‘I didn’t cross the line, the line crossed me,’ a character in Yuri Herrera’s first book, Trabajos del reino (2004), remarks. In Mexico ‘la línea’ often means the border with the US, but in this case the words also refer to an ethical transition: the speaker is a former US law enforcement official who decided to throw in his lot with the narcos he had been pursuing. ‘Since then he’d been with the good guys,’ the narrator says. Herrera’s three novels to date all revolve around the breaching of different kinds of boundary, between languages, worlds, moral universes. All three are written in a compressed, richly metaphorical style that shifts between registers and genres with deceptive smoothness, from the mythic to the mundane, from allegory to noir and back again. There’s also a deliberate blurring of place and time: all three unfold in an unspecified country that is suggestive of Mexico yet never quite comes into focus – a Mexico of the mind.
Trabajos del reino follows a musician, referred to as the Artist, after he enters the service of a narco boss known simply as the King.He joins a bevy of characters with similarly abstract names – the Manager, the Girl, the Heir, the Jeweller, the Witch – at the Palace, which is ‘just as he’d always imagined a palace to be. Supported by columns, with paintings and statues in every room, animal skins draped over sofas, gold door knockers, a ceiling too high to touch.’ Intrigues and plots swirl, and we could be at the court of a medieval prince, were it not for the recurrent reminders of contemporary northern Mexico: the narco henchmen’s pick-up trucks, the ballads the Artist composes praising his boss, the numerous corpses, the slang terms that couldn’t come from anywhere else (machín or cabroncito, literally meaning ‘little macho’ and ‘little bastard’, but here used approvingly). Despite these local details, however, the echoes of medieval Europe never quite die away, keeping us semi-suspended in historical time. The disorientating effect is reinforced by the recurrence of paragraphs that read like prose poems: ‘So many letters there. Sound. They’re a glimmer. How they shove each other and drink from each other and wrap the eye in a tumult of reasons … Words. So many words. His. A ruck of signs tying themselves together. They’re a constant light. Sound.’
Signs Preceding the End of the World, published in Spanish in 2009, begins with a dark portent: a hole opens up in the ground and almost swallows the main character, Makina. But we quickly discover that minor catastrophes of this sort happen all the time where she’s from: her town is ‘riddled with bullet holes and tunnels bored by five centuries of voracious silver lust’, and several houses, a football pitch and part of a school ‘had already been sent packing to the underworld’. Mythological motifs and everyday violence are interwoven throughout the book, which traces Makina’s journey across the border to a country referred to only as ‘the North’ to find her missing brother. She leaves behind her job at the switchboard, where she connected the locals with people from surrounding villages, or with callers from ‘the North’. As well as speaking what are referred to as ‘native tongue’ and ‘latin tongue’, she knows the new language migrants have acquired – ‘and knew how to keep quiet in all three, too’. Herrera gestures at many of the tropes of genre fiction, giving Makina some of the traits of a tough-talking femme fatale as well as of a private eye, though here both are transplanted into a quest narrative. (On a bus travelling towards the border, she almost breaks a fellow passenger’s finger to stop him manhandling her: ‘I don’t like being pawed by fucking strangers, if you can believe it.’)
Although the world we are moving through is recognisable, we see it through Makina’s estranged eyes: a US army base is ‘the place where flags wave’, rows of black seats in a baseball stadium become ‘an obsidian mound’, the first time she sees a snowflake it looks to her like ‘a stack of crosses or the map of a palace’. Things, people and places are often pared down to their most basic identifying features or physical properties, giving them a distorting immediacy, as if everything were being viewed through a magnifying glass: the first city she arrives in after crossing the border is ‘an edgy arrangement of cement particles and yellow paint’. She also sees fellow migrants, their ‘rucksacks crammed with time’, and recognises them in the streets of the North, ‘armed with work: builders, florists, loaders, drivers’. Their unobtrusiveness is what makes them stand out to her, but she knows it is a necessary strategy: they are ‘playing it sly so as not to let on to any shared objective, and instead just, just, just: just there to take orders’.
While Trabajos del reino and Signs Preceding the End of the World straddle the US-Mexico border, The Transmigration of Bodies is concerned with a different kind of in-betweenness. An unnamed town is stricken by an outbreak of a mysterious, mosquito-borne disease (the book came out in Spanish in 2013, long before the latest Zika epidemic). The streets are empty, strewn with puddles of black stagnant water, and an eerie silence reigns; the end of the world announced by the title of Herrera’s previous book seems to be edging closer. The main character, initially nameless, is a dishevelled, boozy loner, ‘who ruined suits the moment he put them on’. The epidemic forces everyone to stay inside, which creates a totally unexpected opportunity for him to sleep with Three Times Blonde, the neighbour he’s had a silent crush on; ‘like all men, he was convinced he deserved to get laid one more time before he died.’ But the main plot of the novel revolves around the latest turn in a feud between two local crime families, each of which has ended up with a dead body belonging to the other; our slacker Marlowe’s role is to act as go-between, venturing into the deserted city streets and slipping through army checkpoints to arrange a temporary truce, so that the corpses can be exchanged. In the process, he solves the mystery of how each came into the possession of the other side.
