The hero of Kingdom Cons, a newly translated novel by the Mexican author Yuri Herrera, is a singer named Lobo. A street kid left by his parents with just his wit and his accordion, he earns change singing “corridos,” folk ballads, in cantinas in the seedier quarters of an unnamed desert city. For Lobo, “life had been a counting off of days and dust and sun,” until one day he sings a corrido for a big shot dealer known as the King; the song wins Lobo the King’s favor and he moves into his gaudy palace, securing a place among the characters of the King’s Court and gaining the name The Artist. (Like the city, the era is contemporary but unspecified, and Herrera’s proper nouns for names give it a folkloric cast.) He gains the ear and trust of many of the courtiers and begins to learn the palace secrets and intrigues. Soon enough, he falls for an off-limits woman and finds himself in the center of a power play, as rivals vie to be the King’s successor.
Corridos are an old Mexican tradition, narrative ballads of border crossings and other travails. In more recent decades, corridos attracted the prefix “narco,” as a subgenre sprang up celebrating the exploits of drug traffickers as gangster anti-heroes. Narcocorridos popularity, followed by TV soaps known as narconovelas and higher-brow companions in narcoliteratura, are the cultural reflection of the drug war’s unavoidable presence in modern Mexico.
American audiences have come to expect dark violence when it comes to Mexico, from some of Mexico’s most famous literary exports (Juan Rulfo’s dark short stories, Roberto Bolaño’s 2666) to the exoticizing fixations of twentieth-century expats (D.H. Lawrence and Malcolm Lowry), not to mention film thrillers like Sicario. More recently, the drug war has produced its own boom of novels about drug trafficking from within Mexico and the United States, most notably, Don Winslow’s blockbuster The Cartel. Jorge Volpi, writing in The Nation a few years ago, described the narconovel as a “new strain of Latin American exoticism…displacing magic realism as the region’s characteristic genre.” In these books, he wrote, Mexico appears “a violent uncontrollable and fantastic world in contrast to the West.” Even before the current president vowed to build a wall on the border and talked about “bad hombres,” Americans tended to think of violence as the essence of Mexico, even if they look at it directly only occasionally, and mainly for entertainment.
Herrera’s novels, however, while using elements of the tradition, buckle against the narco label. Before he writes a book, Herrera said in a recent interview he makes lists of words he is not going to use, a practice he developed “to avoid clichés, to not repeat certain predigested concepts in place of problems or emotions that are much more complex than those concepts.” In Kingdom Cons, this list includes the words “Mexico,” “United States,” “border,” “drugs,” and “narco trafficking,” even though the novel tracks a story of warring dealers in a border town.
The resulting novel has the quality of a fable, in which the banished words are barely submerged. Their replacement by symbols, allusions, or close cognates (“King” instead of “kingpin,” “Lord” instead of “druglord,” etc.) makes the political reality underlying the novels both more distant and more disquieting. To read Herrera is to be immersed, almost involuntarily, in the uncanny. Recognizable details can’t quite be placed. The familiarity is as unsettling as the strangeness, like riding public transit in a city you don’t know. Certain images recall tabloid drug war coverage—a gruesome killing, a mutilated body on display, a zoo full of exotic birds and pets—but they are evoked with an eerie restraint, as when The Artist stumbles on another court character in a disturbing tableau:
The Artist wished that the man was not carrying a knife, not because he thought the Jeweler might hurt him but because he held it as tho it were all he had left. The Artist sensed that if he attempted to help, he’d end up in the same state. He stepped cautiously to the side to pass the knife-wielding ghost of a man and went out to the grounds…. Tho he almost tripped over the body, he hardly registered the lifeless peacock, its throat slit, as he left.
Of the three novels Herrera has written in Spanish, Kingdom Cons is actually the first—it was published in 2004—though it is the last to be translated. Last year’s The Transmigration of Bodies is about a negotiator brokering a truce between feuding clans during a mysterious epidemic. Herrera has said he wrote it after the outbreak of swine flu, and it also clearly treats the kidnappings, disappearances and murders too common in contemporary Mexico. Signs Preceding the End of the World, which came out in 2015, is a tale of border crossing that takes on mythic proportions, narrated by a switchboard operator. Together they form a kind of loose trilogy, each dealing with settings that resemble an aspect of Mexico’s underworld.
