Carlos Fuentes
New York: Farrar Strauss Giroux, 1978
Translated from the Spanish “La cabeza de la hydra" by Margaret Sayers Penden
ISBN # 374-51563-8/0870
292 pages.

Comments by Bob Corbett
October 2005

In Mexico City in the mid-1970s Felix Maldonado’s identity is being stolen. I don’t mean his credit cards, money, bank accounts and such, but his very name and being. His long-term secretary doesn’t know him, the cashier at work refuses to issue him his paycheck. He is no longer Felix Maldonado.

Such a concept is bizarre, and for the first 50 or so pages I had little idea what was going on, just one event seemingly more weird and unintelligible than the next. Had the author been of lesser or little reputation I might have given up and set the book aside. But I had more faith in the name of Carlos Fuentes and stuck with it THIS time. I had actually begun to read the book once about two years ago and gave up during this first section.

I am happy I stuck with it and was treated to one of the most satisfying and intellectually solid espionage thrillers I have ever read. Admittedly it is shorter on violent actions and the super-star heroics of the main character are less exciting than with most such key characters, but the dialogues about the political, social and moral issues surrounding the action are marvelously done.

And now I have to try to say something of this dialogue and action without giving away much of the plot. Not an easy task.

In 1973 Mexico has discovered vast quantities of oil. This immediately attracts international attention and has special consequences on the struggles between Israel and the Palestinians. If Mexico’s oil ends up allied with (meaning controlled by) the U.S. then Israel’s position will be strengthened and the Palestinians cause weakened. If Mexico’s oil is allied with the Arab world the opposite with occur. In either case Mexico’s own self-determination and internal control of its own nation and even its culture will weaken.

Factions abound. The story is told by an anonymous narrator, but it is about Felix Maldonado, an important player, but one quiet uninformed of the whole geo-political, world-historical and moral issues involved. Felix’s powerful motivation is emotional and familial, not of these larger issues.

Carlos Fuentes involves at least five factions in Felix’s story, and in each case we are treated to sophisticated accounts of the justification of the relevant position.

Such bits and pieces of political and historical data are part of virtually all espionage thrillers. What sets this one apart, or rather head and shoulders above the many others I have read is in the sophisticated details and literary quality of those explanations in the capable hands of Fuentes. Secondly, there’s the moral dimension. In ever other such thriller I’ve read there are the bad guys doing evil, the good guys thwarting evil and saving goodness, with some dashing and near superhuman hero winning out. Not so with Fuentes. A line of action we follow throughout is Felix’s personal struggle concerning his own existence – both in the sense of staying alive, but also in maintaining his identify. But on a larger geo-political scale, Fuentes is relatively neutral. If he has a position at all it might be a cynical one – a pox on all your houses, you’ll all against the good of humans on the earth. But that may be too strong.

Two key characters represent Israel, one a decent idealistic woman holocaust survivor who details for us the positive position of and for a peace loving Israel being caught in a life and death struggle it wants to avoid and ends up seeking true peace with the Palestinians. She says:

Help me justify the fact that yesterday’s victims are today executioners.

The other character representing Israel is basically a cynical terrorist who believes violence rules and creates peace for the victorious. This view grows out of his theory of history itself.

A rather sleazy little Arab fellow represents the Palestinian position, but turns out not to be quite as sleazy as we had thought – but a self-interested Mexican.

Two views are presented for radical Mexican nationalism.

What makes these arguments so interesting is the length of explanation, the attention to coupling each with a particular theory of history and the details of moral argument – the most universal feature of each character’s position.

There is another leading character able to see more than one side. He says:

But at the same time I feel there’s an additional element, possibly something tragic because neither side is exclusively right; both sides are right both sides are wrong.

This character is the head of a small and new espionage ring which he hopes will do better than either politics or diplomacy. Yet he is rather cynical about the role of political discourse in all this:

The rule of political discourse is duplicity. That of diplomatic discourse, multiplicity. Espionage is the combination of the two, both double and multiple.

In the end we are even cautioned that espionage has the critical danger of tipping over into terror:

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 finally becomes a cancer that infects the society in which it takes root. All its heroes are reactionaries from Ulysses to James Bond.

I am quite gratified that I not only took up the book once again, and trusted Fuentes enough this time to read on. I’m not sure where the corner turned, but I think it was when the book had set the stage with the bizarre situation of Felix and it began to then open into the geo-political and moral dimensions of the discovery of oil in Mexico.

This book is a marvelous, thought provoking and challenging read.

Bob Corbett


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