Category Archives: Mexican fiction

… neither miracles nor miracle-workers can help us …

The Miracle-Worker, by Carmen Boullosa and translated by Amanda Hopkinson

Every now and then I read something new. Not new in the sense that I haven’t read it before – that happens a couple of times a week. New in the sense that I haven’t read anything like it before.

In a foreword The Miracle-Worker claims to be a collection of papers and a transcribed audio tape all of which were found in the arms of a corpse. It sets up an expectation of a crime and with that the implicit promise that if we read on we will at least understand that crime even if we may not see justice done. Things will not be quite so clear.

The papers are various. They include: the words of the Miracle-Worker, the Milagrosa, herself; examples of petitions made to her; and an account by a private detective named Aurelio Jimenez who was paid to investigate and destroy her and who is probably the dead body found clutching it all.

I say ‘probably’ above because the unnamed person who’s collated these materials doesn’t know for sure whose body it is and compiled the various documents in what seemed ‘to be the most easily comprehensible sequence’. Already, before we’ve even entered the narrative, we’re unsure of the status or outcome of what we’re about to read.

The Milagrosa’s section reveals a woman imprisoned by her own gift. She lives simply dressing only in white and letting no man touch her lest the loss of her virginity should mean the loss of her powers. When she sleeps she can dream miracles which then occur: illnesses cured; limbs restored; lives transformed. Faced with that how can she put her own needs ahead of the want of the world?

Each day two queues form outside the house of the Milagrosa. One for those seeking a miracle; the other for those making vigil. The petitioners explain their particular plea to the Milagrosa and when she goes to sleep that night she dreams of those whose petition will be granted. All she asks in return is that they return to fill out a visitor’s book with their testimonial. Most do, some going further and returning with little tin votive offerings.

That picture is from a church in Naples which I first saw back in 1992. In one of its chapels there were walls covered with small tin images: limbs, heads, torsos. Each is a symbol of an afflicted organ and a healing believed granted; articles of a faith rewarded. I have no faith myself and so found it disturbing rather than inspiring. All that suffering.

Boullosa captures what I felt that day. The petitions here evidence a tidal-wave of desperate want and in doing so render the very concept of miracles somehow ludicrous and offensive. If God can heal the sick why not restore a missing limb? Why not grant the ability to fly, or bring rain to end a drought, or return lost friends back from the dead? (All actual petitions in the text). The Milagrosa can do all that, but her gift doesn’t always respond and it’s unclear why some have their prayers answered and others not. Somehow this just underlines the arbitrariness of the world and the extent of the suffering within it.

‘They raped my daughter.’

‘When she awakes tomorrow, nobody will remember anything about it, there’ll be no trace left on either her body or her mind. Don’t come and give thanks. I absolve you from the responsibility, because you won’t remember having come.

‘My husband has burned himself. Who knows how? He put some lit matches against his clothes, clothes that catch fire as you look at them. You know him well … he’s the man who delivers the eggs.’

‘[…] And another thing, if you could also get rid of my stammer when I speak … If you’d give me my teeth back, I’ve only got two left … And another thing, I don’t like my name, nor my surname. Please make me completely different, because the way I am is a curse. That’s it. I think that’s the best way to ask for what I want. Make me different. Into someone who isn’t as I am.’

The difficulty for Aurelio’s mission is that none of these requests are beyond the Milagrosa’s power. Her gift is real and worse she’s the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen. He falls instantly in love with her (even if she does cure his drinking problem without being asked so leaving him utterly unable to enjoy a whisky anymore).

Aurelio’s section is different in style to the petitions, which were themselves different to the Milagrosa’s words. He is a strike-breaker, an agent of a corrupt union and a man who has much in his past to account for. On first arriving he’s beaten nearly to death by outraged workers for reasons never made clear but which don’t seem to be entirely unjustified. He’s a noir protagonist who’s wandered in from another kind of novel altogether and he and the Milagrosa each have the chance to find in the other an escape from lives neither chose.

With Aurelio’s arrival The Miracle-Worker becomes a kind of political thriller:

‘They’ve been plotting something.’

‘Do you have any idea what?’

‘They’re very nervous over the issue of Northern Textiles. You know, there are ten factories involved and for some reason the Union isn’t getting its way, and the workers are in control. They say it’s down to the Milagrosa. But the problem is that there’s only a year left to the presidential elections and you know how things go.’

