The Uncomfortable Deadby Subcomandante Marcos, Paco Ignacio Taibo II
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"Great writers by definition are outriders, raiders of a sort, sweeping down from wilderness territories to disturb the peace, overrun the status quo and throw into question everything we know to be true. . . . On its face, the novel is a murder mystery, and at the book’s heart, always, is a deep love of Mexico and its people.” Los Angeles Times
Subcomandante Marcos is a spokesperson and strategist for the Zapatistas, an indigenous insurgency movement based in Mexico.
Paco Ignacio Taibo II is the author of numerous works of award-winning fiction and nonfiction, which have been published in many languages around the world. He lives in Mexico City.
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The Uncomfortable Dead (what's missing is missing)A NOVEL BY FOUR HANDS
By Paco Ignacio Taibo II Subcomandante Marcos
Akashic BooksCopyright © 2005 Paco Ignacio Taibo II
All right reserved.
Chapter OneLEAVING AN IMPRINT
Were there more antennas or fewer? There were many more, he told himself. Many more television antennas. Many more than when? More than before, of course. And he let that before just linger. With every passing day, there were more befores in his conversations and in the thoughts that flitted through his mind; he was turning into a pre-retirement adult. But the fact was, he had that antenna thing nailed right. There were a whole lot more antennas than before, and they were part of the jungle canopy. The jungle of television antennas of Mexico City. The jungle of antennas and lampposts and buttresses that wove in with the trees, stretched over the rooftops, hung off lines, climbed up broomsticks: glorious, arrogant. The jungle of Mexico City, along with its mountains, the polluted Ajusco hills.
The afternoon was fading away; Belascoarán lit his final cigarette and gave himself the seven minutes it would last before leaving his perch. Over the last few months, he had begun to prefer seeing Mexico City from above. From the highest roofs and bridges he could find. It was less harmful that way, more like a city, just a single solid thing as far as the eye could see. He liked it and still likes it.
When he was about fiveand a half minutes into his cigarette, his office mate, Carlos Vargas the plumber, came whistling through the metal door that led to the roof. He was whistling that old Glen Miller piece that had become so famous at sweet-sixteen parties in Mexico City during the '60s. He was whistling in tune and with a great deal of precision to boot.
"You know, boss, I've got half a notion that these disappearances of yours up here on the roof might mean you've begun smoking grass on the sly. You've gone pothead, you're getting high and flying low."
"You're wrong and I'm going to show you," Belascoarán said, offering him the chewed-up butt of his filtered Delicado.
Carlos shook his head. "There's a progressive official looking for you."
"And what is a progressive official?"
"Same as the others, only they're not on the take, and this one's got a chocolate stain on his tie and a crippled dog."
Héctor Belascoarán Shayne, independent detective, accustomed to absurd enigmas because he lived in the most marvelously absurd city in the world, climbed down the seven stories asking himself what the hell a "crippled dog" might mean in upholsterer's crypto- language, only to find out that "crippled dog" meant a goddamn dog with a splint on one of its front legs, a timid face, and ears hanging to the ground. The animal was resting serene and sad at the feet of this progressive official. Carlos paid them no mind and was already back in his own corner of the office stuffing a pink-velvet easy chair.
Belascoarán dropped into his seat and the wheels carried him elegantly, until he hit the wall. He stared at the progressive official and raised his eyebrows, or rather his eyebrow-ever since he had lost one of his eyes, he found it difficult to move the other eyebrow.
"Are you a leftist?" the official asked, and God only knows why, but Belascoarán did not find that icebreaker at all strange in these times when the nuns of the Inquisition were flying back on their broomsticks, conjured up by the administration of one Mr. Fox, who wasn't foxy at all.
He took a deep breath. "My brother says I'm a leftist, but a natural one, which means unawares," Héctor said, smiling. "And that means I'm a leftist but I never read Marx when I was sixteen and I never went to demonstrations to speak of and I don't have a poster of Che Guevara in my house. So, well, yes, I'm a leftist."
The explanation appeared to satisfy the official. "Can you guarantee that this conversation will remain confidential?"
"Well, if God knows it, why shouldn't the world?" answered Héctor, who hadn't guaranteed anything for a long time.
"Are you a believer?" the progressive asked, a bit taken aback.
"There's a friend of mine says he quit being Catholic for two reasons: one, because he thought that with so many poor people the Vatican treasures were a kick in humanity's balls; and two, because they don't let you smoke in church. And I imagine that goes for all religions. And I agree-the very idea of God annoys the shit out of me," Héctor wound up very seriously.
Taking advantage of the moment of silence, Héctor checked out the progressive official and found that, as opposed to what Carlos had said, the guy had no tie, although he did have a stain on his yellow shirt, a shaggy beard, and the glasses of the terminally short-sighted. He was tall, very tall, and when he got excited he shook his head sideways in a perpetual no. He looked like an honest man, the kind his mother used to call "a good person," referring always to workers, plumbers, milkmen, gardeners, and lottery hawkers. If memory didn't fail him, his mother had never said that any bourgeois, grand or petit, was "a good person." She must have had her reasons.
