International Noir: Breaking Out of Crime Time
PACO IGNACIO TAIBO: Maybe that book explains why I’m writing what you can call mysterious or crime fiction or something like that. I started with that love relation between a writer with a broken leg and a female basketball player from the ladies—they called them the ladies, I liked that—the ladies. But then I decided, this is too easy, this old-man passion, sex—sex, which is, by the way, very common these days.
So I decided to put together another story in that same book, which is the story of why Leonardo da Vinci, in the fifteenth century, invented the bicycle. But nobody believed that, so I had to do research for months trying to show how he invented the bicycle. I started writing, writing, writing, and then I discovered what Freud said about Leonardo, so the Leonardo story about how he invented the bicycle went into the book. Then I decided that this is too easy—basketball, mystery writer, in love, Leonardo da Vinci’s bicycle… So I went to a story I had in my closet about the dark moments of Barcelona in 1920, at the end of the war. There was a huge street fight between the owners of the factories and their gunmen and the police against the anarchist unions. It was some kind of OK Corral version that lasted three years, and two thousand people were killed in the streets.
But I thought, that was too easy for a novel. So I picked up in the closet a beautiful story about the last American who abandoned the Saigon embassy in Vietnam, after the war. The last one—he wanted to take the last helicopter. So I started studying all of what I could find about Saigon in the 1970s and I discovered the last one was a guy who had a drug organization, very, very strong in Saigon, and he was afraid to lose it so that’s why he was the last one. So I said, “Well, let’s put these things together, then we really will have a novel.” But, but—I felt that was too easy.
So I decided to put together a huge story. And I remember that somebody told me—and I think it’s not true, but I like it—that he was in Rio de Janeiro once with a friend of his when one night they kidnapped his friend, and after two days of being disappeared, they put in the street the guy they kidnapped without a kidney. They had operated on him illegally and stolen his kidney and well, he was there without a kidney. So I said, “Well, I like this story—you know, stealing kidneys—I like it very much. Let’s put it in the novel. Why should we take out this beautiful story about stealing kidneys?”
I had all those things, but I think I needed extra ingredients for the novel. So I remembered that once in Mexico I arrived and they tried to sell me boots, but only for the left foot. This is a Mexican story, don’t worry. So I said, “You have to put this story in.” So we need two guys, one that doesn’t have a right leg so he can buy the left foot, and we need somebody else without the other leg, and I was involved in that kind of interesting metaphysical reflection about which leg, and how can you buy boots, et cetera. This has to go into the novel.
If you think this is complexity—no, this is Mexican realism. This is a game; this is Walt Disney for Mexicans. Mexican reality is more horrible—they take our kidneys every day, in a metaphorical sense of course, and they eat them, and they spit them in our face. I went into crime fiction because that’s the only way to do realism with this kind of material.
When I was very, very young lots of years ago, I thought that mystery was the back entrance into the real thing. The real thing was explaining a country and explaining myself—I didn’t know what I wanted to explain about myself, but I saw that the best way of explaining things is writing them. Writing is the only way to explain reality, to reorganize reality. It was not very clear what I wanted to explain about myself, but it was very clear what I wanted to explain about my country. I wanted to explain that crime is the basement of the building known as Mexico. And crime in every sense—crime in the sense of abuse of power, crime in the sense of corruption, crime in the sense of innocent people inside jails, crime in the sense of guilty people in the top of the social structure of the country—this is in all of the stories. So I said, “Mystery, crime fiction, is the way to do it.” You go through the back door, and then you get the story, and then you can tell everything, and then at the same time you can explain yourself and you can understand something because you don’t understand anything, which is also a Mexican tradition.
And in those days, I believed in the theory of the iceberg—you know, 90 percent under water, 10 percent outside—and I said, “Well, mystery is the way to talk about the 90 percent.” What’s happening? Why are things reconnected in this or this way? But I was wrong. I was extremely wrong—mystery is not the back door; mystery is the front door. Through mystery, you go into. That’s the way social literature comes into the twentieth century and now into the twenty-first.
Sometimes your writing is smarter than you. There are things that you cannot recognize in a rational way, but they are there. When I was young, my writing was smarter than me—much smarter than me. Now, I’m smarter than my writing, which is a nightmare. Mystery is a closed genre. I think after many years of writing mysteries, there’s a jail in mystery, a structural jail. There’s a structure of mystery—crime, investigation, resolution—that is very narrow. A writer will start repeating himself, doing the same book over and over with the blessing of his publishers, who love the same book if you write it three or four times. It can kill you.
So I start thinking that I need, as a writer, to keep breaking the structure of mystery and move to something that can be called, say, like “The Complete and Absolute Adventure Novel.” That sounds good, no? Yeah, you put names to things and then try to write them—that’s a good exercise. I’m crossing the structures of mystery, which I like very much, I’m crossing the structures of noir, and I’m crossing the structures of the social and political novel. But notice that I’m also crossing the structures of the French feuilleton, the serial novel of the nineteenth century by Victor Hugo and company, and I’m also trying to put in non-realism, which is the Mexican version of Kafka, which is Mexican realism, by the way. This is not a closed space; mystery is not a closed space. Good mystery stories are the front door.