Muertos incómodos:
 the Monologic Polyphony of Subcomandante Marcos



Glen S. Close

University of Wisconsin-Madison



The engagement of contemporary Latin American detective fiction with leftist politics has been a commonplace at least since the definitive emergence of the Latin American hard-boiled novel in the 1970s.(1) In the intervening decades, politically specific criticism of Latin American states and their police forces has been cited almost invariably as one of distinctive functions of the local variant of hard-boiled writing that has been termed neopoliciaco by the Mexican novelist Paco Ignacio Taibo II. In an interview with Juan Domingo Argüelles more than 15 years ago, Taibo provided one of the most succinct and sound descriptions of the concerns of the Latin American neopoliciaco: “La obsesión por las ciudades; una incidencia recurrente temática de los problemas del Estado como generador del crimen, la corrupción, la arbitrariedad política.” (quoted in Balibrea Enríquez 50 n.5) In the introduction to her Crimes Against the State, Crimes Against Persons, one of the best and most current critical studies of the neopoliciaco in English, Persephone Braham has characterized its political vocation thus:


The neopoliciaco is more overtly political and leftist than the American hard-boiled novel […] Latin American writers have adopted the genre in the years since [1968] precisely because it permits a critical scrutiny of their social institutions in the light of modern liberal principles and their late-twentieth-century manifestations in the ideological narratives of neoliberalism and globalization. Contemporary Hispanic detective fiction is an explicitly ideological literature with international connections. Its leftist politics were honed in the international student movements of 1968, Spain’s post-Franco transition period, Argentina’s Dirty War, and the Cuban Revolution. (xiii, xv)


Despite the intensity of this engagement, hard-boiled Latin American detective fiction has rarely been written in direct service of a specific political platform. The obvious exception would be the case of Cuba, where the detective novel was officially promoted as an instrument of revolutionary socialist ideology beginning in 1972 and with lamentable results, as Braham recounts in her study.

In light of this history, Muertos incómodos is in some respects an extraordinary contribution to the burgeoning corpus of Latin American detective fiction. First published in installments in the Mexico City newspaper La Jornada between December 5, 2004 and February 20, 2005, and then in book form in April of last year, this text invites attention not only as the revival, after an eleven year hiatus, of Mexico’s most prolific and successful detective series, but also as the product of an unprecedented and intriguing collaboration. The novel was coauthored by two celebrities of the Mexican left who have never met in person: the aforementioned Taibo, author of more than a dozen detective novels and primary international advocate of the Latin American neopoliciaco, and Subcomandante Marcos, the masked revolutionary leader of the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional in Chiapas. In commercial terms, Muertos incómodos is already a success, having attracted, by Taibo’s count, 600,000 hits to La Jornada’s website during the twelve weeks of its publication and increasing Sunday sales of the paper by at least 20%. Although critical reception has been less than favorable,(2) the novel has already appeared in book form in Mexico City, Buenos Aires and Barcelona, and an English translation is due out from Brooklyn’s Akashic Books in September of this year. In practical terms, sales of the novel will benefit Enlace Civil, an independent non-governmental organization working to improve the living conditions of indigenous communities in Chiapas, since Marcos and Taibo agreed to donate their royalties. As an aesthetic and political proposition, however, I find Muertos incómodos considerably more problematic, for reasons I will attempt to illustrate below. 

Unmistakably divided in both tone and narrative discourse, the chapters contributed alternately by Taibo and Marcos offered not only an almost literally up-to-date commentary on contemporary Mexican politics and the Zapatista situation, but also a panorama of the primary repressive abuses committed by the national governments of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional and, more recently, of the Partido de Acción Nacional, over a period of several decades.(3) As in prior novels, Taibo, who is also a popular leftist historian, orients the investigation toward historical issues relating to the Mexican government’s systematic use of clandestine and paramilitary forces to repress political opposition beginning in the late 1960s. To this familiar project of the recuperation of repressed historical memory, Marcos adds his own urgent concerns with the military containment and paramilitary harassment of the Zapatista movement since its public appearance in January of 1994. Together, Taibo, the genre novelist and historian of revolution, and Marcos, the reflective revolutionary and master of postmodern propaganda, stretch the conventions of the detective novel genre in an effort to restore and inflect public memory of episodes long repressed and denied by official discourse. In the novel, these include, primarily, violent attacks on the 1968 student movement, the “dirty war” against Mexican guerrillas in the 1970s, and the more recent massacre of pro-Zapatista peasants by paramilitary gangs in Chiapas. Ultimately, the novel fragments under the intensity of this “will to memory,” as the authors fail to accommodate decades of denunciation in a single coherent investigation and under the pressing practical constraints of the weekly-installment format, but more worrying than any vagaries of plot are the politics of narration.

It is difficult to begin to analyze this novel, written by two authors with sharply differing political commitments and literary habits, without treating it as two distinct texts sutured together in rough sequence. Here I will attend more closely to Marcos’s contribution, since I find it the more disturbing of the two. Taibo’s narrative in the even-numbered chapters is, by comparison, comfortably familiar, since it revives the characters and scenario of Mexico’s best established detective series. Taibo’s chapters center on the Mexican independent private detective Héctor Belascoarán Shayne, protagonist of a series of novels that began in 1976 with Días de combate but that seemed until very recently to have expired in 1993 with the series’ ninth installment, the very slight Adiós, Madrid. As Taibo has repeatedly explained, the initiative to revive the series came from Marcos, who sent a personal messenger unannounced to Taibo’s door in Mexico City bearing the proposal for collaboration as well as the first chapter of the proposed exchange. Despite the inevitable sketchiness, bagginess and predictability of the improvised plotting, (4) the Belascoarán chapters offer many of the pleasures that initially won the series international renown. From the point of view of the detective novel critic and even from that of the sympathizer with Zapatista ideals, however, the Marcos chapters afford more perplexity than pleasure.