"There's a dead guy talking to me," the man said, breaking in on Héctor's mental evaluation of him and his past.
Héctor opted for silence. Just a couple of months before, he had gone to a video club and rented a series created by Alec Guinness based on a novel by le Carré, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, produced by the BBC, and for six continuous hours he had watched in fascination as Smiley-Guinness used the most effective interrogation technique in the world: putting on a stupid face (if the guy weren't British, Héctor would say he was the biggest jerk he'd ever seen) and staring at people languidly, not too interested, like he was doing them a favor, and people would just talk and talk to him, and once in a while, a long while, he would drop a question, as if not really caring much, just to make conversation.
And the method worked.
"For about a week now I've been hearing messages on my answering machine from a buddy of mine, only this buddy died in 1969. He was murdered. And now he's talking to me, leaving me messages. He tells me stories. But I don't rightly know what it is he wants from me. And I think he's calling when he knows I'm not home so he can just leave a recording. Maybe it's a joke, but if it is, it's a hell of a joke."
Héctor kept up his Alec Guinness face.
"My name's Héctor," the man said.
"So's mine," Belascoarán replied, kind of apologizing.
"How about the dead guy?"
"His name's Jesús María Alvarado, and he was really something."
Héctor went back into silent mode.
"So, how much do you charge?"
"Not much," Belascoarán said.
That appeared to quiet the man down ... the dog too.
"Here's the tape. You can listen to the whole thing in five minutes. You decide and we'll talk later."
"I don't have an answering machine in this office. If you can lend the tape to me, tomorrow we can-"
"No! Not tomorrow. In a while. Take my address," Monteverde said, handing over a piece of paper. "And here are some notes I prepared about how I met the dead man. I'll be at home ... I don't sleep."
"I don't either," Héctor said.
And he watched as same-name Monteverde stood up and left the office, followed by his limping dog.
"That's one hell of a story!" said Carlos Vargas with a mouthful of tacks, shaking his hammer over the pink easy chair.
"The phrase that comes to mind is the one about reality getting extremely strange," Belascoarán answered.
Hours later, sitting at home, Héctor listened to the voice of the dead man coming from the tape.
"Hello. I am Jesús María Alvarado. I'll call you back, buddy."
The voice did not sound familiar; it was gravelly and didn't reveal any anxiety, urgency ... nothing. Just a toneless voice offering a name. It was not cavernous or put through special effects; it wasn't intended to sound like a voice from the grave. What's a voice from the grave supposed to sound like? This talking to dead people ...
Yet Jesús María Alvarado was indeed dead, although not in 1969 like the progressive official Monteverde said, but in '71. So it was prehistoric, thirty-four years ago. He had been murdered as he left prison. A bullet in the back of the head for the first political prisoner to be freed after the 1968 movement. Execution-style ... and no official explanations.
Monteverde and Alvarado had met at a school where they both taught literature. They were just nodding acquaintances. A couple of coffees together, a couple of faculty meetings. The 1968 assemblies, the founding of the coalition of teachers in support of the student movement. Monteverde was a little absent-minded, lovesick, a bit timid ... the son of an undertaker who had made his fortune on the luxury of death, something that Héctor Monteverde (according to his meticulously drafted notes) thought was not only immoral, but thoroughly shameful and reprehensible in the year of the movement. World literature was the antidote to the funeral parlors. Alvarado was the child of peasants who had come to literature through some incomprehensible conception of patriotism, and by the sheer force of rote repetition of "Suave Patria" and the memorization of verses by Díaz Mirón, Gutiérrez Nájera, and Sor Juana, for recitation to the town people. Forever poverty stricken, he couldn't even afford to have his clothes washed at the end of each month, his tab at the corner store was overflowing, and he was filled with anger.
Apparently, during those magical and terrible years, Héctor Monteverde had followed the life of Alvarado from a distance, up until the man was murdered.
Héctor figured that he had to think the matter through calmly; he put aside the answering machine and the peach juice he had been drinking, and climbed back up to the roof with a packet of letters he had found in his mailbox. With infinite patience he set out to make paper airplanes and place them in a row along the parapet around the roof. Down on the street, the new day's noise was just getting started in Condesa, the bikers, the teenagers having fun.
There was the slightest of breezes, and every once in a while it managed to blow one of the paper planes off the parapet, sending it into marvelous acrobatics before crashing to the ground. But very rarely did one succeed in floating away on the updraft. When the planes were all gone, he returned to his room. He had left all the lights on, the best antidote to loneliness, turning the damn house into a Christmas tree. He rewound the answering-machine tape. What he heard was what he had heard, and the voice said again, "Hello. I am Jesús María Alvarado. I'll call you back, buddy."
Another Jesús María Alvarado, the son of Jesús María Alvarado, the ghost of Jesús María Alvarado, an alter ego of Jesús María Alvarado with the same name, some table-dancer trying to attract attention, the police trying to drive Monteverde nuts for reasons known only to themselves, he summarized.
