Peter Mitchell reviews Kingdom Cons, The Transmigration of Bodies, and Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera

Translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman (And Other Stories 2017, 2016, 2015)

Narcocorridos are the folk music of the Latin American drug wars, and they’re massive in Mexico. They take a traditional form honed in the Mexican revolutionary wars—the corrido, or narrative ballad in praise of the hero and his exploits—and update it for a world of cartel vendettas, conspicuous consumption, and wholesale violence in the service of business. The narco, in these jolly polka-time accordion songs, emerges as the bandido par excellence: wily, decisive, big-hearted and true, he fucks over his enemies, rewards his friends, and enriches his community. In Mexico, cartels have their own affiliated narcocorrido bands, federal states attempt (unsuccessfully, most of the time) to ban the genre from the airwaves, and consumers worry about being seen buying the wrong CD. Narcocorrido stations and recording studios are used to launder money. Musicians get murdered.

Kingdom Cons, Yuri Herrera’s third novel to be translated into English, is about an itinerant singer who becomes the resident balladmonger to a narco’s court. The Artist (you never get very far with Herrera, namewise) is plucked from a tenuous existence singing in bars by the narco—a mesmeric presence, only ever referred to as the King—and installed in his compound. He writes corridos praising his own exploits and those of his lieutenants, love songs for whoever needs them, generic ballads of the narco life, and paeans to those who need to be flattered. He wanders the halls of the compound, watching high tragedy and intrigue, following the scent of a mysterious woman and her influence on the King, hanging around for leftovers after the King and his court have eaten. The court is an Elsinore of receding perspectives, frustrated eavesdropping, rooms that connect mysteriously to other rooms: there’s an audience chamber where the poor come to have their tears wiped away, and a vault where a witch is doing black magic. Some of the King’s servants are murdered with daggers whose curved blades suggest a ritual function; the feudal atmosphere is febrile; there’s a worryingly itchy air. The woman whose scent the Artist follows helplessly around the corridors is, of course, both destructively alluring and Very Bad News. Things head south fast.

If all this sounds a bit high camp, that’s because it is. Herrera isn’t concerned with restraint, or showing rather than telling, or anything so boring as the default middlebrow realism or polite language games of much English-language fiction. A bit like a narcocorrido, Kingdom Cons takes the materials of Mexico’s present and presses them into older forms. Those forms endue a frequently unbearable present with formal weight, comforting fatalism, and a certain saving weirdness.

That sense of a timeless, gnomic understanding facing a violent and bewildering modernity has been more or less the M.O. of all of Herrera’s novels to date. Translated by Lisa Dillman and published by And Other Stories at the rate of one novel a year since 2015, the three that have emerged so far—Kingdom Cons, The Transmigration of Bodies, and Signs Preceding the End of the World—constitute one of the most astonishing bodies of work to have made it into English from any other language in the last couple of decades. They’re all short and furiously dense, and set in a world recognisable as the northern borderlands of Mexico sometime around the beginning of the twenty-first century. Herrera makes miniature, charged epics of the new dispensations of power between narco-state and police state, immigrant and settled, global north and global south, and he roots them in a rich soil of myth, folklore, and literary form, with the hysterical urgency of prophecy and the twitchy irony of the postmodern.

All Herrera’s protagonists are intercessors, boundary crossers, and liminals. All inhabit a landscape of totems and portents, of obscure structures of power and influence, where there is a pervasive lack of hope or mercy for the unconnected. The Artist in Kingdom Cons is a court bard, hostage to his gift for song and to the pleasure and patronage of his master. He becomes, inevitably, both spy and betrayer; and, for a variety of reasons, he gives up early on having much of a lifespan to look forward to.

Makina, the heroine of Signs Preceding, is a switchboard operator, the guardian of the only landline in a desolate district where half the population has fled north: her fluency in languages and networks of people enables her to cross that border herself, on a quest for her brother and an errand for a local crime lord. Her journey becomes a quest narrative haunted by Dante and Orpheus, with the country north of the border rendered as a kind of pallid spirit world. Makina’s passage through this purgative landscape becomes a frame for perhaps the most vivid and concentrated evocation of the immigrant experience in contemporary literature. Migration, here, becomes a process of utter denudation, where those who cross over are shorn of language, dignity, self, and skin. The mysterious solidarities that are left are based on fleeting and anonymous encounters; kindness and cruelty float as free of the self as names.

In The Transmigration of Bodies, a boozy operator known as the Redeemer tries, in a city struck by an immobilising epidemic, to facilitate an exchange between two rival crime families: each is holding hostage the body of the other’s youngest and most cherished child. The novel plays with the conventions of classic noir—the boozehound antihero with a core of decency, a fallen urban geography in which the clash of crime families is a matter of high tragedy and glamour, a femme fatale who seems surprisingly willing to sleep with the protagonist—and superimposes a world in the grip of a terminal fever.