The serial presentation of Muertos incómodos in La Jornada occurred as part of a characteristically savvy campaign by Marcos to insinuate himself back into public consciousness following a four year period of near retirement from the media stage. While a trickle of communiqués and other writings had continued to flow from Marcos’s laptop and through the Internet and leftist media channels since the Marcha por la Dignidad Indígena and the passing of a limited indigenous rights law in 2001, Marcos’s withdrawal from public view gave rise to speculation that he was no longer present in Chiapas and that he had been marginalized within the mysterious command structure of the EZLN. In retrospect, it seems clear that Marcos’s turn to the detective novel was a creative tactic to counteract the desgaste, the erosion or wearing out of his rhetoric and persona over the seven years in which he communicated incessantly with national and international audiences as the voice of Zapatista resistance and as one of the most prominent Latin American critics of neoliberal globalization. Yet the primary problem with Muertos incómodos as a detective novel, in my reading, is the indomitable persistence of Marcos’s propagandistic rhetoric and voice, albeit filtered through a series of colorful intradiagetic narrators. (5)

Taibo and Marcos clearly agree on the necessity for combating the tendency toward desmemoria, or presentism and historical amnesia, in postmodern and neoliberal culture. Muertos incómodos is shot through with voices not only from the past, but also, as the title suggests, with voices from beyond the tomb. The most notable of these is the voice of Marcos’s detective, an indigenous Zapatista comisión de investigación or commissioned investigator named Elías Contreras, who tells us that he fought in the 1994 insurrection but is now dead (11). Although we are informed that he would be 61 years old had he not died, we are given no explanation of how it is that Contreras continues to function among the living, investigating, traveling, holding conversations, eating, digesting and defecating. Somehow, the only other characters who seem aware that he is dead are a nun named Chapis Lucrecia (152) and Marcos himself (60). Since no explanation for this is offered in the text, we can only speculate that this detail is included by Marcos not only to honor those Zapatista militants who fought in encounters with the Mexican army during the movement’s brief period of military activity in early 1994, but also to liken his own novel, somewhat cheaply, to the most indisputable of classics in the Mexican narrative canon, Pedro Páramo. (6)

Aside from the collaborative emphasis on the restoration of historical memory in Muertos incómodos, another aspect of Marcos’s literary rhetoric that I find particularly noteworthy is the almost maniacal insistence on a carnivalesque multicultural diversity, inclusiveness and tolerance that we are given to understand characterizes the Zapatista movement. One character who appears early in the Marcos chapters introduces himself as follows: “Soy filipino y me llamo Julio@ y me apellido Isileko. Según me dijeron, ‘Isileko’ quiere decir ‘secreto’ en euskera. Trabajo de mecánico en un taller de autos en Barcelona y mi nombre lo escribo con arroba: Juli@. Lo hago así porque… ¿es necesario que diga que soy gay?” (40) Juli@ proceeds to inform us about his tattoos and multiple piercings and to explain how he came to reside in a pro-Zapatista peace camp in Chiapas and to belong to a group of comrades called “El Club del Calendario Roto.” The rest of the club consists of a German lesbian pizza-delivery woman who’s been rebaptized with a Vietnamese pseudonym, a French schoolteacher who loves jazz and whose pseudonym is Serbo-Croation, and an Italian chef with an Albanian pseudonym and a firm belief in UFOs (44). Marcos allows these free-thinking characters to speculate wildly even about his own sexual identity in a conversation in which they predict in turn that he will travel to Mexico City to perform a ladies-only table dance as a fundraiser for the cause, that he is a lesbiano who is planning on getting a sex change so that women will pay more attention to him, and simply that he will come out of the closet at the next Gay Pride March in the capital.

Another figure born of Marcos’s fantasy of inclusive, tolerant and mischievous resistance is Natalia Reyes Colás, a 75-year old former bracera said to reside in Paris, Texas. This elderly, indigenous immigrant (“100% indígena ñahñú”) is endowed by Marcos with computer skills so sophisticated as to enable her to sabotage a satellite surveillance network named Echelon, operated by the National Security Agency of the United States (114). In a previous chapter, Marcos introduced Echelon as follows:


Fragmentos de la conversación entre el Sup y el que llaman “Garganta Profunda” (según como fue interceptada por un avión espía modelo EP-3, trasmitida a uno de los satélites SIGNIT de la Red Echelon, y retrasmitida al Centro de Operaciones de Seguridad Regional de Medina Annex, EUA, coordenadas 98o O, 29o N, del NAVSECGRU y la AIA, con el código “morai”) (87)


Whether or not the United Status was flying EP-3 spy planes over Chiapas to record Marcos’s conversations in late 2004, what is more interesting than the content of the intercepted conversation (essentially, the dishing of dirt on major Mexican politicians and anti-EZLN intellectuals by Garganta Profunda) is the appearance in the novel of a transcription of this conversation recorded and transmitted by U.S. spy satellites. A third reference to Echelon appears in Marcos’s final chapter.


Parte de la transcripción de la llamada telefónica compartida con puntos de origen en Washington, Roma, Madrid, Londres, Moscú y México, interceptada el día 10 de febrero del 2005 por el sistema satelital Echelon y borrada de los archivos por instrucciones de Condoleezza Rice, secretaria de estado estadounidense (218)


The transcription of these conversations, as well as the destructive hacking of the Echelon computers by the elderly Zapatista, seem intended as fantasies of empowerment through counterespionage, but the effect in the context of the novel seems almost contrary. Do we laugh when Marcos endeavors to exploit the comic potential of his movement’s vast technological and military deficit? And, moreover, behind the novel’s unexplained introduction of a surveillance transcription said to have been erased from U.S. State Department archives by orders of the Secretary of State, do we not detect the panoptical gesture of a narrative intelligence authorizing itself as it projects the (here admittedly frail) illusion of an infinite access to highly secret information? (7) The system of power relations operating in the text would suggest only one name for this coordinating intelligence: Subcomandante Marcos.