The second call was even better:
Listen, man, this is Jesús María Alvarado. I hope you've got a long tape, cause I have to tell you what happened to me. It's a really rat-shit story, crazy. There I was in Juárez, in a bar, and since all the tables were taken I just stood around drinking my beer and watching the goddamn TV. The noise was a pisser and I couldn't hear a thing, but there was bin Laden, with his stony expression, in one of those communiqués he keeps sending out over the TV. This guy's a real pain in my balls, so I wasn't listening much, but then a couple of guys behind me started hollering something like, "Das Juancho, das freekin Juancho!" So I turn around to see what was up with this freekin Juancho and there were these two half-drunk muscle-bound studs going on with their mantra: "Das goddam Juancho, Juancho!" pointing at the TV. I flipped around to make sure I wasn't the one who was nuts, as usual, but it was still bin Laden, all elegant with a field rifle in his hand and the rag around his head and that dopey face of his. So I flipped around again to talk to the Juancho fan club. "What's with this fuckin Juancho?" I says, and them, half slurring because of the booze, they tell me that there on the TV was none other than their buddy Juancho, and just lookit how the prick had done himself up. And I kinda found out that Juancho ran with these guys, he had been a taco vendor in Juárez and got tired of his crappy life about three years ago and wetbacked it over to open a butcher shop in Burbank, California. Me, I couldn't make heads or tails of the whole thing, so I turn to the TV again and, sure enough, the sonovabitch was still there, so I went to ask the two drunks what else they knew about Juancho, and were they sure it was him, and when had he grown that shitty beard, but the guys had disappeared, gone, nada. I searched the bar and the sidewalk and all, but there was no sign of them. And I says to myself, Now ain't that a pisser. Bin Laden's alter ego is a taco vendor from Juárez. But then I started getting it all together and I says, Alvarado, what do you know about Burbank? And the thing is, I do know something about Burbank. It's the skin- flick capital of the United States, a shit town near Los Angeles, triple-X companies and motels ... Fuck, fuck, film, film, long live savage capitalism! And I put two and two together, and I ask myself, like, what if it was the Bushes who've been making the bin Laden communiqués, those messages from hell, in a porno studio in Burbank, California, where they even have all the desert you might want? What if they concocted the whole thing? What if it's all a dream factory starring a Mexican taco vendor by the name of Juancho? But to tell the truth, even I couldn't believe that crock, and I kept telling myself, You can't be serious ... But it does make a cool story, doesn't it?"
Héctor turned off the machine. He went into the bathroom, looked in the mirror, and splashed cold water on his face. Like a lot of people who live alone, he was in the habit of talking to his mirror persona, but now he couldn't think of anything to tell himself. He thought it over again and broke out into roaring laughter. Kafka swimming in his briefs in Xochimilco. Bin Laden played by Juancho in Burbank. And, of course, when he wasn't doing communiqués, like Alvarado said, Juancho spent his free time fucking on film and getting paid for it. A free version of A Thousand and One Nights, as told in a taco emporium in Juárez: crazy but funny, the dumbest prick on the border.
The third tape started as always-"This is Jesús María Alvarado"-like he was trying over and over again to establish that he had come back from the valley of the shadow of death. After the name, there was a pause and a cryptic comment, "Maybe I shouldn't have come back," and then a long silence and a click that put an end to the call.
There was a fourth call that started off with the usual, "This is Jesús María Alvarado," then without a word of explanation went into some verses:
Where I will only be a memory of a stone buried under briar over which the wind flees its sleepless night.
And that was all. The poem sounded familiar, but Héctor couldn't remember where or when he had heard it.
The progressive Monteverde lived in the Roma Sur neighborhood about twelve blocks from his home, so Héctor decided to take a walk, strolling along the promenade on Alfonso Reyes Avenue, which was better when it was Juanacatlán and lined with unionized whores or those hoping to join. He stopped at one of the taco joints to have a couple of cheese arracheras with lots of green salsa, then went on his way, smiling to strangers, every once in a while saying good evening just to see how the well-mannered Mexicans of the capital would recover their basic manners and reply.
The character seemed to live alone. Alone except for the dog with the splint, which, just as Belascoarán passed through the doorway, came over and licked his hand, either to identify him or simply to express solidarity between two cripples. There was no sign of children in the house, no pictures, but the walls were covered with reproductions of paintings of mountains and volcanoes, from a Velasco to Atl's Paricutin, and rather attractive photographs of Everest in the style of National Geographic.
Excerpted from The Uncomfortable Dead (what's missing is missing) by Paco Ignacio Taibo II Subcomandante Marcos Copyright © 2005 by Paco Ignacio Taibo II. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Subcomandante Marcos is a spokesperson and strategist for the Zapatistas, an indigenous insurgency movement based in Mexico. He first joined the indigenous guerrilla group which was to become the Zapatistas in the early 1980s. Marcos is author of several books, including Story of the Colors, which won a Firecracker Alternative Book Award, and Our Word is Our Weapon. Taibo was born in Gijon, Spain and has lived in Mexico since 1958. He is the author of numerous works of fiction and nonfiction, which have been published in many languages around the world, including a mystery series starring Mexican Private Investigator Héctor Belascoarán Shayne. He is a professor of history at the Metropolitcan Unviersity of Mexico City.
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