Books

Yuri Herrera
The Transmigration of Bodies and Signs Preceding the End of the World

Mexico’s Yuri Herrera is a rare thing: a writer to get truly excited about. This book, comprising two novellas, gives us Herrera’s work in translation for the first time. It is writing that is simultaneously concise and epic, dynamically plotted and intelligent, aware of literary heritage and stunningly original. 

The Transmigration of Bodies brings together Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep and Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, in the context of a plague-ridden Mexico, where the fear of disease-carrying Egyptian mosquitoes has cleared the streets. Two families are trapped in a dispute involving Baby Girl and Romeo, which a character known as the Redeemer is called upon to resolve. 

The Redeemer is like Chandler’s detective Marlowe: wise-cracking and preternaturally wise. Of the mosquitoes, he reflects: “maybe this bug’s taking the rap for another bug’s dirty work”. However, there’s a humanity that Marlowe lacks. The Redeemer is capable of poetic reflections of breathtaking power, such as when he ponders the pointlessness of revenge given that “people, all people, are like dark stars: what we see is different from the thing itself, which has already disappeared, already changed, even a single second after the light or evil has been discharged”. Continuing the noir tropes, the story also features a femme fatale, Three Times Blonde, who “glistened like a wet street”. However, ironising the literary nature of its gender stereotypes, the Redeemer reflects how “in the Kingdom of the Word all men were Chiefs and all women Lil’ Ladies”.

Signs Preceding the End of the World is similarly stylised and even parodic, though its cast of shady characters – Mr Double-U, Mr Aitch – recalls Quentin Tarantino’s gangster film Reservoir Dogs. This novella opens with another apocalyptic scenario, as our fearless heroine, Makina, escapes being devoured by a sinkhole that swallows a man “and with him a car and a dog, all the oxygen around and even the screams of passers-by”. Makina, who works a switchboard in Little Town, is sent on a quest by her mother to retrieve her brother from “the other side”, or the Big Chilango, euphemisms for the United States. The story of Makina’s illegal journey across the river is rich with filmic clichés and literary precursors (Dante’s Inferno and Alice in Wonderland.) It is also a profound – and profoundly topical – portrait of the experience of the “illegal” immigrant. 

This is stunning writing that demands and deserves attention.  KN

Text, 240pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 26, 2016 as "Yuri Herrera, The Transmigration of Bodies and Signs Preceding the End of the World ". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: KN