Fantastic Metropolis

Incomparable Paco

Afterword to An Easy Thing

James Sallis

Great writers by definition are outriders, raiders, sweeping down from wilderness territories to disturb the peace, overturn the status quo and question everything we know to be true — then gone. Like deranged cousins shut away in the houses of loving families, they are a great bother, an embarrassment, open secrets trembling always at the very edge of violence, out there just beyond the light of these campfires we call civilization.

No one quite knows what to do with Paco Taibo. Even in his homeland of Mexico, he says, he’s an invisible writer — by which he means unapproved, subversive, and in which he takes obvious pleasure. Meanwhile a disarming arsenal of books continues to tumble from his pen: literary novels, revisionist history, collections of journalism, fictionalized biographies, political essays, detective stories.

It’s for the last that he may be best known to readers on this side of the Rio Grande, for whom his work poses, I think, a particular problem.

The book you’re holding, An Easy Thing, published in 1990 by the prestigious Viking Press whose editors could hardly have failed to be aware of its radical subtext, introduced Paco’s work here. Viking followed up a year later with The Shadow of the Shadow, an extraordinary novel celebrating the streetcar workers’ strike in 1922 Mexico City. Neither novel earned much of a foothold on publishing’s glass mountain, and Paco soon hopscotched over to The Mysterious Press. Most recently, as one by one his books fell out of print — until this first reissue by The Poisoned Pen Press, at least — he’s been published, when published at all, by specialty presses such as El Paso’s Cinco Puntos, who in 2000 brought out Just Passing Through. That novel’s fanciful portrait of real-life labor organizer Sebastian San Vicente was an early sketch for Shadow and bears every mark of Paco’s style: the folding of historical figures into fiction, the persistent, stubborn blurring of boundaries, a tone that trods consistently some unmarked path between the highroad of stridency and the lowlands of melancholy.

It’s not only Paco’s prolificacy, the variety and very volume of his work, that confuses us. What are we to make of this constant shuttling back and forth from fact to fiction, history to present life, this summa of revolutionary instinct he seems intent upon providing us, Che Guevara rubbing shoulders with Doc Holliday, Mau-Mau with the Musketeers? Is this man a detective-story writer, an avant-garde novelist, the voice of our collective unconscious, a simple contrarian, some half-crazed libertarian Oliver Stone-type, eyes fixed myopically on a handful of moments in history?

U.S. readers in particular, whose knowledge even of their own radical labor movement has been expunged, are unlikely to know much of the general ideas and passions and of the historical movements, specifically Hispanic and Mexican, central to Paco’s work. Using the vocabulary available to us, we connect narrative dots, forcing Paco’s attitudes and apostrophes to conform, Procrustes-like, to the closest analog we have, the shape of American leftism, unable to perceive it for the radically different thing it is: anarchism. Anarchism, of course, has a long tradition abroad. But we here in the States have never doubted that every other country at its inmost, secret heart wants nothing more than to be just like us. We would make of them all — think that, given the chance, they would make of themselves — little Americas. Further fundamental differences between “American” quiddities and those from which Paco issues, quickly fall into place.

Unlike the realist American novel, perfectly formed loaves of white bread leavened with irony, the Latin American novel has always been quixotic, playful, self-conscious: a heady mix of coarse grains thrown together on the griddle.

What Paco does, it seems to me, is restore the balance between fabulation and objective social realism. Refusing to dispense with the representational, he refuses also to lash its materials to the mast of likelihood and verisimilitude. Grittily realistic depictions of Mexico City come stepping from the doorways of pure invention. If he wants to have Stan Laurel witness Pancho Villa’s assassination or show Leon Trotsky, exiled in Mexico, laboring over authorship of thrillers (Four Hands); if he wants to gather an army of fictive heroes including Sherlock Holmes and the Hound of the Baskervilles, the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday, the Musketeers, the Mau-Mau and the Light Brigade around a victim of the 1968 student-led Mexican uprising (Calling All Heroes); if he wants to dovetail Leonardo da Vinci’s invention of the bicycle with the theft of a kidney from a Texas female basketball player and usher onstage as investigator a doppelganger of himself or of Hector Belascoarán Shayne (Leonardo’s Bicycle); if he wants to kill off Shayne and in the next book (No Happy Ending, Return to the Same City) resurrect him… well, then, he does.

Whatever the story requires.

Paco on Shayne’s resurrection: “His appearance in these pages is… an act of magic… irrational and disrespectful toward the occupation of writing a mystery series… the story told here belongs to the terrain of absolute fiction, although Mexico is the same and belongs to the terrain of surprising reality.”

Story is all, then. And so Paco goes on pulling real rabbits from imaginary hats.

Initially, he says, he turned to crime fiction from a desire to escape the experimentalism then rampant, to find his way back to storytelling. Like many others (Roger Simon or Stephen Greenleaf in the States, the amazing Jean-Patrick Manchette in France, somewhat later Columbia’s Santiago Gamboa), Paco realized that the crime novel gives space and opportunity to address contemporary society as does no other venue, to recreate the actual textures and presence of street life and social levels about him, the flux of assumption and disinformation that keeps the social order afloat, the rifts between reality and appearance that both individual and society must negotiate again and again.

One further spur. Someone told Paco it was impossible to write a crime novel set in Mexico because the crime novel was by its very nature an Anglo genre. Given that, what choice did he have but to write one? Or a dozen?

Again and again here, I’ve struck out such formalities as Taibo and the author in favor of, simply, Paco. In the cloisters and hallways of my soul I see him striding towards me in T-shirt and leather jacket, Marlboro in one hand, Coke in the other. Uncomfortable at the table of privilege where, attending an international literary conference, he was seated, Paco has escaped. Paco’s flown, Paco’s once again out and about where he belongs, where all writers belong, at the world’s small, crowded, unkempt tables.

Reading, he tells us, the four or five of us there (for we contain multitudes), reading is the most subversive activity in life. Open any true book and you begin to see the world through somebody else’s eyes. Nothing is more redeeming than that, or more dangerous.

He believes, too, in the right to myths, the necessity of them. Speaking about Che and other heroes, even small heroes like Hector Belascoarán Shayne, helps us reclaim other rights: our right to romanticism, to adventure, to the sense that our lives are not shallow but infinitely deep, connected to history and to “all those who have no rights, those who suffer abuse their whole lives, people on the margins, the disinherited, the lepers, the poor, the least of the least.”

There’s the rabbit and the hat, then. And here’s Paco Taibo, writer, magician, small hero. The most important postman of all: the one who delivers you to yourself.

James Sallis
January 2002

This essay will appear as the afterword for a reissue of Paco Taibo’s An Easy Thing by The Poisoned Pen Press.

Copyright © 2002 by James Sallis.