22 March 2023

Yuri Herrera's fables of grimreaperies


Sometime before 2013, before the publication of La transmigración de los cuerpos, Yuri Herrera rode a time machine, arriving in the year of the COVID-19 epidemic. He carefully observed the hygiene protocols, the atmosphere of fear, the characteristic panic and panorama of paranoia. He took notes; he had to register the bite of the present. He must have the pall of the moment and the virulence down pat. Research was key to novel writing. Because verisimilitude. And then he came back from when he was transmigrated. And then he reported what he had seen. 


Ditto with the translator. Lisa Dillman took a wild ride into the future, steeping herself with the language of the times, as if sipping a potent ale, and then marinating the words in her belly.

Dolphin's son died, and so did the Castro's daughter. And each family has the other one's corpse.

For a second Gustavo's eyes popped out of their sockets.


Now the Redeemer was the one to enjoy letting the information steep a few seconds, as he took a sip of his beer.


Gustavo narrowed his eyes.

Those things just don't happen, he said.

Only in novels. And only in Shakespeare.

Anyway, the translator had been marinating the words of the novelist about a queer retelling of corpse switching. Queer because it was a skewed modern adaptation and really it's a bit steeped in literary theory too. 

But oh grief, such universal feeling accompanied the telling, and the power of prose proposed a lot of profundities for a straightforward story of hostage corpse exchange. Translator Lisa must have studiously combed urbandictionary(dot)com for any low hanging colloquialisms to fit Yuri's narco-state lingo. And she had neologisms to match: "In the faint light of his fitful sleep he saw Óscar’s outstretched hand, pointing, and suddenly sat up in bed because he knew somehow it contained a clue to how this grimreapery had begun."


The novel began in medias res, when the Redeemer was about to have sex with a neighbor. His copulation-to-be, however, was cockblocked every which way. As he desperately searched for condoms, his attempts at sex were sandwiched by the story of body swapping of two young ones who died in the throes of malevolent proboscises that kidnapped the lives of people. The vector culprit was no anteater or bat or raccoon dogs.


The villain in Yuri's story was an insect, a carrier of the virus. But really they were just a vehicle for crepuscular truths about human foibles and fables. Yuri's world was a symptomatic reflection of our asymptomatic selves. 


Reading The Transmigration of Bodies (And Other Stories, 2016) in the year 2023 was a rereading of our fabled era. What the world underwent in the last three years was a palpable fiction and virulent novel, alive with the illogic sequence of events. The body count was high; the truths we learned kept the stories alive. We, the living, were survived by our dead.


In Yuri's world, language was slang. The characters' names were their referents, their jobs, their surfaces, their cons. The gestures and thoughts of his characters were caricatured, almost giving them a legal standing: "Óscar glanced at him for a single second: long enough to draw up, read through, sign and notarize a confidentiality clause between the two of them." His way with words signed, sealed, and delivered the fate of his characters. His plot resolutions: deus ex makina.

The death-drenched landscape of Transmigration (and really in all three novels) was an ongoing struggle of living. 

[H]e went to the Big House door to make sure it was actually locked but first stepped out on the street. Still an overcast morning, he thought. Afternoon, he corrected himself. We’re still alone, not even anyone to offer wrong directions. And then he thought he heard a muffled sound to his left, but didn’t bother to turn and look to see what it was, since nothing but the lingering trace of silent complaint seemed possible in that bleak and stricken city. Or because his black dog wasn’t there to remind him that anything was possible.  

That "black dog" was metaphorical, an amulet of sorts. Something our protagonist, the Redeemer, could latch onto as he went through the motions of mediating between two warring families. All kinds of job in Yuriland were dangerous.


The apocalyptic landscape was subbing for a nightmare in hell. A Borgesian idea, this flavor of nightmare that suffused Yuriland in the trio of novels, a dreamworld trilogy of sorts. The emphasis on the word "flavor" was Borges's, or his translator's.


I no longer have my copy of Borges's Seven Nights (New Directions, 1985), translated by Eliot Weinberger, which contained his lecture on dreams and nightmares. I will recycle the general idea from a previous post.

