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Just Passing Through

Boston Review Interview

No Happy Endings
John F. Baker and Paco Taibo discuss mysteries, Mexico, and Manhattan.

Paco Ignacio Taibo II is a teacher, unionist, activist, and editor, but above all he is a writer, an innovator of what he considers the most important art form of the late twentieth century: the mystery novel. Arriving for a public interview last December at the annual Club Med Mystery Forum, held this year on Columbus Island in the Bahamas, he was greeted by his Spanish-speaking peers—Cuban mystery writer Leonardo Padura, Colombian journalist and novelist Santiago Gamboa, and Joseph Angel Manas, from Spain—with cries of joys and shouts of laughter. Also enthusiastic were the French participants: Anne-Marie Metailie, his French editor at the publishing house that bears her name; Francois Guerif, the legendary mystery editor from Rivages; "noir" mystery writers Chantal Pelletier and Thiery Jonquet. Less welcoming, perhaps, were some of the American editors and writers attending the event, of whom one, responding to a journalist's query about a particularly caustic commentary on American publishing from Taibo, snapped: "I never pay attention to anything Paco says."

Born in Spain in 1949, Taibo has lived in Mexico since 1958, where he's published a dozen popular mystery novels, of which most—unusual for a Mexican writer—have been translated in English. Anthologist, historian, and essayist, Taibo has also been an ever-present voice in the small chorus of Mexican dissidents, relentlessly criticizing the corruption of his country's government, incarnating his politics not only in his always subversive fiction but in such works as his celebrated biography, Ernesto Guevara: El Che. With indefatigable energy, fueled by an ever-present Marlboro and an always-open can of Coke, Taibo answered questions posed by John F. Baker of Publisher's Weekly, of which a portion is excerpted below.
—Patrick Erouart

John F. Baker: I'd like to know where you feel most effective: when you're writing a biography of Che Guevara, which has received great literary acclaim, or when you working on a historical novel, which deals with Mexican politics.

Paco Ignacio Taibo II: Well, I always deal with this question. "Are you historian, are you a political organizer, are you a writer?" I don't think there's any difference at all. You just write the things you have to write. Then somebody appears and gives you a label of Historian. Okay, historian. Novelist. Okay, novelist. Number One Enemy of the Mexican Government, Okay, I like that. Always Politically Incorrect Organizer of Chaos. I like that one too.
Never in my life has a Mexican publisher dared to offer me a three-book contract. If he did that, he'd be mad, because he'd know my answer. My answer is: How do you know I'm going to write three books? What kind of book do you expect? I never know which will be my next book, and when I've said, "My next book is going to be this," I'm lying.

Baker: Just Passing Through is in fact a combination of fiction and history, is it not?

Taibo: Yes. I wanted to destroy the old idea that history is science and fiction is fantasy. Everybody knows that is not true. It's a game: Just Passing Through starts asking if it's really a novel, if it's rather a history book, because of this and this and this. And then, in the second paragraph, it says: this is a novel, this cannot be a history book, it's full of fiction. Then, in the third paragraph, what the hell is a novel, what the hell is a history book? The game is trying to destroy this secure attitude of historians to history and this secure attitude of fiction writers about fiction. There's nothing secure in history. I don't like security. History shouldn't be a secure space, a comfortable space. Comfortable for whom? Readers? Writers? It's the opposite.

Baker: The hero of your novels is Hector Belascoaran Shane, a Mexico City private detective with a passion for cigarettes and Coke, which you seem to share, and who lives alone in his apartment with a couple of ducks. What was the origin of Hector?

Taibo: First, the idea of writing a mystery came about because Mexico needed a space in which Mexican society could be addressed from the mystery perspective, from the tradition of crime fiction. That means: Who did it, why, and where? See, Mexican society is kind of isolated. You see only 10 percent of it. What's happening behind is the most important thing. Mexican society is full of disinformation, hidden things, strange stories behind reality, behind appearances. I felt when I was twenty years old that the mystery structure of storytelling was a very good front for Mexican society. Disinformation is the biggest Mexican art of the twentieth century. Therefore I decided mystery was the field to talk about the society. That was the first thing.
The second thing was that in the end of the 1960s, when I started writing, most of the young writers of my generation were mad about form. I was extremely bored by that. They were producing novels that nobody could read, a kind of doctors' language, in which a doctor can understand another doctor but nobody else. Then, in the Mexican literary scene in the 1960s, the experimental pressure was very, very strong. They were producing novels where they were losing the readers; there was no space for storytellers and readers. So this was a kind of reaction: to go back to storytelling.
Then there was a third thing. Somebody told me it was impossible to do a crime fiction novel in Mexico because that was an Anglo-Saxon genre. So I decided that it was a wise idea to go into this tradition and show that nothing is impossible in literature.
Finally, I created a character with this strange name, Hector, which can be Mexican or Greek or everything. Belascoaran is Basque, not common in Mexico: you cannot find a single Belascoaran in the Mexican telephone book. And Shane comes from the character in the Alan Ladd Western, Shane. I said if I can make readers believe in a guy with this name, I will succeed. See, the easy way out was using a Juan Martinez or Pedro Peres, but you don't construct a national genre with these imitations. You have to do it the hard way, not the easy way. And of course that was the first challenge of the book, making the character named Hector Belascoaran Shane to be believably Mexican to Mexicans. The amazing thing is that even now, 25 years later and with 150,000 copies of the Belascoaran novels sold in Mexico, Mexican radio speakers cannot pronounce Hector Belascoaran.
I knew I had succeeded when I found painted on a wall in Mexico City the graffiti: Belascoaran fucked them. Fucked who? Fucked them. Everybody knows who them is. Them is something linked to the state government and powers. And Belascoaran fucked them. It was beautiful. I asked my daughter, did you do it? And she said no, never in my life. I went out several times to take pictures. Ten more graffitis like that appeared in Mexico City, saying Belascoaran fucked them. I even planted a few of them myself.