Aurelio realises that the Milagrosa has unwittingly aided a presidential candidate who’s now tidying his trail behind him. Bodies are stacking up and it turns out that granting miracles may be a dangerous business both for the miracle-worker and for the wider country. Perhaps some petitions shouldn’t be granted.

So what is this? An exploration of the age-old problem of how we can reconcile the notion of faith in a benevolent deity with the evident existence of evil? Or is it a political satire? The union here hires strike-breakers and colludes with politicians against the workers. Power is gained through deceit, bribery and violence. Only the Milagrosa actually cares about the poor and we learn early on that she doesn’t herself believe in the god her followers attribute her powers to.

Is this instead a snapshot of the state of the nation? A collage-impression of Mexico in all its complexity and confusion? Or is it a post-modernist noir?

I think it’s all of those things and others I’m probably missing from my lack of the cultural and political references that the average Mexican reader would naturally have. It’s a complex book and yet in the edition I have it’s only 137 pages. What better compliment could I pay it than to say I don’t understand it?

Other reviews

Only one that I’m aware of which is by Grant at 1streading’s Blog here. Without Grant I wouldn’t have heard of this and if I had probably wouldn’t have read it. I’m glad that I did.

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Filed under Boullosa, Carmen, Mexican fiction, Spanish

the one who wears the crown is the one who’s made the most corpses

Down the Rabbit Hole, by Juan Pablo Villalobos and translated by Rosalind Harvey

I tend to be a bit nervous of child narrators, mostly as I think they’re rarely done well. It’s a very particular skill and one most writers who don’t write specifically for children don’t possess.

That’s perhaps why it took me so long to get round to reading Down the Rabbit Hole. It’s a book I own on kindle from a 99p Amazon sale, and in hardcopy as a free gift when I signed up for the publisher’s (And Other Stories) subscription scheme. I even have a Down the Rabbit Hole mug:

Given all that investment it’s a good thing I liked it…

Tochtli is the young narrator. He likes hats and samurai and he has a burning desire to own a Liberian pygmy hippopotamus. Early on he comments:

Some people say I’m precocious. They say it mainly because they think I know difficult words for a little boy. Some of the difficult words I know are: sordid, disastrous, immaculate, pathetic and devastating.

Each of those five words get used by Tochtli throughout the rest of the book, correctly most of the time or at least near enough (though there’s a definite sense of him showing off by using them). They summarise his world and it quickly becomes obvious quite how far his world is from what most children would consider normal:

What I definitely am is macho. For example: I don’t cry all the time because I don’t have a mum. If you don’t have a mum you’re supposed to cry a lot, gallons of tears, two or three gallons a day. But I don’t cry, because people who cry are faggots. When I’m sad Yolcaut tells me not to cry, he says: ‘Chin up, Tochtli, take it like a man.’ Yolcaut is my daddy, but he doesn’t like it when I call him Daddy. He says we’re the best and most macho gang for at least eight kilometres. Yolcaut is a realist and that’s why he doesn’t say we’re the best gang in the universe or the best gang for 8,000 kilometres. Realists are people who think reality isn’t how you think it is. Yolcaut told me that. Reality is like this and that’s it. Tough luck. The realist’s favourite saying is you have to be realistic.

Yolcaut is a drug lord. Tochtli lives in a remote mansion with him and in consequence knows barely over a dozen people. Several of them he believes are mute though to the reader it’s clear they’ve either been forbidden to talk to him or are afraid to do so. This leaves him with only his father and his tutor Mazatzin as guides on how to live.

Mazatzin isn’t the monster Yolcaut is, but Tochtli considers his life “sordid and pathetic” since Mazatzin was a once-successful ad exec who had wanted to be a writer but failed and instead eventually ended up working for Yolcaut. He’s an educated man, but education isn’t as useful as a gun and a willingness to pull the trigger. Mazatzin considers himself left-wing and argues passionately from time to time about the need for social justice. In another context that might have made him a more sympathetic character but here his choice of employer instead makes his hypocrisy evident.

Everything Tochtli wants is bought for him. The pygmy hippo would fit right in alongside the tigers and lions already kept in the garden. He doesn’t know how unhappy he is. He has stomach aches which are clearly unspoken pleas for attention and Yolcaut responds by buying more presents.

Tochtli doesn’t know what his father does with his mute girlfriend when they disappear into a bedroom for hours at a time, but he knows what it looks like when people beg for their lives and he knows how corpses are made:

There are actually lots of ways of making corpses, but the most common ones are with orifices. Orifices are holes you make in people so their blood comes out.

