The Austin Chronicle


Reviewed by Jay Trachtenberg, August 29, 2003, Books

Returning as Shadows: A Novel of Mexico, 1941

by Paco Ignacio Taibo II, translated by Ezra E. Fitz

Thomas Dunne Books, 455 pp., $25.95 After messing with your mind for nearly 400 pages of often dazzling, sometimes confounding intrigue and fantasy, acclaimed Mexican author Paco Ignacio Taibo cleverly lays his cards on the table. He admonishes those readers who expect a novel (his novel!) to abide by niceties like providing instructive information and coherence, repairing life's inconsistencies, and affording them with neatly tailored beginnings and endings. No way. "The novel is not a tool for giving order to chaos ... they are not born to satisfy our desires and whims ... they are for creating chaos, for stirring it up and enjoying it." To this end, Taibo has succeeded admirably, keeping the reader on his toes from start to finish. This story is a sequel to Taibo's 1986 book The Shadow of the Shadow, a mystery of sorts involving four opinionated characters who meet regularly to play dominoes. We revisit the foursome, now admittedly "shadows" of their former selves: a one-armed poet turned government secret agent, a suicidal newspaper crime reporter, a Chinese-Mexican union organizer turned rural guerrilla, and a disreputable lawyer incarcerated in an insane asylum. It is 20 years later, in 1941, with war raging in Europe and Nazi agents in Mexico City furtively conspiring to establish an Axis stronghold at America's doorstep. Based loosely on true events, the story unfolds in short chapters that skip from one character to the next with regularly intermittent segments of "Interruptions and Invasions" that both enlighten and befuddle. Taibo wears his leftist political leanings on his sleeve, and they provide context for much of the humor. Historical and literary figures abound, with Graham Greene, Diego Rivera, and Edgar Rice Burroughs making surprise appearances. Most notable is Ernest Hemingway, who, while sleeping off a hangover at his poolside in Cuba, wakes to find himself in a card game with our intrepid quartet. Elsewhere, Taibo taunts us with a beautiful, mind-reading, fascist-sympathizing Senegalese temptress, only to have her vanish and then suddenly reappear briefly 200 pages later. It is the intermingling of noirish wartime espionage and leavening fantastical realism, often in the guise of the "insane" musings of our incarcerated lawyer, that gives the narrative its unsettling edge and disquiet. Taibo's work is often hard to find in this country, so fans should savor his rambunctiousness and chaos.

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