This short, gritty, surreal, deadly serious yet comic novel, "Calling All Heroes," which received Mexico's 1982 Grijalbo Prize for fiction, has as a factual basis a modern-day tragedy: the massacre of students on the 2nd of October 1968-- El sesenta y ocho --at the Plaza de las Tres Culturas in Mexico City. There the young dissidents had dreamed of and demanded a liberal democratization of government, a cry that reverberated years later in Tian An Men Square. And, similarly, where dissidents resolutely held their ground until the day of the bullets.
In the days prior, there had been euphoria, for it had seemed that at last the stultifying "Mexican consensus" had collapsed, and that change was possible. In an appendix to his novel, author Paco Ignacio Taibo II tells us that "the underground dream of those who had lived the Movement of '68 foundered and went out with the tide. In defeat, we had only our isolated selves and a gray militancy as future answers to the dream of those 123 days."
"Heroes" digs into the wreckage and in a virtuoso mirabile dictu narrative romp snatches victory from defeat. An extraordinary feat, for to do so there was the need to transmute polemic into art, art into humor, and the comedic into myth. And as we well know, myth is the engine of the world.
The central figure here in is Nestor, once a student partisan. El sesenta y ocho is history, the year past. Nestor is now a working member of the paparazzi rat pack; that is to say, he is prostituting himself. He has--congruently--been reporting on the lurid murders of a series of prostitutes; three victims thus far.
Nestor gets a phone call. The killer wishes an interview. Nestor rushes to a fleabag hotel on Articulo 123. Plainly, he carries the past with him--the 123 days of euphoria--along with his tape recorder. The street name, Articulo, phrased out is articulo de la muerte : point of death.
The killer, annoyed at the recorder's microphone being pushed into his face, stabs Nestor, who, consistent with the novel's tangential geometrics, becomes the killer's fourth prostitute victim.
Nestor's narrative and the novel open in late 1969 as he is being wheeled on a gurney into a hospital's emergency operating room. As his blood-stained shirt is being ripped off, he whispers to the medics, "Long live Mexico, children of the Indian whore."
Who is this Nestor? Not your run-of-the-mill, teed-off, snarly insurgente but a firm man, a thinking man, surely kin to Nestor of the Homeric lyricism. In a letter to Nestor in mid-l970, an old friend refers to him as the Great Nestor. "You remember little Laura?" she asks, and reminds him that when she was still but a child, he had brought her chocolates and novels by Simone de Beauvoir. She then pens paragraphs of panegyrics about his greatness, and closes by saying, "But above all, the Great Nestor had a magnetic smile . . . After passing an afternoon in silence, holed up in a corner of the room, he was able to get up, look at us and smile, as if sharing a great discovery."
Few are capable of exhibiting such distinguished form. A great man, indeed!
Author Taibo is widely known in Latin America, Europe and the Eastern block for his detective novels. While his books, including works of history, have been translated into many languages, only this year has he appeared for the first time in English. In January, the Viking Press published his "A Simple Thing," in which P.I. Hector Shayne bears resemblance to "'Heroes' " Nestor. As "Heroes" is serious literature, Taibo holds that crime novels can be, too.
But crime novels are hobbled by a set form. "Heroes" is of that open form that flourishes in Latin America: magical realism. Thus free as a bird, novelist Taibo is in perilous flight. To some readers, the novel may appear somewhat spacey: a phantasmagoria, eclectic as sin; discordant; Diego Rivera with a spray can.
Arbitrary, too, in its ways and means: documents are presented, there is author intrusion . . . proverbs, poetry, dialectics. Also disjunctive: narrative chapters interleaved one after another with letters from fellow partisans speaking in a time frame different from that of the linear narrative.
The late Argentinian author, Jorge Borges, asserted that every story has been told. Modernists of the literati might not all agree with this, yet some see story per se as exhausted, bereft of meaning in traditional senses; its meaning shifted to its diversities and found in its marginalities. "Heroes" is a modern novel and much can be said for its diversities and marginalities.