Continuing my engagement with the novels of Paco Ignacio Taibo II (or PIT) on Mexico, my attention here turns to el monstruo, the monster, that is his book Retornamos como sombras (Returning as Shadows, 2001). Readers of my earlier blog post The Shadows of Revolution will recall that this book is the sequel to Sombra de la sombra (The Shadow of the Shadow, 1986). Across 400 pages, this follow-on is another mesmerising journey through the geopolitical economy and urban spaces of Mexico City by way of architecture, streets, images, and symbols. Yet it is more.
The book also delivers a much wider multi-scalar analysis of the geography of Mexico itself, covering the ‘peripheries’ of the Mexican state including the municipality of Tapachula in the far southwest of the state of Chiapas, alongside Mexico City, and Veracruz, the major port city and Gulf-of-Mexico-gateway. What boundaries between fiction and history is PIT transgressing in Returning as Shadows and how does he explore the spatial labyrinths of modern state and city-scape?
Picking up the narrative of this sequel, the book is a novel of Mexico crossing the winter of 1941 and the summer of 1942 that traces the Naziphilic modes of thought generally shaping the politics of Mexico at the time and specifically of Miguel Alemán Valdés, who served as Secretary of the Interior (1940-45) prior to becoming the President of Mexico (1946-1952). In the book Miguel Alemán is embroiled in an affair with the German actress Hilda Krüger who was also a spy for the German Abwehr network, the intelligence-gathering agency that reported to the High Command of the Armed Forces (OKW or Wehrmacht).
As PIT states in a series of author’s notes at the end of the novel, ‘the social history of Alemán’s white-collar robbery is part of the collective memory of thousands of Mexicans’. This history is pieced together drawing from FBI archives along with some historical retouching. The author admits that ‘nothing contained in these pages is exactly as it was, although that does not mean it cannot be so now’. The Abwehr is thus at the centre of the novel in its attempt to establish operations in Mexico, which were headed by Georg Nicolaus working out of offices in Mexico City.
The spatial labyrinths of the modern Mexican state and its city-forms covered in the book include the port of Veracruz itself, aerially captured in the above set image depicting Fort San Juan de Ulúa on the left, with references in the novel to the Gran Hotel Diligencias while in the city of palaces that is Mexico City references to old favourites include the buildings of Banco de Londres y México, Estación Buenavista, and Palacio Negro (Lecumberri Prison) as well as to newcomers such as the National Lottery Building at the top of Paseo de la Reforma, ‘that glorious new example of national architecture’ designed by José A. Cuevas (the city’s main skyscraper, albeit in 1945). As PIT reflects on this capital city and this city of capital, ‘This is an unfinished city, but what city is not? What city that boasts of being complete does not show an indeterminate face?’
Against this historical and spatial backdrop are the four original characters from the earlier novel, namely the poet Fermín Valencia, recently a veteran of the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) in which he lost an arm and now working for the Ministry of the Interior; the journalist Pioquinto Manterola who now receives communiqués from the president, Manuel Ávila Camacho (1940-46), and now working for Vicente Lombardo Toledano; Tomás Wong (alias La Iguana) who takes to hunting down patrols of Nazi brown-shirts in the jungles of Chiapas; and Alberto Verdugo, the lawyer, now struggling with mental health issues in the asylum known as the Lighthouse.
Dispensing bones (dominoes) for decks (poker), there is a central gathering of the four protagonists in which they reflect on the brown-shirts patrolling the Soconusco jungle and the submarine bases thought to be nestled south of Veracruz – thereby spatially linking Veracruz back to the militarisation of Chiapas and also to the rightward lurch of Mexican politics in the capital city. In dialogue with Manterola, it is Fermín Valencia (the Poet) that states, “When we got together twenty years ago in that strange domino club, I think it was you who said that we were ‘the shadow of the shadow’, right?” As a Special Agent for the Ministry of Interior, he continues, “. . . I now have the distinct feeling that we are returning as shadows, as pallid shadows of our former selves . . . we are no longer what we once were”. In response, Manterola states: “Returning as shadows. I like it. And next time, after another twenty years, I’m going to remember it was you who said it”. Shortly thereafter, Fermín Valencia says to Tomás Wong and Manterola, “If the pattern continues, the next time we all see each other, we’ll be seventy”.
