Ten Planets 
by Yuri Herrera, translated by Lisa Dillman.
And Other Stories, 108 pp., £11.99, February, 978 1 913505 61 5
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One of​ the things you can pretty much guarantee about fiction is that it will have people in it. After all, there’s got to be someone telling the story: a narrative implies a narrator. But I challenge you to find a story – even the shortest – that doesn’t imply the presence of at least one other character too. Take this sixty-word wonder by Lydia Davis (it’s called ‘The Outing’):

An outburst of anger near the road, a refusal to speak on the path, a silence in the pine woods, a silence across the old railroad bridge, an attempt to be friendly in the water, a refusal to end the argument on the flat stones, a cry of anger on the steep bank of dirt, a weeping among the bushes.

Not a direct verb in sight, no names or faces, only abstractions – and yet clearly two people are walking together, arguing, trying to make up, failing, until one of them is alone. Of course, the character doesn’t have to be human: it could be an animal, or a robot, or an alien. But languages other than English are biased towards the human here: ‘character’ is personaje in Spanish, personnage in French, personagem in Portuguese, personaggio in Italian, персонаж in Russian – the same word applies to a minor nobleman from La Mancha and a Dalek from the planet Skaro. Whatever you call it, the character/personnage is the person or person-like figure who acts and is acted on in the story. It doesn’t matter whether you’re writing War and Peace (559 named characters) or Beckett’s Act without Words I (a single nameless man on stage, with objects raining down on him): if it’s fiction, it’s got to have characters.

Some writers have found this annoying. Fiction can do without all sorts of things that seemed essential to 19th-century novelists: it doesn’t need to comment on society, or provide descriptions of settings and scenery, or a linear chronology, or a fixed point of view. So why are characters so stubborn? In his 1963 manifesto, Pour un nouveau roman, Alain Robbe-Grillet called them an ‘obsolete notion’ and wished he could write without any, but his own novels show that he couldn’t. The Mexican writer Yuri Herrera can’t quite get rid of them either, though he toys with the idea. Here’s the start of one story in Ten Planets: ‘&°°° couldn’t be happier. @°°° couldn’t be happier. The twins, *~ and #~, couldn’t be happier.’ You soon come to understand that in this happy family &°°° is the mother, @°°° is the father and *~ and #~ are their children. The names are a nice joke: these are literal characters, in the sense of being assemblages of arbitrary symbols on the keyboard, representing people through a kind of algebra. (Sometimes a text gains rather than loses in translation: the character/character double meaning is less obvious in Spanish, where a letter on a keyboard is a carácter but Anna Karenina is generally a personaje.) All told, there are six characters in the story, but only the family dog, Roanoke, has anything resembling a human name. Roanoke, of course, was the site of the first English colony in North America, where in 1590, five years after their arrival, all the settlers were found to have disappeared. Everything about Herrera’s story suggests that people are perfectly capable of being expunged.

The story is called ‘House Taken Over’, and the sixth character – the only one with any agency – is the house itself. At first, the house looks after the people (and dog) who live in it: ‘When the sun beat down, the windows would darken and the temperature cooled. When the traffic outside was very loud, white noise was deployed to eclipse it. When it rained, the roof seemed to interpret the drops, amplifying or silencing them so they didn’t sound threatening.’ You start imagining a cool modernist building, with technological gizmos – automatic aircon, photochromic plate glass – that allow it to adapt smoothly to the environment. But something far stranger is going on: the house has personality. When *~ trips over his shoelaces, the table he’s about to crack his head open on suddenly ‘moved a few inches back and *~ banged his hands hard enough to learn a lesson but not so hard that he hurt himself.’ The house cares for its inhabitants, but it won’t tolerate bad behaviour: when &°°° gets home from a walk in a furious mood and slams the door, the roof tiles clatter – ‘but this was no seismicky shudder: the house was quaking with rage.’ Next time &°°° tries to open the door it won’t budge. The story ends with Roanoke playing outside, ‘belly-up on the grass … scratching his back in primal glee’. The dog, the house seems to have decided, deserves its freedom, but the humans don’t: they can’t get out, and Roanoke is happily oblivious to ‘the cries of desperation of &°°° and @°°° and #~ and *~ as they hurled furniture against the glass’.

