Borderline Cases

Kingdom Cons BY Yuri Herrera. And Other Stories. Paperback, 112 pages. $13.

“I’d been here three days already, and was tired of selling newspapers . . . and so yesterday I took the plunge.” This is Roberto, a Dominican migrant in Mexico, and he’s not speaking metaphorically. Roberto plunged into the Rio Grande (out of hope? boredom?). He even made it across. But he saw police lights at the US border, reports Óscar Martínez in The Beast (2013), his chronicle of Mexico’s migrant trail. So Roberto jumped back in the river. “I was too tired then and I almost drowned.” If his survival seems remarkable, his trip itself is not. Every year, per the Center for Border Studies and the Promotion of Human Rights, some seventy people drown in the river.

Makina, the protagonist of Yuri Herrera’s novel Signs Preceding the End of the World (2015), also illegally crosses the Rio Grande. Midway through, her raft flips over:

Suddenly the world turned cold and green and filled with invisible water monsters dragging her away from the rubber raft. . . . She didn’t know how long she struggled frantically, and then the panic subsided, and she intuited that it made no difference which way she headed or how fast she went, that in the end she’d wind up where she needed to be.

Taken by itself, this reads like a fable: the monsters, the measured cadences, the strange fatalism. That Makina survives, then fights a vigilante rancher, and then dodges the bullets of the border patrol only adds to the feeling. But consider Roberto: He dived into the river, more or less in a fit of impatience, with no idea what he’d do in the US. Does that seem very calculated? Did he have a death wish? Is life at the border this unreal?

Born in Actopan, Mexico, in 1970, Yuri Herrera grew up in the desert state of Hidalgo, and received his MFA from the University of Texas at El Paso—a border region that inspired the setting of his first three books, which make up a loose trilogy. Signs, the first to be translated into English, is a bitter quest narrative that follows Makina, a tough-talking switchboard operator, as she journeys “north” to retrieve a brother who disappeared there years earlier. Though she finally finds him, her brother doesn’t return to Mexico. And at the novel’s conclusion, Makina is herself trapped in a strange chamber, a limbo for migrants. Limbo takes on a more literal and earthly form in The Transmigration of Bodies (2016), a plague story set in a crime-ridden town. Our protagonist, referred to as “The Redeemer,” is a deadbeat fixer. When a mosquito-borne epidemic strikes, bodies begin to pile up, and he’s pulled into a feud between two criminal families. The resulting narrative—which combines elements of the detective story, dystopian fiction, and sex writing in the vein of Junot Díaz—allows Herrera to address his deeper questions: Do family and state matter in the wake of gang culture? What does morality look like when thugs control your life? Power is the author’s central concern. He charts the criminal regime’s influence and tries to find the reasons why people have come to accept it.

Kingdom Cons (2017), Herrera’s debut novel and his latest to be translated into English, fills in some of the backstory. The most overtly allegorical of the three books, it unfolds almost entirely within the “court” of a gangster (“the King”). The court is a large and elaborate complex, a sort of fiefdom, really, with boardrooms, dining rooms, bedchambers, gardens, and even a party hall. The point is that it’s the King’s jurisdiction. Murder, rape: He can do what he wants. Herrera dramatizes some of this tabloid horror—at one point a mutilated body is hung on display—but his interest is mainly psychological. He wants to show how people, both perpetrators and witnesses, come to internalize violence.

The characters who are part of the King’s court don’t have names. Instead, they are identified by generic description or occupation (“Girl,” “Manager,” “Doctor,” “General”). These aren’t just placeholders or symbols. Rather, they are embodied limitations, markers that define one’s social and inner life. At the novel’s opening, our protagonist has a name, Lobo. He is singing corridos (folk ballads) at a seedy cantina. One day the King hears him, is impressed, and after admitting him into the court, changes his name to “the Artist.” That’s how Lobo is referred to, and thinks of himself, for the rest of the book.

This sort of insidious soft power is Kingdom’s real subject, and it’s most prominently thematized by the Artist’s new occupation: He now composes corridos that celebrate the King and the members of his court. It also plays out on the level of character. At one point, for example, a local radio station rejects the Artist’s songs on moral grounds (they glamorize the King and his violent lifestyle). It is a setback, but the King consoles him: “The King looked tired, but also full of restrained power. He smiled, and his smile seemed a protective embrace that said to the Artist, Why sugarcoat the ears of those fuckers? We know what we are and we’re good with it. Let them be scared, let the decent take offense. Put them to shame. Why else be an artist?” How affirming this must be for Lobo. Before he joined the court, his “life had been a counting off of days of dust and sun.” Now he has a sense of purpose, a place in the world. Who are we to judge him?

Love serves as a wake-up call. Lobo falls for a girl who is off-limits. He pursues her, and the consequences are what you’d expect. Like in Transmigration, the plotting is rather confused, but, again, that’s hardly the point. Even if Herrera’s characters escape a bad place, they still bring the effects of that place with them. In this sense, all his novels are set at another border—between an outer world of violence and an inner world that’s been deeply altered by it.

Ratik Asokan is a writer living in New York.