Detail of Codex Borgia, a pre-Columbian manuscript that illustrates the Aztec underworld of Mictlan (above). Herrera borrows the structure of Mictlan for his novel.
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Underneath the Darkness
September 13, 2016
For readers in the United States last year, Yuri Herrera seemed to come out of nowhere. When his third novel, Signs Preceding the End of the World (2014), was translated and published in English, it was a revelation, a hundred-page literary detonation, winning the Best Translated Book Award over the likes of Elena Ferrante and Karl Ove Knausgaard and putting Herrera on the Anglophone map. But with the publication of his second novel in English, The Transmigration of Bodies (2015), the broader outline of Herrera’s project is coming into view, a “border trilogy” united by a singular aesthetic philosophy, an exploration of the vertiginous depths underneath and between and around the worlds we thought we knew. Borders seem like walls until you get close enough to see: they are bodies.
As he explained to me in an interview, Herrera’s protagonists share a border condition, something much more complex than simply occupying the border between two countries: a border is “any situation where you have different individuals and different communities exchanging values, exchanging goods, always in conflict but also in different levels of dialogue.” But the border is not a line in the sand, as it turns out; the border is also the bodies of those who cross it. By crossing the border—in fact, by navigating and mediating it for others—Herrera’s characters manage the transformations of everyday life:
They put different people in contact—enemies, or people that seem to be enemies, or people that are far away from each other. They try to understand and shape the different roles that they are in the middle of, between.
The protagonist of Signs Preceding the End of the World, for example, is a telephone switchboard operator in an unnamed village in southern Mexico, speaking enough of many languages to put people into contact: whether the “native tongue or latin tongue,” as she calls them—or English, though it, too, is not named—she interprets across the linguistic divide, crossing the border in her mouth.
• • •
Signs Preceding the End of the World was the first of Herrera’s novels to be translated into English, but it is his third published novel. In translating the trilogy into English, the order of the books has been reversed, last to first. Herrera’s first novel in Spanish, Trabajos del reino, will finally be published in English next year as Kingdom Cons. Although this seems at first to represent a peculiar publishing choice, it may be a good thing that we gringos have been forced to read Herrera’s trilogy backwards. It probably made good publishing sense to release Signs Preceding the End of the World in English first; it is the most mature of the three, the most strikingly unique and fully realized. But this reversal also fits the ethos of Herrera’s work: to start from the top and dig down is what each of his novels do, beginning at the surface and excavating the endless depths beneath.
Borders seem like walls until you get close enough to see: they are bodies.
Let us start at the end, then, as well. Signs Preceding the End of the World is a tiny novel about a no-nonsense interpreter and go-between named Makina, who is sent across the border by her mother to find her lost brother. It recalls Juan Rulfo’s classic Mexican ghost novel, Pedro Paramo (1955), if it were retooled as a contemporary noir. As Makina tangles with cartel bosses, border police, and a variety of underworld figures, she doesn’t look for trouble, yet it has a way of finding her. In this way, it is an old genre made new, Dashiell Hammett on the border. Herrera’s prose is beyond hard-boiled: it is baked dry by the unrelenting desert sun, then picked clean by vultures.
But it is also a new genre made old, and the surface of the present has a way of breaking open to reveal the ancient depths beneath. “I’m dead” are the first words of the novel, uttered in a panic by our protagonist during a brief but violent earthquake, as the ground beneath her shifts and lurches. When the shaking subsides, she reflects, “These things always happen to someone else, until they happen to you,” then goes about her business. This is her Mexico, “riddled with bullet holes and tunnels bored by five centuries of voracious silver lust,” a place where “from time to time some poor soul accidentally discovered what a half-assed job they’d done of covering them up,” the ground suddenly a pit yawning beneath one’s feet.
Today it was someone else; tomorrow it won’t be. Surfaces cover up this truth, keeping the depths and the dead beneath hidden, so we can get on with our day-to-day. This applies to the novel as well: for all the superficial trappings and genre markers of noir—or novela negra in Spanish—Signs Preceding the End of the World is also the book of Revelation, an apocalyptic narrative riddled with subterranean depths and ghostly layers of occulted textuality. Like the cynical exterior of a Sam Spade or Phillip Marlowe, its noir façade keeps its darker depths at bay, so we can go on living—until we don’t.
