AUGUST 6, 2017
IN YURI HERRERA’S three slim novels, elderly men get swallowed into a suddenly gaping earth, deadly epidemics spread through itinerant bubble-gel vendors, and ambitious young drunks sing corridos in the courts of violent kings. Although not strictly linked, together these books create a world of ecstatic crisis, a world in which an unreachable other place, a secular beyond, plays foil to the flesh-and-blood present. His protagonists remain cool, always in control, blending gilded cartel aesthetics with the clipped wit of hard-boiled crime fiction to create a nuevo noir style all his own. On the surface, Herrera writes about people along the border between Mexico and the United States (inspired, one can guess, by his time spent in El Paso and Ciudad Juárez), but his real subject is a border condition, a state of exile, an existence between two extremes — this side and the other side, narco and gringo, life and death.
The latest of the three novels to appear in English, Kingdom Cons, released in June by And Other Stories, was actually Herrera’s first novel, originally published in his native Mexico in 2004. And it feels like a first novel, especially when read after the two superior novels that succeed it: his dazzling second book, Signs Preceding the End of the World, and his third, The Transmigration of Bodies, appeared in English in 2015 and 2016, respectively. All three have been translated by Lisa Dillman, who provides an afterword on the translation of Signs, where she lists the many complications of translating Herrera’s unique patois — a language made from a mix of places and traditions and ways of being, which is to say, a language that rises from the dust of the earth and particulates in the clouds like rain; a petrichor language, hanging in the air with the oddly pleasant fumes of regeneration.
“Tijuana is not Mexico,” wrote Raymond Chandler in The Long Goodbye. “No border town is anything but a border town, just as no waterfront is anything but a waterfront.” Border towns exist somewhere outside or between the nations of their border, just as exiles, dead or alive, exist somewhere outside or between the nations they inhabit. Roberto Bolaño, who spent a decade in Mexico after fleeing Pinochet’s Chile, but who never set foot in the border town of Ciudad Juárez, the geographical and cultural inspiration for his masterpiece, 2666, and who, after leaving Mexico, also lived in France and Spain, wrote a short essay around the time of his first trip back to Chile after the death of Pinochet, around 1997 or 1998. (It was later translated by Natasha Wimmer into English as “Exiles”). “To be exiled is not to disappear but to shrink,” the essay begins, “to slowly or quickly get smaller and smaller until we reach our real height, the true height of the self.” From there the essay itself seems to shrink quickly or slowly toward its elusive conclusion: that exile is nothing, or that exile is everything, one can’t be sure. These concepts are always in flux, more or less, and no less so when handled by a madman like Bolaño. In any case, the author contends that all writers enter into exile in some form or another — if not by leaving their political homelands, then by leaving the homeland of childhood, or by embarking on writing, which is exile by another name — just as all readers, by opening a book and fleeing into it, leave behind the so-called real world and cross the border into the imaginary. Bolaño claimed that he did not believe in exile, or at least not literary exile, which we might take to mean that he only believed in exile and therefore had no use for the distinction. Everything and nothing, one and the same, the border between them thus dissolved.
Which brings me back to the young novelist Yuri Herrera, who grew up in Actopan, Mexico (which is neither a border town nor a waterfront town but a town in the heart of Mexico), and who has since lived in El Paso and Berkeley and now New Orleans. In June of this year, Herrera spoke on a stage in New York before the screening of Robert Altman’s adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye, a film that refuses the hard masculinity of Humphrey Bogart’s interpretations of Philip Marlowe while zeroing in on the tenderness of the character as played by Elliot Gould. Could Bogart ever have cared so much about his cat? Herrera wondered. About his cat’s eating habits? About his cat’s preference for a very particular brand of cat food? The hard-boiled world may be ragged and tough, but in the end, it’s Marlowe’s compassion that drives Chandler’s best novels. And that compassion, that mix of sensitivity and nonchalance, that unflinching posture in the face of violence, an unquenched desire to get to the bottom of things, to understand — that is where Herrera draws the power for his own leading characters.
Kingdom Cons tells the story of a young man, known as the Artist, as he is pulled into and later exiled from the inner circle of a powerful cartel based just outside the City on the border. He falls in love with the King’s power, and then the King’s would-be stepdaughter, a damsel in distress known as the Commoner, whose predicament lights the Artist’s way toward a chance at what we might call redemption. His choices along that path lead him to the knife’s edge that, in this world, separates him from annihilation.
