Paco Ignacio Taibo II and Subcomandante Marcos’ joint crime novel, The Uncomfortable Dead
by Marc Cooper
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…