Yuri Herrera, The Transmigration of Bodies
Translated by Lisa Dillman
Publisher: & Other Stories
2016, 101 pages, paperback, $14
IN THE OPENING of Yuri Herrera’s new novel, a man called the Redeemer wakes up to find the nameless city in which he lives beset by an epidemic that has emptied the streets of pedestrians. It’s an opening more propulsive and immersive than any you’re likely to find in contemporary fiction, an opening that breaks one of the craft’s dumbest rules: never start a story with an awakening. But it’s an awakening for the Redeemer and the reader alike, and what could be a more appropriate way of entering a world rendered with all the acuity and strange nuance of a fever dream?
The Transmigration of Bodies is the second installment of a loose trilogy and Herrera’s second novel to be translated into English. The book concerns a few days in the life of the Redeemer, a “fixer” called upon to arrange for the exchange of two corpses, which are being held by two crime families, the Castros and the Fonsecas.
Herrera seems most interested in exploring the ways his characters navigate the pervasive violence afflicting the city. A great deal of attention is paid to their bodily experiences. Almost all of the characters have suffered some form of physical degradation. There’s a character who’s been gashed with a spoon, another who’s held his dying brother in his arms, one who’s been shot in the chest, and there’s a sense that the ubiquity of physical trauma has led to estrangement, an inability for the characters to know each other and themselves.
Throughout the book the Redeemer questions his motives and the motives of the people around him. Lying in bed with his neighbor, he says something heartfelt, something he really believes to be true, only to regret saying it “like a man paying off the popo to disappear a ticket.” Later, he accuses his friend of using his brother’s death as a pickup line “in attempt to open her blouse.” It’s as though the violence, which has become an inextricable part of their personal narratives, has led to a kind of frenetic mental energy, a constant questioning and unease that seeps into every aspect of their lives.
Early in the novel, the Redeemer lies in the dark with his neighbor:
So that was what it felt like: not always thinking about the moment to come, wasting each moment thinking about the moment to come, always the coming moment. So that was what it felt like to incubate, to settle in with yourself and hope the light stays off. And astonishingly, like a miracle, she said: I think this is what we were like before we were babies, don’t you? Little larvae, sitting quietly in the dark.
For the most part, Herrera forgoes backstory in favor of exploring the ways the characters move through the world. They are defined almost exclusively by their dialogue and their actions. The prose reads like a relentless flux of sensory experience, taking the Redeemer from dingy flophouses to empty mansions and brothels full of somnambulant patrons who’ve been inside since the start of the epidemic. The pacing is brisk, and the novel is short, but within 101 pages, Herrera gives the world and his characters an inordinate level of depth.
It’s easy to read the novel as an allegory for the cartel violence that the Mexican government seems helpless to stop. At one point, the Redeemer receives a text regarding the epidemic.
He got a text from the government assuring him that everything would be back to normal any minute now, that it was essential to exercise extreme caution but not to panic: a reassuring little pat on the head to say Any silence is purely coincidental, okay?
To ignore the cultural context would be to rob the novel of some of its most powerful resonances, but the specificity and lucid details Herrera weaves into the narrative imbue it with a universality that transcends an easy political reading.
Perhaps one of the most unsettling aspects of the book is the fact that the epidemic doesn’t seem to startle the characters. Sure, some of them wear masks, and the city streets are mostly empty and spotted with puddles of black blood, but the Redeemer and the other characters go about their business as though it were any other day. Violence is woven into the fabric of these characters’ lives, so much so that, as the story progresses, the violence begins to seem trivial and sometimes darkly humorous, an effect that’s enhanced by Herrera’s spare prose style.
Along with arranging for the transfer of the two bodies, part of the Redeemer’s task is to untangle the chain of events that led to their deaths. For the Redeemer, the challenge is to create order out of disorder, to make sense of something that doesn’t make sense, that isn’t supposed to, and in a book where there are no right or wrong answers, where truth and lies become muddled, the reader has the same challenge.
— Jeff Karr
Born in Actopan, Mexico, in 1970, YURI HERRERA studied Politics in Mexico, Creative Writing in El Paso and took his PhD in literature at Berkeley. His first novel to appear in English, Signs Preceding the End of the World, was published to great critical acclaim in 2015 and included in many Best-of-Year lists, including The Guardian‘s Best Fiction and NBC News’s Ten Great Latino Books. He is currently teaching at the University of Tulane, in New Orleans.
LISA DILLMAN was raised in California and studied Spanish at the University of California, San Diego before completing an M.A. in Spanish Literature at Emory and a second M.A. in Literary Translation from Middlesex University in London. She is co-editor (with Peter Bush) of the book Spain: A Literary Traveler’s Companion and has translated many novels and scholarly works, including Signs Preceding the End of the World, for which she won the 2016 Best Translated Book Award. She teaches at Emory University.