In Spanish, the story is called ‘Casa Tomada’, which also happens to be the title of a celebrated story by the Argentinian writer Julio Cortázar, who is credited as an influence by many Latin American novelists and considered a chief instigator of the Latin American Boom. In Cortázar’s version, written in 1946, a brother and sister in their forties are living in a large, rambling house in Buenos Aires that has belonged to their family for generations. One evening, the narrator hears a noise in the library or the dining room – he can’t quite tell. ‘The sound came through muted and indistinct, a chair being knocked over onto the carpet or the muffled buzzing of a conversation.’ He runs to tell his sister that ‘they’ have taken over the back part of the house. Brother and sister bolt shut the massive oak door that divides one part of the house from the other, and confine themselves to their bedrooms and living area. Eventually, the noises are heard again, ‘still muffled but louder’: ‘they’ are now on this side of the oak door. The siblings flee the house, dropping the key down a sewer, never to return to ‘the house taken over’.

Cortázar’s story has been read in any number of ways: are the nameless, faceless ‘they’ the working classes, newly empowered by the Peronist moment, arriving to displace the urban bourgeoisie? Or, coming as they do from the deepest, darkest recesses of the house, are they obscure emanations of unconscious fears? Or, given that the brother shows no surprise at their presence, have they somehow always been there, and are they, not the siblings, the house’s true possessors? (In Alejandro Amenábar’s film The Others, which works like a dim memory of Cortázar, the protagonists don’t realise that they – not the threatening ‘others’ – are the ghosts in the house.) Herrera’s story works as a reading of Cortázar’s. He makes explicit something you’re only subliminally aware of in the original story: the house, too, is a protagonist. ‘It’s the house I want to talk about,’ Cortázar’s narrator says, before describing it in such intricate detail that it can’t not stick in the mind. Readers have wanted to draw the floorplan as if it’s a puzzle to be solved (the illustrator Juan Fresán published a chapbook ‘translation’ of the story into graphic design in 1969). A piece of fiction, too, is often imagined as a house (‘The house of fiction has in short not one window, but a million,’ Henry James wrote in the preface to The Portrait of a Lady), which makes the characters who occupy it tenants of a sort. Tenants can be unruly, do damage to the fixtures, take over the place. You can see why a writer might want to tame them. In Cortázar’s ‘Casa Tomada’, as in Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’, the house and its occupiers are at war, and the drama lies in the question of who will come out on top. With Herrera, by contrast, there is never any doubt.

In distrusting character, or finding it passé, the theorists and practitioners of the Nouveau Roman were trying to dispel the naive illusion that people in books are like people in life: loveable, hateable, predictable, unpredictable, unique, complicated, ‘real’. Just look at the terms you still see in blurbs and reviews: so-and-so in a novel is ‘vibrantly real’ or ‘vivid’ or ‘comes alive’. If, following Robbe-Grillet, you’re going to respond by saying that characters, like every other aspect of a fiction, are just marks on a page, you’ll have to find a way of showing it. You’ll have to put them in their place – or replace them. In Ten Planets, Herrera has two stories called ‘The Objects’. In the first, a woman, Velia, wakes up at night suddenly aware of her daughter’s absence. ‘She could swear she heard her not arrive. That she heard her void within the noises of the night, the sirens, the cogwheels, the high-voltage cables, the trucks moving garbage here and there.’ The things in the street outside – humming, bustling – are present and real, but the people are precisely, tangibly, not. ‘She heard her void’ (‘su hueco’): not-being-there is a palpable quality. ‘She knew her man wasn’t in bed either. She’d sensed him getting up some time after hearing her daughter’s absence.’ So she goes looking for them in the street.

