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 19302 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. Read more