the Disillusioned kid: Till Death Do Us Part
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Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Till Death Do Us Part

Subcomandante Marcos and Paco Ignacio Taibo II (2007) The Uncomfortable Dead: What's Missing is Missing, Carlos Lopez (trans.), Serpent's Tail, London, 280pp

Any discussion about The Uncomfortable Dead really needs to begin with a discussion of its two illustrious authors. Like me, I figure most of you will be unaware of Paco Taibo, but quotations on the back of the book describe him as "Mexico's most famous crime novelist" (Neal Pollack) and even as perhaps "the most important single writer working today" (James Sallis). While these are clearly impressive claims, it is, of course, Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos, the spokesperson of the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (Zapatista Army of National Liberation, EZLN), who is the real surprise here. Thankfully, the book isn't just a novelty piece and the authors have the chops to back up their famous names.

Rather than develop a single thread, the two authors have settled on pursuing distinct but interlinked narratives, with each taking a turn at the reins in alternating chapters. In Marcos' chapters we are introduced to Elías Contreras a member of the Zapatista Investigation Commission, usually tasked with looking for people who have gone missing from EZLN territory) who finds himself dispatched by "El Sup" (Marcos himself) to "the Monster" (Mexico City).

The synopsis describes Elías' story emerging "amid a hallucinatory blend of different voices," and indeed this is an accurate description of what we are presented with. Largely written in the first person, the plot is passed between various narrators and additionally incorporating transcripts of intercepted communications, alongside extracts from radical texts by the likes of Mumia Abu-Jamal and Angela Davis. Taibo's chapters follow a more conventional structure revolving around Héctor Belascoarán Shayne, a private eye who specialises in unusual cases. When a client comes to him with a answering phone message from a man who should have died forty years ago, Belascoarán finds himself embroiled in a particularly bizarre case.

Of course, as is always the case in such novels, the two stories intersect. In this instance, in the hustle and bustle of Mexico City as both investigators find themselves in pursuit of a man by the name of Morales and are encouraged to join forces. The structure of the book means that at various points you see the same event from two perspectives, but don't expect that this will help you work out what's going on any quicker. If anything it has quite the opposite effect.

At times, the stylistic idiosyncracies of the novel, especially Marcos' chapters can be jarring. At one point, a character instructs Elías, "If you run into El Sup, tell him to quit screwing around with his stories and his novel and just plain tell us outright how it all ends." This is either a witty instance of postmodern irony or pretentious, self-referential tripe, I'm not entirely sure which. Elsewhere, one character cuts of his narrative part way through to claim that he's just been told he's not actually in the novel, before offering the reader a cigarette. Initially, this sort of thing seems very strange, but if you stick with it there's an interesting, and at times surprisingly emotional, story being told.

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