The beauty of it all was managing to weave it all together in a braid that would move through time and space. (273)
I consider Four Hands by Paco Ignacio Taibo II to be my best discovery from the secondhand shop during summer. I’ve heard much of Taibo before, especially from Guy Savage. Taibo also co-authored this other novel, The Uncomfortable Dead, with Commandante Marcos, the spokesperson of the Zapatista National Liberation Army (ELZN) of Chiapas, Mexico.
So when I dug Four Hands from the heap of old books, I immediately began reading. I may not have read any of his other books but this title alone puts him among one of my favorite novelists.
In spite of the deceptive complexity, the novel’s plot is actually very simple. It is the colorful yet believable characters and the playful and witty telling that makes Four Hands very engaging.
The story is simply about how the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) tried to frame a Sandinista Minister who had a significant role in the struggle against dictator Somoza, spread disinformation, and demoralize the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. This occurs in the background of a brutal US-sponsored Contra War to topple the Sandinistas. But the contours of this narrative can only be realized near the novel’s end, when all the seemingly disparate mini-narratives coalesce.
Each chapter jumps through different points of views and narratives. We are first introduced to the personal narrations of the protagonists, the journalists Julio and Greg, one Mexican and the other American, who have a good time backstabbing each other in their minds and giving sardonic comments about everything.
Julio, for instance, comments on how “Greg participated in the ritual of consumption because having things, being able to buy things, constitutes ninety percent of the framework of every North American’s subconscious” and attacks how “privacy, fear of germs and the attitude that the body is private property make everyone avoid personal contact” in the United States.
They both agree, however, that “[j]ournalism is the highest literature” and are jointly writing a novel “about reporters who refuse to go along with the trend, who keep looking for revolutions in any goddamn corner of the world and fall in love with them,” the end product of which, one can assume, is of course the novel we readers are reading.
A Postmodern Operative
But the novel’s real star, for me, is Alex of the CIA, some sort of sick conjurer whose main role, among others, is to sow disinformation and discord among opponents of US imperialist interests. He operates clandestinely through corporate fronts, flies all over the World in a jet, is well versed in high and popular culture, fights bureaucratic turf wars with his colleagues, and is a torturer and crazy to boot.
In the chapters dedicated to Alex, he unveils his modus operandi in his operations, past and present. He casually relates how he concealed CIA links to a Latin American despot by first writing a shoddy book purportedly exposing this link and then having another book published criticizing the obvious carelessness of the earlier book.
He muses that “credibility of information is identified with the solidity of the source that emits. If you want someone to believe something, it is essential that the archangel Gabriel whisper it in his ear.”
“The key is to lay things out in such a way that they seem different. You don’t play with the past, you play with the traditional interpretation of the past. You therefore play with the way the past is viewed from the present. In other words, you put the past in order. To this end, occasionally you have to embellish the past, but basically what you have to do is offer alternative interpretations,” Alex said, drinking his wine. (105)
The way Alex organizes and names his spy games makes him a candidate for personifying Fredric Jameson’s theory of postmodernism as the cultural logic of late capitalism. He calls his latest operation, for instance, “Operation Dream of Snow White” and names his operatives after the seven dwarves. Here he is satisfied with himself for gathering “a Sandinista commander, an astonishing Bulgarian, a Mexican drug dealer, some journalists, an Australian prostitute, a Congress of partisan writers, a murder… He needed a Spanish Catholic bishop, an Aztec archaeological treasure, a photograph of gay models, things like that.”
The increasing depthlessness and weakening of historicity brought about by this postmodern logic is nothing more than the result of what Jameson described as “the internal and superstructural expression of a whole new wave of American military and economic domination throughout the world: in this sense, as throughout class history, the underside of culture is blood, torture, death, and terror.”
Entertaining yet Relevant
An assortment of other characters, all related to the main narrative in some way, people this novel. One of my favorites include the American engineer who volunteered to do social work in the Nicaraguan countryside but was executed by Contra paramilitaries armed by the U.S.
Leon Trotsky, whose notes for his own novel are provided to us for a peek, also makes a special appearance. Trotsky outlines the main plot, invents his main characters, comments on his own writing, and in the end decides to discard his novel.
Then there are the rejected Master’s thesis proposals of Elena Jordan, Greg’s ex-wife. These are both ingenious and hilarious. One, for example, touches on “the drug trafficker as a marginal industrialist, adapted to the peripheries of the system by market mechanisms…” while another examines
the appearance of a university Marxism, with a primitive edge that has become functional in Mexican academic society, and that is linked to the mechanisms of professional promotion, social ascension in the University pyramid, formal qualification that permits passing courses and a depressing obligation for the student. (145)
And finally, the long but curious story of the Bulgarian Vasilev, aging revolutionary internationalist extraordinaire who survived the Bulgarian struggle, hobnobbed with Stalin, spent some time in the Gulag, became a firm supporter of Castro, and was involved in the Sandinista final offensive against the Nicaraguan dictator Somoza. Four Hands is abound with reminisces of Vasilev and his comrades.
Battles in dilapidated university buildings in which not a pane of glass remained intact. A short time later, Stanislav Tomaszewicz was reflecting very seriously on his shame at having barricaded himself behind a pile of books on nineteenth-century German logic when three legionnaires tried to kill him in the School of Philosophy. Hegel sheltering us from the bullets. Bound German philosophy; yes, bound, like the distance between life and death. (187)
These aging old Bolsheviks also question if their lives were worth it or if they’ve become “a deserter of the worldwide revolution, one of those who no longer wanted to open the door of the new world and make it spin on a different axis; one of those who no longer believed in the possibility of profound change in the rules of the human game.” The novel, of course, proves these doubts wrong in the end.
Much of socially-oriented literature, both in prose and in poetry, that is considered to be sympathetic or directly supportive of revolutionary causes are perceived mostly as serious, grim and determined works with no place for black humor and playfulness. What Taibo II manages to create in Four Hands is a narrative that critiques the dominant social order while remaining entertaining all throughout. ■