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  Democratic Detective

Taibo's novels reveal the raw sewage of Mexican politics -- and a labyrinth of solidarity hidden beneath it.

Scott Sherman

Novels by Paco Taibo Ignacio II mentioned in this essay:

An Easy Thing

Penguin (out of print)

Four Hands

Picador USA, $13 (paper)

Leonardo's Bicycle

Mysterious Press, $21.95 (cloth)

Life Itself

Mysterious Press, $5.99 (paper)

No Happy Ending

Mysterious Press, $5.50 (paper)

The Shadow of the Shadow

Penguin (out of print)

Some Clouds

Penguin, $9 (paper)

In August 1994, Mexicans went to the polls to re-elect the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), Mexico's ruling party since the late 1920s. CNN applauded the election as the "most democratic in Mexico's history," and The New York Times described it as "generally fair and clean." Then, just as the applause was beginning to subside, The Los Angeles Times Magazine published an eyewitness account by Paco Ignacio Taibo II that told an entirely different story.

Taibo provided a lyrical compendium of the dirty tricks employed by a regime that, through six decades of rule, has mastered the techniques of electoral fraud. He noticed what the foreign correspondents overlooked or ignored: the approximately half a million citizens erased from the voting lists; the tiny, government-funded satellite parties whose purpose was to confuse voters and drain support from Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas; and the shameless excesses of the patronage-laden Solidarity program, which, in the months leading up to the contest, offered "to pave roads in Veracruz, threatened to deny irrigation projects in isolated communities in Tabasco, and handed out water tanks in Saltillo."

Many commentators had predicted that the 1994 election -- coming after Chiapas and the assassination of Luis Donaldo Colosio -- would mark an end to PRI domination. But for Taibo, the PRI's strategy and ultimate victory were all too predictable. Likening the government to a "diabolical magician-king," he wondered whether "these sons of bitches [are] eternal."


Paco Ignacio Taibo II is most widely known as a crime novelist -- author of more than twelve best-selling books featuring Hector Belascoarán Shayne, a melancholy, one-eyed private eye. Though his publishers routinely compare him to Gabriel García Márquez, Taibo writes in a style that bears little overt resemblance to García Márquez's magical realism. Composed in raw, slangy, naturalistic prose, barely concerned with plot development, his crime novels are subtle meditations on Mexico's history and culture, x-rays revealing the inner workings of the country's political system. Taibo depicts a state that thrives on deception, drug trafficking, and murder. And, as accusations of official corruption appear with startling frequency, the author's dark vision of Mexican politics is powerfully reinforced.

Though Taibo's principal vehicle is the crime novel, his literary output covers a much wider range. His most recent fiction is modeled on Ragtime and Foucault's Pendulum, and he has written highly original (though still untranslated) works of non-fiction -- including Arcángeles, a collection of passionate essays on lesser-known revolutionaries such as Max Hoelz, who led an insurrection involving thousands of German workers in March 1921, and who was later murdered by Stalin's secret police; Bolshevikis, a history of the early years of the Mexican Communist Party; Cárdenas de cerca, an informative set of interviews with Cárdenas; and El caso Molinet, a hard-hitting investigation into the case of a teenage boy falsely accused of murder.

From the Belascoarán novels to his historical essays, Taibo has transformed a vanished radical past into a popular art form. Reading him is like stumbling across a colossal encyclopedia of 20th-century radicalism filled with well-known historical figures -- Pancho Villa, Emiliano Zapata, Augusto Sandino, Leon Trotsky, Che Guevara -- as well as those relegated to obscurity. Though the use of real-life figures suggests Doctorow, Taibo's canvas is far more expansive, extending to such forgotten battlegrounds as Spain in the tumultuous years following World War I, Yugoslavia during the Partisan resistance, Kenya in the time of the Mau Mau, and Nicaragua in the twilight of the Sandinista revolution.

Recuperating radical history is not the conventional formula for literary success in these amnesiac times, but Taibo's books have appeared in 21 countries, and in recent years he has joined Carlos Fuentes, Laura Esquivel and Homero Aridjis in the small group of Mexican novelists who are backed by major American publishers. Three volumes of the Belascoarán series -- An Easy Thing, No Happy Ending, and Some Clouds -- have now appeared in English, and a fourth, Return to the Same City, is due in the fall of 1996. At a time when literature in translation is being scaled back everywhere, two leading New York houses, St. Martin's Press and Mysterious Press, are publishing a steady stream of Taibo novels.1

Taibo's unusual profile extends beyond his literary themes and commercial success. He is also a member of a small group of Mexican intellectuals who have preserved their independence from the state.