If you dig deeper, for example, you find that the novel is also a riff on pre-Hispanic Mexica visions of the afterlife. As Herrera explained to me in an interview, the structure of the novel—and its heroine’s journey—is borrowed from the Mexica world of the dead, Mictlan, a layered sequence of levels and challenges through which the dead must progress if they are to be cleansed and reborn. For the conquering Spanish and their priests, who did so much to bury Mexica culture and history, Mictlan was simply a pagan hell. But the Mexica had neither hell nor heaven: for them the afterworld was neither final nor peaceful. Mictlan is where the dead are prepared for re-creation, a gauntlet across which—as they cross a series of nine underworlds with nine challenges and nine guardians—the deceased are purged of every element that made them who they were in life. Through this purgation, Herrera explained, they are prepared for rebirth:
With each underworld that you cross, you are getting rid of some part of you, some part that makes you a living human being. And when you get to the last underworld, there is only silence; no others and no sounds and no life. That place is the place of re-creation. In this world, you didn’t die and disappear, and you weren’t reincarnated: you came to this place of silence to somehow be part of a re-creation.
As Makina crosses the border between Mexico and the United States, she passes through nine levels and challenges and her life, as it had been, is rubbed away, piece by piece. This, we could say, is Herrera’s vision of greater Mexico, a shifting and unsteady palimpsest of indigenous, Mexican, and norteamericano signs, rubbing like tectonic plates and signaling an apocalyptic rebirth. By the evocative and ambiguous end of the novel—which finally takes its leave of literary realism—Makina discovers an undiscovered country and is reborn. The first words of the novel (“I’m dead”) turn out to have been prophetic. But in this context of Herrera’s apocalyptic Mexica mystical text, Makina’s death is just the flip side of her rebirth: it might look like noir from here, but from the other side of the border, it looks like the Mexican creation story it also is.
Between life and death, between nations, between persons: borders are where everything changes into whatever it isn’t.
Herrera’s achievement is that he mixes these genres in order to remake them: on the border, noir becomes mythology and mythology becomes noir, or both become something else altogether new. Between life and death, between nations, between persons: borders are the point where everything changes into whatever it isn’t. And so, while our cynical protagonist begins the novel laser-focused on the material of everyday life, the here and now is just the crust covering the open wound of the past, wounds which sometimes break open to reveal the bloody depths beneath.
Herrera’s book is anything but a faithful return to lost mysticism; his concern is with what the past can become, with what burying it can allow it to resurrect as. We see this most clearly in the many linguistic breadcrumbs he leaves for his readers. For example, the neologism “jarchar” strikes a dissonant note in the everyday speech of his characters, a word that his translator, Lisa Dillman, renders as “to verse” (as when a group of people “verse leisurely,” or when Makina “opened to the door and versed”). As Dillman helpfully explains in the novel’s “Afterward,” —jarchar/to verse “means, essentially, ‘to leave’”:
The word is derived from jarchas (from the Arabic kharja, meaning exit), which were short Mozarabic verses or couplets tacked on to the end of longer Arabic or Hebrew poems written in Al Andalus, the region we now call Spain. . . . These lyric compositions served as a sort of bridge between cultures and languages, Mozarabic being a kind of hybrid that was, of course, not yet Spanish. And on one level Signs is just that: a book about bridging cultures and languages.
But there’s a reason it isn’t just “leave.” In its linguistic embroidery of the otherwise spare austerity of Herrera’s prose, the word ties the U.S.–Mexico border to a moment in history when the border between Southern Europe and Northern Africa was a similarly fluid and creative site of hybridity, when Spanish was still Arabic and Arabic was still Spanish. (Or maybe it still is?) But the word doesn’t only look back to medieval usage; it also comes to life in translation, as it verses into English: like people, words move across linguistic borders and refashion themselves as new things. Dillman’s choice of “verse” evokes cognates like traverse, reverse, inverse, and converse, as well as the creative act of poetry and song, but the face that it is (and must be) unfaithful to what the word really means is also apt, because origins are not destiny. Dillman is faithful instead to the fracturing (and bridging) of meaning that translation always implies.