There is no one there either. ‘A train that seemed to be travelling at impossibly high speed past the condominiums’ windows, automated cranes, automated drills, cables along which incandescent black boxes glided, a cold buzzing.’ All the whirring, busy objects around her are animated, autonomous and get in her way. ‘Two stupid objects caught up to and then passed her; two aerosol cans, not on wheels, not floating, were being swept along the concrete by who knows what.’ A ‘stupid object’ ought to be a tautology, or at least the projection of a frustrated person: ‘stupid printer’, you say, as you give it a kick. But these objects have a stupidity that is all their own: the aerosol cans ‘stopped and turned to Velia, or rotated their nozzles to her, as though questioning her, but since they were stupid, they were simply there’. The obstacles to her progress are made of tin and steel, but they have one thing in common with fictional characters: they are stubborn, asserting themselves, hard to shove along.

Velia has something to help her in her search: a GPS-like device called, in the Spanish original, the Tenmeaquí. Literally, ‘keepmehere’, but Lisa Dillman translates it as ‘Miniminder’ – a machine to keep track of the family. It displays two dots, husband and daughter, and Velia follows their movements down the streets, trying to keep up. The Tenmeaquí, too, has a mind of its own and vibrates to warn of impassable routes, sending her on detours. Velia is almost within shouting distance of her people when suddenly the device issues a flurry of urgent warnings:

Road Blocked.
Street Under Automated Maintenance.
Outbreak of Unspecified Violence.
Landslide Zone.
Climatological Anomaly.
Objects Working.

Any excuse to stop her. This machine, like the house in Herrera’s ‘Casa Tomada’, determines her movement. If you choose to, you can see the name ‘Velia’ as signifying something beyond the plain meaning of ‘veiled’. Velia is the Roman name for the city of Elea, the home of Parmenides and his pupil Zeno, and Velia the character is subject to a version of Zeno’s paradox. By the end of the story, the screen of the Tenmeaquí shows the dots of husband and daughter receding and receding: Velia will never reach them. She is stuck in a world without people, where those stupid objects are in charge.

It’s difficult to imagine a world in which no other people exist. Writers try. Cormac McCarthy did in The Road, where father and son, post-apocalypse, are attempting to survive by making their way south out of the cold. How are you going to fill a book with just man talking to boy? Fifty pages through the novel they finally see someone else on the road, ‘as burntlooking as the country’, like an emanation of the landscape:

Someone had come out of the woods in the night and continued down the melted roadway.
Who is it? said the boy.
I don’t know. Who is anybody?

Many of Herrera’s stories take place on what feels like a post-apocalypse planet, though no catastrophic event is ever named or mentioned. In ‘The Science of Extinction’, a man, alone in ‘an increasingly depopulated world’, starts to forget everyone he’s ever known, including himself.

Herrera’s ‘The Obituarist’ is premised on a more inventive means of erasure. As he navigates the streets in this story’s world, the protagonist can just about detect the presence of other people, but there’s a problem. ‘The obituarist groused about fucking invisibility: “Fucking invisibility; as if I didn’t know that this empty street, just like every empty street in every other city, is teeming with people.”’ The reason he can’t see anyone is that, in this future, everyone wears a ‘buffer’ – an impenetrable covering, like a force field, that obscures them entirely. ‘Which meant that, walking down a deserted street, you’d bump into soft lumps that knocked you gently from side to side.’ Since they’re now invisible to the outside world, private inside their bubbles, some people no longer even bother wearing clothes.

In Spanish, the word that Dillman has translated as ‘buffer’ is amortiguador, and it’s hard to think of a better alternative. Imagine a train buffer, the shock absorber at the end of the tracks that brings the cab to a gentle halt: in the story, people in their buffers bounce softly off one another, like slow bumper cars, protected from violent collision. But amortiguador also has other meanings. An amortiguador de luz is a ‘dimmer switch’, turning down the light. An amortiguador de ruido is a ‘noise muffler’, or ‘acoustic baffle’, or ‘silencer’. All these meanings are to do with blocking out as much as possible of whatever is loud or bright, or damping it. This is the problem with people: they’re not as obedient as physical objects, and they’re hard to constrain. They talk, they get in your face, they insinuate themselves into your consciousness. ‘The Obituarist’, it seems, is trying to repress them – but it can’t. The amortiguadores aren’t perfect: something radiated by the people around him still impinges on the protagonist. In spite of their invisibility, ‘he could still sense them at that very moment. Their irritated presence, their contained rage.’ Emotion can’t be tuned out.