The PRI is one of this century's most successful authoritarian regimes, and its effective control of Mexico's workers and peasants is key to its long-term survival. But the government has been equally adroit in neutralizing the distinctive threat posed by intellectuals. Unlike defiant workers and campesinos -- whose routine mistreatment incurs little or no condemnation from the international community -- Mexican artists, writers, and filmmakers can assail the government in the columns of leading international newspapers or the auditoriums of European and American universities. Thus, the strategies for co-optation have been more subtle.2 "They try to trap you," Sergio Aguayo, president of the non-governmental Mexican Academy for Human Rights, said recently. "They plan it like a seduction, looking for your weaknesses: women, money, the trappings of power or honors. Once they have corrupted you, you become worthless."

Despite aggressive government courtship, an elite group of dissidents has managed to create an independent space from which to write and speak freely: literary journalists Elena Poniatowska, Carlos Monsiváis, and Cristina Pacheco; cartoonists El Fisgón, Helio Flores, and Magú; and political commentators Lorenzo Meyer, Adolfo Aguilar Zinser, Adolfo Gilly, and Jorge Castañeda. These are the people Taibo counts as his peers.

Taibo's own intellectual independence and suspicion of the state have deep roots. He was born in Asturias, Spain in 1949 to a family of working-class anarchists and plebeian intellectuals. His grandfather died in the Spanish Civil War and, following Franco's victory, several relatives received death sentences that were subsequently commuted. His parents emigrated to Mexico in 1958, and Taibo's political loyalties were cemented in the student movement of 1968. Following its demise, he spent a decade as an organizer, working to sustain independent trade unions. Since then, he has been an energetic political activist, collaborating with various grassroots organizations in Mexico City and appearing regularly at opposition rallies. In the autumn of 1994, he joined with a group of activists from Cárdenas's Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) in an effort to break the government's virtual broadcast monopoly by launching a small radio station in Mexico City. Taibo's program, "The Hour of the Democratic Vampire," was on the air for three weeks before 50 policemen raided the station and shut it down.

Taibo is proud of his political autonomy. In Some Clouds, the author himself makes an appearance and remarks to Belascoarán:
I've spent the last thirteen years fighting the system. I was in the student movement in `68, I was active for a while in leftist politics, I worked with the unions, with factory workers, organizing, putting out magazines, pamphlets . . . I've never been interested in just making myself a bunch of money. I never worked for the PRI. . . when I fucked up I never got anyone killed, and if I fucked somebody over it was out of ineptitude and stupidity and not because I'd sold out or was an asshole, no one ever paid me not to do what I believed in.

In Mexican intellectual circles, Taibo is known for his scathing denunciations of those writers and artists who have succumbed to the "serpent's kiss" of the Mexican state. "I've seen the best minds of my generation getting paid by the treasury," he wrote in Life Itself.

Many were therefore surprised by his decision in 1994 to sell the film rights to the Belascoarán books to Televisa, a strongly pro-government consortium of entertainment companies that has dominated Mexico's television and film industry for decades. "I won the conditions I wanted," Taibo said in an interview with the Mexico City newspaper La Jornada (August 15, 1994). He suggested that Mexican artists have a responsibility to fight for democratic space within an authoritarian media structure: "This was the problem; either I dance with the enemy, or I protect my principles and declare myself pure and a martyr. The truth is that I was tempted many times to say no, but it seemed to me an act of cowardice. I said to myself: `Either you enter this war, or you stay off to the side.'" It remains uncertain whether the Televisa deal defines a new strategy of artistic intervention, or instead marks the beginning of Taibo's own reconciliation with the state.


"Wherever you put your finger, pus comes out." That's how one former Attorney General portrayed the Mexican system. It is fertile territory for crime novelists, and Taibo, as a young author in the early 1970s, grasped the implications of the hard-boiled tradition pioneered by Hammett and Chandler: "The crime novel allowed me to show the essential illegality of the Mexican state."

