Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Review: Mexico City Noir

Mexico City Noir. Edited by Paco Ignacio Taibo II, Translated by Achy Obejas. NY: Akashic Books, 2010.
ISBN-13: 978-1-933354-90-3

Michael Sedano

When Akashic Books' Tim McLoughlin and Johnny Temple hit on the idea of a city themed collection, commencing with Brooklyn Noir, it must have seemed like a good idea. Now, with dozens of cities all over the world noired, it's obviously an idea whose time has come and keeps on coming. How deliciously endless its possibilities!

I'm waiting for Redlands Noir and Isla Vista Noir, and how cool would it be to see Hwa-ak-ni Noir? For now, however, I'm more than happy to take a walk on the dark side of one of my favorite non-hometown cities, el Defie, la Capirucha,"the best city on the planet," per the introduction by writer extraordinoir Paco Ignacio Taibo II, Mexico City.

Taibo, and his translator, the accomplished Cubana noirista Achy Obejas, do not make a very good case for that sentimental ascription. As TaibObejas note, if you were assaulted on the streets of Mexico City you wouldn't call a cop. "What do you want, to be assaulted twice?"

The editor collects his material in three parts featuring four stories each. Part I, Above the Law, spotlights four stories that reinforce that implict indictment of D.F. cops' murderous venality with a variety of cop lowlifes. The opening story, from Colonia Narvarte, offers a fevered monologue of a homeless vato who, brutalized in the course of witnessing a cop crime, pushes his shopping cart in a vain journey to escape the memory and a second encounter with the cops. Taibo's own story, "The Corner" set in Colonia Doctores, plays with point of view that beguiles with misdirection. A writer, Fierro, friendly with Manterola, the local beat cop, banters about this crime and that criminal, and the single most crime-ridden corner in the city. Fierro is engaged by the "top dog" of the city's police establishment, seeking ideas on how to change that locus of danger. Fierro's first suggestion, give the corner to sister city Los Angeles, gets a chuckle. The next suggestion, send the cops on vacation to Acapulco, doesn't. But a cultural festival with poetry and music and conga lines is the writer's answer. The story's also Taibo's in-joke, adding to the grim fun of the piece. There's a store named the Flor de Gijón--Taibo's hometown; Fierro gets several chapters out of the corner in a novel, i.e., this story; and the bad cop loses an eye to some angry convict, an echo of Taibo's one-eyed detective, Hector Belascoaran Shayne.

Part II, Dead Men Walking, presents first person narratives by witnesses or victims. An interesting piece, Myriam Laurini's "Violeta Isn't Here Anymore," could as readily fit into part I. Purporting to transcribe audiotapes of witness statements, the reader stares aghast at cold cynicism of a cop willing to trash the lives of anyone involved in a crime just because he can. Adding interest to the story is Laurini's ascent into surrealism when the cops begin to see parallels between the investigation and a Borges story, "The Aleph". By the wrap of events, elements of the Borges story overlap the crime narrative leaving everything hanging in a literary ambiguity.

Part III, Suffocation City, contains an abysmally dense experimental story, Eduardo Monteverde's "God Is Fanatical, Hija," involving transgender priests and nuns, buggering cops, and cannibalism. So thoroughly weird and wild, I hear echoes of William Burroughs' drug-spawned Naked Lunch rippling through the depravity of Monteverde's plot. It's deeply disturbingly strange. Taibo rewards the reader for patience with Monteverde with a finishing pair of more conventional tales, Victor Luis González "Of Cats and Murders" and Julia Rodríguez' RENO. In the former, echoes of the JFK assassination reverberate, in the latter the victim of gang rape may have ended up in tamales.

Mexico City Noir is one of those volumes that cries out for facing page translation, if for no other reason than to enjoy the vituperative resources of Defie Spanish. Obejas usually resorts to "fuck" in a variety of settings that leave me wondering how the conversation goes down in the writer's own idiom. Obejas elects an easy-going narrative style that sounds the same voice from story to story. To her credit, the translation has few of the intercultural irritations seen in less able translations. Obejas recognizes that some things can be said in only one language, so a cabrón is a cabrón, a .45 caliber bullet pulverizes 20 centimeters of one's heart, not 7-plus inches, but Temeraria is reckless, including italics in a clever reversal of the "foreign word" orthography rule of Unitedstatesian publishing.

Readers will enjoy experiencing numerous Mexicano and two Mexicana writers likely unknown to U.S. or Canadian readers. Taibo, of course, is well-known, as perhaps twice-Hammett prized Rolo Diez, whose excellent cop novel, Tequila Blue was translated by the British publisher Bitter Lemon Press. The author thumbnails at the end identify Julia Rodríguez as among the first Mexican noir writers, and Laurini as one of the first women noir writers in Mexico. Per the back cover, many of the stories are brand-new for this collection.

Last time I was in Mexico City, the locals advised I not wear a wrist watch, to blend in better. My digital camera obviously fooled everyone but one taxi driver who relentlessly asked if I came to Mexico loaded with cash. "Nel," I told him, I'd come to borrow money from relatives. Wonder if I woulda called the cops if the cabrón had pulled a knife?

That's the view from Mexico City this second Tuesday of December. A Tuesday like any other Tuesday, except You Are Here. Watch out for those tamales with rings in them, it might not be a simple children's story.

Les wachamos.


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