Analysis of Carlos Fuentes’s The Hydra Head

As a major literary figure and significant contributor to not only literature of the developing world but to world literature in general, Carlos Fuentes  (1928–2012 ) is a vital literary tour de force, providing the world outside of Latin America with important insight into Mexico’s political and social milieu. A forerunner of the earliest stages of the Latin American literary boom—the sudden prominence of Latin American writers and their works in the 1960s—Fuentes explicates Mexico’s political, societal, and cultural makeup by focusing on the development and definition of Mexican national identity. The Hydra Head is a political spy thriller about the tensions between the Middle East and Mexico’s newly discovered oil reserves, involving the ineptness of a wellmeaning but less-than-capable man of mystery and intrigue, Félix Maldonado.

Some critics have argued that The Hydra Head is probably better as a film than as a novel. The protagonist is perhaps too much of a failure to carry out his prescribed role, one that calls for stealth, intelligence, and streetwise common sense. Some critics also argue that The Hydra Head cannot be regarded as serious fiction because it is a spy novel, a genre typically regarded as noncanonical and, therefore, unlikely material for serious study.

Although The Hydra Head has many factors distinguishing it as a espionage thriller, Fuentes does not remain completely faithful to the genre. In a classic spy novel, most crimes committed usually end up resolved, questions do not remain unanswered, and story lines are neatly culminated into compact resolutions. In The Hydra Head, however, several incidents, most notably Sara Klein’s murder, are never solved.

Carlos Fuentes / Daniel Aguilar—Reuters/Newscom

The novel is dedicated to four Hollywood actors: Conrad Veidt, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, and Claude Rains. Each actor is memorialized by the roles they played in the American iconic film Casablanca (1942). It is interesting to note that Casablanca can be interpreted as a political allegory; some of the main characters in the fi lm are tested by the political climate of World War II. In general, major characters in Casablanca evolve and change for the better. However, Fuentes, staying true to form, juggles with opposing forces of existence. In the case of The Hydra Head, the extremes range between good and evil, between anonymity and a strong sense of self, between corruption and honesty. And as with the majority of his books, Fuentes is concerned with power structures.

Fuentes’s ruminations regarding the political, national, moral, and cultural circumscribe most of the action in the novel. A major source of this kind of multifaceted dialogue concerns Mexico’s newly discovered oil reserves. Suddenly, Mexico becomes a brand-new force to be reckoned with in the theater of world economics. At the same time, the country also risks losing its sense of autonomy if it allows itself to become involved in the dangerous global game of oil deals. In The Hydra Head, power struggles between the Israeli and Arab nations regarding control over Mexico’s oil reserves are important. In other novels, Fuentes makes definite demarcations between opposites or extremes, but in The Hydra Head he somewhat skews what could be defined as definitive hero and villain archetypes. For example, Félix Maldonado is bumbling, unsophisticated, hotheaded, and unassuming; however, he is passionate. Genuinely concerned with ideals of nationalism, he thinks it would be beneficial to his country if control over oil reserves remains in Mexico.

Although Félix’s nationalism is clearly evident, his individual identity is not. Because he is unable to control opposing and infl uential forces, his own individuality becomes skewed; in fact, his identity is completely eradicated, and a new one is given to him. The plastic surgery on Félix’s face is perhaps the most obvious symbol of an existential disregard for individual identity. In this way Fuentes alludes to Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens, where heroic ideals are neither revered nor fully realized.

The mythical monster in the title of the novel, the hydra, is the nine-headed monster from Greek mythology. It symbolizes the inability of each character to control both his emotions and the incidents revolving around the characters; this is significant because oil has the power to make a country self-destruct. Since moderation and foresight are necessary in order to maintain control of oil, the question of whether or not Mexico is equipped to handle such an important undertaking is also symbolized by the Greek monster. Because oil symbolizes wealth, power, prestige, and control, these factors attract negative human factors, such as greed, corruption, and shortsightedness. Mexico’s position in the world theater of power plays teeters on the precipice of massive success and a legacy of corruption. However, oil is also regarded as only one part to a whole—only one part of the hydra, the monster representing power and wealth. Should the hydra lose one of its nine heads, it is immediately replaced. This cycle of destruction and construction is perpetuated by the sometimes dangerous passion driving whoever and whatever controls this significant global resource.

The Hydra Head is much more than a genre-driven spy thriller: It engages such topics as metaphysics, existential realities, and the issue of a Third World country with the capacity and the means to provide great economic promise to future generations. However, contemporary world geopolitics and the corruption it invariably brings represent Fuentes’s belief that there must always be balance in the world. As a result, Fuentes’s own preoccupation with Mexican national identity is regarded as somewhat of a cliché: The issue of identity is not seen individually in the characters; rather, each one represents a singular part to a collective identity.

The Hydra Head, therefore, is a novel examining a developing world country suddenly thrust into the theater of developed world politics as it tries to ensure its own wealth, control, and power. The characters, however, soon discover that this is a risky endeavor with little to no guarantee of the country’s social, cultural, or political survival.

Aguilar, Georgina Garcia-Gutierrez, ed. Carlos Fuentes desde la crítica. Buenos Aires: Altea, Taurus, Alfaguara, 2001.
Brody, Robert, and Charles Rossman, eds. Carlos Fuentes: A Critical View. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1982.
Gonzáles Alfonso. Carlos Fuentes: Life, Work, and Criticism. Boston: York, 1987.

Categories: Latin American Literature, Literature, Novel Analysis

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