Though Taibo owes much to the American masters, and particularly to Chandler, he is eager to assert the differences between them. "Chandler's character moves within rational histories," he said in one interview, "whereas mine is surrounded by a chaotic atmosphere, Kafkaesque and corrupt, Mexico City."
I live inside the schizophrenia of Mexico, D.F., the city that has more sidewalk food stands than any other city in the whole world, the city where university professors have to supplement their salaries by selling honey or encyclopedias to their friends. A city that [in 1989] broke the Guinness record for having the most street demonstrations, with an average of 1.3 per day, and I mean demonstrations, some of them with half a million people in the streets shouting slogans against the government and dancing to the music of small-town brass bands and rock groups. A city on the brink of chaos, threatened by both floods and a lack of water. Where you can't feel safe walking the streets at night. So full of color that the French impressionists would go cross-eyed with emotion. A city ruled by the same bureaucrats, caciques and party bosses who lost the last elections. A city where Pedro Infante, the ranchero singing idol of 20 years ago, is still king; and where 50,000 people bought copies of Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum. A city full of TV antennaes, where 400,000 servants earn less than 60 dollars per month. A city that has more cinema clubs than Paris and more abortions than London. This is the city that I write in, the city where I put together my stories.

It's the home of Taibo's Belascoarán -- a complex, brooding figure whose primary mission is "to keep on keeping on" while withstanding the "terrible loneliness that torments us with its stubborn pursuit." He reads Dos Passos, Malraux, Mailer, and Che Guevara; listens to Silvio Rodriguez, Louis Armstrong, and The Platters. And, in absolute contrast to the typical Mexico City police officer, he is incorruptible. "Is he a cop?" asks a child in Some Clouds. "No," she is told, "more like a kind of democratic detective." He is:
Thirty-one years old, with the good luck and the misfortune to be born and raised a Mexican. Divorced, without children, in love with a woman far away. The occupant of a grimy office on Artículo 123, and a minuscule apartment in the Roma Sur. With a master's degree in industrial engineering from an American university, a certificate in detection from a Mexican correspondence school; a fan of private-eye novels and a connoisseur of Chinese food, a mediocre driver, lover of parks and forests, owner of a .38 revolver; a little rigid, fairly shy, mildly sarcastic, excessively self-critical; who one day, on his way out of a movie theater, broke with his past, and started his life all over again.

Each of the three Belascoarán novels available in English is filled with Mexico City street slang, ribaldry, wistful humor, and chaotic plotting, and is driven by a powerful democratic impulse. An Easy Thing sets a strike at a union-busting steel corporation in Mexico City against the persistent mythology surrounding Emiliano Zapata. In a seedy cantina in the industrial zone of Azcapotzalco, Belascoarán is confronted by an old man with "dreamy gray eyes set in a face of proud, noble features," who informs him that the 97-year-old Zapata is still alive, in Mexico, holed up in a cave. The corpse on the Chinameca hacienda in 1919 was not his: "He ended up sending this buddy of his who wanted to go in his place." Instead, Zapata encountered Augusto Sandino in Tampico in 1926, accompanied him to Nicaragua, and joined him in battling the American marines. Zapata ultimately returned to his native Morelos and resumed his political work. "What if it's all a lie?" asks the detective. "Then prove it to me," replies the old man, triggering a quest which takes Belascoarán to the autobiography of Zapata's heir, Rubén Jaramillo (who was kidnapped and murdered by soldiers in 1962), to dusty municipal archives and, finally, to the caves of Morelos:
He wanted to look into the living eyes of the real Emiliano Zapata, he wanted to know if the country the old revolutionary had once dreamed of was still possible, to see if the old man could somehow communicate some of the spirit and conviction that had inspired his crusade. Although he didn't believe for a minute that Zapata was actually still alive, the simple act of delving into the past, searching for the clues of his fugitive existence, seemed to bring the old man that much closer to life.

This "simple act" of remembrance has extraordinary importance in the surreal context of contemporary Mexican politics, a milieu where the PRI has simultaneously attempted to occupy every corner of the political spectrum. Even as it repudiates the legacy of cardenismo, for example, the government still claims leftist credentials. In May 1995, amid the worst economic crisis in decades, the PRI bought a full-page advertisment in Proceso, the country's preeminent news magazine, to reiterate its long-standing opposition to the American trade embargo against Cuba. It is this kind of rhetorical posturing that makes Mexican political discourse so disorienting. To a great extent, the PRI derives its legitimacy from the revolution of 1910-1920. In the early 1920s, in an attempt to foster stability and unity, the regime rewrote the history of the previous decade by creating a cult of personality around Emiliano Zapata, Francisco Villa, Francisco Madero, Venustiano Carranza, and other leaders.3 It mattered little to early propagandists that these men led conflicting factions during the war years; that Villa and Zapata represented the popular classes while Carranza's constituency was, to a great extent, the elite; or that in 1919 Carranza offered a 50,000 peso reward for Zapata's head. They all became state-sponsored icons in a post-revolutionary order officially dedicated to egalitarianism and social justice.

