The Uncomfortable Dead, by Subcomandante Marcos & Paco Taibo II, trans. Carlos Lopez

Romantic rebel loses the plot
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The Independent Culture

This New Year makes 13 since the Zapatistas declared the vast tropical forests of Chiapas in south-eastern Mexico an autonomous region. There, among the Lacandon Indians, a rebel movement - which took its name from the indigenous leader of the 1910 Mexican Revolution, and its strategy from a purported young academic - declared its opposition to governmental corruption, economic globalisation and ecological destruction. Little was known about its leader, although an industry soon arose to manufacture a reputation.

"Subcomandante Marcos", otherwise known as El Subco or (here) as el Sup, began to appear with his characteristic stem pipe stuck through a black balaclava, in graffiti and silhouettes. In photographs and posters, videos and DVDs, his image soon went on sale in stores and street markets across north America. Opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement, and a loose association with Marxist economics, clearly still allowed the weapons of new-era capitalism to be turned on their fabricators. While working in primitive military conditions, El Subco waged his propaganda war across the internet, publishing blogs, anecdotes and aphorisms, legends and treatises.

Some appeared in old technology (including Our Word is Our Weapon, published by Serpent's Tail a few years ago). His messages encouraged visits to Chiapas from numerous left-wing intellectuals and authors, including the Portuguese Nobel Prize-winner, Jose Saramago, and the Catalan crime writer, Manuel Vasquez Montalban.

This so-called "four-handed book" has alternating chapters written by Marcos and the Spanish author Paco Taibo. It is self-referential even in its cops. Taibo's limping, one-eyed private investigator, Hector Belascoaran Shayne, gets to tackle a historical murder with El Subco's indigenous campaigner, Elias Contreras. Another equally fictitious sleuth - Pepe Carvalho - puts in an unexpected starring appearance, proving himself just as real as his creator, the late Vasquez Montalban.

The crime Elias and Hector coincide in resolving dates back to 1968 - which in Mexico meant something different to peace and love, and rather more like its opposite. The plot's intention to track down the murderer of a left-winger, imprisoned in a government swoop on those student activists not massacred in Mexico City, takes in much of that generation's history, and a lot more besides.

El Subco remains much given to philosophising; hence the whole chapters on distinctions between Bad and Evil. From the part of the world that brought us "magical realism", he explores the varieties of magic, otherwise known as sleight of hand by politicians. "There's black magic, which is the one you do with demons, and there's white magic... and then there's dirty magic, which is the one the politicians do."

If you find this homespun, try another of Elias's maxims, as he pleasantly describes himself as "just trying to establish the difference between Hollywood and the Holocaust". Hollywood does enter into the scheme of things, as does Washington. Wasn't it ever Mexico's problem to be (in the words of an earlier president) "so far from God and so close to the United States"?

Condoleezza Rice features in a phone call, selling out the patrimony of the Chiapas hardwoods, and their inhabitants, to globalisation. Meanwhile, the Gang of Three - Bush, Blair and Berlusconi - play ingratiating bit-parts in the grander scheme of things rolled out by the transnational companies, whose finances pull the strings of politicians. All in all, it's a relief to return to the chapters on philosophy, sociology and criminology for some plain talking.

Amanda Hopkinson is director of the British Centre for Literary Translation, Norwich