Taibo’s best answer to these and his other essential questions (such as: Why should anyone even bother?) is the 12-volume series of Hector Belascoarán Shayne detective novels, four of which (An Easy Thing, Some Clouds, No Happy Ending and Return to the Same City) have been translated. Wild and sad, despairing and hilarious, these part-farcical, part-serious books read like Raymond Chandler rewritten by Borges.
So popular in Mexico that Taibo was forced to bring his hero back from the dead for Return to the Same City(though without explanation — “Don’t ask me how and when”), the Shayne series pays recognizable homage to the American canon — Hector has an ex-wife, is given to mournful late-night trips around the city he adores and despises, and runs a private-eye agency. Yet like a growing cadre of writers from outside the U.S. (French detective novelist-pranksters Jean Echenoz and Daniel Pennac, Spanish meta-novelist Arturo Perez-Reverte, among others), Taibo takes only what he needs from the hard-boiled tradition and discards the rest. Hector wears “a denim suit that [makes] him look more like a social anthropologist than a detective,” is more often victimized by an entire edifice of corruption than able to solve the case, and sometimes even wishes he were just a fictional character: “If this were a mystery novel, it would all have become clear to him.”
The best of these books, No Happy Ending and Return to the Same City, continually twist back on themselves, admitting and undercutting their status as fiction and never developing in the direction you expect. A wild-eyed melancholy pervades their vision of hope renewed: How long can the popular will endure during this latest surge of democracy? Will it be enough to sustain any permanent change? In No Happy Ending, Hector finds a dead Roman gladiator in his office, a clue that leads him to a dead stuntman and back (as always) to government-sponsored repression. Chaos isn’t the existential condition it was for Dashiell Hammett, but a deliberate political achievement, one Hector decides he might as well try to correct. Yet true to its title, No Happy Ending turns out quite badly for him.
Return to the Same City is set during the rise of reform candidate Cuahtémoc Cardenas in 1988. Somewhat puzzled by his own resurrection, Hector nevertheless ends up on the tail of a Didionesque operative named Luke Estrella, who seems to be organizing some variety of nefarious guns-for-drugs deal that will also torpedo the reform campaign. Bringing the case to a blaring finish with a shoot-’em-up among Mexican gangsters, American drug-runners and an enormous mariachi band Hector has hired (a conclusion somehow no more unbelievable than his detailed recounting of organized police corruption), Taibo envisions the lunatic apocalypse that seems the only possible escape from Mexico’s morass. If it ever comes, the only redemption he can honestly imagine for his country will arrive dressed in clown makeup.
At his most tangled a creator of playrooms for politically conscious brainiacs, at his cleanest and best a mordant political comic, Taibo rubs American readers’ exotic south-of-the-border fantasies in the dust of betrayal. Yet his despairing humanism unearths nuggets of hope in a conversation, an evening’s chat, a spontaneous crowd reaction. He listens hard for the music of daily life, the sound of survival pulsing beneath the loud drumrolls of official pronouncements: a revolution you can dance to.
JUST PASSING THROUGH | By PACO IGNACIO TAIBO II | Cinco Puntos Press | 170 pages | $22 hardcover
FOUR HANDS | St. Martin’s Press | 378 pages | $13 paperback
LEONARDO’S BICYCLE | Mysterious Press | 464 pages | $22 hardcover
RETURN TO THE SAME CITY | Mysterious Press | 178 pages | $20 hardcover
GUEVARA, ALSO KNOWN AS CHÉ | St. Martin’s Press | 691 pages | $35 hardcover, $18 Griffin paperback
DE PASO | Planeta Pub Corp | $13 Spanish-edition paperback
LA BICICLETA DE LEONARDO | Planeta Pub Corp | $15 Spanish-edition paperback
DíAS DE COMBATE | AudioLibros del Mundo | $10 audiocassette