Not everyone in ‘The Obituarist’ is invisible. Exceptions are made for those ‘whose jobs required public visibility: delivery people, plumbers, painters etc. They got badges, and when they put them on, became what they had to be and only what they had to be: delivery person, plumber, painter etc, each covered by a neon silhouette.’ Very practical. But the labels these people wear, indicating their role, can also be considered metaphorically: in fiction in general, characters are often given a simple surface description that distinguishes them from all the others. It may give a clue as to what sort of person they are, and even to the role they will play in the story – rich/poor, handsome/ugly, hero/villain. Genre fiction is unembarrassedly good at this. Raymond Chandler, in The Long Goodbye: ‘Her hair was a lovely shade of dark red and she had a distant smile on her lips.’ But for all its pretensions at subtlety, a lot of non-genre fiction does much the same. E.M. Forster in Howards End: ‘He was dark, clean-shaven and accustomed to command.’ At their most minimal, these labels are only really there to help the reader keep track of who’s who: ‘the redhead’, ‘the dark-haired fellow’. Any descriptor will do, so long as it registers the difference between one character and another: it could be ‘the fat man’ and ‘the thin man’, or *~ and #~. Structuralism taught us that the meaning of a sign derives from its difference from other signs. Well, fictional characters are signs too.

Some writers want to make their characters more distinctive. Flaubert is the usual example, as he was for Roland Barthes in ‘The Reality Effect’. Barthes explains the function of the ‘useless detail’ in Flaubert: we don’t need to know that a barometer sat on the piano in Mme Aubain’s room, but the particularity (any particularity) sends the message that a scene is being precisely described, that ‘this is real.’ Barthes doesn’t discuss the way the reality effect is created with a character, but particularity helps here too. When Charles Bovary first sees Emma, he ‘was surprised by the whiteness of her fingernails. They were glossy, delicate at the tips, more carefully cleaned than Dieppe ivories, and filed into almond shapes.’ Obviously, this tells us something, with great efficiency, about the character of the character Emma, but it also tells us something about Charles: that he’s noticing her, the detail of her, which means, above all else, that he’s struck by her. She is unignorable. But a writer doesn’t have to be an ur-realist to have a problem at this point. Once a character has been defined as an individual human being, they cease to be the writer’s property alone. As with a person in real life, or a celebrity not in real life, they make us feel we have our own relationship with them. ‘Madame Bovary, c’est moi,’ Flaubert said, but for more than 150 years readers have responded: ‘Hang on, M. Flaubert. I think you’ll find that actually Madame Bovary is moi’ – or at least ‘mine’.

This characteristic of characters, that they continue to exist beyond the fiction that originally contained them, was brilliantly discussed in Character: Three Inquiries in Literary Studies (2019), co-written by Amanda Anderson, Rita Felski and Toril Moi. Felski points out that ‘characters do not have to be deep, well rounded, psychologically complex, or unified’ to become both vital presences and universal common property: Hercule Poirot, Mary Poppins, R2-D2, Oliver Twist, Alice (formerly of Wonderland), Spider-Man, Mickey Mouse. Once they’re out in the world, there’s no putting them back in their box. Sometimes they end up bigger than Jesus.

It seems to me that writers who find it jejune to think of characters as people are fighting a losing battle. Robbe-Grillet blamed the realist tradition for fostering this illusion; his fellow nouveau romancier Nathalie Sarraute thought that fiction had grown up since the days of Balzac – see Kafka’s K, or Faulkner’s slippery use of character names. But even the most high-minded formalists ought to accept that characters don’t abide by the rules, and that they’ve been noisily misbehaving at least since the Iliad. Herrera’s stories recognise the stubbornness of fictional people, and show it in action: every time the formal structure works to repress them, they pop back up. The ‘buffers’ in ‘The Obituarist’ don’t properly hide people; the GPS device in ‘Objects’ keeps Velia away from her family but shows that they’re still there, escaping her grasp. Some of the stories perform the familiar postmodern trick of being porous to characters from other texts, who are teasingly transformed. ‘Zorg, Author of the Quixote’ is about a character who is not Borges’s Pierre Menard only by virtue of being a six-tentacled alien. The ‘Bartleby’ who appears in ‘Consolidation of Spirits’ isn’t Melville’s Bartleby either, since he’s a remarkably hard worker who tirelessly catalogues the misdeeds of poltergeists.

