The four musketeers of Paco Ignacio Taibo II rout Nazis in
the Mexican jungle
Returning as Shadows, a novel of Mexico 1941
Paco Ignacio Taibo II, translated
by Ezra Fitz
2003, Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s Press
Reviewed by Georgina Jiménez
MIXING the historical novel with the detective genre is not new, but seems to be a growing trend in modern Latin America: historical accounts, after all, can be perceived as a burden by readers with an appetite for adventure (who are in the great majority).
Paco Ignacio Taibo II emerges successful in this endeavour, prising out the best bits of those episodes in Mexican history that, for certain reasons, have remained obscure. When life turns incoherent, the novel comes to the rescue, he has explained. For him, there is no frontier between life and literature, and fiction can be even more effective in denouncing the nastiest deeds than a mere historical account.
With the publication of Shadow of a Shadow in 1993, Taibo departed from the inspiration of Dumas and his musketeers with the excuse of solving the murder of a trombonist in a military band witnessed by disillusioned publicity writer and poet Fermín Valencia. Here, the author brought a little shine to the apparent peace of the 1920s, after Alvaro Obregón had come to power. ‘Apparent’ because, as Taibo manages to show behind the scenes, this is when the state corruption and demagoguery now commonly associated with the rule of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI, Institutional Revolutionary Party) were born.
Taibo constructed Shadow of a Shadow mindful of the need to move away from the traditional perspective of the detective novel that highlights the eccentric genius resolving cases. Being a politically conscious writer – he was a survivor of the Tlatelolco massacre – he prefers to deliberate on the reasons behind every criminal story, which in the case of Mexico seems to be an even bigger mystery – and therefore in need of real detective work.
The result is the tale of four men in their thirties whose only thing in common is their love for dominoes: an honest and cynical crime reporter Pioquinto Manterola; Alberto Verdugo y Sáez de Miera, a lawyer whose surname means ‘executioner’ and whose reputation is not helped by offering legal representation to prostitutes; Mexican-born Chinese anarchist union leader Tomás Wong (a member of a persecuted minority who emphasises his ethnic accent despite not speaking Chinese); and Fermín Valencia, a poet. Paid assassins, rich people, and bent bureaucrats are the framework, and dominoes becomes a dangerous game…
Paco Ignacio Taibo II is convinced that the “thriller” is the “social novel of the end of the century”. With Returning as Shadows (2003), he sets his now older and physically weaker Dumasian group in 1941. He takes a look at the unprecedented social peace that now reigns and the events that brought the still celebrated Golden Age to Mexico, with its fabulous wealth, its cultural effervescence and great power now in the hands of the PRI. On the other side of the globe, World War II was bringing genocide, destruction and poverty. Mexico, like the rest of humanity, has a hatred for Hitler and was poised to declare war on Germany.
However, sympathy with fascism is not something widely perceived to have been part of Mexican history, but even in Mexico some politicians flirted with the tyrant’s ideas. Taibo tries to fill the gaps in history with fiction: the disconnected ramblings of a madman locked in a mental institution because of his wife’s murder are the common thread that tells the story of President Miguel Alemán’s rise to power.
Mysteriously, at the same time foreign guys in brown shirts are seen in the middle of the Chiapas jungle marching to the rhythm of a gramophone, and German submarines arrive in the Gulf of Mexico ready to attack the US.
It is up to the short-sighted Fermin “the poet” – recruited as a spy – to discover that the Mexican Minister of the Interior had a lover who worked for the Nazi secret service.
While Hitler is fighting on the Eastern Front, it appears that he gains courage by getting high on humble peyote and caffeine. (The reader can question whether by using the cactus with the wrong intention Hitler could only have reached hell instead of Heaven, and as a cautionary note learn that, in the wrong hands, psilocybin and caffeine could have devastating consequences.)
Graham Greene makes a cameo appearance in the book. And where was Hemingway during the famous 14 days in which he disappeared after last being seen sleeping drunk near a Havana swimming pool? Now we know.
Eventually the reader will infer that the biggest enigma to be resolved in Mexican history is that of a national conspiracy around oil, and to unravel it every individual must play the role of detective.
The result is an interesting, sometimes funny, easy to read and enjoyable novel, and indeed one that will awaken the reader’s interest in a period that most historians have chosen to marginalize in their accounts.