A final outstanding example of Marcos’s insistence on the inclusive and non-discriminatory character of the Zapatista movement, and also of his backfiring parodic fantasy of empowerment, is his deployment in Muertos incómodos of a supposedly secret EZLN special operations team called NADIE. This phantom crack force, unknown to all but Marcos and the most senior members of the EZLN hierarchy (199), is said to consist of an intelligence specialist who is a ten-year old indigenous girl, an elderly nurse specializing in herbal medicine, a communications specialist who is a 15-year old indigenous girl, a twenty-year old punk mestizo explosives specialist, a black/mestizo driver and mechanic, and, as a last minute addition, a transvestite prostitute recruited in Mexico City by Elías Contreras, the dead investigator who also turns out to be the leader of NADIE. In Marcos’s half of the novel, this is the group that traps and captures the arch-criminal Morales using a strategy involving laxative gum for the bodyguards and seduction by the irresistible Zapatista transvestite. For readers unacquainted with the novel, perhaps a short quote will suffice to demonstrate Marcos’s bizarre aesthetic, which vacillates between the cartoonish, the sententious, the carnivalesque, the melodramatic and the revolutionary-heroic. After Magdalena, the transvestite prostitute, seduces the arch-villain into NADIE’s trap, she takes a bullet for the team, and the fatherly Contreras consoles her as she dies.


Y entonces la Magdalena me preguntó que cómo estuvo la misión. Y entonces yo le dije que muy bien, que gracias a ella, que sea a él, habíamos agarrado al Malo. Y entonces él, que sea ella, me preguntó que si se veía bonita. Y entonces yo le respondí que parecía una princesa. Y entonces ella, que sea él, se puso a chillar. Y entonces yo pensé que era por la herida y le dije que no chille, que ya pronto la íbamos a llevar a curar. Y entonces él, que sea ella, dijo que no chillaba por la herida sino porque nunca le habían dicho princesa. […] Y entonces ella, que sea él, me preguntó si se va a morir. Y entonces yo le dije que no, que no se va a morir. Y entonces él, que sea ella, me dijo que quería que la llevaran a un hospital zapatista, que porque quería que de una vez la operaran para tener el cuerpo de por sí de lo que era, que sea de mujer. Y entonces yo le dije que de por sí. (209)


In this, the most dramatically intense scene of Marcos’s chapters, the ideologue strains at the limits of his creative capabilities, trying to infuse literary life into characters transparently fashioned as advertisements for his ideal of a boundlessly diverse yet unwaveringly socialist, indigenist and nationalist revolution. The anaphora evident in this quote also exemplifies one of Marcos’s most outstanding discursive tics in the novel: the repetition of a phrase such as “tal vez,” “que sea” or, most frequently, “y entonces” in nearly every sentence of a given section. In this, the most sustained and grating instance, “y entonces” occurs more than 150 times in eight pages of text.

Although the denunciation of homophobia and the homily on tolerance and inclusiveness in Muertos incómodos is not unwelcome, especially given Marcos’s personal contribution to the cult of the heroic male revolutionary guerrilla fighter, it would certainly be more welcome were it not so awkwardly posed. Indeed, the most troublesome aspect of the entire novel, for me, is its aggravation of one of the most lingering suspicions regarding Marcos’s role as the primary voice of the Zapatista movement. Whereas Marcos habitually identifies himself as a spokesman or secretary for the collective will of a democratically constituted indigenous command committee (the 20-member CCRI-CG or Comité Central Revolucionario Indígena-Comandancia General to which communiqués are often attributed), extensive reading of Zapatista publications tends to suggest the self-designated Subcomandante Marcos may actually continue to dictate at least a major portion of the rhetoric of EZLN policy and communications. (8) Since 1995, there has been, to my knowledge, no serious dispute with regard to the identification of Marcos as former university instructor in aesthetics Rafael Guillén, winner of a national medal for academic achievement at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México in 1981 for his thesis on the French Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser. Given his extraordinary talent, it is not surprising that Marcos should assume primary responsibility for the communications of the EZLN, but what is problematic in the literary construction of Muertos incómodos, in the context of Marcos’s campaign of reemergence as the voice of the voiceless, is the suspicion of ventriloquism of the voiceless which haunts the reader. (9)

