Friday, November 13, 2009

Shadow of the Shadow

Paco Ignacio Taibo, II, translated by William I Neuman. The Shadow of the Shadow. El Paso, TX: Cinco Puntos Press, 1991.

(The book was originally published in Mexico in 1986. Don't you just love that publisher's name, "Cinco Puntos Press"?)

I am way behind these days. The CT mystery book club actually met to discuss this book last Saturday, but life has gotten in the way of reading as of late (at least reading anything that needs close attention), and I didn't get it read in time to write a post that would do it justice. Thus, here we are, nearly a week after everyone has already discussed it and probably has no interest in what I have to say. Oh well...

I have to admit that I approached this book with some trepidation. I'm not a big fan of historical mysteries, for some reason, and, being a typical American, I (despite being an editor of multicultural studies) know nothing about Mexico and its history. I feared references to all kinds of stuff I wouldn't understand and the need to spend hours on line trying to wade through material that would fill a semester-long course on Mexican history. I needn't have feared.

Yes, there were references to historic events that I didn't understand, and this book may have been better if I weren't so ignorant, but it didn't matter. Somehow, I just found the book so appealing (horrible violence and all. Someday, I'm going to have to figure out my relationship with violence. I think I don't like it, often find its details to be unnecessary, but I seem, sometimes, to have a high tolerance for it). First of all, all the main characters (a poet, a Chinese-Mexican union organizer, a journalist, and a lawyer), our "detectives," if you will, all get together to play dominoes on a regular basis. (Here's one of those little-known facts about me that I probably ought to save for the next Facebook meme I get tagged to do: I love to play dominoes. Not straight-up dominoes, but fun variations like the Mexican train game, chicken foot, and wildfire). Each of the chapter openers for this book had a picture of a domino bone or two with the dots that corresponded to the chapter numbers (a clever design element that immediately made me appreciate the publisher). How could I possibly not be drawn to a book whose first chapter is entitled "In Which the Characters Play Dominoes," with subsequent chapter titles such as "In Which the Characters Play Dominoes and Discover That the Trombonist and Lady Are Connected" and ""In Which the Characters Play Dominoes and Decide That the Archangel Gabriel is Calling on Them to Intervene?" Not all the chapters involve playing dominoes, but I came to look forward to the ones that did.

I can't quite pinpoint why, but somehow, this book had a very G.K. Chesterton feel to it. Maybe it was the hint of surrealism. Maybe it was the way that events, which at first seemed random and completely unconnected, soon found themselves falling on top of each other (yes, just like setting off a row of dominoes), so that it became impossible for one thing not to affect another (or for each falling domino not to knock down another). With a lesser writer, this might not have worked, might have been all too obvious and seemed very contrived, but I felt it worked beautifully in Ignacio Taibo's hands, and I loved it for its cleverness.

Or maybe I thought of Chesterton (especially The Man Who Was Thursday) because so much wasn't what it seems to be. For instance, we have a poet (how romantic, right?) who is really someone who writes ad copy. We have a lawyer (how noble, huh?) who defends prostitutes, becoming involved with one. We have a Chinese-Mexican who can't pronounce his "r's," even though he has lived in Mexico all his life and doesn't speak Chinese.

It's all quite humorous, and that's what I didn't expect. I don't know why I keep forgetting that humor seems to be a strong component of this genre. Certainly, so many of the books we've read for this discussion group have made that clear, but still, I picked this one up, expecting it to be dead serious from beginning to end. It wasn't, at least, not completely. Yes, a good deal of it was very serious: murder and revolution and violence and all that, but it was handled with humorous reprieve. Some of that humor was quite subtle. I loved this line when I came across it,

"Jacinto Huitron was scheduled to speak following the overture (Wagner, oh well)." (p. 56)

That's my sentiment exactly (despite being married to a man who has been desperately trying to get me to like Wagner from the moment we met).

This was definitely not a book for a nineteenth-century Lady, though. Some of the humor was quite raunchy, and talk about "boys being boys." Not that that is a criticism coming from me. I happen to love boys, especially when they show that they know how to have fun and not take life too seriously and banter back and forth over endless games of dominoes (well, except when they forgot those are real guns and knives they have in their hands and that fighting can lead to death).

I had no problem getting into the whole "whodunit?" aspect of the book, either. That may sound like an odd thing to say, but believe it or not, I often find myself thinking "Oh, who really cares?" if a murder or mystery isn't portrayed in just the right way. This one was good. Things happened very matter-of-factly but in such a way that I wanted to know why, wanted to know what was really happening, especially as the friends got together and discussed the various events they had witnessed or had been a part of. And "matter-of-fact" is how I would describe Ignacio Taibo's writing style, as well. (Although the thought did cross my mind: how much is that his true style and how much is the translator's? It's difficult to know when you can't read the original). He's a very interesting writer, though, because he is very straightforward and then will suddenly surprise with some insightful, often poetic, detail, as he does here:

The widow stared at him, searching for some sign in the journalist's face.
But her violet eyes probed deeper, until she found the wound left there by
another woman, the wound with its vulnerable scar tissue. (p. 53)

Ultimately, though, the whodunit didn't matter so much. These characters had endeared themselves to me. I wanted to read just to see what was going to happen to them. I like it when an author seems to have a genuine fondness for his characters, when he's aware that we're all human, that we all have good and bad sides. It takes talent to get a reader to warm up to characters who are engaging in reprehensible acts. But I did. I just wanted to walk into that bar, pull up a chair, order a strong drink, and play dominoes with them all night.

And there you have it: yet another example of a book I didn't think I was going to like that I ended up liking very much. Will I read more Ignacio Taibo? Probably not, but I'm glad I read this one.

(Oh, and there is one good thing about being late to post on this: I can tell you what the next book is. We're going to be reading The Yellow Room by Mary Roberts Rinehart.)


litlove said...

I'm interested! I read Dorothy's review and so it was intriguing to have another take on the book. I am just not doing so good with violence lately, so I probably won't pick this one up myself. But the beauty of blog reviews is that I feel you've read the book so I don't have to!

Rebecca H. said...

I'm glad you liked the book too. I wish you could have been at the meeting! I feel similarly ambivalent about violence, and my response must have something to do not with the violence itself, but with the context or the writing style, or whether I care about the characters. There wasn't anything threatening about the larger atmosphere of the book, and so the violence was easier to take. And I think it's easier to read about than to see on the screen.

I love playing dominoes too; my mom taught us a dominoes game called 42 -- we'll have to trade games sometime!