He’s familiar with other methods too – knives and machetes and guillotines (that last one reserved for the French to use on kings and queens). There’s a powerful sense in Down of innocence being corrupted. Tochtli is just a child. He shouldn’t have seen what he’s seen. His narrative shouldn’t be the powerful portrait of appalling loneliness that it is.

Later in this short (70 page) book Tochtli is angry with his father and pretends to be mute himself to punish him. Some local boys are brought in to play with him but Yolcaut finds them annoying and they’re sent away again, though not before one gives Tochtli a Star Wars figure he’d brought with him. Tochtli thinks it’s “pathetic” as it’s so inferior to all the amazing things he already owns. It’s a chilling scene and all the more so because Tochtli so evidently has no idea at all how to interact with another child.

The thing about being a child is that for a while at least whatever situation you grow up in is all you know. It’s normal by definition. It takes time and contact with others to realise quite how many ways to grow up there are. Tochtli doesn’t have that and over the course of Down we see him being moulded as all children are but in directions no child should ever go.

We don’t use our tigers for suicides or for murders. Miztli and Chichilkuali do the murders with orifices made from bullets. I don’t know how we do the suicides, but we don’t do them with tigers. We use the tigers for eating the corpses. And we use our lion for that too. But we mainly use them for looking at, because they’re strong and really well-proportioned animals and they’re nice to look at. It must be because they’re so well fed.

Villalobos packs a lot in here and does so very effectively. As well as the exploration of Tochtli’s character and situation there’s some bloody off-screen action due to a challenge to Yolcaut’s position (the reader can piece it all together even though Tochtli is largely oblivious to what’s going on) and later on there’s a trip to Liberia to pick up Tochtli’s hippo. This is a world in which anything can be bought, except of course a halfway-decent childhood.

And Other Stories include an introduction which is good and not too spoiler-y and a very helpful short glossary. The first entry of the glossary is worth reading ahead of the main text as it sheds light on the character names, each of which is Nahautl for a type of animal. Tochtli means rabbit for example, while Mazatzin means snake. Yolcaut means rattlesnake.

Other reviews

Plenty to choose from in this case. I really liked Grant’s review at 1st Reading’s Blog here which is great on some of the symbolism. Other reviews I liked and which helped inspire me to read this were from Stu at Winston’s Dad’s Blog here and from Shigekuni here.

While writing this I also discovered this fascinating review at Wuthering Heights which goes into some detail as to how Villalobos references Alice in Wonderland (largely lost on me since I haven’t read it but very interesting to discover). Finally, there’s a nice review by Nick Lezard of the Guardian here which is good both on the humour of the book and on its exploration of failure to see the bigger picture.

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Filed under Mexican fiction, Novellas, Spanish, Villalobos, Juan Pablo

A silent novel, so as not to wake the children.

Faces in the Crowd, by Valeria Luiselli and translated by Christina MacSweeney

Every now and then I don’t pay attention. When Ferrante fever was at its peak I decided to give her a try and so read her frankly disappointing Troubling Love. It was only after I finished it that I realised I’d read the only Ferrante that nobody had ever recommended to me.

Likewise Luiselli. I remembered that she’d been recommended to me. Unfortunately I forgot that it was her second novel everyone had recommended. I read her first. Faces in the Crowd isn’t bad, but it is very much a first novel. It wears its influences openly, is careful and neat and just a little bit self-conscious.

Here’s a quote from the first page:

It all began in another city and another life. That’s why I can’t write this story the way I would like to – as if I were still there, still just only that other person. I find it difficult to talk about streets and faces as if I saw them every day. I can’t find the correct tenses. I was young, had strong, slim legs.

(I would have liked to start the way Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast ends.)

So from the outset it’s clear that in part this is a novel about writing (one of my least favourite literary topics, which is hardly Luiselli’s fault). It’s also clear that this is very much a literary novel referencing other writers. It rather lost me here though, as while I have read A Moveable Feast I don’t actually remember the ending and didn’t much feel like stopping the Luiselli to go and check it.

The narrator is married with a small child. She’s trying to write a novel but her life mitigates against it. There’s no space in their apartment dedicated to her use. Interruptions are constant:

In this big house I don’t have a place to write. On my worktable there are nappies, toy cars, Transformers, bibs, rattles, things I still can’t figure out. Tiny objects take up all the space, I cross the living room and sit on the sofa with my computer on my lap. The boy comes in:

What are you doing, Mama?

Writing.

Writing just a book, Mama?

Just writing.