The book is written as a modern-day fable, self-conscious but restrained, mixing titular names with a studied attention to what Herrera calls the narco-aesthetic — opulent, insular, ultra-violent — drawing connections between ancient stories of royal courts and the kingpin sagas of our time. At just over a hundred pages (in English), Herrera’s debut takes us from the grit and grime of a borderland cantina to the glitz and glamour of a cartel ball, shunting the reader through a tale of epic proportion.
Beneath that enormous vaulted ceiling his voice projected, taking on depths it never had in the cantinas. He sung his song with the faith of a hymn, the certainty of a sermon, and above all he made sure it was catchy, so people would learn it with their feet and their hips, and so they, too, would sing it later.
This is the Artist’s foray into the King’s inner sanctum, his first performance after impressing the King with an impromptu audition in the nearby City, clearly modeled on, if not named as, Ciudad Juárez, where the author used to frequent real-life cantinas while in graduate school at the University of Texas, El Paso.
The narrator of this tale, for most of the book, stands just outside or behind its central character, the Artist, in a so-called close third person, but in places relents to a more seductive tierra de nadie — a voice disembodied from any natural place that in its abstraction feels all the more real.
These surreal passages raise the specter of Juan Rulfo’s 1955 classic, Pedro Páramo, a comparison Herrera’s work invites and rejects in equal measure. “This town is filled with echoes,” begins a section in Pedro Páramo. “It’s like they were trapped behind the walls, or beneath the cobblestones. When you walk you feel like someone’s behind you, stepping in your footsteps.” No doubt it must feel like that today as a young novelist from Mexico: those tricky voices from the past always stepping just where you step. But rather than fear the echoes, Herrera employs them to his own unmagical end. After all, this is not Mexico but the borderland.
This passage is from the shortest chapter in Kingdom Cons, where the narration takes on the texture of a nihilistic psalm:
What’s out there? What lies beyond the walls of things?
Like this, like this, there’s nothing.
Turn your back on this smug cut grass and choose your own mirror: raise it to your eyes and see:
A chilling glimmer, a tiny spiral asking for a chance, a secret obscured in its own dark light. The whole world can be seen in this mirror, each detail a reversible code. Pieces and more pieces falling over themselves asking to be touched, ever-changing skin.
Besides Rulfo, it brings to my mind this passage from Hart Crane’s poem of coastal exigency, “Cape Hatteras”:
Relapsing into silence, while time clears
Our lenses, lifts a focus, resurrects
A periscope to glimpse what joys or pain
Our eyes can share or answer — then deflects
Us, shunting to a labyrinth submersed
Where each sees only his dim past reversed
Crane’s poem praises Walt Whitman, that “joyous seer” who through his own song of transmigration, through his rendering of the Brooklyn Bridge, through his vision of that 19th-century waterfront border town, New York, became, in Crane’s eyes, immortal.
In this dim light, I can’t help but read in Herrera’s first three novels a writer struggling with what it means to be a writer from Mexico who has left Mexico and sees himself, or is seen by others, as some kind of bridge between one place and the next. In other words, a writer in exile, which is to say a writer of merit.
Kingdom Cons sometimes falters under the strain of the weight of its ambition. In places where the compression of the epic relies too heavily on symbol and vague myth, the connections between, say, Charlemagne and El Chapo, feel corny and dull. But the novel soars in places where legend and fine detail merge into something original and true.
Ever since arriving at the Court he’d been surprised by people’s urge to cross the line, or to go to some other city, even if it was on this side. Not even tales of artists living the gringo life had altered his own Why would I go? stance, when the Palace had it all: voices, colors, drama, stories. And it wasn’t that he’d changed his mind now, but that he admitted the possibility of there existing some point on the horizon that might be different from the two extremes he was bouncing back and forth between. What if … ?
Herrera’s debut is the work of a writer coming to terms with his subject as he searches for the nuance in his voice. In Signs Preceding the End of the World, the book starts with the literal opening of a sinkhole. The main character watches a man drop away into the shadow of the earth. “Slippery bitch of a city,” she says, peering into the void. It is as if, in his third effort, Herrera has finally pinpointed the locus of his literary sources and, in so doing, shed their weight. In Signs, Herrera has worked out more precisely how to affect the power that lies between “the two extremes.” In Kingdom Cons, while the potential of that power is evident, its full strength is not yet on display. In that sense, uneven as it may be, Herrera’s debut is a charming look into the origin of one of our most original voices. And I use the inclusive pronoun, our, with emphasis. Herrera is a writer who in writing about borders transcends them. In shrinking slowly to his real height, the height of the self, Yuri Herrera has revealed himself to be a nimble giant, far taller than the tallest of walls.