April 14, 2017KR Reviews

The Limits of the Unexpected: The Transmigration of Bodies by Yuri Herrera

Translated by Lisa Dillman. Los Angeles, CA: And Other Stories, 2016. 101 pages. $13.95.

If Yuri Herrera has his way, the world won’t go out with a whimper or bang but will end much like this morning began: with the sunrise, an empty stomach, and, perhaps, a hangover. That’s the premise and promise of the Mexican novelist’s second short work of English-translated fiction The Transmigration of Bodies. Though we might expect the End to come with some foreseeable extinction level event, the End will look quite mundane. There will be shopping to do, new relationships to pursue, we might even get called into work. For all we know, the world’s end might have already arrived.

Bodies follows two days in the life of the Redeemer, a former ambulance-chasing lawyer turned arbitrator for a pair of Mexican crime families. The Redeemer does simply that: redeems the souls of the damned in order to save his own. “He excelled at nothing but the ability to diminish malediction; to free folks from cell blocks, or their own promises,” Herrera writes. “The fact that he was never in the way meant he could be used like a screwdriver and then stuck back in the toolbox, no need to thank him at all. . . . Dirtywork is providence.”

Herrera begins his novel four days into the end times. A plague of mosquitos have descended on the Redeemer’s unnamed city, filling its gray and silent streets with their terrible buzzing. The power is out, the taps dripped dry, and even the crackpot who preached the approaching Armageddon from a nearby park is rendered mute by the “airborne monster.” Struggling to rise from a mezcal-fueled haze, the Redeemer must negotiate the demands of a lascivious neighbor (“Lonely people lose their minds,” she coos), before getting to work, out there, into the outbreak. There are bodies to redeem, for the end of the world waits for no man. We are often told to expect the unexpected, but, as Herrera writes of the Redeemer, “he was used to fending off the unexpected, but even the unexpected had its limits.”

What follows traces the Redeemer’s mad dash, back-and-forth attempts to pull the old switcheroo with a pair of bodies between rival gang-families while his city crumbles around him—a sort of Romeo and Juliet meets Red Harvest filtered through the apocalyptic lens of The Road. In just 100 pages, Herrera lands the Redeemer in all the requisite settings of the noirish underworld: from gangster-garrisoned warehouses to seedy bars and seedier brothels—at one, a girl dances “before a cluster of liquored-up fools, naked but for the mask over her mouth.” Despite the conventionality of the form, Herrera’s narrative never feels clichéd. This is noir that speaks to our era of economic instability, extreme climate change, annual epidemics, ceaseless war, and the migrants engendered by each.

Bodies works as a sequel of sorts to Herrera’s first novel to appear in English, Signs Preceding the End of the World, the 2016 winner of the Best Translated Book Award. That book too begins with the End, when the earth suddenly and violently fissures open to create a sinkhole that threatens to swallow the protagonist, Makina. A courier hired out by Mexican mobsters, she might as well be the Redeemer’s cousin. Herrera describes her as “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.” An intermediary living in a Manichean world, she is sent across the border to locate her brother in that most dualistic of places, the United States. That nation, which might as well be the first site of the coming doomsday, is a “bleak tundra” under an “ashen sun,” where the people “don’t dance or pray,” and the houses look “like little boxes lined up in a storefront window.”

Read together, the two novels build a brutal urban microcosm that draws obvious comparisons to the Sam Spade/Philip Marlowe/Easy Rawlings model, but with a postmodern twist. Each can be read as an allegory about the violence enacted on bodies brave enough to cross borders and boundaries—be it the literal geographic borderline that separates Mexico from the United States, or any of the less tangible transmigrations (cultural, social, corporal, and moral) that society punishes people for traversing.

And just as Herrera is interested in humans who explore the liminality of their own existence, he is enamored with the limitlessness of language, from hipsterfied street slang to words invented from the thin air that exists between the pages of a dictionary. The author’s affinity for compound words are not only funny, but a great gift to literature. He describes the Redeemer’s city as “grimreapery,” “rankystank,” and, in his character’s own estimation, filled with people who eschew intimacy in favor of “nicedaying and areyouwelling and thankgodding and tookinding.” My favorite such neologism comes from the earlier novel: “anglogaggle,” used to describe a muddle of Americans in a crowded grocery store. The bright and beautiful lyricism of the language contained in both books owes much to Lisa Dillman’s masterful translation, which captures every beat of Herrera’s rhythmic prose.

No doubt similar Herrera-isms will fill a forthcoming novel he has described in interviews as the last in this quasi-trilogy (but, notably, the first to be originally published in Spanish). That translation cannot come soon enough. There are more borders to cross, and the world might just be ending.

Rien Fertel is the author, most recently, of The One True Barbecue. He lives and teaches in New Orleans.