What we’re reading is the novel she’s writing. She writes about the process of writing it. She writes about her husband reading the drafts and commenting on them. He doesn’t like how she depicts him, which makes him another form of interruption and intrusion into her work. Here he objects because she’s portrayed him as being a fan of zombie movies:

I don’t like zombie films. Why did you write that I like zombie films?

Because.

Please, cut the zombies.

She doesn’t cut the zombies of course or we wouldn’t be reading that passage. Later he complains that she has him walk out on her and their son when he’s done nothing of the kind. She explains that she needed something dramatic to happen. It’s very meta.

The narrator becomes interested in the early 20th Century poet Gilberto Owen. Increasingly her story becomes about him, or perhaps we’re now reading his story. The two blur against each other, intermingle. Sometimes it’s not clear if we’re reading her perspective or his. They see each other on the subway, though they live in different cities in different decades. They are each other’s ghosts.

I actually rather liked that element. The narrator is getting eclipsed in her own life by her roles as wife and mother. Gilberto’s situation is quite different, and yet somehow still an echo. His eyesight is failing and as it does he seems himself to fade from the view of those around him. He too is eclipsed.

The trouble is that all this needs a light touch and that’s sometimes lacking here. Take this early quote from page 2:

A few days ago my husband stepped on a dinosaur when he was coming downstairs and there was a cataclysm. Tears, screaming: the dinosaur was shattered beyond repair. Now my T-Rex really has been extincted, sobbed the boy. Sometimes we feel like two paranoid Gullivers, permanently walking on tiptoe so as not to wake anyone up, not to step on anything important and fragile.

It doesn’t leave much for me as the reader to do does it? Remove the sentence starting “Sometimes” and the point is still made, but not spelled out. Perhaps just delete from “, not to step on anything important and fragile” since that’s really where Luiselli just goes a bit too far and explains her paragraph for those at the back who might not be paying attention.

Similarly, there are occasional standalone sentences such as the one I used as the title for this piece or later:

A dense, porous novel. Like a baby’s heart.

It felt like I was being hit over the head with the novel’s themes. Yes, it’s well written at the level of the individual sentence, but it’s not given room to breathe. For a novel suffused with uncertainty I felt Luiselli needed to explain a bit less.

Once you lose sympathy with a novel you find fault everywhere. Lines which might otherwise pass without comment become jarring. I’ll end with one final quote taken from part of a description of one of the narrator’s friends:

She had soft, heavy breasts; small nipples. She used to say she had philosophical nipples.

To which my thought was: has anyone, anywhere, ever said that? The truth is that it’s quite possible someone has, it may even be something Luiselli once heard someone say, but in the context of the book I found it frankly silly. If I’d had sympathy with the novel I might have reacted quite differently, seen it as a comment on the narrator’s estrangement or something like that, but instead I was just conscious of the writing without finding the writing interesting.

So, after all that it may be a surprise that I plan to read more Luiselli. The thing is though, she can write and this is a first novel. It may be that she’s just not my writer and that’s fair enough, but by all accounts her second novel is more experimental and I suspect that may be where her instincts and talent best lie.

Other reviews

Stu at Winston’s Dad’s Blog has covered this here and clearly clicked with it much more than I did. He’s since reviewed two more Luiselli which is helpful too and I’ll be reading through his other reviews with interest. Stu also comments a little on the narrator’s job in publishing and how that interacts with her work on Owen and his contemporary Lorca which I didn’t touch on above but is among the best parts of the novel.

Caroline of Beauty is a Sleeping Cat also read and reviewed it here and again liked it more than me. Caroline has some reservations – she found the narrator a bit cold which actually I didn’t – but it’s arguably to the book’s credit that different readers have different issues with it.

Caroline says at one point in her review “ It’s a book to read again, slowly.” Had I but world enough and time I probably would give it another go since my lack of engagement may have been a problem of chemistry or timing rather than the text itself. However, faced with mortality as I am I’ll probably just skip ahead to her second book and see how that goes instead.

In a Station of the Metro

Finally, for those who don’t get the reference (I didn’t), the title is taken from the Ezra Pound poem In a Station of the Metro. The full poem is as follows:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd:
Petals on a wet, black bough.

Perfect for a novel in which people catch elusive glimpses of each other on the subway, and generally just a lovely piece of imagist poetry. Gorgeous and clever. I like Pound but I didn’t know that poem (famous as it apparently is) and I’m delighted to have discovered it.

 

Edit to add reviews by Grant here and by Rough Ghost here.