In public accounts of their collaboration, Taibo has praised Marcos’s literary gifts in the following terms: “tiene un estilo muy fluido, correcto gramatical y ortográficamente, además, tiene mucha gracia, ya que tiene muy buen oído, porque esta especie de castellano tzotzilizado, que domina muy bien, es el idioma que maneja el indígena castellanizado que eligió como personaje y que tiene mucho sabor” (quoted in Montaño Garfias). As one of the novel’s two detective protagonists, Elías Contreras is the primary indigenous character and primary narrator of Marcos’s chapters. He also acts on Marcos’s orders in the novel and sends him reports which Marcos keeps in a thick folder reserved for Contreras’s cases (22). Contreras reflects repeatedly on the idiosyncrasies of his own often non-standard Spanish and on the differences between his indigenous chiapaneco speech and Marcos’s sometimes unintelligible erudite and urban language. The phrase used to characterize his linguistic difference is “hablar muy otro,” which might translate as “to speak very other.” Used by various characters in different ways, this phrase seems to be emphasized as a charming example of the idiosyncratic grammar of the bilingual chiapanecos, but it is hard not to read it in context as signifying something more like “to speak someone else”, or perhaps “to speak a lot of Marcos”. Marcos appears briefly as a narrator in the novel, and other narrators in his chapters are distinguished by their ostentatious diversity: the gay Filipino mechanic Juli@ from Barcelona; a blond, Maoist Purépecha Indian nicknamed El Ruso; and a Mexican-Chinese Trotskyist called El Chino. Nevertheless, this surface diversity belies an unmistakable or underlying ideological uniformity or monologism (see note 7 below), leaving the reader with the ultimate impression of a central narrative intelligence clumsily delegating the expression of doctrine or preaching, as it were, through the choir. Interestingly, in Taibo’s chapters, Belascoarán’s primary informant turns out to be an actor who specializes in dubbing imported television shows, and who simulates the voice of his dead father, a political prisoner and victim of the dirty war. Muertos incómodos is, then, pervaded by the theme of voices thrown or projected onto or into other bodies or images.

Marcos’s peculiar mocking of himself through fictional characters ultimately does nothing to dispel his authoritative presence in the text, not only as coordinator of the investigation, but also as the master of textual polyphony. The abundantly different Juli@, for example, appears in chapter III and narrates several pages before being informed that he’s not supposed to be in the novel (41). Subsequent comments by Juli@ make it clear who orders and structures this Zapatista text, and who has the power to include and exclude, accidentally or not. Juli@ is granted an Unamunian role in Muertos incómodos, speaking both as a reader of the unfolding novel and as a character aware of his own participation in it (“Ustedes se preguntarán qué hace un campamentista ‘extranjero’ en esta novela policiaca,” 40), but he narrates only three segments before being suppressed when his presence is deemed accidental by the supra-narrator, Marcos.


Bueno, me acaban de informar que yo no estoy en esta novela, así que todo debe tratarse de una lamentable equivocación que, según me avisan, resolverán en la mesa de redacción del periódico o en la editorial del libro. (41)


Tal vez el Sup nos metió en la novela por mula, porque ya ven que los zapatistas sostienen que el mundo no es sólo uno, sino muchos, y por eso le están aventando a la novela un mecánico homosexual y filipino, una alemana repartidora de pizzas en moto y lesbiana, una maestra francesa amante del jazz y un cocinero italiano que cree en los extraterrestres. (44)


Yo le pregunté al Sup, el otro día que lo topé en el arroyo, si íbamos a ser su compañía de Elías en la novela. Me respondió que no, que sólo íbamos a aparecer en un capítulo. (60)


In a preliminary summary of chapter IX, Marcos refers to the authors of the quoted passages which make up a significant part of the chapter as “invitados involuntarios a esta novela” (143). This designation might serve just as well for all his characters, beginning with the lifeless Contreras, given that their dazzling superficial diversity seems to disguise a fundamental obedience to the revolutionary will of their creator, as well as a modulated but unmistakable echoing of his political rhetoric.

When the plucky non-conformist Juli@, for example, expounds on his idea that the Contreras’s investigation is part of a larger struggle, the language he uses is loaded. “EL asesino es el sistema. El sistema sí. Cuando hay un crimen hay que buscar el culpable arriba, no abajo. El Mal es el sistema y los Malos son quienes están al servcio del sistema.” (53) Here Juli@ seems most obviously to be mouthing a variation on Marcos’s central motif in the novel, that of “El Mal y El Malo,” a phrase drawn from Neruda’s Canto General (164). Through Juli@’s commentary, however, the author Marcos is also delivering an intertextual homage to the first Belascoarán Shayne novel, Días de combate, thereby authorizing, through subtle reference, his own intervention in the neopoliciaco genre. In Días de combate, the neophyte detective pursued a serial strangler and confronted him in a climactic conclusion in which killer and detective agreed that the eleven serial murders were inconsequential in contrast to the crimes perpetrated by the Mexican state during the same period. It is to this exchange that Marcos, through Juli@, alludes.

—Bien, he asesinado once veces y he causado heridas menores. En ese mismo intervalo de tiempo, el Estado ha masacrado a cientos de campesinos, han muerto en accidentes decenas de mexicanos, han muerto en reyertas cientos de ellos, han muerto de hambre o frío decenas más, de enfermedades curables otros centenares, incluso se han suicidado algunas docenas… ¿Dónde está el estrangulador?

—El Gran Estrangulador es el sistema.” (Taibo 222)


As Ilan Stavans and other critics have noted, Marcos the novelist does not want for literary references, and Muertos incómodos is characterized generally by somewhat dense intertextual and metanarrative play. Although Marcos’s primary narrator Contreras speaks as if orally addressing an unspecified group of interlocutors in Chiapas (pausing more than once, for example, to consult his vocabulary notebook) he also makes reference as early as the third page of the novel to his situation within it: “Uno de esos ‘casos’ fue el que ahora le da título a este capítulo de esta novela que, ahí lo van a mirar, es muy otra.” (11). Juli@ also makes repeated reference to his status as character and narrator in the novel, as I have indicated. Another example of this play involves the origin of Muertos incómodos. In the text, Marcos states that the investigation of Morales arose from a series of contacts between Marcos, Spanish novelist Manuel Vázquez Montalbán and Vázquez Montalbán’s fictional detective Pepe Carvalho. Here Marcos pays homage to his originally intended collaborator in this project, (10) but he also invokes the codes of the neopoliciaco by making explicit reference to the works and characters of other genre authors and by endowing the characters themselves with an awareness of neopoliciaco codes. Taibo’s protagonist, Belascoarán Shayne, is known to the character Marcos for his previous literary adventures, and he is also identified by Taibo in his chapter X as a reader of a historical novel on Benito Juárez (“Había leído una novela donde se contaba la historia de la república itinerante,” 187) which many of Taibo’s readers will recognize as his own La lejanía del tesoro (1992). In addition to this literary interplay, the novel is also replete with references to La Jornada, the pro-Zapatista newspaper in which Muertos incómodos appeared, as well as to other publications.