Zapata became first among these revolutionary equals. Beginning in the early 1920s, the government staged an annual ceremony on the anniversary of his death. "[Zapata] is simple and coarse, like a campesino," remarked a functionary at a gathering in 1923. "Penetrating and divining, as a wise man; he has the indomitable fury of a warrior and the loving. . . holy flame of the worldly saint." Ever more elaborate events followed, and in 1931 Zapata was officially declared a national hero. But his motto -- "The land belongs to those who work it" -- remained, then as now, largely unfulfilled, and the regime's appropriation of Zapata has since bordered on the ridiculous: Carlos Salinas insisted on naming his son, as well as his presidential jet, Emiliano. Still, the PRI has had some success in making Zapata its own. In her superb account of the 1968 massacre in Mexico City, La noche de Tlatelolco, Elena Poniatowska interviewed one protestor who remarked, "I never really thought of Zapata as a student symbol, an emblem. Zapata has become part of the bourgeois ideology; the PRI has appropriated him. Maybe that's why we chose Che as our symbol at demonstrations from the very first."

But these successes have also had their limits. From the beginning, the state-sponsored myth of Zapata was challenged, in some rural areas, by indigenous folklore. Immediately following his death, rumors began to circulate that the body displayed was not Zapata's. Some supporters claimed that he was in hiding, others said they had seen him, on horseback, riding through the hills of Morelos. As late as 1979, Zapata's son Nícolas insisted that the corpse did not belong to his father, but rather some "jerk from Tepoztlán."

An Easy Thing is an exercise in historical retrieval: Building on popular traditions, it urges skepticism regard- ing the regime's appropriation of the figure of Zapata and opens up new lines of inquiry about the meaning of historical "truth" in 20th century Mex- ico. The significance of such an exercise was underscored 20 years after the book's publication, and 75 years after Zapata's murder, when a small group of rebels in impoverished Chiapas would claim him as their own, reminding the world that, in the country's forgotten rural enclaves, the political project of Zapatismo maintains its relevance. Wrote Subcommandante Marcos in January 1994: "Zapata is still here, alive and well."

Literary efforts at retrieval are also of particular importance in countering the obliteration of historical memory by the mass media. The vast majority of Mexican newspapers contain gacetillas, paid advertisements from politicians which are slyly disguised as news stories. And television is dominated by Televisa, roughly the equivalent of ABC, CBS, and NBC combined. For accuracy and truth, citizens turn to such newspapers as La Jornada and Reforma, magazines like Proceso, comic books like El Chahuistle and El Chamuco, independent radio stations, and Taibo's crime novels.

No Happy Ending revisits the massacre of June 10, 1971, one of any number of controversial events in the country's recent past that Mexican TV has been unwilling to examine in a serious way. On that date, a paramilitary organization known as the halcones, or hawks, killed 30 students during a political rally in Mexico City. In the novel, set in the late 1970s, Belascoarán encounters a group of former halcones, now employed as Mexico City transit policemen, who have murdered their former trainer, a man with links to the military. In a gripping six-page section, Taibo recounts the massacre with cinematic clarity. The Mexican government has never taken responsibility for the deaths of the students, and No Happy Ending is Taibo's tribute to the victims:
The official explanation wrote the whole thing off as an unfortunate clash between antagonistic student groups. But then there were the photographs of the army-issue M1 rifles, and the riot police allowing the armed men to pass unopposed, and the tape recordings from the police radio frequency, over which police officers directed the halcones' attack. . . But the dead remained dead, despite all the scandal and the outrage . . . And no one was ever brought to trial, and when an investigation was called for, eight years later, all the records had disappeared.

While Taibo's books illuminate the past, they also have an eerie predictive power. The Shadow of the Shadow is, in large part, an affectionate portrait of Mexico City's flourishing radical milieu in 1922. But the novel also grapples with one of the most explosive issues to emerge in the post-revolutionary era: Mexico's control of its oil. The plot concerns a secret conspiracy by US petroleum companies to seize the country's oil-producing Gulf Coast. When it was published in 1992, the story seemed far-fetched, but now that the Mexican government has pledged its oil-export revenue as collateral in exchange for a multi-billion dollar bailout package -- an astonishing capitulation whose implications have been largely ignored -- the novel begins to look disquietingly prescient.


