Calling All Heroes' by Paco Ignacio Taibo II: A Review
Tony's Reading List
February 17th, 2014
Calling All Heroes - A Manifesto for Taking Power (translated by Gregory Nipper) is a short work by Mexican writer Paco Ignacio Taibo II in which he works through his frustration at the failure of the 1968 student protests. Although short, it's an action-packed read, a book that looks at what might have been and then tries to make it so...
We start off in January 1970 with our central character Nestor, a journalist recovering in hospital after being attacked by a knife-wielding murderer. With time to think, he decides that the moment has come to make the government and the police pay for the atrocities committed during the Tlatelolco crackdown (or massacre...), and to this end he dictates a series of letters, summoning an army of legendary freedom fighters to Mexico City to carry out his quixotic mission. The actions of a deluded invalid? Perhaps... But what if all these heroes actually came?
Calling All Heroes is a chaotic, adrenaline-charged story, initially confusing, but eventually simply exhilarating. The book consists of thirty-one short parts, alternating between two strands. In the first, an unknown narrator addresses Nestor in the second person, describing the events as the bitter journalist plots his attack on the unsuspecting authorities; in the second, letters to Nestor (letters he has requested) describe his character and history, also hinting at what happened in the crazy few days at the end of January 1970.
Taibo's book is effective as an historical novel, looking at the disappointment felt by students after the government crackdowns of 1968, and several of the letters portray the feelings of helplessness and loss that followed the defeat. What is described is a city attempting to recover from a traumatic battle:
"In the city the tanks had been replaced by solitude, with similar effects. The wounds would seem not to have closed. We would belong to a generation of idiot princes, hemophiliacs, whose skin the blood flowed down at the slightest cut."
p.15 (PM Press, 2010)
In fact, we later see examples of this in the story of a worker who one day decides, in the middle of the street, to set fire to himself in the hope of raising awareness of the plight of the workers...
...which may all sound like grim reading. However, Calling All Heroes is anything but, sweeping the reader along with a story straight out of an adventure book. You see, the band of mercenaries Nestor is summoning from around the world is not an anonymous band of guns for hire - there are some very familar names amongst these soldiers of fortune:
"The next sign that the conspiracy was thriving came on Friday, when the doctor, after pointing out that with a period of pleasant convalescence you would be in the clear, took from the pocket of his hospital coat a telegram from Dick Turpin, which gave the number of the Braniff International flight on which he would arrive in Mexico." (p.52)
Yep, that's right - Mr. Stand-and-Deliver himself.
The legendary English highwayman is just the first of many legendary figures to enter the fray, and many of them are not even real. Still with Sherlock Holmes, Winnetou and the Light Brigade (who do a fair bit of charging) on your side, things are bound to be very interesting - and even when things do get hairy, there's always another legend of classic literature (or four) to save the day ;)
It all makes for a wonderfully-entertaining and (more importantly) well-written story, a personal catharsis disguised as a Boys-Own yarn. The different strands work well, and a whole variety of voices come through in the letters Nestor receives from his friends. It won't take you very long to finish Taibo's book (an hour if you're a quick reader), but it'll stay with you a lot longer than that - revolution and comic-book carnage: what's not to like?
Before I leave you, I just thought I'd draw your attention to some similarities with another famous Latin-American writer, a certain Roberto Bolaño. Last year, I read a couple of his works, including The Savage Detectives, and after finishing Calling All Heroes I couldn't help but compare the two. The setting is the same, of course, and the letters to Nestor act in the same way as the interviews people give describing the enigmatic Lima and Belano. The two books also contain their fair share of artists - and wry humour:
"...and René Cabrera, who wrote brilliant poems and then used the paper to fill the holes in his shoes so the rain wouldn't get his socks too wet." (p.25)
Given then that this appeared in English in 2010, a clear example of strong influences and jumping on Bolaño's coat-tails, no? Not exactly... You see, Taibo actually got there first - in 1982. In the words of the writer:
"Under these deplorable conditions, this shortest of novels was created. brewed in the midst of a premature divorce, following a premature marriage, of a political crisis, of an era of hunger and underemployment, the novel became a pretext, a vendetta, dealing with Power by other means.
Then it was put away in a drawer and rewritten three times during the following twelve years." (Appendix Two, p.118)
I'm not an expert on Latin-American literature by any means, but it seems possible that Bolaño may have had a quick read of this one at some point ;)
To finish today, a bit of music (something Stu, of Winstonsdad's Blog likes to do from time to time). I was wondering what could possibly suit a crazy story like this, when it appeared of its own accord, unbidden - and it became clear that there was only one choice...