This intertextual play and mixing of fictional and non-fictional references offers obvious parallels with the distinctive discourse of Marcos’s communiqués, which inspired Manuel Vázquez Montalbán to praise the Subcomandante as “un maestro en el juego literario posmoderno de la utilización del collage y la intertextualidad” (295). However, it also authorizes Marcos by demonstrating, again, his compliance with the codes of the neopoliciaco genre. Frequent acknowledgements of the alterity or artificiality of the imported, hard-boiled detective paradigm are a constant source of irony and humor most especially in Taibo’s detective novels, beginning with the very origins of Belascoarán’s detective vocation. (In Días de combate, the former engineer explained how was inspired to assume the role of the private investigator by a particular convergence of foreign and local cultural stimuli: after emerging from a screening of the George C. Scott detective spoof They Might Be Giants, and under the emotional influence of a weepy bolero, he read news of a murder reported in the nota roja section of a Mexican newspaper and decided to reinvent himself as a detective, initially by imitating the mannerisms of Humphrey Bogart.) Generally, the parodic self-referentiality of the Latin American neopoliciaco may be said to counteract the totalizing and panoptical realism of the classical detective novel, but here again, Marcos’s polyphonic, intertextual and self-referential literary play never manages to approximate spontaneous or free aesthetic signification.

Another prominent textual component inviting critical attention in the Marcos chapters is the legal documentation associated with Contreras’s cases. Marcos produces a selection of Zapatista legal formulas whose authorship he attributes to authorities of the Zapatista autonomous municipalities: “Acta de levantamiento” (45), “Declaración preparatoria pública” (48, 212, 213, 216), “Acta de averiguación” (210), and “Dictamen de sentencia” (217). In the context, again, of the neopoliciaco, this is an unusual feature, for although the hard-boiled detective generally disdains the official legal processes of states considered incompetent or criminally corrupt, the alternative justice administered almost never posits an alternative legal-procedural regime. Taibo’s Bealascoarán finally imposes conventional hard-boiled justice on one Morales by pushing him down the stairs of the Torre Latinoamericana, with the justification that the Mexican legal system will not prosecute agents of the state’s own violence. In this sense, with respect to the narrative imposition of justice on a second Morales, Marcos’s contribution to Muertos incómodos falls less within the realm of the hard-boiled than the police procedural, albeit one in which police procedural power has been appropriated by Zapatista authorities. Thus, the logic of Marcos’s investigation is as neat as the dichotomy stated time and again by Marcos’s characters: on one hand, the illegitimate “mal gobierno” of the Mexican state (first mentioned by Contreras on the fifth page of the novel, 13), and, on the other, the just and legitimate authority of the “Juntas de Buen Gobierno” of the Zapatista autonomous municipalities.

It is the proliferation of this dichotomous opposition of good governments and bad governments, in conjunction with the constant invocation of Neruda’s “el Mal y el Malo” that most clearly exemplifies the saturation of Marcos’s narrative polyphony by a revolutionary cant tending toward absolutism. Thus, in its narrative language, Muertos incómodos dramatizes one of the most permanent contradictions in Marcos’s ideological discourse: on one hand, the advocacy of egalitarian tolerance, multi-cultural solidarity and democracy from below, and on the other, the demand that the entire Mexican political class be locked in jail along with the rich. (11) This is another manifestation of the two contrasting aspects of Marcos’s persona described by Maite and De la Grange in their critical study almost a decade ago: “Marcos es, en efecto, una paradoja con máscara, una dicotomía permanente […] ofrece una cara irreverente, humilde, a veces lúdica y hasta casi libertaria, a la que se contrapone otra cuadriculada, intransigente y egocéntrica” (363). In the news pages of La Jornada (although less so in other Mexican newspapers), Subcomandante Marcos continues to speak frequently for the EZLN and the estimated 250,000 indigenous peasants residing in Zapatista-controlled zones of Chiapas, and in their name he programmatically advocates abandonment of the existing electoral system and peaceful overthrow of the Mexican government by a popular coalition of civil organizations as the only option for the salvation of Mexico. By allotting expression of his familiar critique and political program to a series of narrators in Muertos incómodos, Marcos surely intended to present these ideas as the expression of a collective consensus. So recognizable is the face behind the textual mask, however, that when Contreras comments on the last page of Marcos’s last chapter that he will have to sign off himself since “el Sup no está,” (220), he only calls attention to the force of Marcos’s ill-concealed presence in much of what has gone before.

