World-Building With Few Words in ‘The Transmigration of Bodies’

Yuri Herrera writes short, sparse, powerful novels about the complex violence of border zones.

Yuri Herrera is rapidly making a name for himself as one of the most exciting authors publishing in America today. His first wave of novels were published originally in Spanish, which is itself an exciting reflection on the shifting direction of American literature. Born in Mexico, the 46-year-old Herrera now teaches and publishes out of the United States. Thanks to the hard work of And Other Stories, a literary publishing house that produces works in translation for English-speaking audiences, his first trilogy of novels is now being translated and released for English-reading audiences.

These books are, however, being published out of order. In the hopes of making his work more thematically attractive to America’s anglophone audiences, the second book of his ‘trilogy’, Signs Preceding the End of the World, was published last year, the first of his works to be translated by And Other Stories. The third book, The Transmigration of Bodies, is now slated for release on 5 July, translated by the talented Lisa Dillman. It’s anticipated that the first of his books, Trabajos del reino, will be published next, under the tentative title of Kingdom Cons.

Herrera has referred to these books as a trilogy, although only insofar as they deal with similar themes. In a 2015 interview with The Nation’s Aaron Bady, Herrera explained that “the protagonists in all three novels are what I would call ‘border characters,’ though not only in the sense that they live on the actual physical border between two countries; they share the border condition, which is any situation where you have different individuals and different communities exchanging values, exchanging goods, always in conflict but also in different levels of dialogue.”

“In different fashions, in different contexts, these three characters try to put things in contact. They try to put different people in contact — enemies, or people that seem to be enemies, or people that are far away from each other. They try to understand and shape the different roles that they are in the middle of, between.”

Transmigration of Bodies

The Transmigration of Bodies is an excellent novella, but it lacks the sweeping power of Signs Preceding the End of the World. Like Signs, the precise setting of the novel is never clearly stated, but the reader’s left with the impression of a militarized, crime-ridden Latino border town. It’s populated by characters referred to only with nicknames; Three Times Blonde, The Redeemer, The Mennonite, Neeyanderthal.

The story is told from the perspective of ‘The Redeemer,’ whose particular employment skill involves arranging for the return or exchange of bodies that have fallen victim to feuds and crime, and occasionally ‘fixing’ things when they get out of hand. When two crime families find their feud escalating, he has to arrange to exchange bodies, with a personal — albeit casual and almost disinterested — agenda of de-escalating the violence.

Herrera’s skill lies in the construction of dark, tense atmospheres, full of barely restrained violence and foreboding. His touch is more literary than crime fiction. His characters philosophize about their lot in life, and Herrera says as much by what he leaves unsaid as by what he resolves cleanly for the reader. His novels require readers to think, to follow plotlines through paths the characters lay out for them, but to conclusions that are never entirely clearly articulated.

Therein lies the particular power of Herrera’s elusive narratives. The reader is forced to inhabit the space of the characters’ minds in order to fully piece together the story. The intellectual challenge of Herrera’s narrative and the sparse, quick-paced nature of the dialogue and action are the tools he uses to depict unusually deep characters and psychologically rich settings in the remarkably short space of his novels (like Signs, Transmigration of Bodies barely hits 100 pages).

Transmigration of Bodies possesses all these qualities, but doesn’t quite reach the heights achieved by Signs. That book’s central character, Makina, is a rich and original character, a courageous and plucky yet remarkably down-to-earth young woman. The central character in Transmigration of Bodies is The Redeemer, a much more stereotypical tough guy, albeit one trying to craft and follow a personal ethical framework amidst the violence and machismo all around him. But he lacks the originality of Makina. A couple of extended sex scenes (something thankfully absent in Signs) do little to propel the plot, and although they could be argued to help construct a sense of The Redeemer’s character, they risk making an otherwise original novel unnecessarily formulaic.

Signs played with language in tremendously inventive ways; there’s little of that in Transmigration of Bodies. Nor is there as much of the complex social commentary that accompanied Makina’s journey through and across border zones. Like Signs there’s a queer dimension to the novel, revealed only gradually and sparingly to the reader, but this angle was handled more deftly in Signs, with its provocative queer wedding scene.

The most creative literary element of Transmigration of Bodies is the plague-ridden backdrop. An unknown disease is ripping through the country; people avoid contact with one another as much as possible, the military struggles to enforce quarantine and pharmacies can’t keep face-masks in stock. It’s a clever technique; evocative both of actual disease-panics (the novel was originally published before the panic around the Zika virus, but evocative of the SARS and bird flu panics), as well as metaphorically evocative of the militarization of Mexican towns in response to drug crime. Here, as there, the militarization has little actual effect beyond posing a minor irritation that characters have to work around; while the general public stays hidden indoors for fear of catching the virus, violent criminal feuds proceed unfazed. If anything, the militarized response simply adds to the ubiquitous violence of everyday life.

Like Signs, the novel opens slowly and hesitantly, but builds depth and pace quickly, and as it erupts into a crescendo of action at the end the reader is hanging on to each page intently, with a sense of familiarity and kinship to the various characters. It’s impressive that Herrera can build such powerful worlds in such few words and pages. Signs is still the superior novel, but Transmigration of Bodies is a worthy addition to Herrera’s oeuvre, and for the most part a compelling and enjoyable read.

RATING 7 / 10