The richness and buoyancy of an unlikely collaboration between a thriller writer and a revolutionary, The Uncomfortable Dead, appeal to Alberto Manguel
by Subcomandante Marcos and Paco Ignacio Taibo II, translated by Carlos Lopez
288pp, Serpent’s Tail, £7.99
Graham Greene observed that in Mexico, violence is a state of mind. It is therefore strange that there should be only one first-class thriller writer, Paco Ignacio Taibo II, in what would appear to be a natural hotbed for fictional gumshoes with an embarras de choix of real corpses. Perhaps in Mexico the question of whodunit is of little consequence; what matters is the brutal transience of life and the fact of death, felt not as a state of absence but of invisible presence. Ghosts are everywhere.
In the mountains of Chiapas, official detective Elías Contreras is in charge of looking for missing people. Chiapas, famous for its indigenous uprisings, is one of the poorest provinces in Mexico and the headquarters of the revolutionary Zapatista movement. Elías himself is a Zapatista, which does not make his investigating task any easier. Round here, a disappeared person may have been killed by a jealous lover, a power-hungry politician, a colonel in the army, a member of the paramilitaries, a fantastical demon wearing a large sombrero, or a combination of any of the above. Elías solves his cases with a sort of plodding insistence, confident that every mystery has in the end some sort of an answer.
Enter private detective Héctor Belascoarán Shayne, whose interrogation methods are inspired by Alec Guinness’s impassive face in the TV Smiley series. Héctor has only one eye (the other was blown out by a former member of the Judicial Police), one of his legs is shorter than the other (from a shotgun blast), and he has been beaten up by a mob (led by a priest attempting to exorcise the Pokemons). Héctor’s methods are more brutal than Elías’s and he has a hard time not firing his .45 at every turn, even if, "like so many Mexicans, he was thoroughly fed up with the gratuitous violence that made it almost impossible for a guy to simply finish an honest day’s work and come home to some chorizo and provolone for dinner". Héctor is looking for a disappeared man, Elías for a disappeared woman: obviously, they are bound to meet. After a counterpoint of chapters peppered with philosophical asides, literary quotations and political digressions, both quests come together in the vastness of Mexico City, a place Elías calls the Monster.
The plot of The Uncomfortable Dead is somewhat loose, the mystery tenuous. But the atmosphere is of a spectacular richness, and the many characters, dead and alive, who spring up on every page have a Pickwickian buoyancy, Mexico-style. There’s Julio, a gay Filipino mechanic who writes his name with an @ at the end, wears several piercings and an assortment of tattoos, and who left Spain on a whim to join the Zapatistas. Juli@ is prepared for the worst: "On my back, between my shoulder blades, I have a notice tattooed in gothic letters that says, THIS SIDE BACK, and one on my chest that says, THIS SIDE FORWARD. That’s just in case they cut me up in pieces." There’s Vittorio Francesco Augusto Luigi, a cook who believes in extraterrestrials, which, he says, come in two sorts: good and bad. "The bad ones already landed a long time ago in Washington, London, Rome, Madrid, Moscow and Mexico, and they took over everything and started the fast-food craze." The good ones, who haven’t arrived yet, will land on Zapatista soil; they’ll need a cook, of course. There is a Mexican man of Chinese origin who used to put up Mao posters during the demonstrations of ’68 and calls himself "premodern": "no TV and no gas". There is a jazz-loving woman from Toulouse who wants to start an autonomous rebel municipality in France and name it after Charlie Parker.
The oddest characters, however, are the authors themselves: Paco Ignacio Taibo II (who wrote the even-numbered chapters), born in Spain but living in Mexico for almost half a century and creator of the world-famous detective Héctor Belascoarán Shayne; and Subcomandante Marcos (who wrote the odd-numbered chapters), who may or may not be a certain Rafael Sebastián Guillén Vicente, who, after studying at a Jesuit college and receiving a master’s degree in philosophy from Mexico’s Autonomous University, founded the Zapatista Army of National Liberation. Subcomandante Marcos, who is also a prolific writer, never appears without his ski mask and always travels with his mascot, a deformed rooster which he says "stands for all disenfranchised people".
All collaboration is mysterious: two heads are not only better but often stranger than one. Writing couples such as Nordhoff and Hall or Borges and Bioy Casares create a third character, the collaborative author, who has a few traits of each but resembles neither. Subcomandante Marcos’s long bibliography includes many ponderous texts of political philosophy as well as moralistic fables for the young; that of Paco Ignacio Taibo II, Belascoarán Shayne’s hard-boiled mystery series and a hagiography of Che Guevara. Their collaboration, which we trust will not be a one-off, has produced a witty, complex, at times moving piece of writing utterly different from and far more entertaining than anything either of them has written in the past.
· Alberto Manguel’s books include With Borges (Telegram)
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