On the surface, Taibo's view of Mexican society is bleak. In An Easy Thing, Belascoarán laments the "great national garbage dump that Mexico had become," and throughout the crime novels human waste routinely appears as a metaphor. The detective shares his office with a plumber and a "sewer and drainage expert," and Some Clouds concludes with his observation that "clouds of shit" are hovering over Mexico City. Belascoarán knows that the web of corruption is infinite and that he will always "come up against a wall standing between himself and justice," and he believes the most one can expect to do is "dig a little bit of dirt out from under the fingernails of power." Yet there is a deep hopefulness in Taibo's work, and his fiction offers old-fashioned solidarity as an antidote to the filth and corruption.

In An Easy Thing, Belascoarán is mesmerized by a late-night disc jockey who calls himself El Cuervo:
Right now I want to send out a big hello to the workers at the Vidriera Mexico glassworks. Vidriera Mexico has been holding back overtime pay, and we all know that's not right. Everybody deserves a fair wage for their labor . . .

I have here a card from a young woman named Delia. Delia says she wants to fall in love again. It seems that things haven't gone too well for her in the past. She says she's been divorced twice and now she's eating her heart out with loneliness. Is there anyone out there who wants to lend a hand?

After ten minutes there were six volunteers who were willing to help Delia give it another try.

Delia was followed by a poem by César Vallejo, songs from the Spanish Civil War, a set of songs by Leonard Cohen, a call for blood donors, type AB negative, and a request for food for some strikers in the Escandon neighborhood, which was answered by the offer of three breakfasts at the Guadarrama Cafe and a pot of hot chocolate prepared by some people in the neighborhood.

At the end of the novel, Belascoarán learns that the independent union at the factory has been smashed, while the miscreants remain at large. And he finds definitive proof that Zapata died on the Chinameca Ranch, after all: "The same carbines would rise up again today . . . The same men would give the orders." But the late-night disc jockey is still on the radio:
El Cuervo put out a request for help in combating an infestation of rats in the Guerrero district, communicated the complaints of a group of neighbors against a Chiapan student whose wild parties disturbed the entire neighborhood, asked if there was someone who knew how to give injections and could help an elderly diabetic woman, read passages from Philip Agee's book on the CIA, and warned his listeners about the adulteration of ingredients at the Imperial candy factory.


Belascoarán is Taibo's best known creation, but one of the author's finest works features José Daniel Fierro, a middle-aged Mexico City detective novelist. At the beginning of the novella Life Itself, Fierro is asked to take over the police department of Santa Ana, a small city in northern Mexico, where a newly elected leftist government -- simply called the "Popular Organization" -- is attempting to defend itself against PRI encirclement. Two previous police chiefs have been assassinated, and the mayor makes a desperate plea: "We need someone they can't kill without the whole country going up in arms, even the whole world." Santa Ana itself appears to be loosely modelled after the Oaxacan city of Juchitán, which achieved notoriety in 1981 when the Coalición Obrera Campesina Estudiantil del Istmo (COCEI), a radical Zapotec political movement, came to power in local elections. The COCEI endured fierce government repression, and today Juchitán is a bold, if little known, example of grassroots democracy at the municipal level.

In Santa Ana, Taibo's utopia-in-progress, history is alive and personal affronts from the past are not forgotten; striking miners recall one April afternoon in the middle of the 19th century when "the mine owner made the peons of shaft number two eat the flesh of a dog they had killed by accident." It's a place where schoolchildren lay flowers on the graves of comrades killed during a political demonstration; where taxi drivers, unionized prostitutes, and small businessmen mobilize in defense of evicted campesinos; where bosses who fail to pay the minimum wage are arrested; and where the fortune-tellers are going out of business as secular values triumph over superstition.

As usual, the author is much less interested in coherently resolving the book's murders than in ruminating on democratic possibilities in a country "defeated by so much cynicism, shamelessness, official lies, and barbarity running around loose." With its Vonnegut-like sensibility, this slim volume might have been a cult classic two decades ago. Today it is ignored, or subjected to clichéd condescension. Charles Bowden, writing in The New York Times Book Review, averred that Life Itself "is studded with strong drink, violence and the occasional bared breast. . . Read this book and you will get an inkling why Mexico remains a mystery to so many of us."