I’m not much moved by aliens, and would have been happy to have a book without Zorg, or an extraterrestrial anthropologist called Agent Probii. But Herrera’s aliens aren’t the usual sci-fi type. For one thing, they’re all a bit miserable, often because (as we’re told of one of them) they’re stuck in some ‘mediocre, dead-end job’, like being zookeeper to captive humans. In ‘Inventory of Human Diversity’, an officious body called the Terrarium has gathered – Noah’s Ark fashion – at least two examples of every species on Earth. Potocki drew the short straw: thanks to some bureaucratic fuck-up, there’s only one human in the collection, and it’s his job to study it. But since it just spends its days ‘huddled in the corner’ of its cage, making ‘sporadic, incomprehensible sounds’, there is nothing interesting to say about it, which is unfortunate for Potocki, given that his colleagues in other departments with more rewarding creatures to observe get budgets and interns and invitations to prestigious scientific conferences. Worst of all, Potocki feels a bit sorry for his feeble little specimen, which clearly isn’t thriving.

Alien zoologists are a useful device, since – if they have a conscience – they need to contend with the ethics of what they do. I think Herrera, too, is alert to the ethics of his job. Writers of fiction are in a sense like jailers: they are, or want to be, masters of the characters in their custody. And sometimes they think they can do anything they like to their prisoners. A male novelist may get a kick out of describing an attractive young woman undressing in front of a mirror, or being raped. You can shame your characters, laugh at them, ruin them, subject them to torture. They are, you think, yours to command. In this sense, the fiction-writer has something in common with the psychopath. Writers who sense the cruelty inherent in owning people have had different ways of imagining it. In The Magic Toyshop, Angela Carter staged a puppet show masterminded by an evil uncle who has his charge take the place of one of the mannequins. Characters are often figured as puppets, or dolls, with Pygmalion’s statue the prototype. A writer’s dream may be to animate their statue, to bring it to life, but fiction knows that the living doll – like Olimpia in E.T.A. Hoffman’s ‘The Sandman’ – is also a creature of nightmare, and that it’s a fantasy to think you control it.

Herrera’s previous books include three novels, and each of them has something different to say about characters and the fiction that constrains them. In Kingdom Cons (published in Dillman’s English translation in 2017), the various players in a drug lord’s entourage are named for the roles prescribed for them – the King, the Heir, the Commoner, the Traitor, the Witch – and, however badly they may feel the label fits, they have no other identity in one another’s eyes. In The Transmigration of Bodies (2016), the inhabitants of a disease-filled city are also imprisoned in their roles, but the choice is their own: in order to get by in a cut-throat world, they big themselves up with hard-boiled monikers: Three Times Blonde, Baby Girl, the Redeemer.

But Herrera’s strangest and most interesting book, Signs Preceding the End of the World (2015), imagines character in a way I’ve never seen before. The heroine, Makina, is dispatched by her mother across the Mexico-US border to get a message to her brother, who went north a few years earlier but has sent no word home. To make the journey, she has to solicit the assistance of some shady types who go by names like Mr Aitch and Mr Q. But Makina’s mission turns out to be complicated: Mr Aitch will help her only on the condition that she takes a packet, just ‘an itty bitty little thing’, to a contact on the other side. Having eventually delivered the item, she is given another piece of paper, bearing an address which may or may not be where she’ll find her brother. Her journey is a series of missives within missives, and it’s telling that back in her village Makina was a switchboard operator, before working for a period as an underground courier, slipping envelopes to jittery joes to facilitate some delicate political negotiations. Makina is defined as a conveyer of messages and, dispatched by her mother across the border, she is a message herself. In some sense, that’s what Herrera is saying a character can be: an object that may look like a person but, at its most fundamental, is a vehicle for communication. You write a character and send it off into the world, free to be interpreted however it will be. There’s a story in the new book called ‘The Earthling’ in which a Martian, describing one human to another, puts it well: ‘A message came who walked like you.’

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