Especially in Marcos’s chapters, but also in Taibo’s, Muertos incómodos represents Mexican history as an unresolved struggle of a mercilessly oppressed people against a series of inherently vicious, exploitative and treacherous ruling elites. The truth of history is to be located, as Marcos is fond of asserting both here and in his communiqués, “abajo a la izquierda”. (This is the title of the first communiqué he published following the serialization of Muertos incómodos.) In the novel, this rhetoric is delivered by characters such as that of the activist nun, Chapis Lucrecia, who has this to say: “El Mal está arriba a la derecha, con los ricos, con los que mal gobiernan, con los que oprimen al pueblo.” (153) Such comments by Marcos’s narrators are seamlessly continuous with the discourse of his communiqués: “allá arriba reinan la indecencia, la desfachatez, el cinismo, la desvergüenza.” (“La (imposible) ¿geometría? del Poder en México,” June 2005). To the right and above, Marcos locates the Mexican state, all the major parties of Mexican electoral politics, and the economic and cultural elites whom he accuses of selling off the Mexican fatherland, la Patria, to the highest transnational bidder. Another of Marcos’s narrators, a pro-Zapatista Trotskyist nicknamed El Chino, denounces globalization as an organized manifestation of Evil (“la Internacional del Mal,” 159) and Vicente Fox’s Partido de Acción Nacional as part of an international fascist conspiracy. This Manichean and metaphysical rhetoric persists, remarkably enough, despite Marcos’s reproduction in Muertos incómodos of a January, 2005 La Jornada article by Pedro Miguel criticizing precisely the theological rhetoric in which President Bush has couched his own campaign against the so-called Axis of Evil (150-1).

In the final pages of the novel, Taibo’s seems to chide Marcos gently over this rhetorical tendency, when Belascoarán wonders in Mexico City how the other half of the investigation might be turning out. “¿Qué estaría haciendo Elías Contreras en estos momentos en Chiapas? Allá todo debería ser más claro, más transparente el aire, más nítidos los enemigos, más simples las cosas” (233). It was Taibo who was responsible in later chapters for splitting the arch-villain devised by Marcos into two characters with the same name in order to achieve a modicum of plausibility in the attribution of guilt for so many and such vast historical crimes. However, neither the Zapatista trial staged by Marcos, in which one Morales is convicted of selling the national sovereignty or la Patria (217), nor Belascoarán’s final showdown with an aging former dirty warrior in a run-down office on the 41st floor of the Torre Latinoamericana, ultimately produce any convincing simulacrum of justice, even within the formulaic code of the detective genre. Muertos incómodos ultimately inspires more doubts than confidence not only with regard to the possible utility of the detective novel as a durable instrument of political critique in the era of neoliberal globalization, but also with regard to the possibility of restoring a coherent and inclusive Mexican Patria on Zapatista terms. If political and economic elites are, to quote one of Marcos’s most ubiquitous phrases, “de por sí”, or self-evidently, evil and anti-patriotic, we can only suppose that the entire upper right quadrant of Mexican society will be excluded from the just, anti-capitalist society he envisions.

If some readers will dismiss the foregoing comments as ungenerous in view of the gravity and validity of the political concerns raised by Muertos incómodos and of its charitable ends, others will surely question the wisdom of devoting any critical attention whatsoever to such a slapdash and unapologetically doctrinaire text. The historical engagement of the neopoliciaco with leftist politics seems to me, however, to provide some justification for the critical consideration of this unusual limit case. Like many other cultivators of the neopoliciaco, Taibo, no less than Marcos, would surely refute the possibility of separating the aesthetic value of a text from consideration of its political impact. (At the Semana Negra in Gijón, Asturias, in July of 2005, he rejected another writer’s affirmation that a novel, in order to succeed, cannot be moralizing, by responding: “¡La tuya! La mía lo es, lo lamento”.) While the moralizing and polemical tone of Muertos incómodos is unlikely to trouble aficionados of the customarily politicized neopoliciaco, I would maintain that the monologic and absolutist tendencies of Marcos’s literary rhetoric might indeed trouble us, as might his intradiagetic positioning of himself as an implicit (and sometimes explicit) arbiter of narrative polyphony and as a self-effacing, panoptical narrative subject. Rather than conveying an amusing parable of democratic community, as intended, Marcos’s incursion into the neopolicial seems likely to leave many readers as uncomfortable as the specters who speak his words.





(1). For an overview of the trajectory of the Latin American novela negra, see my recent article “The Detective is Dead. Long Live the Novela Negra!”


(2). According at least to one international wire service article on initial reactions to the novel, it was none too well received even in Mexican literary circles. “Las figuras literarias de México, que normalmente simpatizan con los zapatistas, no están muy impresionados por los ‘Muertos Incómodos.’ ‘Es muy regular, no me convence todavía,’ dijo Carlos Monsiváis, el intelectual de izquierda más importante de México. El estilo recuerda los comunicados de Marcos que han aparecido en La Jornada, los que dejaron de ser tomados en serio, pues oscilaban entre líricos, políticos y verborreicos,’ sostuvo por su parte el escritor Homero Aridjis.” (“Líder zapatista”) In one of the few reviews published in mainstream U.S. media while the serialization was still in progress, a Rolling Stone editor named Alex Mar, writing in Salon, contrasted the novelty of the initiative with the poverty of the results: “according to [editor] Hernández, La Jornada quickly garnered a 25 percent rise in its Sunday readership with the inception of Muertos incómodos. The New York Times and the Guardian reported on the literary project as international news. But while packed with venomous references to neoliberalismo, globalization, and those who ‘disappeared’ during the anti-leftist ‘dirty war’ of the ‘70s, the wrench in the book is literary: It's dismal. Its chapter-by-chapter production leaves the story without clear structure and intent, and it’s as uneven as the talents of its authors, with Taibo’s installments miles ahead. Despite his painfully clear aspirations, Marcos […] is no fiction writer.”


