Every so often, driven by an inexplicable yearning, I go straight to one of my bookshelves and pull down a book I haven’t read in years. Last week, the book I seemed to need was Carlos Fuentes’ 1978 novel The Hydra Head (Farrar Straus Giroux). I had vague recollections of a complex and sinister spy story that involved Mexican petro-politics and the Arab-Israeli conflict. But what I remembered more distinctly from my reading and re-reading of that book some thirty years ago was an abrupt and almost shocking shift from third-person narrative to first-person. I was curious to read the book again and see how I reacted this time around.
The political backdrop of The Hydra Head is the aftermath of the 1973 Yom Kippur War and the 1973 oil crisis caused by the oil embargo imposed by the Organization of Arab Oil Exporting Countries. Fuentes framed his book around two distinctive and contrasting literatures: the plays of Shakespeare and the noir novels and films of the 1930s and 40s. Tellingly, the book is dedicated to the memory of Conrad Veldt, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, and Claude Rains – four of the more compromised characters in the 1942 classic movies Casablanca.- and not to the film’s triumphant but tragic heroes Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart. Everybody in The Hydra Head is compromised and duplicitous in their own way, whether in their politics, their marital infidelities, their allegiances, or their abuse of power, privilege and class – including the main character Felix Maldonado, a former specialist in Mexico’s petroleum industry who is now a mid-level bureaucrat in the Office of Economic Development. Before long, needless to say, a naively over-confident Maldonado (his name means, more or less, “ill-favored) is swept up in a ever-shifting plot full of violence and intrigue. Portions of the dialogue are written in a pastiche of “tough-guy” conversation right out of Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler or Casablanca, and it is clear that, for Fuentes, Mexico City seemed an ideal 1970s counterpart to the seedy ambitions of wartime Casablanca. But when Maldonado confers briefly on the telephone with his handler, the coded language they speak is a series of quotations from Shakespeare.
The novel begins with an omniscient third-person narrator who writes with immense precision and full insights into the mind of Felix Maldonado. Here’s the book’s opening:
At exactly 8 a.m. Felix Maldonado arrived at the Sanborns on Madero. Years had passed since he had set foot inside the famous House of Tiles. It had gone out of style like all of downtown Mexico City, the historic center Hernán Cortés had ordered built upon the ruins of the Aztec capital after personally drawing up the plans. This was in Felix’s mind as he pushed the wood-and-glass revolving door, made a full turn, and emerged again into the street. He felt guilty about arriving late for an appointment.
Ninety pages later and deep into a plot that may or may not have have involved an assassination attempt by Maldonado on the President of Mexico, Maldonado enters a room he mysteriously rents at the Hilton hotel, and we read:
The clerk accompanied him to room 906, and Felix packed a light suitcase with several articles of clothing, toilet things, and traveler’s checks. He flipped through the checks: each bore the signature of Felix Maldonado in the upper left-hand corner. The he dialed a number. As he heard my voice, Felix said…”
Even though I knew it was coming, I still found myself unsettled by the sudden appearance that phrase “my voice,” which hints for the first time that the narrator is actually a character in the novel and not an omniscient voice speaking on behalf of Carlos Fuentes. For the next 125 pages the narrator toys with the reader. He or she (we don’t know anything at all about the apparent narrator at that point) disappears into omniscient narration most of the time, but the occasional “I” or “me” pops up to remind us that the narrator is a body and not an ethereal construct. It isn’t until page 215 that the “I” of the narrator steps fully onto the page and explains.
I have written the most accurate report possible of everything Felix Maldonado told me during the week he spent recuperating at my home. I have imposed a certain order, for he told his story the way memory works, in disjointed fragments. Felix’s memory, as he had already told me over the telephone, had certain rights. And mine as well.
Why, I wondered, was this narrational shift so unsettling, even when I knew it was coming? Partly because we so quickly give ourselves over the the voice and the world view of the narrator – no matter what kind of narrator it might be. The history of the novel is, of course, littered with examples of one narration embedded within another. There are narrators who “discover” manuscripts and then let us read them. And there are narrators like the one in W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, for example, who relate to us a story told to them by someone else. But Fuente’s deft handling of the dual narration in The Hydra Head forces us to go back and forth between an omniscient third-person narrator and a first-person narrator – and thus shows us the radical differences between the two.
Surely the clearest example of this occurs on page 111, when the two narrators momentarily collide. Maldonado returns to his hotel room where he listens to a recording left behind by Sara Klein, the woman he has loved for years, in spite of their both being married to others. Sara had been murdered that morning but left behind a recorded message for Maldonado. The omniscient narrator describes at some length Maldonado’s pain at listening to the record.
For a moment he held the record in his hands, poised delicately as if it were a crown without a head to rest on. Then he put it in his suitcase. He mustn’t leave a single trace; the less evidence, the better. He walked to the telephone…
When he heard that the phone had been picked up and that I was waiting silent on the line, he said, “When shall we meet again?”
The reader is suddenly thrust into a curious position of seeing the narrator on the phone speaking to Maldonado, who is in a hotel room at a completely different location, and yet the narrator can tell us every single thing that Maldonado does and thinks while conversing with him over the phone. And this is when is becomes utterly clear that the two forms of narration are traditionally mutually exclusive. The omniscient narrator can see and know everything (or at least as much as the author wishes him or her to know), but the narrator who has a physical presence and speaks to another character via the telephone should not have an unfettered view of what the other person does and thinks. Only when Fuentes forces us to see through the “eyes” of two different types of narrators simultaneously do we realize how powerful, subtle, and invisible these simple literary conventions are.
Even after considerable shelf time, The Hydra Head was still great fun to read. It’s not usually viewed as one of Fuente’s more important books, but it’s nevertheless full of inventive, erudite writing about topics that remain relevant today. Fuentes, who served as a diplomat, had only scorn for the hall of mirrors that calls itself the “intelligence service,” no matter which country it purports to represent. With every twist and turn in the book’s convoluted plot, with each successive unmasking of a spy to reveal his “true” identity, the competing national interests that play out in The Hydra Head are shown to be more and more identical, more and more inhuman and despicable. And this makes Fuente’s book, written some thirty-eight years ago, oddly prescient in light of what Edward Snowden has revealed.
Terror is universal, justice is not. Every intelligence organization, however it might strive toward the goal of justice, is perverted by its means – terror – and finally it becomes the servant of oppression, not the instrument of justice it set out to be. A tiny cell of fascistic structure, espionage, which is intended to protect society, becomes a cancer that infects the society in which it take root.