Two years ago, the masked, pipe-smoking leader of the Zapatista army — Subcomandante Marcos — sent a hand-carried proposal from his jungle headquarters to one of his favorite writers. “El Sup,” as Marcos is called by his admirers, invited Paco Ignacio Taibo II, an internationally celebrated crime-fiction writer, to co-author a mystery novel. But not just a run-of-the-mill whodunit. This one would be written pingpong style, each writer pursuing his own storyline without consultation and the two bound together only by the promise that their respective protagonists would meet up about two-thirds of the way through the book.
Taibo, a devilishly provocative literary anarchist who relishes spurning the cultural establishment, immediately agreed. Within weeks, the chapters came cascading out and started appearing in serial form, as a work in progress, inside the pages of Mexico City’s leftist daily La Jornada (which experienced a 20 percent growth in its Sunday readership as a result). Now translated into English, The Uncomfortable Dead reads as an uproarious, dizzying, purposefully incoherent plunge into the multiple ironies, absurdities and injustices of present-day Mexico.
No one who knows Taibo’s previous work — now spanning several dozen mysteries translated into almost as many languages — really expects to be able to follow his storylines. As with a Handel opera, you dive into a Taibo novel not for the baroque plot but for the all-consuming music. And with El Sup as his sideman, Taibo blasts us with a dissonant take on the wall-to-wall corruption that defines Mexican politics.
Taibo resurrects his trademark Mexico City detective, the lame, one-eyed Hector Belascoaran Shayne, a chain-smoking, weary but relentless gumshoe prone to sailor-level swearing, who — like his creator — is addicted to guzzling industrial-size doses of Coca-Cola. This is more like hallucinatory than magical realism as Shayne pursues the case of a dead ’60s revolutionary, who suddenly appears in the form of rambling, philosophical messages on some bewildered bureaucrat’s answering machine.
Taibo’s grumpy sleuth eventually teams up with El Sup’s lead character, a Zapatista peasant investigator, Elias Contreras, who is sent to the Mexican capital to hunt down a notorious killer named Morales. Oh, yeah, Contreras tells us early on that though he’s narrating the story, he’s already dead. But who’s keeping score? Also appearing in the novel are an entire cast of real-life Mexican pols, several of Taibo’s real-life friends (full disclosure: I appeared as a character in one of his earlier novels), and Subcomandante Marcos writes himself into the storyline as well as a couple of other characters who seem to know that they are, indeed, characters in the book.
The central mystery of the intertwined stories is ostensibly about the brutal treatment of dissidents by the Mexican government during the so-called “dirty war” of the ’60s and ’70s. But in between the plot points, ample license is taken to passionately (and mirthfully) denounce just about everything, from the oppression of Chiapas Indians, massive robbery and extortion by the Mexican state, homophobia, gringos, neoliberal economic policies, encroaching globalization, and homicidal taxicab drivers.
Of the two writers, Taibo is immensely more gifted. He successfully carries off the constant political hammering through the grace and wit of his language, his searing insight into the hypocrisies of Official Power. Marcos, a longtime admirer of Taibo’s chaotic but lyrical prose style, by contrast, achieves only a second-rate imitation of the master. Some of Marcos’ phrasing is too cute by half, and his heavy-handed political rants read like, well, heavy-handed political rants. The Subcomandante’s chapters are further troubled by translator Carlos Lopez’s insufficient attempt to turn narrator Contreras’ peasant dialect into corresponding English slang.
Both writers also diverge radically, and with no final resolution, in their view of a metastasizing Mexico City. From his headquarters in the southern Lacondan jungle, Marcos’ protagonist fumes against the metropolis as “the Monster,” a reeking sewer of debasement. But Taibo’s Shayne — as in his earlier fictional incarnations — is downright mesmerized and entranced by the swirling humanity of the world’s most populous city. As Shayne, hyped up on nicotine and Coke, looks out his window, his first instinct is to recognize a “love-hate” relationship with the sprawling, smog-covered, crime-infested urban mass around him. Upon deeper reflection, he reaches a much different conclusion.
“There is no hatred,” Taibo writes. “Just an immense, infinite sensation of love for this ever-changing city that he lives in and that lives in him, that he dreams of and dreams of him . . . the book stands, the meat tacos, the currents of deep solidarity, the friends at the gas station across the way who always say hello when he passes. It must be that marvelous winter moon. It might be.”
THE UNCOMFORTABLE DEAD | By PACO IGNACIO TAIBO II and SUBCOMANDANTE MARCOS | Akashic Press | 268 pages | $16 paperback