Taibo’s Latino gumshoe

A few months ago Carlos Fuentes and Gabriel Garcia Marquez dined with Bill Clinton, and the conversation turned to books. The Latin literary giants wanted to know what the U.S. president was curling up with. Clinton replied he enjoyed Faulkner and also detective fiction. Right now he’s reading something by a Mexican author: Paco Ignacio Taibo II.

An account of the dinner appeared in the Spanish paper El Pais. “All my friends in Spain faxed me copies of the article,” Taibo says, gesturing to a copy taped to an overcrowded bookshelf. “My daughter stuck it up there to remind me that I’m famous.”

Taibo should need no reminding. A founding member of the Intl. Assn. of Crime Writers, twice the recipient of the Hammet Prize for best Spanish language crime novel, he has been writing bestsellers for 20 years. His works have appeared in a dozen languages and his novel “No Happy Ending” made The New York Times’ Books of the Year list for 1993.

Though he’s also the biographer of last year’s left-wing presidential candidate, Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, his reputation owes largely to the moody hero of nine detective novels: Hector Belascoaran Shayne.

Born to a Basque father and an Irish mother but a product of urban Mexico, Belascoaran is the classic outsider in his own milieu. He’s a loner, a chain-smoker and drinks cases of… Pepsi. An engineer by training, he despairs of police inability to curb the city’s rampant crime and elects to fight it himself.

“Belascoaran wants to amend injustices because that’s the only way to be a citizen in a noncitizen society,” Taibo explains.

Like his detective, Taibo is incensed by the level of crime in the capital and by a powerlessness among ordinary Mexicans that renders them “non-citizens.” His criticism of the judiciary and the police is constant: “They are the criminal system. Abuse of power is the law.”

That doesn’t make Belascoaran a self-righteous crusader. Part of the character’s appeal as a private eye are his complexities and idiosyncrasies. He can’t maintain relationships with women and, like a little kid, crosses his fingers when he tells a lie. Though he curses Mexico City, he misses it as soon as he leaves.

A love-hate relationship with the capital is something Taibo shares. Himself an outsider of sorts (born in Spain to anarchist parents who moved to Mexico when he was three), Taibo finds in the city a thriving cultural ambience and a great poetry in its street life.

Taibo recalls a distant summer afternoon when he was walking near the downtown Fine Arts Palace and came upon the chorus and orchestra of the opera gathered outside. All were on strike, and to publicize their protest the artists were performing selections from Wagner’s “Flying Dutchman.”

It was raining, Taibo recalls, and the audience largely consisted of beggar women and street vendors. “I still see the faces of those women, who never in their lives had heard opera,” Taibo says. “They were at first shocked, then amazed. There was magic all around.”

Though a self-described social anarchist, Taibo steers clear of making political prescriptions. But he does say there are two keys to surviving in this metropolis: a sense of ethics and a sense of humor. Riding his motorbike, Taibo has been stopped by the capital’s notoriously venal traffic cops nine times, but unlike the vast majority of motorists, he’s never paid a bribe.

And he delights in the macabre humor of chilangos, as the capital’s natives are known. “This is an irrational city,” he says. There is “a dark sense of humor in which you talk of awful things and then smile, because it’s a way of exorcising the demons.”

Taibo displays his own vein of black humor when he pokes fun at his earnest detective in unexpected moments. In “Some Clouds” Taibo punctuates a melancholy conversation between Belascoaran and a contact: “They watched the rain and downed their Cokes like a pair of diabetics in a suicide pact.”

Because Taibo is a prolific columnist and speaker – he gives around 300 interviews a year and often travels to the U.S. on book tours – it’s a wonder he gets any writing done. Yet now, at age 45, Taibo is as prolific as ever.

Recently he’s been talking to Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo (“The Battle of Algiers,” “Burn!”), who’s interested in acquiring the rights to his just-completed “The Year We Were Nowhere,” a semifictional account of the year Che Guevara spent in the African Congo.

The novel is a prelude to Taibo’s most ambitious work yet: a full-length biography of the revolutionary. He began it eight years ago and hopes to publish simultaneously in Spanish and English late next year in time for the 30th anniversary of Che’s execution in 1967.

Though Taibo doesn’t seem to be the competitive kind, he knows of five other Che biographies now in the works. Yet, so long as Clinton and others El Norte read Taibo’s version, it’s safe to assume the Mexican will be happy.

Taibo’s most recently published work in English is Hammet Award-winner “Leonard’s Bicycle,” published by Mysteryous Press. A paperback version of “Four Hands,” in Picador, is due out in July.

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