Further edit: I’d also bookmarked this review to link to, by Shigekuni. It’s more critical than mine if anything and among other interesting points picks up some translation issues which  it’s worth looking at for. The final paragraph is punchy:

“An interesting book, yes, but Luiselli’s book reads like the endlessly well crafted artifact of a critic-turned-writer, although I don’t know whether that is, indeed the case. It is not enough to say this book is overdetermined. It is, in fact, so painstakingly worked that it barely resembles prose any more in its density and lack of narrative or emotional energy. It resembles a baroque poem, written to impress with its craft, to delight an appreciative audience. Only that, for a poem, Luiselli’s – or, more precisely, MacSweeney’s – language is too vague for this book to dazzle. I think Luiselli got lost in the house of her own mind and construction and this book is the result.”

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Filed under Luiselli, Valeria, Mexican fiction, Spanish

You love life. I covet life.

Vlad, by Carlos Fuentes and translated by E. Shaskan Bumas and Alejandro Branger

A few years back or so Lee Rourke kindly sent me a review copy of one of Dalkey Archive’s books. Vlad was popped in as an unexpected extra on the basis he thought I might like it. This shows two things: firstly that Lee has an eye for interesting books; secondly that I’m a terrible person to send review copies to because literally years can pass before I get to them.

Vlad is a strange one. It’s a cross (an unholy contamination?) between literary fiction and horror. Vlad the Impaler, Dracula, comes to contemporary 21st Century Mexico City. As he notes, licking his lips, it’s home to “twenty million delectable blood sausages!” Where better for a vampire to hide and feast?

At the same time it’s a surprisingly compassionate novel about class, sensuality, life and loss. That’s the thing about vampires, as myths go they’re very flexible.

vlad

Yves Navarro is a successful law firm partner. Zurinaga, the legendary senior partner of his firm, asks him to take care of a European client as a personal favour. Zurinaga is old school, Mexico City’s elite. Navarro is delighted to be able to help him.

The mandate is a simple one. The client is a Central European count who wishes to move to Mexico City and has a particular kind of property in mind. Navarro’s wife Asunción works in real estate so Navarro can handle the legals and she the house-hunting and between them it’s a complete service.

The Navarros are a perfect middle class couple. They have good jobs, money, and a 10-year-old daughter Magdalena whom they both adore. By day they’re sober and responsible, and at night they delight in each other’s bodies with a passion their daytime professionalism never hints at.

Life is good then, but no life is ever truly perfect. Some years past they lost their other child, their son Didier, to a drowning accident. They’ve survived his loss as a couple and as a family, but the absence stays with them. Didier’s body was never found, a fact Navarro was grateful for and which Asunción felt robbed her of a chance to say a proper goodbye. It’s an old wound, never healed but which together they’ve learned to work around. Didier’s gone, but always present:

Didier dissolved into the ocean, and I am incapable of hearing the break of a wave without thinking that a trace of my son, turned to salt and foam, is coming back to us, after circulating incessantly, like a ghost ship, from ocean to ocean…

Zurinaga’s friend has some odd stipulations for his new house. There must be no neighbouring properties. It must be “easy to defend”. It needs to have a ravine out the back, and a tunnel between the house and the ravine. Oh, and there must be no windows …

Navarro is a polite man, urbane, he facilitates without asking questions. Asunción finds a suitable house and Navarro manages the paperwork and before long the count has set up home together with his peculiar hunchback servant and apparently a little girl around Magdalena’s age.

The count is a grotesque. Ancient, wrinkled, bald. His ears are curiously malformed and he wears mirrored sunglasses even in the shower. He takes an interest in Navarro who acts as if everything is normal even when he notices that every room in the house has a gutter built into it; even when he finds a picture of Asunción and Magdalena tacked up inside a cupboard.

The whole motif of a lawyer at the home of a mesmeric but malignant count is of course a shout-out to Bram Stoker’s original Dracula. Fuentes knows his source material. However, Vlad also works as social commentary. Part of the reason Navarro asks so few questions is that the count was introduced as a friend of Zurinaga’s. He comes with the highest possible social pedigree and introduction.

Most people on finding themselves in a house with the windows bricked up and gutters along the walls would be looking to leave immediately. Most would have questions if they then found a photo of their family. Navarro is too polite, too professional. He also lives two existences: at night one of passion with Asunción; by day one of bloodless professionalism.

Vlad is in places very funny. There’s a scene where the count invites Navarro over to dinner and Navarro finds him still in the shower. The emaciated and disturbing figure of the count emerges, absolutely naked, and launches into conversation quite ignoring Navarro’s discomfort:

Standing next to a naked Central European count who liked to discuss the philosophy of life and death, I tried to lighten things up a little.

