My mystery book group met this past Saturday to discuss Paco Ignacio Taibo II’s novel The Shadow of the Shadow, which was published in 1986 in Mexico. The discussion was lively, as usual, and opinions were mixed. Mine was one of the more positive views of the book; we’ve started rating our books on a scale of 1 to 10 after we finish the discussion, just for the fun of it, and I gave this one a 7 (and a couple others agreed). To me that meant that the book was a very enjoyable read, but that it didn’t blow me away or leave me determined to read lots of books by this author.
The book is a historical mystery, set in 1920s Mexico, and it deals with the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution, which began in 1910. The world of the novel is one where no one can be trusted, betrayal and violence are everywhere, politics make little sense, revolutions inevitably lead to disappointment and further oppression, and the smartest thing to do is to lie low and stay out of trouble.
That’s certainly what the four main characters want to do, but, of course — or this wouldn’t be much of a novel — they can’t. Instead of the usual one main character, in this novel we get four, and none of them ever emerges as the leader of the group. Instead, once they find themselves drawn into political controversy, they work together to try to get themselves out of it. As the novel begins, one of the men sees a murder of a trombonist who is playing with his band in the park. Shortly afterward, another main character sees a man falling out of a window and a woman looking out the window after him. Soon enough, the characters find themselves enmeshed in a complicated, thoroughly confusing web of political controversy and violence.
I won’t even try to describe the plot any further, because it’s very complicated, but I found it fun to follow. Even more fun, though, was following the relationships among the main characters. The novel’s central conceit is that they are avid dominoes players, and that the basis of their friendship is the games they play night after night. They don’t share much with each other, but the game playing has created a bond among them that leaves them feeling loyal enough to go to great risks for each other. Instead of using their given names, Taibo often refers to most of them by their professions — we have a poet, a lawyer, a reporter, and then the last character is a union organizer, but he is usually refered to as Tomas, or as the Chinaman (who was actually born in Mexico but who speaks with a Chinese accent anyway, and the way that accent gets portrayed is the book’s one really annoying attribute). The characters aren’t terribly well-developed, which comes as no surprise once you know they are usually referred to by their professions or nationality, but we’re given enough to make them interesting and to come to care about what happens to them.
There’s a great emphasis put on language in this book, partly through the reporter, who has much to say about the importance of a free press and who at one point gathers his fellow newspaper editors together to get them involved in solving the mystery. They put the idea of the power of the press to an unusual test. And there is also the poet who is inspired to write poetry at some fairly intense moments, and who also writes advertising slogans at a time when people hadn’t quite realized their potential power. He spends much of his time on those slogans, as they are how he makes a living, but his heart is in his poetry and he is taken with the power of language.
It’s possible to argue that this book makes a conservative argument that political change is dangerous and inevitably violent and that all we can really rely on is friendships among individuals. But Tomas undermines that argument with his work as a union organizer. He is the most serious and politically committed of all the four, and he works hard and makes great sacrifices for the union cause. If it weren’t for him, it would seem that political activism is a waste of time in this novel, but he never loses his loyalty to the cause, and that loyalty is portrayed as admirable.
People in the book group described this novel as like a Quentin Tarantino film in the way that both are full of violence and treat that violence in a light-hearted, funny, over-the-top way. Certainly there is much in Taibo’s book that is exaggerated and grotesque; there is so much violence, and so much of it is stereotyped — there are poisoned chocolates, for example. It’s like he is giving us a survey of all the horrible things that happen in thrillers. I think the Tarantino comparison is valid, but I also think it’s a very different thing to watch a movie and read a book with that kind of tone. The book didn’t feel cold and threatening as violent movies feel to me; instead, we’re given enough room to care for the characters.
So, I liked this book, but I should warn you that others in the group found it dull. I think I’ve come to like books that are playful in tone, especially when they are playful about genre, and that was much of the fun for me.