Herrera’s main characters narrate with alluring and often humorous lingo—one character shrugs with “hands held high in a Didn’t See A Thing,” while a priest funds “churches to get the poor hooked on heaven”—and insight that comes from their positions as professional communicators of various types. Kingdom Cons opens with the words “he knew blood.” The Artist knows it from violence, and also from his special gift for sensing gradations in class, power and the more elusive, mystical qualities of character; he senses not just what to sing but to whom he should sing it. Initially The Artist is pleased with himself and his proximity to the king. He gets swept up in passages that spit the violent logic of the Court, saying of the dead enemy that, “they should be stuck on the spikes of our sun, drowned in the ruction of our nights, have our songs inserted under their fingernails.” He convinces himself that in life, “sooner or later, you cause pain, and it was better to decide up front who you cause it to, like the King…so what if the man moved poison when they asked for it on the other side?”
Lisa Dillman, Herrera’s English translator, has written about the challenge of replicating Herrera’s inverted syntax and stacked vocabulary, his invented insults and nicknames and distorted slang, his way of playing on the Arabic roots of Spanish words, all in service of a precise kind of strangeness. But she has made the English trip along admirably with rhythm and its own idiom. The Artist’s descriptions sing; an exotic accent is “yesses like shesshes, words with no esses,” and a rival lord is a “lightskinned cat lacking grace but sporting tux.” He explores “like a cat in a new house,” while he notes the power in the King’s walk, “And the cadence, such unflustered steps. The soles of his feet placed carefully on the ground the whole way.”
As the book progresses The Artist starts to understand that his way with words is more than just a livelihood. One passage describes The Artist learning to read, a synesthetic experience, with letters, “signal scratching at the wasted white of the paper, at his eyes.” He struggles to bring them to order, asking, “what was each sheet if not a working tool, like a saw for someone who builds tables, a gat for someone who takes lives?” But the letters persist, and the logic of the passage breaks down, repeating that the letters, the words, “are a constant light,” something more than a tool or an amusement, but rather “a lantern that searches, then stops, and caresses the earth, and they show him the way to make the most of the service that is his to render.”
It’s not long before The Artist grasps he has “the power of an order different from that of the court, the skill with which he detached words from things and created his own sovereign texture and volume.” Sent to spy at a party for a rival kingpin, he suddenly realizes that “it was all the same. He could feel the fiesta dribbling by him at the rate of routine. The only odd one there was him, who was seeing it all from the outside.” He goes next to an ordinary cantina, and listens to another singer extoll “the fortunes and tragedies of the average jack.” The King’s power over him evaporates; he becomes “a single drop in the sea of men with stories.”
How do Herrera’s protagonists get the magical ability to see through power and violence and therefore survive it? They get in close, but they always make it out intact. At one point, another member of the Court, a corrupted journalist, tells The Artist, “if one day you have to choose between your passion and your obligation, Artist, then you are truly fucked.” There’s no real sense that he might choose wrong; the question is how he’ll wriggle out of the situation without being compromised, not if he will. Herrera’s characters aren’t good guys so much as they are people who are not quite of the world that seeks to harm them. Their detachment protects them and lets them serve as guides.
Herrera has described the special insight of his characters as coming from what he calls fronterizo, or the border condition. They inhabit political borders, class boundaries, bilingual corridors—places characterized by “the exchange of goods and symbolic values, the creation of new identities, of new linguistic forms, of new political practices.” They translate, they negotiate, they sing. They can see because they are always on the outside of something. Language is central. Framing the world is essential to navigating it. Such a power with words can be put to good or evil, and Herrera’s characters instinctively turn to the good.
At one point in Kingdom Cons The Artist boasts, “If you’re just saying what happened, why bother with a song? Corridos aren’t only true; they’re also beautiful and just.” He may come to realize how his corridos can be used to other ends, but Herrera’s novels stay beautiful and just.