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The Shadow of the Shadow

Columbus Dispatch

Compelling characters found in old Mexico

The four heroes of the Paco Ignacio Taibo II novel The Shadow of the Shadow are the poet (Fermin Valencia), the journalist (Pioquinto Manterola), the lawyer (Alberto Verdugo) and the Chinaman (Tomas Wong). The historical novel, released in 1991 and recently reissued, is set in 1922 in Mexico City. The revolution has ended, although civil war lurks on the horizon in an apparently endless cycle of violence.

The quartet meets each night in the bar of the Majestic Hotel in central Mexico City to philosophize, ruminate, drink and play dominoes. Lest the reader of this compelling mystery take the foursome for an effete brandy klatch, Taibo is quick to dispel the notion: Three officers enter the Majestic and begin to hurl insults at Tomas, calling him a "slant eye" and a "chink."

"The Chinaman looked the officers over one by one," says the narrator, deadpan. "His disdain could easily be mis-interpreted as fear by the drunken men. It would be a big mistake."

Taibo delights in such understatement.
Tomas is a union organizer with ham fists and a short fuse. The poet, lawyer and journalist also overflow with tes-tosterone. An army officer is murdered while playing trombone in a band on an outdoor stage. Another officer, the man's brother, is either thrown out of or falls to his death from a fourth-floor window. The reporter writes a story. The shadow deepens. A car drives by, its occupants opening fire on the quartet. Our heroes return fire. The bad guys are cut down.
The price on their heads was 300 pesos. But now, according to an informant and would-be hit man, the price of murder has doubled.

"You just put 600 pesos on the table there and I'll personally take care of the man who hired Gallego and Felipe (to kill you)," he explains. "I'd enjoy it, too, because the man in question never even bothered to tell those poor boys that you fellows knew how to shoot. They went off to hunt rabbits and ended up with a bunch of Apaches."

The Shadow of the Shadow is ostensibly about imperialism (foreign oil interests might be behind all the murders) and nationalism (with a small "n") and the struggle to establish labor unions in an anarchic country. But Taibo never beats the reader with the message. His characters talk and drink and sometimes fight; then they talk some more. They escape attempts on their lives, all the while moving closer to the Shadow, a nebulous presence that threatens them all.

The heroes are warmblooded creatures, living and breathing in a palpable world, expertly described by their creator. The poet "lived a life filled with invisible pages all covered with his invisible thoughts which he tried in vain to re-capture, late into the night or mornings round about dawn, with a real piece of paper on the desk in front of him, disconsolately empty."

The journalist is about to turn 39, when "crime reporters like this one tend to go transcendental, to look back over their life as if it were a drawerful of old debts, goals unmet, moribund illusions, wasted loves."

These are easy characters to root for -- beaten down but not defeated, bewildered but unafraid, smart but brutal. Taibo has it both ways: He paints modest studies of humans as well as a mural of Mexican politics, history and the labor movement. That puts him well ahead of his journalist, who complains of being "always too caught up in the details, the little stories, not with the big ideas."
- January 14, 2007 

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