In the lecture of Borges on "Nightmares" (from the book Seven Nights, and also collected in Everything and Nothing), Borges mentioned that, although we might wish otherwise, in dreams what is important is not the images but the impressions produced by them: "The images are minor; they are effects." And also two ideas: first, dreams are part of waking life; and the other idea, the splendid one, the belief of the poets: that all of waking is a dream. Borges then mentioned that there is no difference between these two ideas. He gave some brilliant examples from literature and if I recall it right, an example in real life. Borges ended this lecture, first delivered in Argentina, with a speculation about the particular horror of nightmares, which is beyond the horror of the waking life, and which can be expressed by any story, a horror that has something more to it (the flavor of the nightmare).

Borges’s theological/supernatural speculation at the end of his lecture is also scary: "What if nightmares were cries from hell? What if nightmares literally took place in hell? Why not? Everything is so strange that even this is possible."

That essay gave me the shivers. 


Placeholder: It is likely I would hate Yuri's third novel if I read it before the pandemic. Ditto Mario Bellatin's pitch perfect Beauty Salon (Deep Vellum, 2021), in an earthshaking translation by Shook. (I was shookt.) The uncomfortable sense of fatality behind these works might be too visceral and hysterical without the grounding of real nightmare unfolding before one's eyes. 

Maybe not: The language in Trasmigration was inoculated with wit and grit. The code words were downright contagious.

Well you know. Unhappy people aren't the problem. It's people taking their unhappy on you.


She was wearing makeup but it couldn't hide the sneer of someone who swallowed bile every day as tho it were water.


We never know how much we actually hate one another, the Redeemer thought, until we're locked in a room together.


There were even fewer cars out now. On one avenue, where trying to cross normally meant taking your life in your hands, the only thing on the street was the fear of penned-up people. As if everyone’s prejudices about everyone else had suddenly been confirmed.


So many fiery aphorisms in Yuri's books, filtered through slang. The sketches of wit were quick and efficient.

It was He who answered. No mask. He smiled poignantly. A smile that said I’ll always love you but my promises are in the pawnshop. He was a sad, handsome little devil. He looked at the Redeemer like an electrician who’d come when the lights weren’t broken.

The novels' page counts themselves were skimpy. The efficiency and economy of words was as curt and sincere as a drug transaction, tho the word "cartel" did not appear in the translated novels.

He was spine-chilling, the Heir, with his impeccable solid-colored shirts, never a single stain, tho his eyes foretold explosion. The man contained himself as if always on his best behavior.

That last passage was from Kingdom Cons (And Other Stories, 2017) where the Artist had a similar talent as the Redeemer's: a streak of code-switching. Given the ways language was handled in the novels (almost functioning as the bylaws of the novel's kingdom), this was not a surprise. Yuri's singular kingdom operated in code words. Once more from Kingdom Cons:

What was all that about having been here before, in another life? About God having a chosen path for each of us, since the start of time? For a while, the idea kept the Artist up nights, until he beheld an image in the Palace that freed him: an exquisite apparatus, a turntable with diamond stylus that played thirtythrees and belonged to the Jeweler, who one weekend forgot to turn it off, and, when he noticed two days later, found it no longer worked. 

That’s it, thought the Artist. That’s all we are. Contraptions that get forgotten, serve no purpose. Maybe God put the needle on the record and then went off to nurse a hangover.

You hack away with the language and what do you get? Epidemic novel alias The language of mortality alias In your face truth and death alias World's end succeeding grim signs. A world where God himself had a hangover. That flavor of shit was scary.


  1. It's been a while since I last read Herrera. You make me want to revisit his world in spite of all that grimreapery. I remember him as quite a provocative stylist.

  2. Hi, Richard. I binge-read his three novels in a month, alternating with other books. I’m ready for the next novel, whether it features the Stylist or the Hairstylist or the Grimreaper himself. Even if I can only vouch for the Translator as perpetrator of scythewieldery. :)