Ballad of Borderlandia | Arts Feature | Indy Week

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Ballad of Borderlandia

Paco Taibo's postmodern Mexican detective unravels the secret of Mexican identity

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Frontera Dreams is the latest of Paco Ingacio Taibo II's eight Mexican private eye novels to be translated into English starring Héctor Belascoarán Shayne, the Coca-Cola-drinking Mexican detective descended (on his mother's side) from American pulp fiction heroes of the 1950s. A hybrid creature wandering the U.S.-Mexico border, Belascoarán Shayne feels like a "foreigner" even in his beloved Mexico. He's obsessed with the past, particularly the era of high idealism that ended in 1968, when the government killed over 300 peaceful student demonstrators in Mexico City just before the Olympic Games were scheduled to be held there. On top of his emotional scars, Héctor's body has been badly maimed throughout the novel series, including a gunshot to the head that has left him with only one eye. Taibo's postmodern gumshoe converses with the ghosts of Mexico's past as he wanders ambivalently through its chaotic present, unravelling the mysteries of Mexican identity.

In the book, Héctor is assigned by a client to track down a woman who happens to be his own high school flame, Natalia, now a telenovela star who has disappeared from the set. Natalia leads him on a meandering chase through the dystopic Aztlán of a semi-imaginary U.S.-Mexico "Borderlandia," where they run into a colorful assortment of TV producers, whores, bureaucrats and drug dealers. Along the way Héctor documents the casual cruelty and absurdity of life in the borderland, including dreamlike views of the United States: "From the border, the United States is a televised landscape at arm's length. A giant Babylonian supermarket, where the meaning of life might be the ability to buy three distinct models of steam iron on the same day."

Natalia Smith-Corona (née Ramírez), the self-made star who stole her name from a combination of Nat King Cole, Gorky heroines, and a typewriter, proves as elusive as the rumors that are always circulating in the borderland. There rumors, like narcocorridos, give birth to folk heroes as mythically laden as John Henry, Pancho Villa or Gregorio Cortéz, the subject of cops-and-robbers border ballads since the late 19th century.

Taibo's tale flows like a disjointed ballad, with an internal/external narration that mirrors Héctor's journey. Each short chapter in Héctor's search is staked out with epigraphs, like knives thrown by a circus performer forming the outline of a missing person. Between stylized citations, Taibo offers dialogue and characterization that is crisp, funny and evocative, and speckles the story with references to Mexican pop culture, history and notoriously monolithic politics. Through Héctor's one good eye, we see behind the dark screen of public corruption, the drug wars and the immigration game, with all the humor and irony of the borderland's locals. Their pasttimes include keeping track of the most attempts in one day to jump over the big green fence that marks la frontera, or as Héctor calls it, "a mix of territories branded by the dubious privilege of sucking face with the United States."

Defying the usual mystery formula, ambiguities only increase along Héctor's path, with rumors and a set of kitchen knives his main tools for confronting the malaise and malignancy of the various border officials, hoods, DEA agents and narcotraficantes he meets. Unlike good vs. evil crime fiction, there is no untainted natural order to be restored here, just an arbitrarily malformed one to be negotiated through storytelling. Héctor's thoughts on gathering information hold true for the novel as a whole: "Stories are told in one way or another, traveling unusual paths. They develop in a way that is hardly natural. They escape and reappear and the one who determines these erratic journeys is always the narrator and not the listener."

With the street savvy of gossip, Taibo takes us for a ride through the dreamlands that separate and join us at borders both political and imaginary. But Taibo's borderland induces a sort of paralysis, where his characters can feel the pain, but can't necessarily do anything about it. The book reveals unsettling truths about racism and U.S.-Mexico relations, making its nested happy endings seem dreamlike, yet necessary to people living in "Borderlandia," as a means of imagining empowerment. Taibo uses movement across borders as a model for a postmodern understanding of the self--which is ironic in an age when the borders have been tightened and the politics of immigration are increasingly fraught with distrust. EndBlock

Bill Verner reads from his translation of Frontera Dreams this Friday, Aug. 23 at 7 p.m. at the Regulator Bookshop in Durham.

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