By December 14, 2007 0 Comments Read More →

Why We Need to Talk About Books 2: Dead Zapatistas

A brilliantly funny new political novel is the Mexican mystery, The Uncomfortable Dead – but I would have misunderstood it, considered it flawed by an odd surrealism, and possibly even accused it of (gulp!) magical realism, without the explanation provided by a book club member.

The novel is written by two authors in alternating chapters. One author is the popular Mexican mystery writer, Paco Ignacio Taibo II, whose cigarette-smoking, Coke-draining detective Hector Belascoaran Shayne appears in several previous novels and operates out of Mexico City.

The hilarious part of The Uncomfortable Dead is the other half of the chapters, told by sixty-year-old country yokel investigator from the mountains of Chiapas, Elias Contreras, who has been assigned to go to that confusing place, Mexico City, where they do things differently. These satirical chapters are the work of the second author, the real-life revolutionary leader of the Zapatistas, Subcomandante Marcos, the intellectual who led the indigenous insurgency movement, whose face has never been seen without a ski mask. And this guy is a brilliant writer, cleverly literate and wildly funny.

My only problem with the novel was the way some of the characters, including Elias, referred to themselves as dead. I didn’t understand why dead characters were walking around acting like living characters. It added a non-realistic flavor to some of the dialogue, and at first it annoyed me, and then I ignored it.

Enter book club member Sheri Lockwood, a University of Washington employee, who suddenly flipped the light switch that explained it all. In real life, when the peasants joined the Zapatista movement, they automatically began referring to themselves as “dead” from that moment on, assuming it was just a matter of time before they were killed. Not a surrealistic touch, at all, but grimly realistic dialogue I hadn’t understood.

We read the same mystery novel in the International Book Club, a campus-based University of Washington group focused on international students. That afternoon a woman attended who’d never been with us before, who had actually experienced the Zapatistas first hand on a recent vacation. She and her family had been driving through Chiapas, Mexico, when they noticed that all the cars up ahead were being flagged over to the side of the road by peasants. They found themselves in the hands of the revolutionaries. Instead of being tortured and shot, they were seated at picnic tables, generously fed and entertained, and then sent on their way.

The same kind of infectious Zapatista good nature infuses the funny Elias chapters, in a book that was made more meaningful with the kind of enrichment provided by two good book clubs.

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About the Author:

Nick DiMartino is a university bookseller in Seattle, WA. He was a Booklist contributor from 2007 to 2009 and is the author of Seattle Ghost Story (1998) as well as numerous plays.

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