The perimeter of paradise is both crossed and double-crossed in Yuri Herrera’s concisely charged novel Kingdom Cons, in which this territory embodies its genealogy as a borderland: from the Old Persian pairi (“around”) and diz (“to form a wall”).
Already well-known to Spanish speakers, the Mexican author’s landscapes are made of edges and thresholds, where spoiled lives carry a tune and poetry atones for spleen and spite. Anglophone readers have been introduced more recently to this borderland bard thanks to the independent publisher And Other Stories, with Signs Preceding the End of the World (2015) and The Transmigration of Bodies (2016), novels both monumental and minimal in their treatment of subjects such as border-crossing, corruption and community.
This most recent book, which is in fact Herrera’s debut, is set in an unnamed town in northern Mexico swollen by contact with the United States – specifically within the feudal drug-trafficking system, where Lobo, a street-singer abandoned by his parents with nothing but an accordion (“This is your bread”), survives by performing corridos, or ballads, in cantinas. Homeless in the hostile streets, he finds his “antidote to chaos” in the melodies he makes of the cries, rants and threats around him.
Like romances, corridos tell stories through song. They became popular with a mass audience during the Mexican Revolution (1910-20), when the polka-rhythmed verses lifted morale and spread play-by-play accounts of battles to the wider population. The mutation began around the 1970s, when the songs began to service drug trafficking along the Mexico-US border and turned into narcocorridos (drug ballads), endorsing cartel kingpins, praising murder, coercing gang allegiance and inciting the poor to join the drug world.
So, when a druglord named the King comes into Lobo’s cantina and makes a gesture of appreciation by shooting a drunkard who is slurring a joke at the pauper singer’s expense, Lobo senses that a sudden meaning has been bestowed on his life, a title given to his nameless days.
He pursues the King back to his kingdom, named the Palace, which “exploded from the edge of the desert in a vast pageantry of gardens, gates and walls. A gleaming city on the fringes of a city in squalor . . .” This gangster’s paradise is complete with the house Gringo, the Manager, the Doctor (“the Court’s Número Uno stitch-it man”), the Jeweller, Pocho the cop who turned, the Journalist, the Witch, who is the King’s side-healer, and the headstrong Heir. Lobo is assigned a young lover named the Girl, a fellow street-kid-turned-cartel-protected-property, who shows him the ropes: at the Palace, eat as much as you can, sleep as much as you can, and stay out of the way.
And so, Lobo becomes a drug-land troubadour known as the Artist. The Manager takes him to the studio to record his corridos, compiled and composed from small talk overheard in the Palace, such as the braggart who snipped off the cheating thumbs of a drug mule so that he would lose track counting his cash, or another who collects teeth from his whack-jobs and lines his dashboard with their smiles.
All goes well until the Artist falls in love with the Commoner, a woman with “a deliberate face; there are faces that seem accidental, but not this face whose parts all rhymed”. It is his first encounter with someone trying to get out of the Palace.
When cartel rivalry delivers corpses to the Palace doorstep, the Artist’s songs become highly sensitive, as they are also “runs” made in the name of the King: messages transmitted. The network of palatial corridors and the repertoire of cartel corridos become the crossings and double-crossings that frame their paradise.
Danger presents itself with immense, unexpected pity against the backdrop of the narco-empire: “The Artist wished that the man was not carrying a knife, not because he thought [he] might hurt him but because he held it as tho it were all he had left.” (All of Herrera’s “thoughs” are clipped of their UGH, left as vulnerable as the knife-holder.)
Kingdom Cons rises above a mere tale of lost innocence or a drug-land eulogy, specifically because it is the language and not the narrative that powers its subject. Herrera’s writing reinvents its own territory with simultaneous streetwise mischief and canonical splendour. At times a Renaissance quill, at other times a tattooer’s needle, his syntax misbehaves masterfully, and Lisa Dillman proves herself once again exquisitely loyal to his lyrical disobedience with this translation, its prose so alive that it recalls Roland Barthes’s description of “language lined with flesh”.
In short, as brevity is Herrera’s strong suit, this is a corrido for no master.
Yelena Moskovich’s debut novel, “The Natashas”, is published by Serpent’s Tail
Yuri Herrera. Translated by Lisa Dillman
And Other Stories, 112pp, £8.99
This article appears in the 05 Jul 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn mania