The Uncomfortable Dead (What’s Missing Is Missing)
by Paco Ignacio Taibo II and Subcomandante Marcos

Reviewed by Ric Hess


Published by Akashic Books, 2006   |   268 pages

Collaboration in the arts is not especially unusual: film, the symphony, even pursuits driven by more individual personalities – photography, architecture, design – usually rely on the work of a team to effect the finished product.  But there are some efforts that do not readily lend themselves to a shared vision and the work of a novelist is one of these.  The fact that one of the authors of The Uncomfortable Dead is an accomplished novelist, and the other is a playful amateur, does not lend itself to cohesive or coherent results.

The Uncomfortable Dead bills itself as “A Novel by Four Hands”, that is, a novel written by two different authors who alternate chapters in telling the story.  Paco Ignacio Taibo II is an award winning author and professor of history at the Metropolitan University of Mexico City.  Among his novels, the most well-known is a series starring private Investigator Hector Belascoaran Shayne.  His co-author, who writes under the pseudonym Subcomandante Marcos, is a spokesman for the Mexican Zapatista insurgency movement, a guerrilla-separatist organization which claims its mission to be halting the encroachment of industrialization, and the privatization and exploitation of natural resources in the United States of Mexico.

The story told in The Uncomfortable Dead sprawls from the Chiapas countryside to the urban smear of Mexico City and is, at least tangentially, concerned with the search by Belascoaran and Marcos’ lead character, Elian Contreras, to find the persons responsible for the 1971 murder of Jesus Maria Alvarado.  But Alvarado suddenly surfaces in present day, leaving messages on an answering machine, and by coincidence drawing Belascoaran into the case.  Simultaneously, the quixotic Contreras is sent by the Zapatista high command to Mexico City, to find Alvarado’s alleged murderer, and there the two plots intertwine.  If this sounds a bit confusing, reading the novel will not dispel that impression, and the underlying assumption that the reader is familiar with many Mexican political and social conventions doesn’t help much to clarify things.  It’s somewhat of a gamble by the editors at Akashic Books to assume that Norte Americano readers will hang in there for the ride.

Anyone who sympathizes with the plight of indigenous cultures which find themselves in the path of “development” will find much to admire in Subcomandante Marcos’ politics.  He is playful in his constructions and plotting, an indulgence that is occasionally entertaining, but in this case usually more annoying.  The reader may find themselves skimming the installments by Marcos to get to the next Taibo chapter so that some semblance of structure can be observed.  Marcos rambles, he digresses, he obfuscates; his work is more of an agenda than an account and he constantly dissembles to give voice to his political platform, as when Contreras explains: “But let me tell you a little about who I was, Yeah, was, cause I’m deceased now.  I was in the militia… and I fought with the troops of the First Zapatista Infantry Regiment, under the command of Sup Pedro, when we took las Margaritas. Hell, I’d be sixty-one now, but I ain’t, cause I’m dead which means I’m deceased.”

It is an interesting read if solely for the insight that Marcos provides into the insurgent’s mindset and the structure that pervades a society steeped in socialist conventions. Those readers who decry the politics of huge multi-national corporations and the United States under President Bush will find in Contreras’ ramblings a sympathetic world view.  But at the end of the day, it’s more artifice than art and there are so many spurious characters and unnecessary asides that the story gets lost in the chaff.

Taibo’s acumen is evident in his work.  He constructs a reasonably tight, logical narrative and his plot turns are anticipated but not obvious.  Taibo throws in enough curves to keep the reader occupied wondering who done it, which is what mystery novels are all about.  In the best tradition of noir heroes, his star detective is a man who longs to be left alone but is continually drawn into situations that his moral sense and inquisitive nature command him to investigate.  Belascoaran “(has) his office…in the heart of hearts of Mexico City…a heart…unaware of what it was, amassing little glory and making lots of noise.”  The chief mystery in The Uncomfortable Dead is how a man, dead for thirty years, can be suddenly resurrected.  Taibo serves up a satisfying and reasonable conclusion to that question.

It often seems that the authors themselves aren’t really sure how the whole thing ties together.  It is interesting if only from the perspective afforded by a voyeur’s view of another culture, and Taibo is gifted enough to provide some much needed direction to the plot.  Marcos makes an effort, but he’s out of his league.  Read Taibo’s sections of this book for the craft and Marcos’ sections for the insight, and try to imagine what brought them together to collaborate on this book.  Read it and tip your hat to Akashic Books for their noble experiment and commitment to the craft.  But if you want a real example of the genre noir, you’ll be better off with good old Raymond Chandler.

Ric Hess is currently finishing his first novel and has an impressive stack of rejection slips to prove it.  Friday afternoon he can often be found propping up the bar at Sheffield’s with a sordid collection of nefarious characters.

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