The Uncomfortable Dead
By John Barker.
The Uncomfortable Dead, Subcomandante Marcos and Paco Ignacio Taibo II, 2007, Serpent’s Tail
It is no easy thing to pull off a light touch with a novel that has an angry heart. To have two writers alternating chapters when only one is an experienced in fiction must have made it harder still, but in its completion , The Uncomfortable Dead does achieve it despite some irritations on the way. Completion in this case is the way in which the rhetoric of the Evil and the Bad articulated by the Mexican Zapatista ’investigator’ Elias Contreras is realized in the related denouments of the two stories. The ‘bad,’ those who decide or slide into acting for a brutal and corrupt system –‘the evil’ – are given no gloss, incapable of the romantic grandeur of evil, which is instead seedy and routinely brutal Mexican capitalism.
Such language, ’the bad and the evil’ despite the horrors of the war against Bosnia, has become alien to European leftism which is instead disdainful of George W. Bush’s crudity in talking of ‘an axis of evil’ almost as much the actual horrors justified by it. Given the history of Latin America, right into recent times, it is not all outlandish or melodramatic. In this novel, the uncomfortable dead are those from the student uprising of 1968, and those who have been killed since. A knowledge of Mexican history is not necessary to read the book, but both Marcos and Taibo the novelist knock on the head any idea that the years of the PRI’s monopoly of power losing out to Vicente Fox has changed anything, except that an extreme right wing Catholic grouping has much greater power.
Both writers are also well aware that angry writers of the left are all too easily open to the accusation of being polemical. Equally that there are precedents for using offbeat detectives to examine some of the specific s of the ‘evil’. Marcos’ character, Contreras, is an Indian of Chiapas, a veteran of who is portrayed as a shrewd innocent who, in his own way is not fazed by his first ever experience of a big city, of Mexico city. Sometimes this is overdone, and it feels like Marcos is a little too knowing as a writer, a little too much whimsy, post-modernist tricks, and also self-deprecation of himself and his role in the opening chapters. But when Elias’ own voice is allowed to run there is a freshness to the language of his anger, and celebration of resistance. Describing a group of women who work to find people who were ‘disappeared’ when bad governments never admit “where they disappeared those people…The group is called Eureka, which means they get real happy when they find a disappeared person and reappear them, and then they have a party that they call Eureka.”
Taibo’s Hector Belascoran Shayne detective already established in No Happy Ending and Return to the Same City, is also pretty tricksy: the PI who drinks Coca Cola, and allowed by the tradition of magic realism to be dead and not dead, as well as grumpy, funny and shrewd. He can hold his own with tough-talkers like the Chinaman who clues us in to the non-dramatic nature of the ‘bad’ guy in this part of the story. “You know how traitors develop? People don’t rot over night. They don’t go to bed one night as guerrilla fighters and wake up as agents of the Ministry of the Interior. They just grow weak. They betray out of exhaustion, out of boredom, out of inertia…And the entire process requires ongoing self-justification, a growing mountain of self-pity, a dense cloud of self-deception.” It is this character who appears at times to be a super-baddie turns out to have survived “by stealing refrigerators and stoves from the homes of the people we kidnapped and later disappeared…So here I am, selling ranges and fucking Formica dining tables and easy chairs with cigarette burns on the arms. That’s how I made money.”
Shayne is offbeat in wholly original ways. And Taibo weaves into his narrative satirical flights as sharp and surreal as Ishmael Reed in his 1970s classics, The Free-lance Pall-Bearers and Mumbo-Jumbo. There is the story of The Monument to the Revolution, and Pancho Villa’s body a woman’s, and best of all a riff in which a taco seller ends up making videos as Osama bin Laden, in the pornography production capital of California. This story is itself told by the ‘ghost’ that kicks of Shayne’s investigation, and who himself turns out to be the voice-over for a cartoon character, Benny the Purple Dinosaur. Hard then for to be glibly dismissed as earnest moralizing when, for the most part the mix of genres and voices works so well.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
John Barker was born in North London where he still lives. He was imprisoned in the 70s as an Angry Brigade ‘conspirator’ and served a further sentence in the early 90s for hash smuggling.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, January 16th, 2007.