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Book Review - Signs Preceding the End of the World and The Transmigration of Bodies By Yuri Herrera

09/08/2016 10:26 | Updated 09 August 2016

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Two superb novellas by Mexican Yuri Herrera, translated by Lisa Dillman and published by the pioneering indie publisher And Other Stories, herald a major new talent.

Herrera writes about the underbelly of Mexico today: violence, poverty, corruption and impunity. In extraordinary prose he creates stark landscapes and surreal scenarios which remain with you long after the final pages.

Signs Preceding the End of the World opens boldly with a giant sink hole threatening to envelop Herrera's feisty female protagonist: "I'm dead, Makina said to herself, and hardly had she said it than her whole body began to contest that verdict and she flailed her feet frantically backward, each step mere inches from the sinkhole, until the precipice settled into a perfect circle and Makina was saved." Makina is instructed by her mother to go to the United States to bring her brother home. She has to enlist the help of various local gangsters in order to ensure safe passage. In return she has to take a package across the border for the reptilian Mr. Aitch, the type of person "who couldn't see a mule without wanting a ride".

There is an epic quality to Herrera's tale. Herrera has said that Signs is partly inspired by pre-Hispanic myth where the afterlife consists of nine levels which have to be traversed by those souls not chosen by the gods; their destiny is decided by the manner of their death. For English readers not familiar with these legends, Makina's perilous voyage across the Rio Grande in "an enormous inner tube" is more likely to recall Greek mythology -- a journey across the River Styx with Makina's indestructible trafficker, Chucho, reminiscent of the ferryman Charon.

As soon as Makina enters the US she crosses over into an underworld inhabited by illegal Mexicans, many of whom have given up their identities and everything they love and hold familiar. They may never see their families again. It is the end of the world as they know it and, Herrera suggests, a limbo between death and rebirth. There is a memorable passage when Makina is picked up by an American cop and utlilising her knowledge of anglo, she challenges his inherent racism, inhumanity and the demonisation of Latinos:

"We are to blame for this destruction, we who don't speak your tongue and don't know how to keep quiet either. We who didn't come by boat, who dirty up your doorsteps with our dust, who break your barbed wire. We who came to take your jobs, who dream of wiping your shit, who long to work all hours. We who fill your shiny clean streets with the smell of food, who brought you violence you'd never known, who deliver your dope, who deserve to be chained by neck and feet. We who are happy to die for you, what else could we do? We, the ones who are waiting for who knows what. We, the dark, the short, the greasy, the shifty, the fat, the anemic. We the barbarians."

The Transmigration of Bodies is a more direct critique of the violence of the drug wars that plague Mexico today. It's set in an unnamed city where residents lives in fear of a deathly disease carried by Egyptian mosquitos. I was immediately reminded of when the H1N1 virus (also known as 'swine flu') hit Mexico. The government imposed a five-day shut down and Mexico's capital became a ghost town. There was virtually no traffic, few people on the streets and many shops were closed. Those brave enough to venture outside their homes wore surgical masks. It was utterly surreal but you had to be there to believe it (I was). This is the apocalyptic world Herrera evokes in his opening pages:

"Buzzing: then a dense block of mosquitoes tethering themselves to a puddle of water as tho attempting to lift it. There was no one, nothing, not a single voice, not one sound on an avenue that by that time should have been rammed with cars. Then he looked closer: the puddle began at the foot of the tree, like someone had leaned up against it to vomit. And what the mosquitoes were sucking up wasn't water but blood. And there was no wind. Afternoons it blew like a bitch so there should've at least been a light breeze, yet all he got was stagnation. Solid lethargy. Things felt much more present when they looked so abandoned."

Things are not always as they first appear in Herrera's novels. It is as though true horror cannot be contemplated until it is experienced. A similar moment occurs in Signs when Makina reaches the US desert:

"Off in the distance she glimpsed a tree and beneath the tree a pregnant woman. She saw her belly before her legs or her face or her hair and saw she was resting there in the shade of the tree. And she thought, if that was any sort of omen it was a good one: a country where a woman with child walking through the desert just lies right down to let her baby grow, unconcerned about anything else. But as they approached she discerned the features of this person, who was no woman, nor was that belly full with child: it was some poor wretch swollen with putrefaction, his eyes and tongue pecked out by buzzards."

The precariousness of life, its lack of value, are recurrent themes in both novellas. In The Transmigration of Bodies feuding gangsters continue to operate despite the fear of deadly infection. Herrera's opening chapter introduces us to a young man, hung over, and desperate to seduce his neighbour 'Three Times Blond'. We learn his name is 'The Redeemer' and that he is a fixer of sorts who mediates between rival families in order to avert unnecessary bloodshed. The Castros and the Fonsecas are each in possession of a dead body belonging to the other family. The Redeemer and his cohorts, a bodyguard known as 'The Neeyanderthal' and a local nurse, Vicky (who has to ascertain the cause of death), are employed to help facilitate the exchange of corpses.

Herrera combines lyricism with wry, black humour and employs a range of registers, colloquialisms and neologisms. In Dillman's Translator's Note in Signs she explains how she had to find an alternative for the neologism, jarchas, from the Arabic kharja, meaning both 'exit', and the word for an 'end couplet' in Mozarabic poems. She final decided on 'to verse' as her neological substitute for 'to leave'. Her reasons are illuminating: "[it's] a noun turned verb, a term clearly referring to poetry and part of several verbs involving motion and communication (traverse, reverse, converse) as well as the "end" of the uni-verse."

Herrera writes about liminal spaces, so it is fitting that the bridge between language and culture, the very art of translation, is foregrounded in his novels. In his brilliant, multi-layered narratives he captures some of the conflicting forces shaping (and distorting) Mexico today and the impact of violence and xenophobia on ordinary people's lives.

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