Duck Duck Book


43 – the uncomfortable dead
03.4.2007, 12:03 am
Filed under: fiction

The uncomfortable dead : (what’s missing is missing) : a novel by four hands / Paco Ignacio Taibo II & Subcomandante Marcos ; translation by Carlos Lopez.
New York : Akashic Books, c2006.
[MCL call number: MYSTERY TAIBO; six copies, no holds]

Most histories of revolutionary groups do not bother to explain how radical organizations work — how they manage discussion and foster creative ideas, how they support their members’ intellectual and political growth, how they make decisions, or how their leadership structures work.  As a person who has spent a reasonable amount of energy engaged in work for social change, I am incredibly frustrated by this gap in our collective memory, and I have often become nearly irate after seeing a movie or reading a book that was advertised as being about how change happened, but which never talked about the actual nuts and bolts.

I did not expect The Uncomfortable Dead to be a lesson in how the Zapatistas get shit done.  It is not a history, but a mystery novel.  The story deals in murder, intrigue, politics, and the business of detection, but since one of the protagonist detectives is Marcos’s Elías Contreras, an Investigation Commission [sic] of the Zapatistas, a bit of instruction in the mechanisms of Zapatista political society does seep in.  For example, in the first few pages of the book readers find a brief lesson about the practicalities of revolutionary life, when Elías explains why his job is necessary:

“Yeah, El Sup didn’t actually show me the paper, but he told me what it was all about.  There was a disappearance.  The message said that one of the women had disappeared and that El Sup should write up a paper blaming it on the bad government.  Which is actually what El Sup is sposed to do, the problem being that citizens, that is, the city folk, are already used to the Zapatistas telling them the truth, that is that we don’t lie to them.  So like I said, the problem is that if El Sup writes is communiqué accusing the government and then it turns out that the woman ain’t disappeared at all and the bad government didn’t harm her, what happens is our word begins to look weak and what happens is people stop believing us.  So then, my job was to investigate to see if she really was disappeared or what and then I was to report to El Sup what it was that happened so he could decide what to do.” (page 18)

Throughout the book, Elías’s story makes it clear that in the Zapatista conceptual framework, police are unnecessary.  What is needed instead are investigators, who are only responsible for finding out what happened.  Investigators have no role in capturing criminals, trying and convicting them, or punishing them. 

So a little bit of the nuts and bolts are in there.  Like many other strategists before him, Subcomandante Marcos seems to be well aware that the medium may be an important element of the message.  The intrigue, the mystery, the gumshoeing in The Uncomfortable Dead are all at least partly in service to another kind of tale, showing a bit of Zapatista life and values to the rest of the world and explicating Mexican history from a people’s perspective. 

As a whole, The Uncomfortable Dead is a disjointed story.  Chapters alternate between the narrative following Elías Contreras and one following Taibo’s Héctor Belascoáran Shayne (a famously popular detective among Mexican readers) and his investigations in Mexico City.  The mystery is rooted in the confusing history of 1968, the massacre of students in Mexico City, the government crackdown and the Dirty War, and the connections these events have to contemporary Mexican politics.  The characters and plot lines are erratic and hard to follow, and the novel’s construction and conclusion are somewhat abstract, but the story has considerable charm as a political document and as a commentary on contemporary Mexican life. 

U.S. readers may find some bits of the story intriguing for historical reasons — for example, one of the characters relates the story of students from the School of Anthropology who went through central Mexico City after the devastating earthquake of 1985 marking buildings with signs saying “Catalogued as a national monument” so that developers would have to face a mountain of red tape before they could demolish and gentrify (page 152).  Reading this, I could not imagine such a tactic working anywhere but Mexico.

But altogether, The Uncomfortable Dead‘s difficulties of obscure narrative flow, a complex backstory, and the jumpiness of switching between different protagonists will be difficult only for some readers.  Anyone who is intrigued by the Zapatistas and their story, or who is interested in the history of left politics in Mexico, or who is already a fan of Taibo or of Marcos should find The Uncomfortable Dead relatively satisfying.

 * * *

Rather obviously, the book I read was a translation.  The Spanish version is:

Muertos incómodos : falta lo que falta / Subcomandante Marcos, Paco Ignacio Taibo II.
México, D.F. : Editorial Joaquín Mortiz, 2005.
[MCL call number: SPANISH Fiction MARCOS; ten copies, no holds]

Before being published as a book, Muertos incómodos was serialized in the Mexican newspaper La Jornada.  In fact, the project came about when Taibo discovered a package on his doorstep, containing the first chapter and a letter from Marcos asking Taibo to write the book with him for publication in La Jornada.  At the time of this first publication, the chapters were available on La Jornada‘s website, but they have since been removed.  However, the full text of what appears to be this first, serialized version (which may not be identical to the book version) is still available elsewhere on the web, in Spanish, of course.

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1 Comment so far
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You might be interested ito read “The Death of Somoza” by Claribel Alegria and Darwin Flakok, Curbstone Press.

Comment by Leon




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