Arts & Culture » Book Feature

Magical Nihilism

The Alarming Absence Of Good Mexican Literature In Translation.

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Just Passing Through, by Paco Ignacio Taibo II, tr. Martin Michael Roberts (Cinco Puntos Press). Cloth, $21.95.

Tula Station, by David Toscana, tr. Patricia J. Duncan (St. Martin's). Cloth, $23.95.

A WELCOME DIVERSITY of new titles by Mexican-American writers is ready to hand in any bookshop, but little contemporary writing from Mexico itself is available to the English-language reader. The plenitude of the one, contrasted to the dearth of the other, implies distinctions in content and audience. Ironically, there seems to be an avid readership in the United States for even sharply critical books about the immigrant or minority experience of Mexican-Americans, while publishers remain yawningly indifferent to new books indigenous to Mexico.

Two newly available books suggest that sadly prosaic market considerations drive publishers' decisions, and betray the moguls' interesting calculations and perceptions.

Spanish-born Paco Ignacio Taibo II is today one of Mexico's leading men of letters. He was brought to Mexico by his parents when he was nine, and he has been prominent as an activist, political journalist, historian and biographer in his adopted country since his days with the ill-fated student rebellion of 1968. An official with the Mexico City administration of left-wing reformer Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, he is also president of the International Association of Crime Writers. After Octavio Paz, Carlos Fuentes and Laura Esquivel, he is probably the Mexican author best known in the United States, where Taibo first editions in translation are finding their way into rare-book catalogues.

Taibo was first introduced to English-language readers by the prestigious Viking Press (An Easy Thing, 1990), which was surely aware that in the historically resonant, politically radical subtext of this book they had much more than an appealing hard-boiled detective novel in the tradition of Raymond Chandler.

The detective, Hector Belascarón Shayne, is a roguish personification of anarchist ideology, much bruised in resistance to all authority, but forever cracking wise with his world-weary working-class neighbors. Taibo's political radicalism was easily lost on U.S. readers, but Belascarón was a familiar and endearing character, a mustachioed Philip Marlowe of the tropics. Soon, Taibo and his detective were demoted from Viking to a successful run (well worth searching out) with The Mysterious Press, a firm specializing in crime novels.

Before this happened, though, Viking had printed The Shadow of the Shadow (1991), a splendid novel that honors the anarcho-syndicalist streetcar workers on strike in Mexico City in April 1922, and advances a theme of comradeship among oppressed workers and intellectuals. Embedded as a character in The Shadow of the Shadow is Sebastián San Vicente, a real-life internationalist labor organizer who was twice deported from Mexico by the Obregón government.

Now, from Cinco Puntos Press of El Paso, a niche publisher of Mexican and Mexican-American literature with "generous support" from the National Endowment for the Arts, comes Just Passing Through. This is Taibo's novelized biography of Sebastián San Vicente, which in Mexican publication as De Paso preceded The Shadow of the Shadow and was its seed material, something rather like a novelist's character outline. Such public processing of a work in progress is common enough in many countries, but it is relatively rare in the U.S.

Just Passing Through is charming enough in its way. Sebastián is highly idealized, and the police goons he outwits are slapstick cartoons of the Keystone Kop variety. A tone of humor and nostalgia elegizes the optimistic, naive spirit of international revolution and worker solidarity early in the 20th century, a movement that died with Sacco and Vanzetti and the Spanish Republic. This is valuable material for North American readers, since the radical labor movement has been all but expunged from introductory United States history texts. Just Passing Through also introduces key points of anarchist philosophy in succinct, easily digestible conversations and parables, and could thus be helpful to anyone puzzled by the recent protests in Seattle and Washington, D.C. against the international trade and banking system.

Still, it's only a slight forethought to the fully realized novel Viking brought out nine years ago.

Some of Taibo's postmodernist experimentation with form is interesting, yet again it's only a warm-up for his much more densely accomplished use of this method in another fictionalized biography, Guevara, Also Known As Che, published by St. Martin's Press in 1997.

Accepting gratefully the government subsidy, $21.95 remains a lot to pay for what is, in effect, a literary curiosity. Doubtless, Taibo's name brings prestige and some sales to the list of a new, specialized publisher with a small distribution base, but neither this book nor Cinco Puntos Press can add much to the author's North American reputation.

A similar thinking can be discerned in the St. Martin's Press presentation of Tula Station by David Toscana, a young writer from Monterrey. Tula Station is Toscana's second novel, his first to be published in English--following, oddly enough, its publication in Arabic.

It's easy to imagine cynical editors in New York reflecting on the success in the US marketplace of blockbusters like One Hundred Years of Solitude, Love in the Time of Cholera and Like Water for Chocolate, and then choosing to publish Tula Station. If magical realism is what they like, they reason, magical realism is what we'll give them. In this way, perhaps, the limited space on a major US publisher's list for works in translation, and for Mexican books in particular, was filled by an off-putting book, distinguished only by a fashionable technique thought mistakenly to be characteristically Latin American. Here, magical realism is a garbling device, rather than an illumination.

To tease out the memories of an old man confined to a nursing home, Toscana employs a layered narrative, pieced together from a diary, tape recordings, footnotes and authorial commentary. The memories create a village that makes war with pianos; a Cave of Rattlesnakes from which a hunchbacked hero mysteriously comes and goes through time; the idea of the one "right" woman who will be known on sight. These inquiries into memory are financed by a sheet of old Mexican postage stamps picturing Miguel Hidalgo, and Toscana lards in passing references to other historical figures and incidents.

Unfortunately, despite all its busyness, Tula Station lacks maturity and scope as a novel, while offering a non-Mexican reader no special insight into its home country. The publisher seeks to compensate for this defect by an evocative dust jacket, replete with a Zapotec labyrinth overlaid by a portrait of Emiliano Zapata with sombrero and bandolier. Inside, the book is a tour de force of too subtle typesetting. This makes Tula Station no more than an attractive object.

Readers can hope that US publishers will continue to probe the potential market for Mexican writing in translation, encouraged by the burgeoning market for Mexican-American authors and changing demographics. But their cautious trading on familiar names, styles and graphic images is regrettable. Success will come when publishers, readers and writers all feel equally willing to take risks.

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