Playing Dead

The Transmigration of Bodies BY Yuri Herrera. And Other Stories. Paperback, 112 pages. $13.

The cover of The Transmigration of Bodies

“A scurvy thirst awoke him,” begins Lisa Dillman’s translation of Yuri Herrera’s new novel, The Transmigration of Bodies, as though someone had changed her settings to “English (Pirate).” It’s a deliberately confusing effect. Herrera’s short novels observe the violence of contemporary Mexico through a prism of fantasy, and their idiosyncratic language (a jumble of street chatter, high literary style, and archaic formulas) reflects their experimental form. In Signs Preceding the End of the World, he recast a narrative of illegal emigration from Mexico to America—a setting ripe for political dog-whistling and condemnation—as an underworld tale that evokes Dante’s Inferno, the story of Orpheus, and the Mesoamerican hell of Mictlan. Episodes of real-world travelogue—crossing a river, hiring a guide, meeting long-lost relatives—are given fraught mythic significance, and instead of a promised land of opportunity, the America glimpsed through the topsy-turvy prose of Signs is a land of the dead. Handed her citizenship papers on the penultimate page, the protagonist whispers in horror, “I’ve been skinned.”

A similarly subversive impulse is at work in The Transmigration of Bodies, an apocalyptic gangster comedy that takes the conventions of gumshoe fiction and transfers them to a charnel-house world that makes nonsense of the genre’s habitual moral opposites. With nods to influences ranging from Shakespeare to the Coen brothers, it follows a character nicknamed the Redeemer, a silver-tongued deadbeat with a battered conscience who lives in a rooming house in an unnamed Latin American city, sustaining himself by cutting deals between gangsters and brokering agreements under the table at the courthouse. There’s more than a touch of the Pynchonian underdog about the Redeemer, a man “who ruined suits the moment he put them on,” who believes that “the word is ergonomic . . . you just have to know how to shape it to each person,” and who spends much of his time shaping the word to a succession of willing female partners. “It didn’t matter that they never came back, or rarely. He didn’t mind being disposable.”

Sadly for the Redeemer, and particularly for his long-nurtured campaign to get his next-door neighbor, Three Times Blonde (nearly everyone here has a nickname), into bed, the world seems to be ending. A mosquito-borne infection is at large, causing its victims to spit blood and die, and the Redeemer’s city has fallen silent, full of rotting corpses and “overtaken by sinister insects.” Stores are being looted; surgical masks are at a premium. As is often the case in apocalyptic fiction, however, even the end of humanity hasn’t had much effect on human nature. The city’s two criminal families have broken from ancient grudge to new mutiny and kidnapped each other’s children (the boy’s called Romeo, the girl never-named-but-you-can-guess-it). And the Redeemer, who “prided himself on knowing about all the palmgreasing, hornswoggling, and machinating in the city,” is tasked with sorting it out.

The novel is only a hundred pages long, so there’s not room for a great deal more plot. Suffice it to say that things go substantially wrong before they go right again, and that the comic gag that brackets the novel—the Redeemer has just stepped out from a tryst to buy condoms when the trouble begins—soon gives way to something much darker. It becomes a book of vignettes in which each histrionic character (the Unruly, the Neeyanderthal, the Mennonite) turns out to be hiding a quiet grief, and in which Herrera switches rapidly between the tropes of screwball comedy, hard-boiled thriller, apocalyptic fiction, and existential tragedy.

Getting these novels out of Spanish is no mean feat. In Signs Preceding the End of the World, Herrera replaced the many verbs meaning “to exit” or “to leave” with an adaptation of a medieval-Arabic noun that Dillman translated as “to verse,” and even a fairly short exposure to this follow-up yields such inventive and invented terms as “rankystank water,” “slicked-back baby jack,” “house-broken words,” and “grimreapery.” This imparts a strange, almost Chandlerian jocosity to the prose, setting it at a callous distance from the grimness of the events described.

The exhausted cynicism on display here isn’t rare in Mexican crime writing. Faced with police corruption and manifest, endemic criminality in the legislative and political system, writers in the genre have responded with fictions that spoof and rewrite the European and American models from which they grew. In the sly detective novels of Paco Ignacio Taibo II, missing persons and other forbidding mysteries are more likely to be the work of the authorities than problems for them to solve. Martín Solares’s The Black Minutes (2006) begins as a police procedural and spins off into a tangled nightmare of paranoia and political doubt. Juan Pablo Villalobos’s Down the Rabbit Hole (2010) filters its brutal tale of drug dealing and gang violence through the comic misunderstandings of a kingpin’s prepubescent son.

Such ironies are there in Herrera’s book, too. The plot may wear the skin of a detective novel, but there’s no law enforcement in sight, and the protagonist doesn’t seek to restore order, just to limit the fallout from inevitable destruction. At times, though, the deliberately cartoonish lines of Herrera’s narrative seem to strangle its ambition. The Redeemer and his cohorts are less characters than archetypes: the harried white knight who touches pitch but isn’t defiled, the beefy sidekick with a sensitive heart, the two families warring over a secret that will be dramatically revealed in the third act. And despite the tension produced by the intersection of Herrera’s baroque style and his evasive approach to narrative, the book never quite achieves the fusional dazzle of its predecessor. Yet there’s plenty to admire about this allegorical vision of a country under lockdown, where everyone has “readily . . . accepted enclosure,” and where violence and death have ceased to be the motors for fiction, instead becoming the backdrop of everyday life. “These days we walk past a body on the street,” muses the Redeemer, “and we have to stop pretending we can’t see it.”

Tim Martin is a writer and journalist based in London.