives and the ingenious but untested Mexican secret agents, sometimes in the person of the same (double or triple) operatives, clash violently in these intriguingly plotted pages….
Fuentes skillfully conducts the reader through these wonderfully intricate narrative maneuvers, flying us from an intensely rendered Mexico City to Houston …, to Galveston, Coatzacoalcos, and back again to Mexico City in the company of the confused but credible Maldonado and a cast of menacing but attractive villains. Fuentes, however, is more than just the Ian Fleming of underdevelopment. In addition to creating the familiar atmosphere of compelling duplicity that characterizes the best of this variety of writing, he works another series of changes on the fictive motifs that have marked his literary career from the beginning: the ambiguous burden of social class among the Latin American bourgeoisie; the terrors of multiple personality and the masks of consciousness; and the struggle between conquerors and conquered in the dark night of the Mexican soul.
The Hydra Head is thus a tour de force, but unlike, say, Borges's detective fictions, beneath its impeccable surface lurks serious social content that adds incomparably to its intensity as narrative. Like Graham Greene in his "entertainments" and Gore Vidal in his science fiction, Fuentes has sounded his major obsessions in a minor key. The fence between fancy and imagination comes down while the charge that electrifies still remains in the air. (p. 39)
Alan Cheuse, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1978 The New Republic, Inc.), December 23 & 30, 1978.
Early on in ["The Hydra Head"] an elevator attendant looks, as if for the first time, at the design on a Mexican peso—the eagle strangling the serpent. Toward the end, the narrator fantasticates the image in the service of explaining what the secret agent's trade is all about. The serpent is a hydra, and the agent is but one head of the hydra. Cut off that head and a thousand will replace it. The eagle is two-headed. "One head is called the CIA and the other the KGB. Two heads, but only one body. Almost the Holy Trinity of our age…. In serving one head we serve the other and vice-versa. There's no escape. The Hydra of our passions is trapped in the talons of the bicephalous eagle."
Or, put it another way,… the secret agent is trapped in a Manichean system in which there is an opposition of X and Y but not of good and evil. In dedicating his book to the memories of Conrad Veidt, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre and Claude Rains, Carlos Fuentes half lulls us into the expectation of a mere thriller, and the movie-buffery of the hero, Felix Maldonado, confirms that we ought not to expect much more than blood, the chase, the pedantic loquacity of Greenstreet villains. But the setting is a contemporary Mexico City drawn with the pencil of rage, and the issue is Mexican oil: "Like the Hydra, the oil is reborn, multiplied, from a single severed head…."
Dr. Fuentes is a distinguished writer, and distinction resides even in the mandatory scenes of violence, the enforced plastic surgery that robs [the protagonist] Felix of his identity, the philosophical expatiations (complete with quotations from Gide and Kirkegaard) we now expect from our distinguished villains, the ridiculous coincidences, the Greene-type observations: "The Indians, so handsome in the lands of their origin, so slim and spotless and secret, in the city became ugly, filthy, and bloated by carbonated drinks."
Perhaps the true distinction of the novel resides in its having forever dispensed with the possibilities of the spy thriller as a serious form.
Anthony Burgess, "Mexican Thriller," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 7, 1979, p. 11.
Donald A. Yates
Fuentes has a background in international politics and a political commitment that, traditionally, few North American writers bring to their work. Moreover, he is the author of the broad-canvas account of the Mexican experience, Where the Air Is Clear (1959), and the brilliant Death of Artemio Cruz (1962), one of the finest Mexican novels of our time. Possibly, there is no other writer who so accurately perceives the Mexican character, as well as the international role that the nation is likely to play in coming decades.
So when he undertakes to write a fictional account of the "first adventure of the Mexican secret service," one cannot fail to take note of his uncommon credentials. In fact, the great merit of The Hydra Head is that Fuentes has raised a popular literary form—the espionage novel—to the level of high art. He has done this through his inspired, always incisive evocation of Mexico on the point of emerging as one of the great oil-producing nations of the world.
The novel deals, quite simply, with a plot to keep the recently discovered and extensive Mexican oil reserves for the Mexicans—away from the encroaching demands of the U.S., and away from economic entanglements with Arab and Israeli oil interests. (pp. 1, 3)
A powerful reality occupies the center of The Hydra Head: the discovery of the Mexican petroleum fields at about the time of the Arab oil...
(The entire section is 492 words.)
Reverend James M. Murphy
For a legion of reasons [The Hydra Head] was both difficult to read and hard to put down. Should it be raised to the cinema screen, only a Fellini or a Kubrick could direct it and for only an audience in a narcotized high. This reviewer neither enjoyed the book nor could find himself capable of a favorable review.
The problems are many: the writing style; the arrangement of the book; the constant, though not clever, shift of character from one charade to another and from one place to another. Kafkaesque, maybe, but should Kafka write a spy story for today's clientele?…
Things are never what they seem to be and why never makes sense. The text jumps not merely with "Alice in Wonderland" quotes but with the unreality of Alice's world itself….
Though the book purports to be a spy story and an assassination thriller, it truly is a long nightmare, one experienced after a rich meal mixed with wine. Fuentes is no Le Carré, Graham Greene or Forsyth. As the title suggests, all is many headed and so will be the average espionage addict at the end!
Why did I write in the beginning that the book was hard to put aside? Because I could not wait to finish it! (p. 385)
Reverend James M. Murphy, in Best Sellers (copyright © 1979 Helen Dwight Reid Educational Foundation), March, 1979.
Fuentes's meta-thriller [The Hydra Head] takes the Arab-Israeli conflict as its paradigm of political dirty tricks; Mexican oil-fields, Mexican men and their passions are no more than the organisms on which violation and revenge feed. However many heads the human Hydra grows, 'the two-headed eagle laughs and devours' them.
This double-headed eagle—America/Russia—may be the final control on Felix, The Hydra Head's 'unconscious hero', but it takes him a long, convoluted journey to find it out. A Mexican convert to Judaism, bearing an uncanny resemblance to Diego Velasquez, Felix one day steps out of a taxi full of hidden assignations and into a lost identity. No one in his office at the Ministry of Economic Affairs knows who he is. The parallel with Kafka, though, is fleeting: Fuentes shares something of the bite of K's narrative, but offers more fierce gusto—as well as more sex. (p. 334)
The Hydra Head is gripping, not least because of its sharply focused political discussions, whose dialectic is reminiscent of The Magic Mountain. (p. 335)
Victoria Neumark, in New Statesman (© 1979 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), March 9, 1979.