The Mexican author Yuri Herrera knows the fine line between the real world and the fantastic; his first two novels in English skirt this line to perfection. His first book to be translated, Signs Preceding the End of the World, follows a young Mexican girl, Makina, as she crosses the border into the United States, a journey fraught with peril and untold dangers. Upon reading the book, it was evident that Signs Preceding the End of the World was no typical border novel and Herrera no typical writer. The story, deftly told in spare but harrowing strokes, is infused with a mythical ambience, leaving the reader room to imagine the cultural and political consequences Herrera only hints at. The Transmigration of Bodies, his second book to appear in English, inhabits the same world, and reading it after Signs Preceding the End of the World underscores the feeling that the color has been switched on and volume raised.
The Transmigration of Bodies takes place in an unnamed city, largely vacant due to a plague that’s forced the population indoors. The protagonist, artfully named The Redeemer, is a fixer. What does he fix? Feuds between gangs, money owed to cartels and, one imagines, all sorts of other shady dealings among thugs and criminal entities. The Redeemer is a familiar anti-hero: world-weary, vulnerable and certainly flawed, as well as a little bit noir-ish. The entire novel, in fact, owes a debt to noir, with its dueling gangs and femme fatales and familiar plotlines; think Raymond Chandler in a post-apocalyptic Mexico. The Redeemer fits right in: a hard-boiled, heavy drinking lost soul in a world replete with lost souls.
The Redeemer has been instructed to safely exchange the dead bodies of two warring families, the Castros and the Fonsecas. The daughter of one family and the son of the other have, by cruel fate, ended up in the possession of their enemy. If there are allusions to Romeo and Juliet, they are intentional and the novel works all the better for it. The similarities and well-known tropes that drift throughout this novel are familiar signposts in a strange land. The strength of The Transmigration of Bodies is in how Herrera maneuvers his characters through these ordinary frameworks to create something new. In a novel like this, the story is almost secondary. The style of Herrera's prose, the confluence of gallows humor and witty argot, the banter of the characters—all of this not only enriches the story but, in some strange way, tells the story. New words are invented and, even without much context, the reader inherently understands. Consider the names of the characters: Three Times Blonde, Dolphin, The Neeyanderthal, The Unruly, Baby Girl and The Mennonite. A hybrid of real and fantastic, of the future and the past, of Spanish and English unfolds before the reader’s eyes.
If readers aren’t already envisioning a North Mexican desert upon opening the book, they soon will. Due to the epidemic, streets and storefronts lay abandoned, doors are shuttered and everyday citizens are hiding indoors. The sense of abandonment and lack of hope, already prevalent in this bleak landscape, is palpable. This allows Herrera's characters to act and transact across the lunar abyss of a nameless Mexico, where wit and dark humor trace the delicate line between staying alive and dying. Witty descriptions are ubiquitous. Of Dolphin, and the many avenues he has of scheming, Herrera writes, “he bought old cell phones that he sold at new prices to incredulous clients, organized office pools at places he didn’t work, and shuffled the cash flow to keep all his balls in the air: he smuggled shit in, sold intel, rented his house out as a place for petty crimes to go down. He never had any money. Instead his rackets seemed designed to prove he was cleverer than anyone else, to bring him doses of euphoria followed by stretches of contained rage.”
The novel opens with the Redeemer waking from a mezcal hangover, suspecting an already bad day with little knowledge that it’s only going to get worse. The epidemic, already in the news, isn’t taken very seriously at first. The government claims it’s been caused by “Egyptian mosquitoes.” But soon the news grows more serious, reporting that “two men in a restaurant, total strangers, started spitting blood almost simultaneously and collapsed over their tables.”
With this knowledge, The Redeemer opens the front door of his apartment
He took two steps out and was thrust back by the reek of abandonment on the street. Almost imperceptibly his frame flexed, anxious, updown updown, Fuckit fuckit fuckit, what do I do, and then he felt something brush his neck and he slapped his skin and looked at his hand, stained with insect blood. He stepped back, slammed the door and stood staring at his palm, transfixed.
This is the dumb luck The Redeemer seems to invite on a perpetual basis. (The next scene finds him searching unsuccessfully for a condom in order to have sex with Three Times Blonde, his long-standing crush of a neighbor).
With help from his cohort The Mennonite, we follow The Redeemer as he brokers with the warring families, negotiates past roadblocks and skillfully attempts to keep the peace in a world threatened by both violence and a new epidemic. The setting is Mexico but a Mexico seen, perhaps, through the peephole of a locked door or a Mexico that exists in another dimension. A sense of otherness pervades the novel and although nothing concrete is said about the violence and corruption that exists in modern Mexico, the tone of the book, the gallows humor and hopeless musings of its characters reveal exactly how Herrera feels.
We are only able to see through this peephole within a locked door due to the brilliant efforts of Lisa M. Dillman, who skillfully translates a story (and style) that could easily be lost in the book’s subtle transition from the Spanish into the English. Instead the story reads as fresh and as original as Herrera intended. Take, for instance, this sentence, “And she went for boyfriends like the one he’d seen—some slicked-back baby jack, four shirt buttons undone so everyone could see his gold virgin.” This mishmash of words, of the highbrow and lowbrow, of pulp with the profound, could easily become pantomime, but feels instead like the exciting and innovative fiction that it is. The word “though” becomes “tho” and the expression “fuck it” becomes “fuckit.” The language, in Dillman’s hands, never feels overwrought but instead, lucid and casual, and strangely realistic, as if recorded from a documentary filmed in Ciudad Juárez.
What’s becoming more and more apparent about contemporary Mexican writers is the sheer variety of voices and styles. Valeria Luiselli, with her playful and philosophical musings; Juan Pablo Villalobos with his self-effacing satire; Guadalupe Nettel, with her quiet and penetrating narratives or Mario Bellatin with his mystifying and experimental novels—they can barely be lumped together even under the labels of “fiction” or “Spanish language” because, even within these broad categories, their visions are too distinct. Yuri Herrera, with his infernal view of a corrupt and hopeless desert, is no different; all of these authors, and many more, have an astounding diversity and a sense of the possible, making not only Latin America a hotbed of exciting and innovative literature, but Mexico itself. Based in the UK, And Other Stories has done a fine job publishing Herrera’s work and bringing it to anglophone audiences.
The Transmigration of Bodies, though not quite as engaging as Signs Preceding the End of the World, makes a strong argument why Yuri Herrera is one of the most exciting voices in Latin American literature. Readers will likely have a stronger connection to Makina and her plight, but the Redeemer and the colorful cast of characters infusing The Transmigration of Bodies make it a vital, innovative and original work. As the opening salvo of a loosely-linked trilogy of novels, The Transmigration of Bodies, with its fast-paced scenes and foreboding sense of impending violence, lingers long after the book is closed, leaving a sense of dislocation and wonder, as the reader waits eagerly for the third book to arrive.
Mark Haber is the manager of Brazos Bookstore in Houston, Texas. He was a juror on the Best Translated Book Award for 2016. His book of short stories, Deathbed Conversions, is currently being translated into Spanish by Argonáutica books in Mexico.