Category Archives: Mexican Literature

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 Literature

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 Literature

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 Literature