Pulp Fiction

Issue section: 
Issue: 
(313)

Review of "The Uncomfortable Dead", Subcomandante Marcos and Paco Ignacio Taibo, Serpent's Tail £7.99

The dream team: Marcos, the sharp and witty Zapatista leader whose writings have travelled the world by internet since his explosion onto the political scene in 1994, and Paco Ignacio Taibo, perhaps less well known in Britain but a giant among Spanish-speaking readers of fiction. Taibo's support for the Zapatistas is well known - as you would expect from the author of an important biography of Che Guevara (My Friend Che Guevara).

Taibo's series of detective stories stand in the best tradition of pulp fiction. His detective, Belascoarán, is a cynical loner, looking down with his one eye on a chaotic, corrupt and violent Mexico City. He shares a shabby office with a plumber and a sewer engineer and exists on a diet of Coca Cola and cigarettes.

In The Uncomfortable Dead he's joined by a very different kind of detective, a less than competent Zapatista functionary whose job it is to locate the missing and the dead. When the two men eventually meet, their common purpose is to uncover and expose the torturers and double dealers who survive in the urban sprawl of one of the world's largest cities.

Everything points to what should have been a perfect collaboration. Marcos's writings from the liberated territory of Chiapas are funny, satirical and sometimes poetic. They combine a jaunty folklore with lengthy analyses of the structures of global capitalism. Taibo's prose tumbles and falls across the pages, echoing the noise and disorder of Mexico City. His varied and rich writings include essays and historical analysis - but he is best known for his fiction, whose characters always include the recognisable actors in Mexico's real political life.

He is merciless in unmasking the corruption, the brutality and the exploitation on which Mexico's political system thrives. In some ways his work is a savage but accurate history of modern Mexico through the eyes of a private eye in the best traditions of writers such as Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Elmore Leonard - hard, honest, incorruptible and very much alone.

Yet for me the marriage of these two minds just doesn't work. This is partly down to an often ridiculous translation. As was to be expected, the novel is full of in-jokes and very local references - for a reader unfamiliar with the labyrinth of Mexican politics this will make things difficult enough.

The translator has rendered everything in a kind of downhome white trash talk that is about as far away from the Chiapas of communal struggle as it's possible to imagine. For a foreign reader, most of the allusions must be more or less meaningless, and the endless smart asides about world literature add to the confusion.

There's more to be gained, I feel, from reading Marcos's own work (try Words are Weapons) and Taibo's brilliant Belascoarán novels (An Easy Thing has been recently republished, and Four Hands is worth looking for, though it will be hard to find).