Politically, the novel is infused with a critique of the renovated and reborn post-Porfirian class society shaping Mexican politics in the 1940s and the turn away from the interventionist policies of President Lázaro Cárdenas (1934-1940). ‘The powers that be have been affecting the wheel of fortune, turning it in the other direction, toward modernity’. As the character Manterola states of Miguel Alemán:
It’s a new thing in the government, something born of the Revolution. He’s no general; he’s a lawyer. The son of a general, yes, but with a law degree instead of an officer’s rank. He’s part of a new caste. A brief campaign, then the senator’s office, then three years as governor of Veracruz. Without leaving so much as a fingerprint on the office. And now it seems as if he’s teamed up with the president according to that damned pendulum theory: Cárdenas’ government swung to the left—damas and caballeros and good consciences undisturbed—but now it must return to the right.
Geopolitically, the attempts to quell the rise of Nazi propaganda and espionage are relayed alongside the attacks on several tankers that precipitated Mexico’s entry into the Second World War. As Monica Rankin details in her excellent book, ¡Mexico, la Patria! Propaganda and Production during World War II (2009), this was the era in which groups such as the Taller de Gráfica Popular (TGP) and the Liga Pro-Cultura Alemana (involving artists Leopoldo Méndez and Jesús Escobedo) were formed to combat the spread of fascism in Mexico and to facilitate the dissemination of anti-Nazi propaganda. The torpedoing of the tankers Potrero de Llano, Las Chiopas, Faja de Oro, and the Oaxaca by German U-boats in 1942 ultimately breached the pendulum balancing act that characterised Mexican presidencies. The stances of Mexico’s politicians therefore shifted from complicitous neutrality and conspiring with the Germans to aggressive non-neutrality and conspiring with the Allies.
Linking the scalar relations of the geopolitical and the national is the political economy of Chiapas at the sub-state or regional scale. The humid tropics of the southwesternmost point in Mexico, the region of Soconusco, becomes a crucial backdrop to the novel – despite it being ‘forever condemned to be the periphery of the periphery’ – in terms of the political economy of its coffee plantations and as a place where the Nazi mobilisations unfold. PIT traces three distinct but overlapping landscapes surrounding the capital of the region, Tapachula: 1) the jungle, acrid and mysterious, full of spectres and serpents; 2) the ordered symmetrical zone of regular geometry in the terraced fields and interminable rows of coffee plantations; and 3) the alluvial town itself, on the border with Guatemala and known as the ‘pearl of the Soconusco’.
While Tapachula grew and prospered, with its air heavy from mining camps and its shores red with the fortunes of coffee beans, so did Bremen, with its art deco brick neighbourhoods owing to the genial architect Hoetger, the money of the founder of the Hag Corporation, and the inventor of decaffeinated coffee, Ludwig Roselius, who controlled the Mexican coffee network in Germany.
It is the small red fruit grown in Chiapas and cultivated into coffee beans that connects the multiscalar spaces of Mexico by linking German plantations to the cosmopolitan town of Tapachula; by connecting the hacienda German property owners to the campesinos labouring under conditions never resolved by the Mexican Revolution; by tying the pharmaceutical companies such as I.G. Farben producing caffeine tablets and aspirin to their competitors in the United States; and by relating the coffee ranchers in Soconusco to the cupola of the Nazi party, attempting to secure bases in Chiapas, Tabasco and Veracruz. Although, subsequently, Miguel Alemán seizes and dismantles the Chiapas plantations he does not nationalise them. ‘In the end, the land will return to the same old owners’, notes PIT.
Running through Returning as Shadows is a thread connecting the Naziphilic coffee growers of Chiapas to the spaces and places of the political economy of Mexico and its emergence as a modern capitalist state. The local is constitutive of the geopolitical. The character Verdugo comments towards the end of the novel on the Mexico City he loves so much and the country that he sees through the imagination and memory of others. But he then states, ‘As I write, the Germans have reached as far as the Volga, looking down on Stalingrad from atop their ominous tanks’.
The geopolitical is constitutive of the local. After thwarting the plan to establish Nazi influence on the territorial space of Mexico, the co-conspirator Verdugo (or the Poet) is gunned down at his office door, killed by fellow officers within the Ministry of the Interior. The further entrenchment of the ruling party’s swing to the right is assured under Miguel Alemán’s rise to power across the spaces of the modern state, returning the coffee plantations to the landowners of German descent in Soconusco in 1946, and by commanding the spaces of the city and the urban expansion of capital.