The boundaries that matter most here are those of the human body: the frontier between life and death, between a vulnerable individual and a world of risk and contagion outside. Hence the book’s recurrent focus on the seeping or spilling of bodily fluids: blood, semen, tears, saliva, sweat. The main character spends most of the first chapter searching for a condom; a bead of sweat bores its way out of his temple; he slaps his own neck and his hand comes away ‘stained with insect blood’. In this respect, The Transmigration of Bodies brings to the fore a concern with the fine grain of bodily experience that was also present in Herrera’s earlier books. Trabajos del reino begins with the Artist recognising that the King is no ordinary man, because ‘he knew all about blood, and saw that his was different’; in Signs Preceding the End of the World, before leaving her home town Makina visits a local crime boss in a sauna, where she ‘thought she could hear all the water in her body making its way through her skin to the surface’. In The Transmigration of Bodies, it’s the most microscopic border-crossings that are the most threatening: on a bus, a soap bubble blown by a pedlar pops on someone’s forehead – ‘full of air and spit from a stranger’s mouth. A rictus of icy panic spread across the passengers’ faces.’
The main character in The Transmigration of Bodies only acquires a name a quarter of the way through the book: the Redeemer. In English, the word has a double effect, both grandiose and disparaging. On the one hand, the eschatological overtones seem appropriate here; on the other, the messianic connotations come across as sarcastic when applied to this man – even his belongings ‘realised that his life was like a bus stop, useful for a moment but a place no one would stay for good’. In Spanish, though, his name has a different, more specific and peculiar, resonance: he is El Alfaqueque, a word of Arabic origin, used to refer to a person who shuttled between Moors and Christians to retrieve captives in medieval Spain. Still a redeemer, then, but less in a spiritual sense than in a transactional one, carrying out a defined task within a broader conflict rather than abolishing the discord altogether. Herrera’s use of this Moorish term recalls his coinage in Signs Preceding the End of the World, jarchar; as the translator Lisa Dillman explains, the verb is derived from an Andalusian literary form – ‘short Mozarabic verses or couplets tacked onto the end of longer Arabic or Hebrew poems’ – which itself comes from the Arabic kharja, ‘exit’. Herrera uses it to mean ‘to leave’, ‘to split’, but Dillman has deftly rendered it as ‘verse’: ‘he hesitated a moment before he versed,’ ‘she versed to the street’ and so on. Both the neologism and the archaism are one-word condensations of Herrera’s stylistic strategy, in which things are rendered strange yet remain clearly comprehensible.
There are moments when it seems as if the linguistic hybridity and boundary crossing that take place in these novels are not only designed to produce what the Formalists called ostranenie: language itself seems to be invested with a strange demiurgic force. Makina warms to the language spoken by fellow migrants to the North ‘because it’s like her: malleable, erasable, permeable’. It is an ‘intermediary tongue’, ‘a nebulous territory between what is dying out and what is not yet born’. But it’s also in itself a means of actively remaking the world: ‘Using in one tongue the word for a thing in the other makes the attributes of both resound … It’s not another way of saying things; these are new things. The world happening anew, Makina realises: promising other things, signifying other things, producing different objects.’ The narrator of Trabajos del reino, too, seems to want to use words to break through reality, wondering at one point: ‘What’s there? What’s there, behind the walls of things?’
At the end of Signs Preceding the End of the World, Makina descends into a cold, underground chamber, ‘like a sleepwalker’s bedroom’, filled with people waiting, sitting, smoking. It could be the afterlife, but then a man appears and hands her a file: ‘There she was, with another name, another birthplace … I’ve been skinned, she whispered.’ She stands on the threshold of a new life, and there’s a sense in which the end of the world presaged by the book’s title might not be an apocalypse, but simply an exit from her previous life. Everyone in the novel, in fact, is living through some kind of personal end-time – shedding home and belongings, name and identity, on the way to a different existence. The other novels, too, portray individuals in limbo: the epidemic in The Transmigration of Bodies has left the population suspended, waiting for the danger to subside or else wipe them all out; in Trabajos del reino the Artist is living high while the King’s power lasts, but he knows that in this world, ‘being here is a matter of time and misfortunes. There is a God who says Hang in there, things are the way they are.’ Herrera’s style – both precise and elusive, specific and elliptical – is uncannily well suited to depict the in-between state his characters inhabit. Theirs are the vulnerabilities and uncertainties shared by millions of migrants risking everything to make their worlds anew, from Mexico to the Middle East, from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean. They can glimpse the possibility of a leap into something better, or into the abyss; but either way, they are haunted by the feeling Makina has in the underground room: ‘something’s about to happen, something’s about to happen.’