Sam Spade Meets Emiliano Zapata in Mexico’s Twilight Zone

by Chesley Hicks, WW4 REPORT

Book Review:

The Uncomfortable Dead (What’s Missing is Missing):
A Novel of Four Hands
by Paco Ignacio Taibo II and Subcomandante Marcos
Akashic Books, New York, 2006

The search for the “Evil and the Bad” is the quest that underlies The Uncomfortable Dead, an epistolary mystery, leftist political primer, and love letter to Mexico’s eternal soul.

Mixing surrealism with real-time realism, authors Marcos and Taibo write alternating chapters, each of them taking the voice of one of two detectives who meet in modern-day Mexico City as they unravel the truths behind a murder and cryptic phone messages from a dead man, leading them deeper into the search for the Evil and the Bad.

Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos, strategist and public voice for the longstanding rebel Zapatista movement, probably needs no introduction here. Atop his periodic communiquĂ©s, he’s also written numerous books and essays, often noted for their parabolic approach to conveying his global messages on the plight of indigenous peoples, human rights, and environmental justice.

Paco Ignacio Taibo II, a Spanish-born author and activist who has made Mexico his home for over forty years, is a writer of fiction and nonfiction, especially known for penning Che Guevara’s biography, Ernesto Guevara: Also Known as Che, as well as his pulp noir mysteries. The Uncomfortable Dead features one of Taibo’s recurring protagonists, the philosophical, world-weary, one-eyed, lame-legged detective HĂ©ctor Belascoarán Shayne.

Shayne is based in Mexico City, where he crosses paths with Marcos’ protagonist, Zapatista detective ElĂ­as Contreras, who has journeyed from the rural southeastern mountains to the city (ambivalently nicknamed “The Monster”) on the orders of one Commandante Insurgente…El Sup, a barely-veiled Marcos.

Shayne is hired to investigate the cryptic phone messages—ostensibly from a dead man, a left-wing dissident who was imprisoned and murdered 34 years earlier during Mexico’s Dirty War.

Contreras—who had been on the trail of a disappeared follower of Mexico’s new rebel movement in the southern mountains—is now traversing Mexico City, meeting urban Zapastista compadres, picking up secret packages, and following El Sup’s instructions based on coded communiquĂ©s and messages in the packages.

The two gumshoes’ separate pursuits eventually find them both tracking a man named Morales, an everyman of evil, who, it soon becomes apparent, threads the novel as both a metaphor and real person.

All The Uncomfortable Dead‘s characters and settings are playfully sculpted out of real events, real people, and fiction. For instance, it is revealed that the Osama bin Laden the world sees on TV is actually a Los Angeles taco vendor who moonlights as a porno star, and is unwittingly hired by the US government to create the infamous terrorist’s videotapes. This—coming from Marcos, himself a media mystery figure who relies on broadcast communiquĂ©s—falls in line with The Uncomfortable Dead‘s patterns of layered commentary and pointed ironies. It’s absurd: and alongside the novel’s other deadpan send-ups on world events and parochial, paranoid certitude, seems nearly plausible.

The authors also name-check Ernesto Zedillio, president of Mexico from 1994 to 2000; former Mexican federal security chief Miguel Nazar Haro; former ambassador Carlos Tello MacĂ­as; right-wing secret society El Yunque; President Bush; and Gustav Mahler, among many, referring to them with both humor and historical accuracy.

Despite its layers, The Uncomfortable Dead is a pithy page-turner, and more of whoisit than a whodunit. In one passage, Contreras says, “Everywhere I went, I ran into people like us Zapatistas, which means people who are screwed, which means people willing to fight, which means people who don’t give up.” These are The Uncomfortable Dead‘s heroes—heroes in a story where the passionate downtrodden and misfits sometimes win the day, where righteousness finds a voice if not always victory, where haplessness finds redemption, textured by both writers’ love for the stuff of close-to-the-ground Mexican life: for pozole and chorizo, for principled people, for smoking tobacco and sensually inhaling beauty in the form of a slow, smoggy Mexico City sunset.

Both writers’ literary humor belies the medicine they take to stomach the inequality and corruption they’ve made their lives confronting. Marcos’s writing is more vernacular and stream-of-conscious and occasionally tends toward proselytizing, where Taibo’s style is more descriptively direct and narrative-forward. Still, the authors share plenty of common ground, especially in Mexico, absurdity, a deep rage against injustice, and a taste for therapeutic jest. For instance, When Shayne learns of the taco-terrorist-tape theory, Taibo writes: “Juancho-bin Laden was more than he could take. This was a planetary intrusion. It was like all of a sudden, Mexico would run off with the World Cup, the Olympics and the Davis Cup. It was like, without the like, a Mexican taco vendor had taken over CNN.”

And Marcos’s wry humor works especially well when he spoofs the things he clearly holds dear. In one such example, when a beef-and-cheese dish cooked by an Italian Zapatista supporter (named August) based on a Sup recipe, turns out to be barely edible, Marcos writes, “but August is one of those people who believes the Zapatistas are never wrong, so he claimed the problem was the salsa brand he used.” And his real villains sometimes catch a kind-of break: “The evil is the system and the bad are those who serve the system,” he reveals midway through the book.

Both writers know that both evil and good come in many shades and grades, a theme which plays out in their characters’ relationship with their home country: Mexico is corrupt, Mexico is pure; it’s destructive and its nurturing; it’s poor and it’s rich; it’s soul is worth saving—and might more easily soar the heights of greatness if it were cleansed of few unsavory technocrats, bigots, and corrupt politicos.

Overall, the alternating chapters crossover gracefully, and the two writers’ voices meld well as they send their all-too-human heroes in pursuit of people, things and meaning, which ultimately finds them following the unraveling of human integrity via frayed strands of political and corporate intrigue in Mexico. The pages simmer with anger and move ahead with hope, which give way to nothing save for the inevitability of death. And in The Uncomfortable Dead, even death does not stop the righteous fighter. The dead might be uncomfortable, but they haven’t lost their sense of humor—reminding us that he who laughs last, laughs best.


From our weblog:

Subcommander Marcos unveils Osama bin Laden theory
WW4 REPORT, Oct. 4, 2006


Special to WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, Nov. 1, 2007
Reprinting permissible with attribution