Despite Navarro’s efforts things quickly darken. Magdalena sleeps over with a schoolfriend, but days pass and Navarro doesn’t see her. There’s a plausible explanation from everyone he speaks to but no matter how many good answers you get there comes a point you start to worry. The count asks Navarro “Do you know where your children are?”; Navarro misses the horror implicit in the plural. Soon after Navarro finds his comfortable life and assumptions sliding ever-quicker through his fingers. Control was only ever an illusion.

By the end we’ve left comedy far behind and we’re into questions of mortality and the price worth paying to preserve your child’s innocence. It’s a descent into horror that terrifies more through temptation than intimidation.

Vlad is a short novel. My copy is a physically small hardback with comfortably sized margins and even then it’s only a little over 100 pages. Really it’s more of a novella, but it packs a lot into its space. It unfolds after reading and leaves an impression greater than its size would suggest.

As you’d expect, the count dominates proceedings once he arrives. It’s always the monsters who bring the glamour. But Navarro’s failings are human ones and it’s that which brings the interest. Come for the black comedy. Stay for the melancholy compassion.

Other reviews

Grant reviewed this at his 1st Reading’s blog here. I also found online this fascinating review by an Australian professor of political economy who discusses the book in the context of Mexico City’s politics and urban geography. It’s a short piece and more readable than that makes it sound. I recommend it.

Separately, Stu reviewed Carlos Fuentes’ The Eagles’ Throne here. I included it because I thought it illustrated Fuentes’ range, and because it’s worth linking to  Stu’s blog which holds an absolute treasure-trove of Mexican literature worth exploring.

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Filed under Fuentes, Carlos, Mexican fiction, Spanish

Talk and cock is all I got

The Transmigration of Bodies, by Yuri Herrera and translated by Lisa Dilllman

Yuri Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World remains the leading contender for my book of the year. I was blown away by his use of myth and language to create something that seemed both archetypal and yet wholly new.

The Transmigration of Bodies isn’t in that league, but it’s still well worth reading. Signs married classical Greek and Aztec mythology to a contemporary plot; Transmigration does something similar, save that here the mythology is that of Sam Spade and Lew Archer, the mythology of hardboiled and noir fiction.

Transmigration

Love that cover. Here’s the opening sentences, as hardboiled as you could wish:

A scurvy thirst awoke him and he got up to get a glass of water, but the tap was dry and all that trickled out was a thin stream of dank air. Eyeing the third of mezcal on the table with venom, he got the feeling it was going to be an awful day.

That him is “The Redeemer”, a lawyer and general fixer who gets things done for people who need things doing and who doesn’t ask too many questions. He’s a man who “excelled at nothing but the ability to diminish malediction; to free folks from cell blocks, or their own promises.” Right now he’s holed up in his apartment long on hangover and short on food and water, but unwilling to go out since an epidemic which the government has indicated “may be a tad more aggressive than we’d initially thought” is sweeping the country leaving bodies and chaos in its wake.

He whiles away the time drinking mezcal and fooling around with his neighbour the “Three-Times Blonde”. Her boyfriend’s not at home and nobody wants to travel and risk exposure to infection. The Redeemer may never get another opportunity to screw the Three-Times Blonde, but there’s no condoms and anyway local crime boss the “Dolphin” (so nicknamed for having “burned a hole in his nose snorting too much blow”) calls up with a job. Down these mean streets a man must go…

The job’s a messy one. They always are. The Dolphin’s son’s been kidnapped by a rival crime family, and in return he’s kidnapped one of theirs, Baby Girl. Problem is she’s dead, killed by the epidemic. That’s bad, but it turns out Dolphin’s son’s dead too of a hit and run. Both families have kidnapped corpses, but they still need an exchange so they can bury their own and for an exchange to work you need middlemen to make the necessary arrangements.

The Redeemer takes local heavy the Neeyanderthal along by way of muscle, but mostly he does his job through a mix of attitude and chat:

He helped the man who let himself be helped. Often, people were really just waiting for someone to talk them down, offer a way out of the fight. That was why when he talked sweet he really worked his word. The word is ergonomic, he said. You just have to know how to shape it to each person. One time this little gaggle of teenage boys had gone to the neighbor’s on the other side of the street and stoned the windows and kicked the door for a full half-hour, shouting Come on out, motherfucker, we’ll crack your skull, and the pigs hadn’t deigned to appear; that was one of the first times the Redeemer had done his job. He went out, asked in surprise how it was they’d yet to bust down the door and added You want, I’ll bring you out a pickax right now, and that sure calmed them down; see, it’s one thing to front, to act like a big thing, but burning bridges, well that’s a whole ’nother thing. Soon as he saw what was what the Redeemer added: Tho, really, why even bother, right? Man’s in there shitting himself right now, and they all laughed and they all left.