These are familiar genres—underworld quest, noir, court tragedy—and Herrera deploys them with skill and sly humour, pushing his vision to the edge of parody, daring us not to take him seriously. His language performs much the same trick: rendered into English it falls somewhere between the King James Bible and the slang of ten years from now. He lards it with contractions, nonce words, and imaginary idiolect, which must have stretched Dillman to the limit and beyond. (In fact, Dillman has been unusually open-handed in writing about the difficult process of translating these books, and her accounts of her decisions are required reading for anyone who cares about translation.) An example: in Signs Preceding, the verb aranjar stands for go, leave, or cross. Dillman renders it as verse, encapsulating the sense of traversing the landscape of borderland and exile (which Makina does), the sense of ending a stanza, of bringing a stop to a particular passage (which is what Makina does, too, every time she moves on), and, finally, of turning the work of movement into lyric, of witnessing in heightened language the translation of place to place or language to language (which is what the novel as a whole does, and what Dillman does, heroically, in translating it). Whatever it may have been in Spanish, in English verse bears the weight of the whole book. But this is in tune with Herrera’s snakiness, his tempering of high seriousness with a conspiratorial wink. That sense of daring you not to take him seriously—or, conversely, to take him very seriously indeed—is never more present than when he approaches the high portentousness of, say, Cormac McCarthy (a writer with whom he gets compared surprisingly often, probably because McCarthy writes in English, with neither humour nor self-awareness, about savage Mexicans chopping each other up), or Beckett’s mournful epigrammatic drollery.

This levity and self-awareness is necessary. For all his flirtation with high camp and entertaining schlock, Herrera’s political imaginary is, if not entirely apocalyptic, then certainly always in dialogue with a sense of universal ruin. Faced with the disintegration of worlds, with violence and entropy, you can long for things to be made whole again, for the restitution of a symbolic order, for the intimate and proper acts of community to knit the world together again; or you can also just sit back and watch the show, acknowledging that, frankly, it’s a bit sexy. Herrera does both, balancing mourning and protest against apocalyptic glamour. Here again, he pushes both tendencies to the edge of parody, daring us to take him seriously. His protagonists’ heroism and pained decency are matched by their self-annihilating fatalism: “When did we stop burying those we love with our own hands?” asks the Redeemer, before getting on with the job of drinking himself to death.

In the face of this, Herrera proposes the qualities of the verse: movement and mobility, language and the lyric. If these novels pulse with language and verbal inventiveness against the grimness of the realities they describe, they also locate moments of resistance in the capacity to adapt, in the will to persist, and in a stoic fatalism that faces annihilation with equanimity. In Signs Preceding, Makina listens to the language of Mexican exiles in the north:

And then they speak. They speak an intermediary tongue that Makina instantly warms to because it’s like her: malleable, erasable, permeable: a hinge pivoting between two like but distant souls, and then two more, and then two more, never exactly the same ones; something that serves as a link.

More than the midpoint between homegrown and anglo their tongue is a nebulous territory between what is dying out and what is not yet born. But not a hecatomb.

That’s one way to read Herrera: as the advent of a literature that comprehends the new relations between the local and the global, between tradition and modernity, identity and hybridity. It is a literature by and for those citizens of nowhere who are now bearing the brunt of a global wave of nativism. That nativism is fearful of both their otherness and their familiarity, their rootedness in alien cultures and their uncanny cultural promiscuity. Herrera sees in these qualities both irreparable melancholy and a ghostly Utopianism: either way, he says, this is how it’s going to be from now on, and the citizens of nowhere will outlast Trump and his ilk.

It all comes back to art, though. Narcocorridos aren’t just interesting collisions of traditional form and modern socio-political witness; they’re also supposed to be funny and filthy and make people dance. Kingdom Cons, like the novels that preceded it, is serious only in that it’s fundamentally unserious, a treatise on modern cultural subjectivities only in that it’s also an entertainment. As much as form, it’s about process. The Artist’s only concern is to be a conduit for whatever it is that has hold of him: music, loyalty, words. When Herrera describes him making his hybrid art, there’s a sense of rapture in the act of musical creation that you can’t help reading as the act of writing, too:

The music cranked up all at once, right from the get go, with the first ay, and then the voice carried the melody, the bass bumped up and down as if spellbound by the beat, the accordion swooped down low on the verses and sped up on the curves, and all the while the drum, solemn, held its own.

He scribbled the lyrics furiously almost the moment he left the reception, leaning against a bar in a cantina. And before passing his new corrido on to his colleagues, the Artist felt the kind of sparks that fly when you hurtle downhill in a truck; and felt as if he’d let something go.