Paco Ignacio Taibo II has a bone to pick with history. Why, he wonders, does the course of the Mexican century so rarely make sense? How have a handful of rebellions, bottomless reservoirs of protest and hope, and a pantheon of folk legends left the Mexican people little more than endless corruption? “This country’ll kill you,” a character named Taibo says in the novel Some Clouds (before he himself is killed). “It’ll kill you with corruption, out of boredom, out of meanness, it’ll kill you with hunger, unemployment, with cold, with bullets, it’ll beat you to death.”
Too much a realist to permit himself magical solutions, too honest to pretend that anything less than the supernatural can solve his nation’s problems, Taibo in his best books pulls you into the dreamy nightmare that is modern Mexico, offering pungent insight into what repeated violation has meant and done to the population. He doesn’t just agitate for reform, he makes you smell and taste the absolute necessity for it — the stench of ceaseless official lying, the public yet somehow invisible beatings, the arbitrarily rewritten laws, all of which keep the people down but never entirely underfoot. “Sometimes I’m positive,” one of Taibo’s characters remarks, “that the only thing that really belongs to me is the right to say no.”
Over the past two decades, this novelist, polemicist, anthropologist, biographer and winking pulp fictioneer has spun out more than 30 books, only nine of which have as yet made it into English. He began by writing simpler, more playful fiction: sardonic pomo mystery novels and more serious books that dance lightly around big ideas without plodding into agitprop. But in recent years, Taibo has aimed squarely for the sort of big statements his earlier work sidestepped — a suitably mountainous biography of Ché Guevara, and a number of multiple-storyline, post–Cold War webs of conspiracy.
These “rompecabezas” (“puzzle novels”), as the author terms them, read like hyperspeed Eco. In his 1995 Four Hands, which opens with a drink-sodden Stan Laurel witnessing the assassination of Pancho Villa, Taibo explores American complicity in Latin American misery, but also touches on Houdini’s confessions to his therapist, a series of stultifying graduate-student thesis proposals, a jailed Bulgarian radical’s mental rewriting of famous literature, Trotsky’s unwritten crime novel, and a mine strike in the 1930s — to name only a few subplots. Crammed with passages recalling Calvino, DeLillo, Doctorow, Robert Stone and much of the remaining postmodern canon, books like Four Hands and the likewise multistranded Leonardo’s Bicycle are more often dizzying than pleasurable.
Taibo reads better at more manageable lengths; the intellectual hyperactivity that exhausts over 400 pages can exhilarate in 180. Just Passing Through, newly translated and published by Cinco Puntos Press, asks Taibo’s central questions with economy and wit. An episodic 1986 memoir in which anarchy serves not just as political ideal but as literary principle, the book begins with author’s notes informing the hapless reader that “it would be difficult to describe this work as a novel,” then that “it is obviously a novel,” then wondering “just what the hell is a novel?” Collated from police reports, narrative intervals, memoirs (Taibo pops up again here as a character, almost 30 years before his own birth) and letters, the let’s-call-it-a-novel traces anarchist Sebastián San Vicente’s brief transit through numerous lives in 1920s Mexico, before his apparently permanent disappearance after deportation. San Vicente inspires “young” Taibo to find a profession, teaches gymnastics to strikers, leads riots and tangles his fellow radicals in sheaves of pointless correspondence. Among other pursuits.
Though we’re offered a certain rudimentary narrative, Taibo is really pondering the nature and persistence of revolution itself. At times it seems a communicable dream, “something you have inside you,” as San Vicente tells the author. Yet more often it seems interpersonal, something called into existence only when shared. Leading a mob of locked-out workers in a raid on the bosses’ office, San Vicente chants a mishmash of four centuries’ unrest: “Long live Father Hidalgo!” (the rebel priest whose 1810 protest is considered the beginning of Mexican independence), “Long live Lenin!” and “Let’s kill the Spanish bastards!” (presumably what Aztec emperor Cuauhtémoc would have yelled when leading the last resistance against Cortés). “ABSURD THING WHOLE STORY,” cables one policeman to his superior.
Well, yes. Not simply protest literature, nor the rediscovery of a buried icon, Just Passing Through never pretends to add up neatly. San Vicente slips from the author’s grip just as he slips away from the police. The novel works best when it poses the questions raised by so committed, if not so efficacious, a life. Is it the man or his beliefs that truly deserve rescue? “Could it just be stubbornness that makes him slip out of anonymity? Is it his dogged devotion to principles?” Or was it simply his humanitarian radicalism, “a sensation of intimate affinity, of pleasure,” that makes San Vicente matter? And if so, how far can a politics of that sort take you in Mexico?
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