When I decided to tackle the extremist level of the 2010 Global Reading Challenge I had to put my own detective skills to the test to find a title that would count for North America that wasn’t set in Canada or the US. Eventually I stumbled upon this mysteries in foreign lands website and learned about some Mexican mystery writers, of whom Paco Ignacio Taibo II is the most prolific and influential.
Firstly I should point out that this book actually has dual authors as half the chapters are written by Subcommandante Marcos who is the leader of the Zapatista National Liberation Army in Mexico (the Zapatistas have, since the mid 1990’s, fought in primarily non-violent ways for the rights of indigenous people and against the economic globalisation policies of the Mexican government).
The usual plot synopsis with which I start my reviews is almost impossible to provide in this instance. The chapters alternate between Marcos’ story and Taibo’s. Marco’s chapters are narrated by a variety of characters including Elias Contreras, a detective in the Zapatista movement and who investigates missing persons cases (among other things) and a gay Filipino mechanic with a skinhead haircut. Taibo’s chapters feature his most well-known character: independent (private) detective Héctor Belascoarán Shayne who is asked by a ‘progressive official’ to look into some messages being left on his answering machine by a man he once knew but whom he believes died in 1969. Eventually the two stories collide when a person known only as Morales is sought by both investigators. That is about as much detail I can provide without getting terribly surreal.
Because the book is utterly absurd. It isn’t any of the things you might look for in a mystery novel. Much of it is narrated by a man we know to be dead, some stretches talk about the book itself being written (in the same way that some TV characters break the ‘fourth wall’ and talk to the camera), there really isn’t a linear progression or a single story and much of the action seems completely irrelevant to anything else. Despite all this, or maybe because of it, I did enjoy the book. Or at least the first half of it.
Not that I’ve ever given it a moment’s thought before now but if I had done I doubt I would have presumed that a leader of a revolutionary army would be a closet comedian but Marcos has missed his calling. Most of his part of the story is told from Elias’ point of view who is somewhat plodding investigator who recounts the events he is involved in with an almost childlike naivety. It’s a bit gimmicky but genuinely funny too and his innocence provides a good device for explaining things that most readers won’t, presumably, know much about such as the mechanics of running a revolutionary group.
However at a point about half-way through the book Marcos’ chapters switch into political diatribe mode which is where my interest dipped severely. There are pages (and pages) of mini-essays about the search for bad and evil which, you’ll not be surprised to learn, is generally discovered to be the fault of George W Bush or the American DEA or the CIA or a handful of the other entities that the left traditionally blames for the world’s ailments. As always I find it tiresome to be lectured at in my fiction regardless of how much I might concur with the sentiments expressed but I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised given one of the authors is a left wing revolutionary and there’s a very prominent pull-quote from Naomi Klein on the copy I read.
That glaring annoyance aside there was still plenty to enjoy here. Taibo’s character, the one-eyed, limping, coke-drinking Héctor Belascoarán Shayne is superb. Who can’t love a man who says of a poem
Now that was a real poem, one of those that grabs you by the nuts and squeezes softly until the pain becomes an idea?
I’ll definitely be seeking out a book featuring him written by Taibo alone. And although I won’t claim to have understood all the local or political references (I’d have been lost without google) I did get the sense that the book accurately depicts a version of Mexico that is very real for many people.
I’m not sure I can recommend this book to everyone as I know some would find it unfathomable or frustrating and can even imagine that if I had read this book at a different time in my own life I might have dismissed it as drivel. But if you are the type of reader who can suspend a need for order and sensibleness, or are looking for a book that provides an almost tangible sense of its geographical and political setting then I would suggest tracking down a copy (my local library had one which I found pleasantly astonishing). The closest comparison I can think of is that it’s a bit like a David Lynch movie, only with humour.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
My rating 3/5
Translator Carlos Lopez; Publisher Akashic Books [this translation 2006, original edition 2005]; ISBN 9781852429072; Length 288 pages
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
The Uncomfortable Dead has been reviewed at Mostly Fiction Book Reviews