(3). At the official Mexican presentation of Muertos incómodos in Ciudad Nezahualcóyotl in April of 2005, Taibo described the scope of the novel as follows: “nació una doble investigación en la que se revelan 30 años de horrores, 30 años de tranzas, de negocios turbios, de asesinatos, de guardias blancas, de paramilitares, de negocios hechos a la sombra del poder […] es un descenso a los infiernos mexicanos de los que todos ustedes tienen razón, conocimiento y referencia. (quoted in García Hernández “Una sociedad aburrida”)  


(4). In one account of his reaction to the surprising proposal by Marcos, Taibo recognized the recklessness of writing without a plan: “¿Cómo sin ponernos de acuerdo? Una novela no es enchílame otra, hay que articularla, tramarla, darle peso a la historia, construir la trama central.” Despite these reservations, he didn’t hesitate long before accepting the challenge, and the first chapter of the novel went to press within a week of his acceptance. “Debe haber sido lunes o martes. Yo escribí a toda velocidad una nota diciéndole que el título no me gustaba y proponiéndole algunas reglas y subreglas. Esa misma noche me puse de acuerdo con La Jornada para iniciar la publicación al domingo siguiente.” (quoted in García Hernández  Muertos incómodos)


(5). A particularly scathing attack on Marcos’s current discourse, as exemplified by speeches delivered in the course of La Otra Campaña, appeared in February of this year in Letras Libres, one of the publications denounced by both Marcos and Taibo in the course of Muertos incómodos. There Letras Libres editor Julio Patán wrote as follows: “Este desinterés generalizado [del público mexicano ante la anticompaña] sirve para explicar el mal humor de Marcos, su violencia verbal nada contenida y libre de amaneramientos estilísticos. No se trata solo de su generosidad con los insultos, un tic discursivo que, a fin de cuentas, también puede explicarse por la arraigadísima idea, permeada de clasismo, caciquismo y condescendencia clasemediera, de que así es como hay que comunicarse con el vulgo (al naco hay que hablarle en naco). Se trata, sobre todo, de su regreso a la jerga revolucionaria, leninista, foquista-guevarista, patéticamente setentera, pues.”


(6). Ilan Stavans, author of the first published monograph on the Mexican detective novel, also recognized Marcos’s evident debt to Rulfo in his highly unfavorable review of Muertos incómodos in The New Republic Online: “El Sup isn’t a storyteller as much as a propagandist. His doctrinaire segments have no artistic verge. They are tedious disquisitions on inequality and fraud. He is unquestionably well read, particularly in Latin American literature. His ideological education, he once said, owes as much to the theoretician Antonio Gramsci as it does to Gabriel García Márquez. His portions in Muertos incómodos read like an amateurish tribute to the work of Juan Rulfo, author of the classic novel Pedro Páramo and the stories included in The Burning Bush. Contreras’s first-person speech is that of an uncultured peasant, just as in Rulfo’s oeuvre. Except that El Sup doesn’t have the talent to sustain such weltanshaung.”


(7). Here I have in mind D.A. Miller’s Foucauldian reading of the nineteenth-century realist novel, and especially the detective novel, in The Novel and the Police. There Miller writes: “I have been implying […] that discipline provides the novel with its essential ‘content’ […] the novel’s own repudiation of policing power can be seen not to depart from, but to extend the pattern of this discreet Aufhebung. Whenever the novel censures policing power, it has already invented it, in the very practice of novelistic representation” (18, 20). An example: “Balzac’s omniscient narration assumes a fully panoptic view of the world it places under surveillance. Nothing worth knowing escapes its notation, and its complete knowledge includes the knowledge that it is always right. This infallible super-vision is frequently dramatized in Balzac’s descriptions as an irresistible process of detection. […] There is no other perspective on the world than its own, because the world entirely coincides with that perspective. […] the faceless gaze becomes an ideal of the power of regulation.” (23-4). One final observation by Miller is perhaps particularly relevant to Marcos’s practice in the cited passages: “One thinks […] of the typologies to which novelists like Balzac or Zola subject their characters, or of the more general normalizing function which automatically divides characters into good and bad, normal and deviant. The panopticism of the novel thus coincides with what Mikhail Bakhtin has called its ‘monologism’: the working of an implied master-voice whose accents have already unified the world in a single interpretative center. […] The master-voice of monologism never simply soliloquizes. It continually needs to confirm its authority by qualifying, canceling, endorsing, subsuming all the other voices it lets speak. No doubt the need stands behind the great prominence the nineteenth-century novel gives to style indirect libre, in which, respeaking a character’s thoughts or speeches, the narration simultaneously subverts their authority and secures its own.” (25)


(8). This is the essence of the criticism directed at Marcos by a Zapatista defector named Antonio, quoted by Bertrand de la Grange y Maite Rico in their critical 1998 study, Marcos, la genial impostura: “Nunca hubo un comandante indígena. Marcos es el que decide” (197). By Antonio’s account, the 20-member CCRI-CG, supposedly the supreme governing body of the EZLN, was a fiction invented shortly before the January, 1994 uprising to lend a (masked) indigenous face to a movement organized by transplanted urban ideologues. Journalists De la Grange and Rico allege that while the indigenous comandantes were never simply puppets, only two or three wielded effective political influence outside their own communities (54). At the very end of his substantial book on Marcos, Vázquez Montalbán refuted this perception as follows: “como aparentemente se trataba de un grupo de indígenas enmascarados mandados por un blanco pseudo poeta, el racismo cultural decretó que los pobres indígenas, una vez más, estaban siendo instrumentalizados por profetas postmarxistas locales o por indoeuropeos nostálgicos de la KGB. La verdad era muy otra. Los líderes indígenas curtidos en luchas sindicales agrarias y de defensa de sus raíces, abiertos a la modernidad y no cerrados a ella, absorbieron el residual guerrillismo universitario de corte castroguevarista y lo sumaron a una inteligentísima operación de presión ética sobre la sociedad mexicana e internacional.” (378) The staging of Marcos’s public reemergence in August of 2005, following a four year and four month absence, seems to suggest a continuing preoccupation with the perception of his relationship to the indigenous comandantes. A La Jornada report described the scene last year as follows: “Con su uniforme militar, su pistola al cinto, escoltado por siete guerrilleros armados y colocado detrás de la dirigencia política -siete hombres y nueve mujeres encapuchados que junto con él participan en la organización de los trabajos de la Comisión Sexta que se encargará de la parte política nacional para impulsar la creación de una fuerza política de izquierda y la otra campaña-, Marcos escuchó con respeto y tolerancia todas las opiniones.” (Henríquez)


