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BOOK REVIEW / NOVEL : A Zany, Beguiling and Odd Tale That Almost Makes Sense : FOUR HANDS by Paco Ignacio Taibo II ; Translated by Laura C. Dail; St. Martin's Press $22.95, 378 pages

August 24, 1994|JONATHAN KIRSCH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"Four Hands" by the Mexican novelist Paco Ignacio Taibo II is a political thriller that sometimes resembles a crazy mosaic fashioned out of the shards of shattered novels--E. L. Doctorow's "Ragtime," Robert Stone's "Dog Soldiers," and, above all, the half-plausible, half-paranoid works of Richard Condon.

That's not to say "Four Hands" is a mere pastiche. Taibo writes with genuine savvy, a crackling wit and a certain zaniness that is his very own. Once we pick up the strange but beguiling rhythms of his narrative style, we begin to understand that Taibo is a storyteller of real genius.

"Century after century," muses one of the slightly cracked conspirators who populate "Four Hands," nicely summing up what's happening in the rest of the book, "professionals of power hired professionals of information, who hired professionals of curiosity, who hired legalized criminals to keep the game in play."

The heroes of his tale, if we can single out only a couple of the memorable characters in "Four Hands," are Greg Simon and Julio (Fats) Fernandez, an odd couple of international investigative journalism, whose first-person reminiscences are presented in alternating, almost Rashomon-style testimony that begins to reveal a labyrinthine plot of dazzling complexity.

Greg is an American, "a Los Angeles Jew raised in an orphanage for Catholic boys, later living in a black neighborhood, and finally going to a high school that for some strange reason was full of Koreans." Julio is a Mexican, a man who "expects a mixture of astonishment, frustrated paternal relationships, commiseration and dazzle from the world."

And the title of "Four Hands" refers to their intimate collaboration at the typewriter keyboard where they compose the stories that ultimately draw them into an intimate dance with spies, hit men, terrorists, drug dealers and assorted other malefactors in a complex fugue of crime, obsession and violence.

"Landscapes of the religion of the scoop , the exclusive," is how Greg describes the turf where they live and work. "The faces of the truth and the truth that made faces as one drummed one's fingers on the typewriter, creating immortals, freezing in time the stories arduously chased down alleys, into living rooms and plazas."

But Greg and Julio are only two of the men and women who flash in and out of view like figures in a hall of mirrors. There's Alex, the merry prankster who doubles as a spymaster in deep cover. Rolando is a drug trafficker "on (his) way to becoming one of Mexico's blackest legends." Stoyan Vasilev is a profoundly enigmatic 82-year-old Bulgarian counter-spy who haunts (and is haunted by) a half-century of history and politics.

And, intriguingly, Taibo drafts various historical figures into service as characters in "Four Hands"--Stan Laurel, Leon Trotsky, Pancho Villa, Harry Houdini--and they take on new and beguiling dimensions as Taibo inserts them in the phantasmagoria of his narrative. Indeed, Houdini's imagined confessions to his psychoanalyst are as poignant, and as plausible, as any of the historical asides that decorate Taibo's book.

Now and then, Taibo throws in stuff that is simply intended to send up his characters. We are allowed to peek into intelligence dossiers and confidential notes; we are given Trotsky's early drafts of an unpublished mystery novel. And, again and again, we are invited to read various versions of "Elena Jordan's Rejected Thesis Proposal," a running joke about Julio's ex-wife.

"Who the hell invented and propagated, and with what insane intentions," she writes in a frenzy of anger and frustration, "the concept of 'theoretical work'?"

The fever dream that is Taibo's novel reaches a crescendo when the various conspirators, who have been just missing each other for 300 pages or so, finally collide in a hotel corridor in Mexico City, a conflagration that features an antique Colt six-shooter and "the first recorded Tequila Molotov."

"It's quite unreal, quite absurd," says one of Alex's operatives when the smoke finally clears, "it's like a Spielberg movie."

Still, "Four Hands" ends up almost making sense, and what's what shows us how deftly and how deeply we have been drawn into Taibo's grand passions and twisted logic. "Reality is becoming more and more Bulgarian," says one character, a crack that amounts to the punch line to an in-joke, but only if you've followed Taibo to the end of his marvelous story.

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