The language here is a mix of high-end and slang. Words get thrown in like dieresis, ergonomic, but though is shortened throughout to tho. Everyone who can be given a nickname has one, so much so that when a character is described by their actual name I wondered why they didn’t stand out enough to get called something new.

The Redeemer’s equivalent working for the other family is the Mennonite. Dolphin’s daughter is the Unruly. Names here have power. A name captures character while providing protection and camouflage. If you call the Redeemer you expect redemption, his name is his calling card, but his personal life stays screened behind it and he can remain both public and anonymous. That’s useful whether you’re dealing with criminals or the authorities (assuming you can draw a distinction).

The epidemic has stripped their world back to its essence, but there’s a sense it hasn’t changed anything. Even before the police and government withdrew they were never in charge. If you have a problem you go to one of the families or you go to the Redeemer or the Mennonite or someone like them. If you know something you keep your mouth shut about it, and if you don’t know anything you pretend you do. It’s a world of connections, favours owed and repaid, social currency.

As with Signs there’s some lovely imagery. I’ve discarded more quotes than I’ve used here, but I couldn’t resist this one from a brothel the Redeemer visits while working out what happened to the dead son:

One girl was dancing before a cluster of liquored-up fools, naked but for the mask over her mouth; each time she leaned close she made as if to take it off, and the boozers whooped in titillation.

Sex and death. There’s nothing like a crisis to take us back to the essentials. The epidemic allows Herrera to cut away everything but that he wishes to explore: existence in anarchy; the use of informal social networks where formal ones are inadequate; navigating a world where potentially lethal violence is rarely more than a wrong word away. The parallels with Mexico as it actually is today are obvious. The epidemic will burn itself out, nobody here thinks it’s the end of the world, but when it does all that will change is more people on the streets. That and it’ll be easier to find an open pharmacy in which to buy some condoms.

While I don’t think this has quite the depth of Signs it’s still a fun read that works well as noir novel and reasonably well as social allegory. I was left with a sense of futility; all this effort to exchange people already dead. At the same time there is a nobility here; all this effort to exchange people already dead. It’ll be interesting to see how this one settles in memory.

Other reviews

Unsurprisingly, there are many. Tony of Tony’s Reading List reviewed it here; Trevor of The Mookse and the Gripes here (I absolutely agree with his final two paragraphs); and David Hebblethwaite wrote two posts on it, one on the use of names in the fiction here and the other on networks and conversations here. I also rather liked this James Lasdun review in the Guardian, which is a little more critical of it than I am (though still overall positive). I’m sure there are many more, and if you wrote one or know of one please do leave a link in the comments.

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Filed under Hardboiled, Herrera, Yuri, Mexican fiction, Spanish

It’s not another way of saying things: these are new things.

Signs Preceding the End of the World, by Yuri Herrera and translated by Lisa Dillman

Some books just blaze off the page. Signs is one of them. I’ll be amazed if this doesn’t make my end of year list.

Signs Preceding

At one level Signs is a novel about a young woman illegally crossing over from Mexico to the US. It opens with a literal descent into the underworld:

I’m dead, Makina said to herself when everything lurched: a man with a cane was crossing the street, a dull groan suddenly surged through the asphalt, the man stood still as if waiting for someone to repeat the question and then the earth opened up beneath his feet: it swallowed the man, and with him a car and a dog, all the oxygen around and even the screams of passersby. I’m dead, Makina said to herself, and hardly had she said it than her whole body began to contest that verdict and she failed her feet frantically backward, each step mere inches from the sinkhole, until the precipice settled into a perfect circle and Makina was saved.

It’s a deservedly confident opening. Already in just that paragraph Makina is scrambling for survival, constantly and instinctively in motion. As the narrative broadens out it becomes a metaphor for her life. She’s an intermediary who survives by speaking several languages and acting as both a messenger and as operator of the town’s switchboard (they don’t have a local cell tower).

Makina needs to cross over to look for her brother who left pursuing some fruitless land claim and never returned. To go she needs permissions from the town’s big men and, of course, has to do one of them (a man “who couldn’t see a mule without wanting a ride”) a favour in return by making a delivery for him.