On the wall of Taibo's Mexico City office is a newspaper clipping from Madrid's El Pais that describes a meeting between Bill Clinton, William Styron, Carlos Fuentes, and Gabriel García Márquez in which Clinton enthusiastically praised Taibo's 1994 novel, Four Hands. Readers accustomed to the lean Belascoarán novels will be surprised by the book's scale and complexity; in recent years Taibo has largely abandoned the short form in favor of multi-layered narratives featuring dozens of characters in numerous locales. While Four Hands and the more recent Leonardo's Bicycle contain themes which echo his earlier work -- the constant abuse of power, the quest for an authentic past, the anarchist political vision -- Taibo uses the size and intricate structure as a springboard to investigate his primary obsession: the breadth and diversity of 20th century radicalism.

Four Hands pays homage to the thousands of individuals for whom the term "internationalism" was more than a slogan, and attempts to establish continuity between different generations of radicals. One of the main protagonists, Stoyan Vasilev, a veteran of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, is referred to as a "revolutionary without a nation." Many of the characters in the novel intersect with historical figures who warrant the same label: Leon Trotsky, Milovan Djilas, Che Guevara and others who honored the internationalist tradition while simultaneously resisting the petrification of their own country's revolution.

Four Hands tells the story of a CIA plot to implicate a high-ranking Sandinista leader in drug-running operations so as to damage the international credibility of the Nicaraguan government. The book was written in the late 1980s, and Taibo's anger at US policy in Central America is reflected in his portrait of Alex Smith, the rogue agent behind the scheme, who is depicted as a pathological maniac. That the most luminous writing describes Spain in the throes of the Civil War is no accident, for Taibo views the Nicaraguan revolution as something of a latter-day equivalent.

Dos Passos was a major influence on Taibo, and Four Hands, like the U.S.A. trilogy, combines impressionistic prose with portraits of real-life historical figures -- including Stan Laurel, Harry Houdini, Leon Trotsky, and Dalton Trumbo -- to present a multidimensional perspective on events ranging from the murder of Pancho Villa to the Iran-Contra affair. But the most compelling personalities are Taibo's own creations: a pair of radical freelance journalists, one Mexican, the other American; and two veterans of the Spanish Civil War, including Vasilev, who are reunited in Mexico City five decades later and, like the journalists, find themselves drawn into the CIA's plot. The revolutionary commitment and idealism of the "premature anti-fascists" is juxtaposed with the cynicism and callousness of Reagan's CIA operatives to create a compelling portrait of moral and political corruption.

In contrast to the solipsistic nature of much contemporary fiction, Four Hands is a major political novel that insists on the contemporary importance of the Spanish war, the Hollywood blacklist, and other forgotten episodes. Unfortunately, the book's highlights -- a phantasmagoric reconstruction of the siege of Madrid, clever excerpts from an imagined mystery novel by Leon Trotsky, and a poignant tribute to Benjamin Linder, the young American engineer killed by the Nicaraguan Contras in 1987 -- are overshadowed by a bloated narrative that might have been pruned by a third.

Leonardo's Bicycle, published in September 1995, is longer than Four Hands, but more coherent. José Daniel Fierro, the hero of Life Itself, returns from Santa Ana and, while holed up in a filthy Mexico City apartment, begins a novel about his grandfather, a Barcelona anarchist in the early 1920s. Two additional stories intersect -- one involving a college basketball player kidnapped in Ciudad Juárez, with whom Fierro falls in love after seeing her on ESPN; the other the tale of the last CIA agent to flee Saigon in 1975. But the main action is set in Barcelona between 1920-23.

The city was then the site of an epic struggle between the colossal, anarchist-led labor federation (the C.N.T.), and ruthless factory owners who had grown wealthy from the war. Working with the police, the owners deployed agents provocateurs and pistoleros to crush the unions. Such maneuvering in turn triggered an avalanche of anarchist-sponsored violence. More than 700 political assassinations resulted from this conflict, and the city resembled a war zone: "One day it was the bosses' organizations' gangs who controlled the streets, and a month later it was the anarchist hit squads who attacked more than fifty bosses, and were filling up the Catalan bourgeoisie's graveyards."