(9). Having lived in close contact with indigenous communities for more than twenty years in the mountains of Chiapas, Marcos confidently enunciates the indigenous “we” in his written communications and in his public appearances. On March 6 of this year in San Pablo Toliman, Querétaro, he spoke as follows: “Nosotros somos indígenas de Chiapas. Antes de organizarnos éramos tratados como extranjeros en nuestra propia tierra. Eramos despreciados por nuestro color, nuestra lengua, nuestra cultura. Trataban mejor a alguien que hablaba en inglés que a alguien que hablaba cualquiera de nuestras lenguas mayas. […] empezaron a decir de nosotros [después del alzamiento de 1994] que éramos extranjeros, que éramos narcotraficantes, que éramos gente que estaba engañando a los indígenas. Nosotros no éramos un puñado de gente, éramos miles de hombres, mujeres, niños y ancianos, indígenas todos” (quoted in Bellinghausen).


(10). The first published reference that I have found by Marcos to Muertos incómodos appears in a letter dated November, 2004 and written to be read at a session in honor of the deceased Vázquez Montalbán at the Guadalajara book fair. This is how Marcos announced the project: “En alguna misiva le propuse a Don Manuel Vázquez Montalbán escribir una novela policíaca ‘a la limón’, con unas partes escritas en las montañas del sureste mexicano y otras en las Ramblas catalanas. Él aceptó, aunque, lo confesó alguna vez, no tenía la menor idea de cómo eso sería posible. Yo tampoco, pero esto ya no lo supo. Próximamente el Sistema Zapatista de Televisión Intergaláctica, ‘la única televisión que se lee’, trasmitirá el primer capítulo de una serie policial que, como todo lo zapatista, tiene un futuro incierto.” (“A Manuel Vázquez Montalbán”)


(11). This contradiction persists in statements made by Marcos in the context of his most recent political venture, La Otra Campaña, the tour scheduled to take him through the 32 states of the Mexican republic between January and June of 2006. In an interview with Hermann Bellinghausen at the Mexico City offices of La Jornada in May, Marcos described the campaign as follows: “La Otra Campaña va a lograr la unión de [las] resistencias y rebeldías, que van a obligar a todas las organizaciones políticas de izquierda a unirse, como ya ha ocurrido en la Karavana. Se va a crear un movimiento cultural, político, científico y humanista sin precedente en este país, abajo y a la izquierda.” He stated the ultimate objectives as follows: “Vamos a derrocar al gobierno por vías civiles y pacíficas; se van a ir los ricos y los políticos a la cárcel.” (Marcos “A este paso”). Later in the same interview, he declared: “si no hacemos la otra campaña lo que podría pasar es una guerra civil. La otra campaña es la única alternativa para que este país sobreviva.” (Marcos “La clase política”)



Works Cited


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Bellinghausen, Hermann. “Los zapatistas no proponemos dividir al país, sino unir a los pobres: Marcos.La Jornada 7 marzo 2006


Braham, Perspehone. Crimes Against the State, Crimes Against Persons. Detective Fiction in Cuba and Mexico. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2004.


Close, Glen S. “The Detective is Dead. Long Live the Novela Negra!” Hispanic and Luso-Brazilian Detective Fiction. Essays on the Género Negro Tradition. Eds. Renée W. Craig-Odders, Jacky Collins and Glen S. Close. Jefferson NC: McFarland, 2006. 143-61.


De la Grange, Bernard and Maite Rico. Marcos, la genial impostura. Miami: Santillana,  1998.


García Hernández, Arturo. “Muertos incómodos, voz de alerta ‘frente al estado de injusticia’.” La Jornada 23 abril 2005


---. “Una sociedad aburrida está condenada a la derrota: Taibo II.” La Jornada 25 abril 2005


Henríquez, Elio. “El PRD nos despreció y va a pagar, advierte Marcos.La Jornada  7 agosto 2005


“Líder zapatista Marcos debuta como novelista.” Terra (Colombia) / Reuters


Mar, Alex. “The rebel in winter.” Salon Jan 28 2005


Marcos, Subcomandante Insurgente. “A este paso las elecciones serán bajo custodia militar.” Interview by Hermann Bellinghausen. La Jornada 10 mayo 2006


---. “A Manuel Vázquez Montalbán.” Letter dated November 2004. Available at


---. “La clase política y el sistema no tienen remedio.” Interview by Hermann Bellinghausen. La Jornada 11 mayo 2006


---. La (imposible) ¿geometría? del Poder en México.” Communiqué dated June 2005. Available at


Marcos, Subcomandante and Paco Ignacio Taibo II. Muertos incómodos (falta lo que falta). México D.F.: Joaquín Mortiz, 2005.


Miller, D.A. The Novel and the Police. Berkeley: U of California P, 1988.


Montaño Garfias, Ericka. “Taibo II y Marcos escriben novela a 20 dedos.” La Jornada 3 diciembre 2004.


Patán, Julio. “Adiós a las máscaras.” Letras Libres 86 (2006): 92-3.


Stavans, Ilan. “When a Rebel Leader Writes a Novel” The New Republic Online July 6, 2005


Taibo, Paco Ignacio II. Días de combate. Barcelona: Grijalbo, 1976.


Vázquez Montalbán, Manuel. Marcos: El señor de los espejos. Madrid: Punto de Lectura, 2001