Arts » Arts Etc.

BITTERSWEET DREAMS

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Frontera Dreams takes place during the end of the 1980s, in the midst of el crisis: a period when Mexico experienced astronomical inflation under the inept, corrupt presidency of Carlos Salinas.

Briefly, we are introduced to (or, for those who have followed Paco Ignacio Taibo's series, reunited with) Héctor Belascoarán, the one-eyed, middle-aged detective who suffered a crisis of his own some time ago, and launched him into the business of finding missing people.

 
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Frontera dreams: A Héctor Belascoarán Shayne Novel, by Paco Ignacio Taibo II. Translated by Bill Verner. Cinco Puntos Press.$13.95, 160 pages ISBN: 093831758X
Belascoarán accepts an assignment to track down a missing Mexican actress named Natalia Smith-Corona, at the request of her daughter. The girl recognizes the detective from an old photograph of her mother's high school graduation ball; while Belascoarán and Smith-Corona were never lovers, at one time they were close friends, back when he was a promising math student and she was Natalia Ramírez, aspiring actress.

Belascoarán, the detective with a penchant for quoting poetry, heads out from Mexico City to the frontera, "a land where everyone is a foreigner," in pursuit of this woman from his past. As he follows her across the borderlands between Texas and Tijuana, it becomes clear that Smith-Corona - along with the police, politicians, and film producers - has tangled with some bad people: narcos - the drug dealers on both sides of the dividing line who control the resources and power, with little regard for whoever gets caught in the crossfire. (Taibo includes an American anti-immigrant vigilante among this bunch, a former John Bircher arrested for terrorizing and beating a group of Mexican nationals whom the border patrol later catch transporting several tons of marijuana through the Sonoran desert.)

Taibo avoids the trappings of Anglo authors (detective or otherwise) who exoticize and demonize the U.S.-Mexico border. It's a refreshing change of perspective, allowing for Belascoarán to reflect on the racism and prejudice along the frontera - the feeling of simultaneously belonging and not belonging - followed by an acknowledgment of what he likes about the border region: the directness, the view of the rest of the world, the lack of prejudice against one-eyed people like himself.

Like his protagonist, Taibo came of age in Mexico City during the years of social unrest which culminated in the massacre at Tlatelolco. Those old ghosts still linger, informing the author's and the detective's leftist politics and general distrust of the government. To wit, wryly observing the far- reaching effects drug money has, Belascoarán asks a police chief he encounters: "How come in that war between narcotraficantes last month, only law officers on the government payroll got killed?" It is a telling question, thick with irony and characteristic of both the author and his detective.

Smart comments like these remind me how much I like reading fiction that makes social commentary. Frontera Dreams does so, without being dogmatic. The seventh in a series of eight, yet strong enough to stand on its own, Frontera Dreams is a quick, enjoyable read. (Interestingly enough, the first and last novels are the only two which haven't been translated into English.) The story itself is only 120 pages; the remainder of the book consists of two essays about Belascoarán and the significance of his injuries, death, and subsequent resurrection.

Toward the end of the novel, Taibo, in a self-referential mood, writes, "Belascoarán, unlike the authors of crime novels, liked complex stories, but only those in which nothing happened." While there are no sweeping changes curtailing government corruption, no end to the narco traffickers' influence, by the time Belascoarán returns to the familiarity of his home, a good deal has occurred in his life. In the world that Taibo has constructed, the dead don't always stay dead - but sometimes they get to enjoy the happy endings.


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