Yuri Herrera, Kingdom Cons
Translated by Lisa Dillman
Publisher: And Other Stories
2017, 103 pages, paperback, $14

KINGDOM CONS IS the third and final installment of Yuri Herrera’s loose trilogy, following Signs Preceding the End of the World and The Transmigration of Bodies, and it’s every bit as propulsive and atmospheric as its predecessors. To my understanding, the term “loose trilogy” denotes a series of three books that, at the very least, have some overarching thematic resonance, and perhaps the most salient thread that runs through all three of these brilliant novellas is a fixation on the power of narrative to shape our lives, to estrange us from ourselves and others, and, ultimately, to bring us closer to ourselves and others. Kingdom Cons is Herrera’s first novel, despite being the third to be translated into English. Ostensibly, the book is about a musician named Lobo who rises out of the cafes and cantinas where he performs corridos and into the compound of a man called the King, where he begins to write and perform narcocorridos, but make no mistake—Lobo is a storyteller, and the true subject of Kingdom Cons is storytelling itself.

The book opens with a description of the King after he arrives at the cantina where Lobo is performing: “He had never had these people close, but was sure he’d seen this scene before. The respect this man and his companions inspired in him had been set out somewhere, the sudden sense of importance he got on finding himself so close.” He recognizes the King because “the one time Lobo had gone to the pictures he saw a movie with a man like this: strong, sumptuous, dominating the things of the world.”

Herrera describes Lobo’s parents as “a couple of strays who got lost in the same corner,” and he details Lobo as someone who grew up in streets characterized by disorder: “a muffled struggle whose rules made no sense; he managed to endure it by repeating sweet refrains in his head and inhabiting the world through its public words”.

Part of the public words to which Herrera is referring are the narratives that sensationalize and idealize drug kingpins like the King. Lobo’s inability to locate himself and his parents in these stories leads him into the Kingdom, where he begins to peddle the same propaganda—songs that idealize and glorify the King—to which he’s been exposed his whole life.

Herrera’s style is descriptive and spare. At times the narrative zooms out so far the characters take on a kind of two-dimensionality and the story reads like parable. This might strike readers who aren’t paying close-enough attention as a failure of precision, but in zooming in and out Herrera is commenting further on the nature of storytelling. With names like “the King,” “the Artist,” “the Jeweler,” “the Journalist,” “the Witch,” and “the Commoner,” the characters seem like pawns in a story so ancient it’s all but ingrained in the reader’s consciousness.

Part of the effect of this parable-esque narrative distance is that it creates in the reader a thirst for specificity and character autonomy, which Herrera satisfies by zooming in during key moments: moments of intimacy, moments when, as in his previous books, the characters become attuned to their immediate physical experience, moments when the stories and stereotypes that infringe on Lobo’s consciousness slip away and the scene becomes concrete and vivid. The language flares up and comes to life, as if Herrera’s antidote to the fixed, predictable narrative to which Lobo feels beholden is a kind of loving and abiding awareness:

“The Artist resolved to stop thinking, all he wanted was to be there with the Commoner. And suddenly he knew her blood: it was a faltering current, lurching clear of invisible boulders. The Artist pressed on a vein in the Commoner’s arm and traced it to her wrist and back. He reached his other hand across her body and listened to the veins in one thigh. He traveled the skin that covered those fragile channels to the rhythm of her heart. He felt her blood begin to rush and felt his hands become useless, because every inch of her skin foretold another current, a bloodstream.”

This theme of physical awareness functioning as a kind of mental reprieve comes up again and again throughout Herrera’s work, and it may be the strongest connective tissue holding together his three masterful novellas. Art always has been and always will be co-opted by money and power. Fascism doesn’t function without propagandists, and true, lasting art requires a certain kind of awareness. Part of the joy of Kingdom Cons comes from watching Lobo as he comes closer and closer to that conclusion.

— 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