Herrera’s aesthetic of recuperation, of salvage, and of re-creation is at bottom all about coming to terms with death, about embracing what is lost in translation as the vehicle for what is gained. This feels to me, at least, to be what is most Mexican about it: endlessly outward-looking and hungry, swallowing and digesting, rebirthing itself, old and new at once. Signs Preceding the End of the World has the cynical flash of a modern detective novel, but the crimes it unearths have been centuries in the making: long before the bullets and the drug war tore the earth apart, it was the lust of the Spanish for silver; before the cartels, it was the Crown and the Church.
For his part, Herrera is quick to insist that he is perfectly happy if the reader doesn’t “get” the references (I suspect, even, that he is happier if you don’t). This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t, per se. You can do the work and pick away at the novel, if you want, digging up what the word jarchar could have meant in fourteenth-century Al-Andalus, or decoding how the work is informed by Aztec mythology. You can pull at the threads and unravel the plot, discerning the ingredients melting in Herrera’s pot. But to play detective in this way might lead the reader to miss the point, which is to make new and renew: Signs Preceding the End of the World is not Herrera’s Da Vinci Code, and he is never faithful to his sources. Borders are places of dialogue, and dialogue is also, always, as creative as translation.
It is also because so much has been lost that Herrera has to remake it. Of the loss of the Mexica cosmology, for instance, about which only fragments are known, Herrera told me, “It’s a world that disappeared, that was destroyed by the Spaniards,” of which “we only have a general understanding, not very precise.” While the ghosts of lost Mictlan do not rest easy, neither can they be raised as they were in life. They wait to be—they must be—re-created. And this is Herrera’s approach to the past, neither to raise nor to bury the dead, but something more complex and subtle: to make it again, anew, erecting a new layer on top of the old. In this way, Signs Preceding the End of the World does not recover the unrecoverable—and what is dead stays dead—but as Makina walks from “The Water Crossing” to “The Place Where the Hills Meet” to “The Obsidian Mound”— each chapter title taken from the name of a layer of Mictlan—we see the Mexica world itself being reborn, with no memory of itself, out of a place of silence. Before it can be created again, it must be forgotten. And after forgetting comes speech.
• • •
In The Transmigration of Bodies, the protagonist is another border character. In noir terms, he is a negotiator, a fixer, and a professional de-escalator, navigating and mediating between warring criminal houses. He is called the Redeemer because his major function is freeing prisoners by facilitating hostage exchanges. Formerly he had been a lawyer, just as—formerly—the law had been a stable system of order. In these pages, however, we find a world ordered by the predictable unpredictability of violent crime, and so the Redeemer has become a different kind of mediator, now tasking with talking clients’ down by relying on their mutual desire to survive. He is a peacemaker for a land without peace, a necessary evil in a paranoid city without generosity.
There is a plot, but like Signs Preceding the End of the World, The Transmigration of Bodies is more about feel and ambiance. The novel takes its structure (very roughly) from Romeo and Juliet, but the plague on both houses is, in this case, strikingly literal: the action of the novel is set in a city paralyzed by a deadly epidemic, a virulent transmittable disease that has provoked a total breakdown in civic feeling. In the opening pages, a peddler selling bubble wands and liquid soap is attacked by bus passengers when they realize that the bubbles he is innocently blowing contain his saliva and, potentially, the deadly vector.
During a reading at Green Apple Books in San Francisco, Herrera described watching Mexico City grind to a standstill during the 2009 swine flu pandemic, with communal bonds broken by mistrust and fear of the invisible pathogens that anyone might be harboring. This sense of anti-community pervades the novel. Everyone is afraid that everyone else is standing a little too close. And so the plot begins when an ancient grudge between a pair of rival crime families—more or less alike in dignity, though that is also their problem—breaks out into a new conflict: each has ended up with the son or daughter of the other. Romeo and Baby-girl are not star-crossed lovers, though; as far as can be determined, they barely even know each other. But as it turns out, both were already dead when the Redeemer was first called (though dead of plague, not malice). The Redeemer’s job, instead, is to bring the two families together in mourning, rather than in rage; to “with their death bury their parents’ strife,” as Shakespeare put it. He does his job.
If Signs asks what the living owe to the dead, Transmigration asks what the dead can do for the living.