So far so naturalistic, but the journey quickly takes on mythic dimensions. The literal descent becomes a metaphorical one as Makina crosses a fierce river to reach an otherworld that you risk becoming part of if you linger too long, after which you will never return. Her brother was lost there and now like Orpheus before her she risks losing herself to bring him back.

What dazzles here is the use of language. Herrera creates new meanings for words reflecting both Makina’s use of slang and the linguistic melting-pot she personally represents (a particularly common example is Herrera’s use of “verse” to mean travel, as in “She versed to the street”.) It’s never confusing, but creates a sense of language that like Makina herself is constantly in motion.

The crossing over is sharply captured both in terms of its challenges and particular horrors (a pregnant woman resting under a tree, soon discovered in fact to be a corpse bloated with gas). The US itself proves an alien and unfamiliar landscape filled with parallel populations of noisy anglos and “homegrown” like her who she realises are omnipresent but curiously muted.

The city was an edgy arrangement of cement particles and yellow paint. Signs prohibiting things thronged the streets, leading citizens to see themselves as ever protected, safe, friendly, innocent, proud, and intermittently bewildered, blithe, and buoyant; salt of the only earth worth knowing. They flourished in supermarkets, cornucopias where you could have more than everyone else or something different or a newer brand or a loaf of bread a little bigger than everyone else’s. Makina just dented cans and sniffed bottles and thought it best to verse, and it was when she saw the anglogaggle at the self-checkouts that she noticed how miserable they looked in front of those little digital screens, and the way they nearly-nearly jumped every time the machine went bleep! at each item. And how on versing out to the street they sought to make amends for their momentary one-up by becoming wooden again so as not to offend anyone.

Out on the concrete and steel-girder plain, though, she sensed another presence straight off, scattered about like bolts fallen from a window: on street corners, on scaffolding, on sidewalks; fleeting looks of recognition quickly concealed and then evasive. These were her compatriots, her homegrown, armed with work: builders, florists, loaders, drivers; playing it sly so as not to let on to any shared objective, and instead just, just, just: just there to take orders. They were the same as back home but with less whistling, and no begging.

There’s some wonderful language in that quote: “salt of the only earth worth knowing”; “anglogaggle”; but also a nice juxtaposition of the two populations co-dependent but seemingly immiscible.

As Makina verses through the city following clues leading to her brother and making her promised delivery she comes to realise that there is something more there than just alienation and subjugation. The anglos and homegrown may seem to coexist without overlapping, but the reality is more fluid and the act of transition between places is transformative. There’s a reason people don’t go home again, and partly it’s because what they’ve left is no longer home.

They are homegrown and they are anglo and both things with rabid intensity; with restrained fervor they can be the meekest and at the same time the most querulous of citizens, albeit grumbling under their breath. Their gestures and tastes reveal both ancient memory and the wonderment of a new people. And then they speak. They speak an intermediary tongue that Makina instantly warms to because it’s like her: malleable, erasable, permeable; a hinge pivoting between two like but distant souls, and then two more, and then two more, never exactly the same ones; something that serves as a link.

More than the midpoint between homegrown and anglo their tongue is a nebulous territory between what is dying out and what is not yet born. … In it brims nostalgia for the land they left or never knew when they use the words with which they name objects; while actions are alluded to with an anglo verb conjugated latin-style, pinning on a sonorous tail from back there.

There is an end of the world here. It’s an end to Makina’s world and perhaps too an end to the Anglo’s assumed world which they built on the homegrown’s labour while pretending they didn’t need to adapt to the people they’d invited into their very homes. Language creates reality and as people create new words for their new shared experiences they create a new world with them.

This is a book filled with signs preceding the end of the world, but recognising too that the world must end for new worlds to be born. It’s a book rooted squarely in the particular: the journey across the Rio Bravo; ethnic and income divides; racist police and opportunistic gangmasters; but beyond all that it’s a book that raises all this to the status of myth or dream. It is an exceptional work, quite unlike anything else I’ve read recently and genuinely exciting to encounter.

Other reviews

This has been very widely reviewed, so apologies to those I miss here. Please do feel free to link to your reviews in the comments if I’ve missed them. Ones I had noted included Stu of Winston’s Dad’s Blog here; Shigekuni here; David Hebblethwaite at his blog here but more fully at Words Without Borders here; and Grant at 1streading’s blog here. I know I read more but I lost note of where.

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Filed under Herrera, Yuri, Mexican fiction, Spanish