Baker: I heard you've had problems getting published, getting reviewed—that sort of thing.

Taibo: It was beautiful, because things like this happened: my daughter called me and said, Jefe, you are number three on the bestseller list. I said, how did you know? She said, because I just heard the Mexican bestseller list on television, and they only gave the names of number two and number four. And it was true. I was a kind of nonexistent writer. My first book got three reviews in Mexico. Three very, very bad reviews. One of them was by a famous Mexican critic who reviews one book daily, and reads one book a year, something like that. He'd read the flaps only. The second book got two reviews, also very bad. And I said well, the third one will get one review, and by the fourth I will disappear. But I disappeared even faster than that: the third one got no reviews at all. Only, it made the bestseller list in Mexico City. It was a kind of beautiful game where readers supported the structure. And therefore it was easy.

Baker: I know you see the books as vehicles for social ideas. There's a quote in Just Passing Through: "Here's how it is. You go to a harbor, there are three steamers waiting. You want to travel, you want to move, you want to be at one with the world, you want to live. One of the steamers says To Hell, another one says Exploitation, Trickery, Capital, and the other says Social Revolution. You either stay in the harbor, watch the ships steam away with your baggage on one of them—you don't know which—or you make up your mind and get on board." You've got on board.

Taibo: But I do not think—let me put this very clearly. I do not think that books are vehicles for social propositions. When I want to write an article in the newspaper and make very clear my opposition to the government, I do it. I don't think literature is the ship in which you can carry things. The book is book, and when you have stories to tell, the story goes in the book.

My social perception of Mexican society goes into my books, it's there, but it's not an explicit thing. You cannot send that kind of open message to the reader. You have to tell a story, and then let the reader take part, have the perception, see the way you see. I've always believe that literature is the most subversive space of cultural creation in the world, but not because you can put ideas in it, use it as a vehicle to transport ideas. Rather, because when you open a book you can see the world through somebody else's eyes. And I think that is the most subversive experience in life. Being for fifteen hours a Jewish Dutch teenager—reading Ann Frank's diary—can be one of the most subversive experiences in your life. Being a black woman from Haiti for sixteen hours, reading a historical novel set in the nineteenth century, can be one of the most subversive experiences. And I think literature is subversive because of that. This ability to put yourself into somebody else's eyes—somebody else's perception of life, war, geography, space. The ability of the book to make you, for a while, be an other. The most subversive experience in creation is make somebody else be an other for a while, to break the jail in which every one of us lives every day.
That's my idea of subversion, not the very tired idea of putting subversive words in the words of exemplary characters, so we can follow them.

Baker: Do you see yourself as a kind of union organizer for crime writers? You have your international crime writers association, and you organize an annual get-together of them in Dijon, the Semana Negra. Do you like the idea of "crime writers of the world, unite"?
Taibo: Yes, but for a different reason than the apparent reason. The reason is something very simple. In the mid-1970s, I realized that crime fiction was the most important literature being produced in the world at that time, the most interesting space for ideas, perceptions of society, reflections about relations between crime and structures of power, racial issues. The most interesting things produced at the end of the twentieth century in world literature, from my point of view, were produced in this genre.

Baker: What's been your American publishing experience?

Taibo: The Anglo-Saxon publishers' world is amazing. They live on an island. Not Manhattan, Manhattan is a real island. No, no—this is a small island, in which there are only Anglo-Saxon people. And they believe there is nothing outside. I don't know how they arrive at this lie. But they make it true. See, at this very huge American publishing house, the publisher told me once that he didn't read in any other language than English, and he has no readers in other languages, because he doesn't need them. I was really shocked by this announcement. I said, how can you be such an asshole? A small publishing house in Spain, and I mean small, they have readers in French, Russian, German, of course in Spanish, Italian, English, even in Greek. That's small publishing house in Spain. And here, in the center of the publishing world, in New York, you don't read other languages?

Paco Ignacio Taibo II is the author of more than a dozen novels and histories, including Just Passing Through and No Happy Ending. John F. Baker is an editor at Publisher's Weekly.

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