If I have felt safe giving away some of the plot, it is because the work of the novel has little to do with climaxes or resolutions, and—in sharp contrast to the breathtaking and strange conclusion of Signs Preceding the End of the World—the end of The Transmigration of Bodies feels exactly like the let down that any successful negation must be: nobody is exactly angry but no one is happy either. If there is one thing we should learn from Shakespeare’s bloody and satisfying tragedies (or any zombie apocalypse movie you care to name), nothing is so destructive as catharsis, which is why the Redeemer struggles to avoid it. But it is also nearly a quarter of the way into the novel before we even get a hint of the plot itself (or of the protagonist’s name and job): plot and back-story are not clues to be gathered but obstacles to be sidestepped, dangers to be avoided for as long as we can. Ancient grudges, dignity, the stars under which we are born: all lead to death.
Life is somewhere else, in the improvisational dance of tangent and misdirection that turns conflicts into grudging acceptance. For the Redeemer, the successful ransoming of captives always culminates in an acrimonious (but peaceful) exchange, one that leaves everyone implicated, dissatisfied, united by the feeling of having been poorly used. Of course, this means that no one ever appreciates what he did for them; his clients typically “sent small checks and big bottles in gratitude,” but, after time had passed, “they didn’t even want to say hey since it reminded them of what they’d been mixed up in.” This is his gift: society moves on and nobody gets what they want, but also—since what they want is violence—no one gets killed. And this makes The Transmigration of Bodies a very different kind of novel than Signs Preceding the End of the World, the difference between apocalyptic and epidemic: if Signs asks what the living owe to the dead, Transmigration asks what the dead can do for the living.
In a way, The Transmigration of Bodies is more of a noir and less of a ghost story than Signs Preceding the End of the World. As the title suggests, the novel is concerned with what happens to bodies, not souls, and whatever mysticism there is in it is largely present by its absence: the afterlife is the mystery which the living will never solve, and which the Redeemer treats with reverence and respect, but otherwise ignores. But like Signs Preceding the End of the World, the novel is filled with references that can easily go by, unnoticed. The final scene, for example, is Beatrice sending Virgil to find Dante (though this is something I would have never recognized if Herrera hadn’t mentioned it in passing). But more central to the novel’s archive is the Redeemer’s name, which (as Lisa Dillman explains) is yet another reference to medieval Muslim Spain:
In Spanish he’s called ‘el Alfaqueque’. . . . Those who have studied Spanish might remember that all words beginning al– originally come from the Arabic. ‘Alfaqueque’ derives from fakka al-aseer, meaning to emancipate, ransom or redeem. In the Middle Ages, alfaqueques in the Iberian Peninsula were those appointed to negotiate the release of Christians being held captive by Moors. They are described in the Siete Partidas, which was essentially a code of laws compiled in the 13th century: alfaqueques were considered men of honor who used their knowledge of Arabic to interpret and negotiate the captives’ release.
For most contemporaries, Mexico is a child of two parents: Spain of the conquistadors and the empire of the Aztecs, a pair of coherent, complete, and unified kingdoms that came into conflict in the world that made the Americas. But instead of telling that story from the centers of power and glory—in the way, for example, that Álvaro Enrigue’s Sudden Death renders the conquest of the Americas as a tennis match at court—Herrera’s vision of the past is borders all the way down. Empires are made on the margins.
• • •
The final novel of the trilogy—or the first, depending on where you start—will be published in English next year as Kingdom Cons. It is a novel about sound and musicality. The protagonist is a singer of narcocorridos, a genre that, like American gangsta rap, celebrates the exploits of drug runners and kingpins.
When it is published next year, I plan to read it in one sitting, and probably follow that up with a rereading of The Transmigration of Bodies and then Signs Preceding the End of the World. A single, dreamlike journey is the best way to approach Herrera’s work, like falling asleep on a bus and waking up on the other side of the border. In his company, you can travel across worlds and, only a few hours later, wake up with only the vaguest of memory of where you’ve come from and been. And this, to me, is the core of his work: if he redeems the past, if his novels are a library of lost and half-forgotten books, they are also, always, a new world. As we tunnel deeper into his trilogy, we turn over in the ground, beginning again, and starting a new verse.
Signs Preceding the End of the World
Yuri Herrera, translated by Lisa Dillman
And Other Stories Publishing, $13.95 (paper)
The Transmigration of Bodies
Yuri Herrera, translated by Lisa Dillman
And Other Stories Publishing, $13.95 (paper)