Against this historical backdrop, whose contours Taibo takes for granted, the frail, poverty-stricken journalist Antonio Amador searches for Angel del Hierro -- Fierro's grandfather -- a dissident anarchist known for breaking the jaws of priests, repairing women's clothing, and assassinating class enemies at point-blank range. The "Black Angel" is driven underground by the police, and Amador's pursuit of him allows the author to bring to life the ports, squalid basements, and cafes of Barcelona, as well as such forgotten anarchist leaders as Angel Pestaña and Salvador Seguí, who was shot down in the street in 1923. Actual incidents, such as the 1920 bombing of a union hall, are rendered with dramatic energy and painstaking accuracy.

As Gerald Brenan noted in The Spanish Labyrinth, the violence in Barcelona was "a sort of rehearsal for the infinitely more destructive and tragic civil war." This helps to explain Taibo's elegiac tone, and, while his sympathies lie squarely with the anarchists, he doesn't shy away from the larger implications of their actions:
Was the Black Angel mistaken when he took up the pistol as the great democrat, the great leveler of social differences? . . . Did the road to swift justice, justice by point-blank shots in a backstreet, face-to-face with the enemy, close off the road to long-term justice? Angel thought about these things now and again. He thought about whether social revolution had come an inch nearer because of the men he had killed: two gunmen from the Baron's mob, a textile boss who raided his workers' pension fund, a corrupt policemen, a stool pigeon, the bosses' organization's chairman's chauffeur . . . He thought about his dead men with reluctance, because they were his and would be with him forever.

Leonardo's Bicycle offers ruminations on New York City taxi drivers, land mines in Angola, writer's block, Carlos Santana, and American suburban life. The pages describing the American withdrawal from Saigon in May 1975 are harrowing and brilliant, but it is Taibo's re-creation of a vanished anarchist milieu that gives the book its power and originality.

Leonardo's Bicycle won the Dashiell Hammett award for the best Latin American crime novel of 1994, and Taibo's success with his longer works has inspired him to undertake ever more complex projects, including a biography of Che Guevara that is currently under way.


When he left office in November 1994, Carlos Salinas had earned widespread, if grudging, admiration in Mexico. Having reduced inflation to manageable levels, presided over the passage of NAFTA, and delivered plumbing and basketball courts to parts of rural Mexico, he appeared to have set the country on the path to modernization. Then, in a stunning reversal, Salinas was transformed practically overnight into the most despised and ridiculed president in modern Mexican history, a shadowy figure forced to shuttle between the United States, Canada, and Cuba.

The beginning of the end came on December 20, 1994, when Mexico belatedly devalued its inflated peso. The economy went into free fall: within two days of the devaluation, $5 billion had left the country, and by February 1995 stock prices had fallen nearly 50 percent. A $50 billion bailout plan fashioned by the Clinton administration and the International Monetary Fund has, for the time being, calmed investors and pushed Mexico's economic plight off the front pages of American newspapers. But in Mexico, the fury directed at Salinas and the government continues to intensify. Harsh monetary policies, implemented at the behest of the Clinton administration and the IMF, have exacted staggering social costs. Malnutrition in the capital has increased six-fold; the price of basic medicine has risen 45 percent; and cases of dengue fever and cholera are up nearly a thousand percent from a year ago. At least a million jobs have been lost, exorbitant interest rates threaten to decimate the middle class, crime and prostitution have skyrocketed, and Mexico City increasingly resembles the hellish, dystopian metropolis depicted in Carlos Fuentes' Christopher Unborn.

Despite these grim surroundings, Taibo remains refreshingly free of cynicism. Not because he expects anything beneficial from the PRI -- they are "still scum, and the country they propose is still a mixture of economic misery for many, social misery for the majority and moral misery for all." Yet he doesn't appear to believe that the "sons of bitches" are eternal after all. That may come as a surprise to the ruling party, which has "not even learned the lesson from lemming Soviet bureaucrats -- that political eternity does not exist." But like Belascoarán, Taibo is a democratic detective, with an eye on political aspirations at the bottom, as well as chicanery at the top. "Santa Ana," he notes in Life Itself, "like anywhere else in the country, moves with a combination of tensions that come from the past, with the rapid succession of small happenings that go on building into agitated waves." Through his fiction he has created a world of such tensions, happenings, and waves. It's an imagined one, but it closely resembles the reality of Guerrero and Chiapas, Yucatán and Tabasco -- demonstrating once again that in dark times imagination may be the surest guide to political truth.

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