Mexican rebel leader Subcommander Marcos is remaking himself as a writer of political pulp fiction in collaboration with famed crime thriller scribe Paco Ignacio Taibo II. Interesting how a genre that generally plays to the law-and-order right in Gringolandia plays to the revolutionary left in Mexico, where the political elite is more overtly criminal. The new tome, The Uncomfortable Dead also has an all-too-plausibe theory about who the man really is in those relentless Osama bin Laden videos. Is this really political satire, or do Marcos and Taibo know something we don’t? A book review by Patrick Anderson, “Marx Brothers Marxists,” from the Washington Post, Oct. 2:
THE UNCOMFORTABLE DEAD
A Novel by Four Hands
By Paco Ignacio Taibo II and Subcomandante Marcos
Translated from the Spanish by Carlos Lopez
Akashic. 268 pp. Paperback, $15.95
A lot of strange stories have been circulating about the elusive Osama bin Laden, but none stranger than one put forward by a character in the Mexican novel The Uncomfortable Dead. This fellow insists that the bin Laden we see on television is not the Saudi millionaire and purported evildoer at all. The man we see is, rather, a tall, gaunt taco vendor named Juancho who made his way to Burbank, Calif., where he stars in porn movies and also has been secretly hired by the Bush team to make “bin Laden” tapes they feed to the media for their own dark purposes. Poor Juancho is so clueless that he thinks he’s “making commercials for turbans and field tents.”
This theory — which clearly merits an FBI investigation — comes to us in a one-of-a-kind novel by veteran Mexican mystery writer Paco Ignacio Taibo II and Subcomandante Marcos, who leads a Zapatista movement in the Chiapas region of southeastern Mexico. On this side of the border, Marcos is best known from newspaper photos that show him masked, armed and defiant, but his countrymen also know him as a sometime man of letters. For years, when he hasn’t been dodging government troops, he has written books, some political and one a novel for children.
We might have expected from these co-authors a fiery Marxist-Maoist manifesto, thinly disguised as fiction, but in fact the novel is more whimsical than political. The Zapatistas we meet are a dedicated but ragtag band of bumpkins who spend more time playing soccer and dominoes than striking blows against the empire. At best, the novel is a hoot, but at worst it’s a mishmash of cornball humor and warmed-over revolutionary musings.
The authors write alternating chapters. One plot concerns the efforts of a low-key, pipe-smoking rebel commander called El Sup by his followers — presumably Marcos’s self-serving self-portrait — to find a man named Morales who for years has bedeviled the rebels as spy and assassin. However, El Sup stays in the background as he sends an aging, semiliterate follower called Elias Contreras (“that’s what El Sup named me . . . seeing as how I was so contrary”) to Mexico City to search for the villain. The first person the old boy finds, however, is a male prostitute called Magdalena who turns tricks to finance a sex-change operation but is converted to the Zapatista cause. Later, Contreras encounters the one-eyed private-eye Hector Belascoaran Shayne, hero of Taibo’s previous novels, who has his own mystery to solve.
Belascoara’n has a client who is receiving phone messages from a leftist friend who was killed by government agents more than 30 years earlier. The detective is seeking, with no great urgency, to learn the origin of these calls. The two plots merge when it becomes likely that it was the evasive Morales who murdered the leftist, who now may be speaking from the hereafter. If this summary suggests that the novel has a linear, logical nature, I have misled you. The mysteries of Morales and the phone calls vanish for long stretches as the authors digress on spiritual, social, cultural and political matters.
The most interesting digression is the one on the taco vendor who makes bin Laden tapes, but there is another in which a Zapatista explains that Wal-Mart has opened a store in Mexico so it can steal the Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon, which will prevent some enlightened extraterrestrials from landing and saving southeastern Mexico from McDonald’s, Pizza Huts, Wal-Marts and other capitalist oppressors. I don’t know if these stories qualify as magic realism or are simply inspired by good old Mexican locoweed, but they do have a weird fascination.
In other digressions, the authors make clear their admiration for Gustav Mahler and Glenn Miller, Veronica Lake and Angela Davis, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, and gay rights and women’s liberation. They quote the poems of Pablo Neruda and Federico Garcia Lorca, and praise their countrymen Pancho Villa, Emiliano Zapata and Benito Juarez, although their riff on Juarez ignores his heroic life and instead focuses on whether someone else is buried in his grave. When they turn to politics, the authors declare with passion that the rich and powerful own the world, that governments are corrupt and incompetent and that the little guy doesn’t stand a chance — all true enough, but not exactly breaking news. Hemingway, Orwell, Chaplin and others have delivered the message far more effectively — which isn’t to say it’s not worth repeating.
In time the plot wanders back into view, the source of the unworldly phone calls is revealed, and the vile Morales is dealt with, but the authors make clear that justice, in a larger sense, remains elusive. They express their outrage at Mexico’s Dirty War, which, old Elias Contreras explains, “means that it’s secret, that they don’t say it’s on and they make like nothing’s wrong, but it is and there’s killing and disappearing and people displaced and a whole lot of misery for the screwed.” The authors are aware that a ragged band of rebels in a desolate corner of Mexico isn’t likely to change the big picture, but Contreras can still declare proudly, “Us Zapatistas won’t give up and we won’t sell out; what I mean is, we don’t forget what we’re fighting for, and that’s why they need to defeat us any way they can.”
On the evidence of this book, Subcomandante Marcos is no more successful a novelist than he is a revolutionary, but give him credit: He’s out there, boots on the ground, pen in hand, doing his thing.